How exactly did Hegel describe the dialectic and what [historical] examples, if any, did he offer to sustain it? Please, provide sourced quotes.

I will attempt to summarize my understanding of what the Hegelian dialectic is. I ask you to either re-affirm my description, if I’m correct, or correct me, if I’m wrong. I’m in need to corroborate my understanding of the concept because explanations I have come across over the web are potentially imprecise. I think this is the proper place to clarify. My current understanding is as follows:

According to Hegel there is a natural law governing the manifestation of human ideals throughout history, later identified as the ‘dialectic’. This law obtains its name from an analogy one can establish between it and a conversational dispute where the persons partaking in the debate reach a point of compromise fusing various aspects of their initially differing points of view. The ‘dialectic’ can be described as a feedback system every social paradigm inspired on philosophical tenets goes through. The social paradigm (thesis) presents itself, then is met by people opposed to it (antithesis) and, finally, concrete remnants of both points of view remain after confrontation (synthesis). The process repeats itself. This observation permeates all human history.

Did Hegel think this law (or principle) is solely responsible for changes in social paradigms and is also inescapable? That is, it can be relied upon exclusively to explain the evolution of all human ideals that find their application to society? If “yes,” it would entail the belief that no ideals can ever be defeated entirely and as such I find no problem entertaining the possibility he was wrong. Imagine, for example, the case where a basic human ideal “withstands the test of time” unadulterated.

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    See Hegel's Dialectic and e.g. Ermanno Bencivenga, Hegel’s Dialectical Logic, Oxford University Press (2000). Jul 3, 2018 at 10:58
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    There is Hegel’s "general" dialectical method and its application to specific topics i.e. to the description of specific processes : the Spirit, History, etc. Jul 3, 2018 at 11:03
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    @useranonis: It definitely is better a description for the materialist Marxian twist of dialectics than it is for Hegel's own method.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 3, 2018 at 11:16
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    I find Hegel's dialectic makes complete sense in metaphysics or when applied to our thinking about metaphysics but it gets a bit messy as social/cultural mechanism. Still it works pretty well. Think of the extremism of new idealistic movements (feminism, communism, 'New Labour' etc) and how they inspire an extreme reaction and how over time the two extremes are moderated. As this happens new battle lines are being drawn up on some other issue and so on forever. I feel it is most usefully read as a psychological theory that as such has social and philosophical significance. .
    – user20253
    Jul 3, 2018 at 12:26
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    One suggestion I would have for the OP, try to live with the imprecision in what you read and learn about Hegel. Be patient. Keep open a suspense file. Do not nail him down too quickly or you will find yourself holding tight to a part and missing the whole.
    – Gordon
    Jul 3, 2018 at 19:25

2 Answers 2


The myth of thesis-antithesis-synthesis

" Dialectic" does not for Hegel mean " thesis, antithesis, and synthesis." ... Hermann Glockner's reliable Hegel Lexikon (4 volumes, Stuttgart, 1935) does not list the Fichtean terms "thesis, antithesis, synthesis " together. In all the twenty volumes of Hegel's " complete works " he does not use this "triad " once; nor does it occur in the eight volumes of Hegel texts, published for the first time in the twentieth century. He refers to " thesis, antithesis, and synthesis " in the Preface of the Phenomenology of Mind, where he considers the possibility of this " triplicity " as a method or logic of philosophy. According to the Hegel-legend one would expect Hegel to recommend this "triplicity." But, after saying that it was derived from Kant, he calls it a "lifeless schema," "mere shadow " and concludes: " The trick of wisdom of that sort is as quickly acquired as it is easy to practice. Its repetition, when once it is familiar, becomes as boring as the repetition of any bit of sleight-of-hand once we see through it. The instrument for producing this monotonous formalism is no more difficult to handle than the palette of a painter, on which lie only two colours. . ." (Preface, Werke, II, 4849). (Gustav E. Mueller, 'The Hegel Legend of "Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis"', Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Jun., 1958), pp. 411-414 : 411-12.)

▻ Marx

[The triad] is Marxism superimposed on Hegel. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, Marx says in Das Elend der Philosophie [The Poverty of Philosophy], is Hegel's purely logical formula for the movement of pure reason, and the whole system is engendered by this dialectical movement of thesis, antithesis, synthesis of all categories. (Mueller, 413.)

Marx is no safe guide to Hegel.

History and the universal

Hegel's theory of human history has two levels, those of the universal and the particular. At the universal level are such seemingly metaphysical entities as 'the spirit of a nation' and 'the spirit of the world'; at the particular level, there are the human passions. The 'cunning of reason' operates at the interface between these two levels.

