I wish to understand how Hegelian dialectics, further carried, through Marxism, from an idealist to materialist orientation, positions itself with respect to the Enlightenment and liberalism.

It is clear that dialectic methods, particularly the materialist orientation championed by Marx, share a common direction with the broader Enlightenment project of refining objective and rational methods of inquiry, toward challenging authoritarian and dogmatic claims of truth or knowledge. Yet, more narrowly, it may appear that dialectic methods also endeavor to address limitations in liberal modes of argumentation.

Liberal discourse may be considered as comprising a succession of observations and inferences obeying objective and formal methods. Arguments are largely considered as capable of transcending contextual constraints, and are offered in a linear progression, intended to increase incrementally a base of universal knowledge. An essential demand of liberal thought has been to appraise the value of any argument as completely independent from the individual providing it.

Hegel, in contrast, championed the inherent tension represented in each proposition, due to its evaluation from a verbal form being inseparable from the linguistic, cultural, ontological, and other facets of the background of any individual giving or receiving argument.

In such light, it may appear that, for Hegel and Marx, argumentation was essentially dependent, not independent, of the participants in the argument.

It is of little doubt that Marx's preferences about social and material relations are sharply opposed to the views of Enlightenment giants such as the likes of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Adam Smith. Methodologically, Marx's emphasis on the historic determinism of social change starkly challenges the liberal belief in the supreme capacity of ideas alone to determine the form of social relations.

Best representing mainstream scholarly consensus, do the dialectics of Hegel and Marx stand essentially in support of or in opposition to the liberal traditions emerging from the Enlightenment?

More context from comments:

The core question is whether the dialectic method, specifically the observation that propositions carry in themselves an inherent tension, or contextual ambiguity, has been offered by Hegel, and those he influenced, largely and perhaps deliberately as an attack against the flavor of reasoning and argument, from liberalism, best represented by those at the forefront of the Enlightenment, such as Locke and Mill. - brainchild

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    Marxism is clearly opposed to Liberalism... Commented Jun 14, 2022 at 13:52
  • Hegel was much more "involved with" Enlightenment. Commented Jun 14, 2022 at 13:55
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    @Mauro, Yes, but the comments appear to me to sidestep important nuances represented in the question, through simplistic generalizations.
    – brainchild
    Commented Jun 14, 2022 at 14:02
  • Historical materialism is a child of enlightenment, even though it criticises bourguois ideology
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jun 14, 2022 at 14:24
  • And see Historical materialism: "Marx's view of history is indelibly shaped by the intellectual and philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment and the profound scientific, political, economic and social transformations that took place in Britain and other parts of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries." If we believe in some sort of "law" governing historical processes and that those laws have been discovered by Hegel or Marx, this is on the "Enlightenmnet side" and not on the "postmodernist side". Commented Jun 14, 2022 at 14:25

2 Answers 2


In Platonism and Neoplatonism, dialectic assumes an ontological and metaphysical role in that it becomes the process whereby the intellect passes from sensibles to intelligibles, raising from idea to idea until it can finally grasp the Supreme Idea.

"Plato is not the man to dabble in abstract theories and principles; his truth-loving mind has recognized and represented the truth of the world in which he lived, the truth of the one spirit that lived in him as in Greece itself. No man can overleap his time, the spirit of his time is his spirit also; but the point at issue is, to recognize that spirit by its content" -Hegel, Lectures On The History of Philosophy vol 2

Hegel's model of dialectic is almost always given as a simple threefold process, thesis meets antithesis with tension between resolved by synthesis; however Hegel himself did not do so. He used as the steps: abstract, negative, concrete. That arguably points more clearly to why the first step initiates a dynamic, and is insufficient alone. Trial, error, and experience, gets to the concrete. To get to the absolute, the discourse subject must have passed through negation, and been mediated to it. For Hegel it is not by synthesis, but by overcoming (aufhebung) of the negative, that the dialectic subject processes - the 'negative of the negative': Something is only what it is in its relation to another, but by the negation of the negation this something incorporates the other into itself. He claimed the dialectic is proceeding in that way, to make implicit contradictions within things, explicit.

Kant was hostile to the idea of the dialectic as route to transcendental truths, or the Absolute:

"Aristotle can be regarded as the father of logic. But his logic is too scholastic, full of subtleties, and fundamentally has not been of much value to the human understanding. It is a dialectic and an organon for the art of disputation." -from his Lecture On Logic

He held to universal transcendental truths, as a Transcendental Idealist, and saw the dialectic as misleading us into metaphysics, and away from the grounding of reason in experience. I take Kant's thought as defining Enlightenment rational thought, at least for Hegel. And that as the basis for Liberal thought in that era. Universal values, intrinsic positive qualities of human nature, and founding knowledge and governance on rational materialist enquiry and principles. Submission of all to reason rather than power or religion, underpinning rule by consent, individualism, and liberalising trade and reducing government regulation of moral issues; individual's lives liberty and property secured by social contract. And perhaps most crucially, discourse about rights. Liberalism is a pretty vague term, and it's important to keep track of where and when a definition is being drawn.

