GWF Hegel was not a good writer. Subsequently, it is easy to become lost in the complexity of the philosophical system that he developed, rather than to gain insight into the simple concept that underlies that system.
Hegel gave us the dialectic, and while the man has failed to gain popular recognition, the dialectic itself is a particularly beautiful philosophical concept.
To properly understand this concept, we need to take a look at Hegel's influences. While much has been written about the place that Hegel's ideas have within the history of Western philosophy, it is actually the influence from Eastern philosophy that is much more apparent. Most specifically, Hegel was inspired by the concept of yin/yang polarity.
The dialectic is a simple idea. Essentially, when we look at any progression within nature, we can discern a tendency to swing from side to side between archetypal, polar extremes, as well as to sometimes find a balance between those extremes. In a nutshell that is all there is to it, with the three parts to the dialectic progression often called the thesis, the antithesis and the synthesis.
Looking at some examples:
Consider a young person trying to deal with their emotions. We can imagine that they will be angry and aggressive at times, (the thesis), and weak and lost at other times (the antithesis). As they mature, they will take something good from each of the extremes and blend them into a positive balance, becoming both strong and gentle (the synthesis).
Or we could look at a population of rabbits introduced to an island. At first spreading out and expanding in numbers, the rabbits eventually eat all the food. Their numbers decline again. If uninterrupted, this cycle will continue, with swings between a high and a low population, until eventually a stable population is reached.
We could also look at the tension between law and crime. If there are high levels of crime, the law will become tighter in response. If the law is too restrictive, however, the people will fight against it. Hopefully at some stage we will come to a happy balance whereby the law is sufficient to constrain destructive elements, yet relaxed enough to enable us to go about our diverse lives.
We have looked above at examples from the fields of psychology, biology and sociology. Actually, the dialectic can be used to understand any progression within nature, on the large scale and the small. Whilst it is widely applicable however, to date the dialectic has been most extensively applied in relation to understanding a single subject; the progression of human history.
And this is where we have run into a problem.
Being a member of the "Young Hegelians" in his early years, the most famous exponent of dialectics is Karl Marx. Because of this the dialectic is generally considered in relation to Marxism.
Marx's version of history, which has come be known as dialectical materialism, provides the cornerstone for his political and economic theories. It was dialectic thinking that led Marx to divide society into the opposing proletariat and bourgeoisie, inspiring the opening line to The Communist Manifesto: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
328 posts so far.