The term 'spirit of a nation' is the one normally used to render Hegel's term Volksgeist. History, for Hegel, is the story of this or that Volksgeist. Hegel explains this term by saying (VG 75, N 65) that it refers to the ethical life, the constitution, the art, religion and knowledge that a nation has. So the national spirit of Rome, say, is manifested in Roman law, religion and so on; these are its 'determinate characteristics'. It was said just now that Hegel sees history as the story of such 'spirits of nations' [Fn : History, of course, is also the story of states. For Hegel, states and nations are closely related, but are not the same. A nation does not begin by being a state (Philosophy of Right, par. 349), but its substantial aim is to be a state (Encyclopaedia, par. 549)];it should, however, be stressed that this story is not like a picaresque novel, in which one event follows another in a more or less haphazard fashion. Rather, it is a story with a logic of its own, a story of a gradual development, which culminates in the coming into being of a 'world spirit', a Weltgeist, which is the universal of which the various spirits of nations are particular forms (VG 60, N 52-3). The reference just made to 'logic' is not a loose or metaphorical one; the term 'world-spirit' is close in meaning to terms such as 'Absolute Spirit' or 'Idea', which Hegel uses to refer to the highest stage that thought can reach. As Hegel puts it, the world-spirit is 'the rationality of the spirit in its worldly existence' (VG 262, N 212; cf. VG 73, N 63).

It is now time to consider in greater detail the move from the various nation-spirits to the one world-spirit. Hegel recognizes three stages of human history, three 'basic principles of the universal process' (VG 157, N 1). These are the Oriental world, the Greek world (it might be better to call it 'Greco-Roman' or 'classical',) and the Germanic world (this might better be called the 'Northern European' world; Hegel also calls it the 'Christian' world: VG 156-7, N 130-1; cf. VG 62, N 54). Hegel expresses the difference between the three stages by saying that in the Oriental world, only one is free; in the Greek world, only some are free; in the Germanic world, man as such is free (VG 156, N 130). The question is, what he means by 'free'. The term can be taken to mean a person's ability to do whatever he wants: Hegel contrasts (VG 62) the oriental despot, all of whose subjects are at the mercy of his whim; the citizens of Greece or Rome, who made use of slaves; and finally, people in the modern epoch, in which slavery has disappeared. But Hegel also, and perhaps chiefly, has in mind another sense of the term 'freedom': that sense in which the oriental despot is himself not a free man (VG 62). In this sense, freedom is autonomy. This is also linked with Hegel's metaphysics, in that Hegel takes the view that spirit is self-determining reality, and claims that world- history is the record of spirit's efforts to obtain knowledge of this.

The implicit claim that history has been moving towards Hegel may make one smile; on the other hand we shall see later, when considering Hegel's views about the 'great men' of history, that Hegel would consider himself to be no more than the agent of a thought process which in a way transcends him. One may think, too, that Hegel rates philosophy too highly. But one should take account of the fact that, for Hegel, philosophy is not just one discipline among others; rather, it is to be regarded as the summation of human knowledge and endeavour, something which makes explicit what is implicit in many aspects of human life, such as morality, art and religion.

There is at least one other respect in which what Hegel says about world history can be misunderstood. One may say that talk of a 'world- spirit' is mere metaphysical fantasy; there is no such entity as 'the spirit of the world'. Hegel would doubtless sympathize with such an objection, but would say that his own position is not affected. The world- spirit is not an entity that exists alongside the minds of human beings; rather, it is something that 'explicates itself in human consciousness' (VG 60, N 52. I diverge from Nisbet's translation here). Or again, he says that 'the Idea' (i.e. that whose manifestation in the world is the world-spirit) is 'implemented and brought to its realization by the actions of individuals' (VG 96, N 82). In other words: to talk of the world-spirit is to talk of what human beings think and do. At this point, we reach what I have called the second level of Hegel's theory of history and move from the universal to the particular. To be more specific, we come to Hegel's account of the part played in human history by what he calls 'the passions'. (G. H. R. Parkinson, 'Hegel, Marx and the Cunning of Reason', Philosophy, Vol. 64, No. 249 (Jul., 1989), pp. 287-302 : 289-90.)

History and the particular

Hegel asserts that 'Nothing great has been accomplished in the world without passion' (VG 85, N 73: cf. Encyclopaedia, par. 474); passion is 'the energy of the ego' (VG 101, N 86). Hegel does not use the word 'passion' to refer exclusively to such feelings as intense anger or love; he means by it 'any human activity that is governed by . . . selfish intentions' (VG 85, N 72). The importance of the passions in his philosophy of history is that they are, as he puts it, 'the arm which serves the Idea' (VG 83, N 71; cf. VG 87, N 74). In less metaphorical terms, the point which he is making is this. The actions of human beings are largely determined by their selfish interests. But-and this is the 'cunning of reason'-people who act in this way are also what Hegel calls the 'unconscious tools and organs' of the world-spirit (Philosophy of Right, par. 344). To quote from The Philosophy of World History (VG 105, N 89: Nisbet's translation modified):

Particular interests contend with one another, and some are destroyed in the process. But it is from this very conflict and destruction of the particular that the universal emerges, and it remains unscathed itself . . . It is what we call the cunning of reason that it sets the passions to work in its service, as a result of which the agents by which it gives itself existence must pay the penalty and suffer the loss.