Hegel called his approach Absolute Idealism: the progress of 'being' towards an ultimately comprehensible all-inclusive whole (the Absolute), which emerges from dynamic historical processes responding to necessity, developing through that into the increasingly complex forms of being we see. In this picture the state of comprehension of the Absolute is time-bound, there is a zeitgeist or time-spirit to it. His approach can be seen as basically apologism for the Prussian state of his era, and that interpretation has been popular for a long time, amplified by WW1 German imperialist militarism and WW2 fascism being linked to his thought, for instance by Popper in his book 'The Open Society And It's Enemies'. More modern scholarship has been reframing Hegel's thought as a communitarian critique of liberalism. Communitarianism is the idea that human identities are largely shaped by different kinds of constitutive communities or social relations, as opposed to a deeply individualist rational agents picture of human nature. Hegel arrived at picture recovering much of modern state enforced structure, but by very different rationale:

"If the state is confused with civil society, and if its specific end is laid down as the security and protection of property and personal freedom, then the interest of the individuals as such becomes the ultimate end of their association, and it follows that membership of the state is something optional. But the state’s relation to the individual is quite different from this. Since the state is mind objectified, it is only as one of its members that the individual himself has objectivity, genuine individuality, and an ethical life. Unification pure and simple is the true content and aim of the individual, and the individual’s destiny is the living of a universal life. His further particular satisfaction, activity and mode of conduct have this substantive and universally valid life as their starting point and their result.

"Rationality, taken generally and in the abstract, consists in the thorough-going unity of the universal and the single. Rationality, concrete in the state, consists (a) so far as its content is concerned, in the unity of objective freedom (i.e. freedom of the universal or substantial will) and subjective freedom (i.e. freedom of everyone in his knowing and in his volition of particular ends); and consequently, (b) so far as its form is concerned, in self-determining action on laws and principles which are thoughts and so universal. This Idea is the absolutely eternal and necessary being of mind."

-Hegel, Philosophy of Right

So, you could interpret that as challenging the idea of the state arising after the individual, by saying the individual can only be understood following participation in a particular state, and both developing progressively, into a whole which increasingly amplifies the capacities of both. His early essays 'The Positivity of the Christian Religion' and 'On The Prospects For A Folk Religion' are interesting clarification of how he aimed at a different balance of individual and community not only to the liberalism of his era, but also to Christianity of that time.

Communitarian critique of liberal individualism is something we can see as motivating Marx and Engel's Historical Materialsm. They saw this method as 'extracting the rational kernal from the mystic shell' of Hegel's picture of the dialectic, shedding the theism for a materialist picture. I am very sympathetic to Zizek's interpretation of Marx's thought as a kind of atheistic Christianity, seeking to develop from but hold on to Christian communitarianism through a rationalist critique.

"We again took a materialistic view of the thoughts in our heads, regarding them as images of real things instead of regarding real things as images of this or that stage of the absolute concept. Thus dialectics reduced itself to the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought — two sets of laws which are identical in substance, but differ in their expression in so far as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature and also up to now for the most part in human history, these laws assert themselves unconsciously, in the form of external necessity, in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents. Thereby the dialectic of concepts itself became merely the conscious reflex of the dialectical motion of the real world and thus the dialectic of Hegel was turned over; or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing, and placed upon its feet." -Engels, in 'Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy'

That gives a good flavour I think of the impact of the shift from Hegel's picture of progress in understanding, in comprehension of the whole, to a picture of progress in material conditions and psychology as materially determined, making a kind of conspiracy-theory of history revealing to the initiated how society is inevitably set to become.

The big problems with these pictures of dialectic, both claiming to be refining rational and objective methods of interpretation if not enquiry, are underdetermination of causes, and subjectivity of conceptual units or supposed 'wholes'. Instead of being a way to understand the development of comprehension, or steps in the discourse of power, it becomes only a retroactive story-telling method taht narrows the picture of what could happen towards what did happen.

Popper actively sought to refine how we understand what science is, in order to demarcate Marx's 'materialist mysticism' out of it (along with Freudian Psychoanalysis) becuase it 'undermined and eventually lowered the traditional standards of intellectual responsibility and honesty'.

"The whole development of dialectic should be a warning against the dangers inherent in philosophical system-building. It should remind us that philosophy should not be made a basis for any sort of scientific system and that philosophers should be much more modest in their claims." -Popper in his essay 'What is Dialectic?'

A more humble view of a historical dialectic, can see it as a form of defeasible reasoning aiming to examine unconscious social motives or pressures, like understanding history in terms of a discourse of power derived from various factors (leverage, but that not always used by necessity in deterministic development), as say by Foucault.

