Hegel: The Failure of Enlightenment

How to Move Forward & Not Make the Mistakes of the Past

I have written about what Immanuel Kant thought about the Enlightenment in Europe. But I wanted to also explore the guidance Hegel brought to the Enlightenment.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher of the 18th and 19th centuries. His philosophy primarily relates to the field that regular folk, such as myself, rarely access: ontology and phenomenology. However, his influence is hard to understate. In fact, according to Karl Barth, Hegel is the “Protestant Aquinas.”

“[A]ll the great philosophical ideas of the past century — the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche, phenomenology, German existentialism, and psychoanalysis — had their beginnings in Hegel.” — Maurice Merleau-Ponty

W. F. Hegel’s most important work, Phenomenology of Spirit, paints a notoriously complex critique of the Enlightenment. Despite its perplexing nature, Hegel makes a number of important observations. Hegel is not critical of the Enlightenment in its entirety.

He understands that freedom, the law, the democratization process between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, pluralism, and science, are all positive contributions of the Enlightenment.

The failure of Enlightenment rationality, for Hegel, is assuming that we are somehow naturally more advanced and less culpable of moral and intellectual error, than those preceding us.

Enlightenment Europe

The predominant view of an Enlightenment philosopher is that we have progressed and become superior to the ways of Europeans in the past and of the colonized “savages” in what we now call the Global South.

Enlightenment thinkers in Europe thought of themselves as superior due to their way of life. We now know that this binary is an oversimplification of the complexity of human behavior.

Hegel thought history was important because he thought we would always have something to learn from those who came before us.

It may be the case that many made unfathomable erroneous assumptions about our anatomy and medicine before modern medicine developed; however, they made arguments that led to the developments we have now.

Hegel, therefore, believed that we cannot think of ourselves as simply superior. Instead, we ought to realize that history is not a linear progression, but rather a tumultuous one that has not ended, and maybe never will. We are therefore moving from extreme to extreme rather than good idea to good idea. Hegel called this the dialectic.

Hegel thought history was important because he thought we would always have something to learn from those who came before us.

What Can We Learn from the 20th Century?

If we were to look at the 20th century, for example, we could see this most clearly. European society moved from monarchy in the early 20th century to short-lived authoritarian and totalitarian rulers which were disguised as populist movements in Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union.

Many of these revolutionaries firmly believed in their superiority whether it was ethnic or cultural. Certainly, a part of that is owed to the exclusive rhetoric of the Enlightenment.

Hegel’s dialectic directly challenged the notion that Enlightenment reason was the end of progress, however. Indeed, his philosophy foresaw that great societal regressions such as the Holocaust or Holodomor were likely to happen.

However, Hegel did not think that we should discard all of the Enlightenment, as I touched on above. Nationalism and patriotism may have caused the Napoleonic wars and the French Revolution during his lifetime. Nonetheless, for Hegel there is some good in patriotism, namely the sense of belonging we feel to a country we were born in or emigrated to.

Hegel thought that the French Revolution was necessary because it dismantled the monarchy and helped make the proletariat free. In conjunction, declarations were signed that gave citizens more freedom.

Despite the bad of the French Revolution, namely the guillotine and the Reign of Terror, among other events, we can always find the good. Similarly, there is good in nationalism, such as the desire for the collective good of our neighbors who we may have not met.

Hegel’s dialectic reveals that issues are far too complex for simple answers.

His reading of history testifies to the fact that we need not be careless in our conclusions about right and wrong; we must learn from the mistakes of the French revolution, nationalism, and patriotism, and assume that similar events may occur today.

Only then can we progress in society.

This short blog post is a part of my brief series on political philosophy! I cover thinkers from Locke and Rousseau to Marx, Hegel, and even Bernie Sanders. You can check out some previous posts here if you are interested:

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Author of “Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century” on AMAZON | Exploring Ethical Living | IG: jakub.ferencik.official

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