He goes on to give an interesting example, which I will discuss in detail shortly:

Caesar had to do what was necessary, in order to overcome the decaying freedom of Rome; he himself met his end in the struggle, but the necessity survived; in relation to the Idea, freedom lay beneath the external events.

What Hegel says elsewhere about Caesar and the end of the Roman republic helps to explain his remarks about the 'cunning of reason'. The reference to 'the decaying freedom of Rome' can be seen as an oblique reference to one of Hegel's key ideas, which I have so far mentioned only briefly-namely, the importance of contradiction in history, and indeed in reality in general. Put crudely, Hegel's view is that a social institution is never destroyed by external force alone; it collapses because of its own inner contradictions, and outside forces, so to speak, merely give the final push. To apply this to the last years of the Roman republic: Hegel would say that to see this stage of Roman history simply as a clash between Senate and people would be to take a superficial view. The real clash (Philosophy of Right, par. 357) was between 'the substantial intuition of an aristocracy' and 'the principle of free personality in democratic form'. Hegel's point is that neither position could be maintained. The Senate did have a certain almost intuitive feeling of the unity of Rome (hence a 'substantial intuition'), but it was incapable of giving the individual his due, and in the end it declined into 'superstition and the maintenance of heartless self-seeking power' (ibid.). The people, for their part, could not maintain the principle of free individuality, but declined into a mere rabble. In sum, the old-fashioned Roman republic could not be maintained -and, Hegel says, Caesar saw this. As Hegel puts it, Caesar 'knew that the [Roman] republic was a lie' (VG 105, N 89). But what led Caesar to act were his passions, his self-interest; his aim was to preserve 'himself, his position, his honour and his security' (VG 89, N 76). These of course were particular ends, and indeed Caesar's enemies thought that his aims were purely personal. But after his death it became clear that only one man could rule the Roman empire.

But there is still a gap for Hegel to bridge. He needs to explain the connection between Caesar, an individual, and such a major historical event as the destruction of the Roman republic. Here we reach the last feature of Hegel's philosophy of history that I shall discuss in this paper-namely, his views about the 'great man', the 'world-historical individual'. Caesar's work, says Hegel, was (VG 90, N 76)'an instinct, which accomplished the end for which his age was ready (was an und fir sich an der Zeit war). Such are the great men of history: the substance of their own particular ends is the will of the world-spirit'. More immediately, of course, the great man is related to the spirit of his nation; the nations flock to the great man's standard, for 'he reveals to them and carries out what is their own immanent impulse' (ibid.). It is, though, the spirit of the nation and not the individual which is primary for Hegel. As he says, when speaking of Alexander and Caesar, it is as true 'that the time created these men as that it was created by them; they were as much the instruments of the mind or spirit of their time and people, as conversely' (Encyclopaedia, par. 381, Addition). One thing that Hegel says about the great man may seem to involve an inconsistency. We have seen that the great man is said to reveal to people their own immanent impulse; great men, says Hegel, have 'recognized the next universal to emerge' (VG 98, N 839). This may seem to contradict what has been said about the cunning of reason; for that suggests that the rational pattern of history is not recognized by individuals, who nevertheless, through their own selfish ends, carry it out. However, there is surely no contradiction here.10 Hegel is saying that people such as Caesar have at best a limited awareness of the rational process of which they are a part; the phases of history whose significance they do grasp are no more than 'moments within' (sc. phases or aspects of) 'the universal Idea' (VG 98, N 83). To illustrate: Caesar knew that the Roman republic was finished, but he did not see that its collapse was part of the necessary development of the Idea. To see that is the work of the philosopher; great men, on the other hand, are (ibid.) 'men of practice' (praktisch) and do not see the whole pattern.

I have spoken of Hegel's view that the great man reveals to the nation its own immanent impulse. The notion of an immanent impulse, or 'inner will' (VG 104, N 88) is of great importance in Hegel's philos- ophy of history, and incidentally provides an answer to an objection raised by a modern philosopher of history, W. H. Dray.1 Dray argues that Hegel fails to show how the passions of individuals are such as to bring about the development of the world-spirit, and that the 'cunning of reason' is an ad hoc hypothesis whose function is to explain the way in which selfish interests can serve human progress. This objection, I would argue, fails to do justice to the deeply teleological nature of Hegel's system. Hegel's point is that the passions of human beings are the manifestations of strivings towards an end of which the people involved are not conscious. (G. H. R. Parkinson, 'Hegel, Marx and the Cunning of Reason', Philosophy, Vol. 64, No. 249 (Jul., 1989), pp. 287-302 : 291-3.)