I would argue we can in general look at progressive politics as hopeful about the future and the possibilities of social change, as a utopian tendency, and conservative politics as more fearful about social change and as motivated by fear of threats chaos and collapse. Jonathan Haidt relates the polarity to degrees of tolerance of ambiguity, and people's development or not of that to their sense of danger during adolescence, which could be impacted by things like participating in agrarian vs pastoral agriculture (herders can lose their whole wealth in one raid, & tend to have feuding & honour-cultures). This can recover a sense of dialectic development but an evidence based on, individualist vs communitarian, optimistic vs pessimistic, tolernace of ambiguity as grounded in a kind of secure-attachment and allowing scope for greater integration, and different locii of control.

The picture of liberal democracy as 'the end of history', eg by Fukiyama drawing directly on Hegel, is based in implicit historical materialism. This picture has grouped all the positives into that image of liberal democracy, and all potential for change in the negative image, into being causes of dystopia.

I would argue the relatively limited impact of leftwing politics in recent decades, has a lot to do with not having generated an image of a positive future, of a utopia to move towards, to challenge the status quo.

Christopher Hitchens, a Marxist, said:

“The problem of utopia is that it can only be approached across a sea of blood, and you never arrive” in interviews. About which he elaborated "The search for nirvana, like the search for utopia or the end of history or the classless society, is ultimately a futile and dangerous one. It involves, if it does not necessitate, the sleep of reason. There is no escape from anxiety and struggle." – Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays, 2004

I would say counterpoint to that is

"It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism." -Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

To see historical development as only incrementally away from what is undesirable, is I think to abandon the potential scope for human social development. While Marx's picture of history as necessitated developments towards communist utopia has almost discredited the idea of utopia, I would argue there is something we need to recover, about challenging the dichotomy between the current system, and change as inevitably into dystopia; that we need a positive image to move towards, to recover a faith that something more utopian is possible as a motivating image; a negation of negation, even in awareness of dystopian corruption of the drive towards such an image.

We need I think to restore faith in our capacity as societies for something in between incremental reactive change, and revolution. For me, an examination of history in terms of power dynamics and the impact of bargaining power of individuals and groups, can be a powerful source of insight to guide that; though it must be understood as defeasible reasoning, not the action of necessity. We need a challenge to 'There's no such thing as society', econimically, ethically, and psychologically. That means integrating individualism, with holistic and systemising reasoning, where the scope of individuals and of their societies are understood as deeply linked, and in a developmental discourse that can benefit both.

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    I think this is a quite informed answer, unfortunately I think the question itself is purely opinion based, thus refrain from upvoting, which I would do otherwise
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jun 16, 2022 at 17:21

Im understanding that by liberalism you mean the idealist mechanical worldview of the development of human knowledge.

You write about liberal dicsourse:

Arguments are largely considered as capable of transcending contextual constraints, and are offered in a linear progression, intended to increase incrementally a base of universal knowledge.

I would call this mechanicism, as opposed to dialectics, because it views each stage of science (arguments as you call them) as separated and transcending each other, simply adding to a pile of previous knowledge. This part was primarily criticized by Hegel. Its an issue of mechanicism vs dialectics.

An essential demand of liberal thought has been to appraise the value of any argument as completely independent from the individual providing it.

This part has more to do with Marx's critique of Idealism and the fact that he understands knowledge as determined by society's material context. This part is idealism vs materialism

Now for my two cents:

Dialectics refuses to separate the argument from the person doing it because it understands the substance or content of the argument (observed natural phenomenos) as something in eternal movement and development.

For dialectics, every new argument needs to necesarilly have the previous one as its base because nothing comes about disconnected from the whole of nature. New knowledge cannot come as something separate from previous knowledge and then add to it. New and previous knowledge are two states of the same developing substance seen in a different point in time. Previous knowledge and new knowledge are the same thing just evolved.

So to apply the Hegelian method: previous knowledge inherently has contradictions that when resolved would develop the state of knowledge to its new stage, to new knowledge or a better understanding of nature. These dialectical contradictions sometimes come as logical contradictions in the arguments themselves that are resolved by the next stage.

An example of this is Newtonian physics vs Einsteinian Physics. The latter improved on the former by solving its contradictions and articulating a better theory more in tune with concrete nature. This does not mean that Newtons physics are irrelevant or incorrect but that by resolving its contradictions they are developed to the next stage.

From this example it is evident that the knowledge accumulated in Newtwon, completely determined by his material context (as argued by Marx), reflected nature's contradiction at that point in time: Newton couldn't have solved its theoretical contradictions (or even know they were contradictions) because the technology at the time was not as advanced as Einsteins's.

So to summarize: Taking into account the historical context in which an argument is made is crucial because it reflects the existing contradictions in nature. Also, a refutation of the previous argument's contradictions is totally necessary because an argument detached from previous knowledge is not considering nature's development of which the argument itself is a reflection. "New" knowledge that comes disconnected from its previous stage (as argued by mechanical/liberal thinking) is not considering nature in its historical development.

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