Your final questions

Did Hegel think this law (or principle) is solely responsible for changes in social paradigms and is also inescapable? That is, it can be relied upon exclusively to explain the evolution of all human ideals that find their application to society? If “yes,” it would entail the belief that no ideals can ever be defeated entirely and as such I find no problem entertaining the possibility he was wrong. Imagine, for example, the case where a basic human ideal “withstands the test of time.”

Two comments

1 If the idea that 'no ideals can ever be defeated entirely' rests on the preservation of the thesis in some form through the transformations of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, then as explained at the start Hegel is not committed to the validity of this triad and does not use it.

2 As to the 'inescapability' of the historical process Hegel describes, Hegel does regard history as rational and he sees a logic in a social condition in which only one is free giving way to a social condition in which some are free to a condition finally in which man (humankind) as such is free. If freedom is a part of the essential nature of humankind, history is the narrative of the gradual recognition of that essential nature and its embodiment in social institutions.

I do not think that Hegel sees the dialectic of freedom as explaining all social paradigms. In between the three stages are all manner of social forms that represent no progress of freedom at all and may even embody a retrogression. But, so Hegel believes, freedom as the essential nature of humankind will in the rational course of history deliver social paradigms in which humankind as such is free.

I don't endorse Hegel's view of reason, freedom, and history. I have only tried to explain it as best I can.


Joseph McCarney, Hegel on History, ISBN 10: 0415116961 / ISBN 13: 9780415116961 Published by Routledge, London, 2000.

Gustav E. Mueller, 'The Hegel Legend of "Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis"', Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Jun., 1958), pp. 411-414.

G. H. R. Parkinson, 'Hegel, Marx and the Cunning of Reason', Philosophy, Vol. 64, No. 249 (Jul., 1989), pp. 287-302.

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    I had no idea Hegel didn't use the triad format, that's fascinating. Although quite understandable, as he grew to dislike Kant and Fichte's philosophies, probably so much he apparently didn't even want to use their words. Come to think about it, I don't recall seeing Schelling using the triad also, so maybe it wasn't so popular in the Post-Kantian German Idealism as it is often assumed. Jul 3, 2018 at 17:00
  • @YechiamWeiss: Well, he kind of used a triad format still, since he was time and again using the move of sublating the difference/opposition of particular and general into the general being represented in the particular, right into his later writings like his philosophy of rights. But this is not the formal triad thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The point here is that he sublated the opposition formal - material by showing the formal as being realised in the material and "coming to itself". This is very different from the formal triad of logic. Hegel's dialectics thus were material, in a sense.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 5, 2018 at 11:17

Understanding (der Verstand)

"Hegel uses the term understanding in a special, technical sense to refer to a type of thinking inferior to reason. In his early essay, "The Difference Between Fichte's and Schelling's Systems of Philosophy" (1801), Hegel refers to the understanding as a "faculty of setting limits". Indeed the understanding not only sets limits, but insists doggedly in the impossibility of thinking outside those limits." G.A. Magee

Now what would the dialectic do to this sort of thinking?

So I would study "the understanding" in both Kant and Hegel first. Get a good grasp on how each of them views the understanding.

As far as Marx and Hegel:

"This study [MacGregor's] is an attempt to rescue Hegel's thought from the interpretation imposed on it by Marx. I will argue against Marx's claim that the dialectic "must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.' There is no 'mystificatory side' to the Hegelian Dialectic': Hegel's use of the the dialectic is identical with that of Marx." D. MacGregor

Anyone who has really studied Marx knows this to be true. Marx was misled by Feuerbach's reading of Hegel, and Marx spent some time fiddling around with Hegel's idealism, and "refuting it", only to turn around and continue to use the dialectic just as Hegel had done.

Why? Because both Marx and Hegel were opposed to the mere (or bourgeois) understanding. This sort of understanding was not enough, and the dialectic was a tool to use to escape the mere (either-or) understanding.

The Hegel Dictionary by Glenn Alexander Magee, Continuum Pub. 2010.

The Communist Ideal in Hegel and Marx by David MacGregor, Univ. Toronto (1984).

[MacGregor's book is excellent. I think people on the right and the left would agree it is excellent and well worth reading. In the end, MacGregor suggests that Marx did not fully take advantage of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. The State can play a constructive role, it need not become a dictatorship or wither away. MacGregor explains this much better than I do. I am not sure, but I think Verso has done a reprint.]

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