Western Europe once had a deeply religious culture, in which theology was the main discipline. Then theology developed philosophy, and it was soon swallowed and eaten by its child. Theology began to lose ground to philosophy in the 17th century, and by the 18th century philosophy was the dominant discipline in the intellectual life of Western Europe. The Enlightenment was stimulated by the scientific revolution. Stunning successes in understanding the physical world through processes of logic and observation encouraged the belief that similar progress might be made in the area of political economy and social relations.
It was not long, of course, until philosophy was forced to yield its centricity. With the advent of the Romantic movement in the 19th century, history began to dominate all disciplines. Many of the libertarian and abolitionist movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were engendered by the romantic philosophy – the desire to be free of convention and tyranny, and the new emphasis on the rights and dignity of the individual.
Georg Hegel (1770-1831) who saw a world governed by individual self-interest believed that we are controlled by external forces, and are nothing but pawns in the game. The classical liberal describes freedom as the absence of restraints. A negative definition means little without the positive freedom to act upon things. For Hegel freedom is realized through self-determination and self-actualization. Hegel sees ideas in the abstract but embodied in society and institutions that change. He believed there is no role for individual freedom, even though one may behave as he likes, he is not free. Freedom is more than one’s own capacity for decisions. Individuals must realize that even laissez-fare manipulates you.
For Hegel, history was where real insight into the human condition could be found. He saw events always moving forward, in perpetual change, conflicting ideas with destabilization leading to a new situation. The random linear process goal of history led to the greater development, realization and understanding of human freedom. It was about the spirit – there was the process of change with the end point of the mind coming to know itself. Absolute knowledge equals absolute freedom.
To understand the process of change described by Hegel we ask three Ws and one H: what, why, how and where. What should be a need-led process, and should respond to concerns. For Hegel what is the changing spirit or the mind, always in search of some aim, realizing potential. Why should be change or outcome focused. Hegel claims individuals are in various states of alienation – the tension created between the way things are and the way they ought to be. The answer to the how question helps you understand the way in which the task or activity is actually done. The process should involve all those desiring change, including communities. For Hegel the process is the dialectic. The conflict between two opposing views (thesis and antithesis) result in change (synthesis.) The dialectic is a dynamic process: Once a synthesis is produced, it becomes a thesis, which inevitably brings forth its own antithesis. Where describes the location of the users or stakeholders. Hegel sees ideas as abstract, but embodied in society and institutions (at the political level), that change.
Hegel turned to the study of Greek history to determine why freedom was so elusive. The fall of Athens had been brought about by the symbiosis between the individual and society being shattered following a combination of events – rise in trading empire, rise of aristocracy and imperialist wars. As the wealth of the polis increased, political power fell into the hands of a few. Those in power ruled in their own interest without regard to public welfare. The fall of the polis, Hegel explains, was the result of the spirit departing from it. The death of the spirit in a people involves the loosening of a sense of the citizen’s identification with his state.
Hegel believed humanity is not to be conceived according to the mechanistic models of 18th-century materialism. Essentially humans are free, but the freedom that constitutes their nature can achieve fulfillment only through a process of struggle, and of overcoming obstacles that is itself the expression of human activity. It was in this sense that Hegel claimed that spirit was “at war with itself … it has to overcome itself as its most formidable obstacle.” In concrete terms, this meant that historical advance did not proceed through a series of smooth transitions. Once the potentialities of a particular society had been realized in the creation of a certain mode of life, its historical role was over; its members became aware of its inadequacies, and the laws and institutions they had previously accepted unquestioningly were now experienced as fetters, inhibiting further development and no longer reflecting their deepest aspirations. Thus, each phase of the historical process could be said to contain the seeds of its own destruction and to “negate” itself; the consequence was the emergence of a fresh society, representing another stage in a progression whose final outcome was the formation of a rationally ordered community with which each citizen could consciously identify himself and in which there would therefore no longer exist any sense of alienation or constraint.
Before the Enlightenment human beings were generally considered in terms of how they fit into social hierarchies and communal institutions, but following enlightenment the view was that the individual rather than society as a whole, is the most important entity. Self-criticism and self-denial were no longer in vogue, replaced by self-expression, self-realization and self-approval. Hegel explains the modern state is the institution that will correct this imbalance in modern culture. Although economic and legal individualism play a positive role in society, Hegel foresees the need for institutions that will affirm common bonds and ethical life while preserving individual freedom. He believes, for example, that the state must regulate the economy and provide for the poor in society and that there should be ‘corporative’ institutions somewhat similar to modern trade unions, in which different occupational groups affirm a sense of social belonging and a feeling of being connected to a larger society. According to him, religion (or his philosophical interpretation of it) fulfilled man’s constant psychological need to have an image of himself and of the world by which he could orient himself.
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) played a role in the transition of post-Hegelian philosophy in traditional idealism to various forms of naturalism, materialism and positivism, influencing themes developed further by others. Feuerbach joins the great tradition of materialist philosophers who, taking as the point of departure for their views man’s actual state in nature and in society, could see that the idealistic solutions were illusory. The hard fact that man’s natural drives were permitted no satisfactory outlet, showed freedom and reason to be a myth, as far as social realities were concerned. Hegel had committed the unpardonable offense against the individual of constructing a realm of reason on the foundations of an enslaved humanity. Despite all historical progress, Feuerbach cries out, man is still in need, and the pervasive fact philosophy encounters is ‘suffering.’ This, and not cognition, is primary in man’s relation to the objective world. ‘Thought is preceded by suffering.’ And no realization of reason is in the offing until that suffering has been eliminated.
For Feuerbach religion must be exposed as a purely human creation in order that humans may become self-conscious and free. Feuerbach replaced reason with sense perception. Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel: Philosophy is an impediment to human freedom and self- understanding. Feuerbach’s radical move is seeing the dialectic as a dialectic of consciousness that is rooted in the very condition of material human existence, such as human needs, wants, and interests. By material, Feurbach means something real or existing, as opposed to consciousness alone. There is no need for the God of good qualities of the human species, Feuerbach believed, the act of liberation (freedom) can be brought about through a simple reformation of people’s consciousness.[i]
Karl Marx (1818-1883) owes his philosophical awakening to Feuerbach. With regard to religion, then, Marx believed, we don’t project an ideal, unalienated realm in religion for nothing; we are desperately trying to deal with ourselves in an unhappy, oppressed, dismal situation. Marx’s most significant criticism of Feuerbach is that the latter interpreted reality, but did not change it. Materialism argues that the actual reality of the surrounding world determines the way people think and what they believe. In contrast to religious and other ‘idealist’ philosophies, Marx’s materialist conception of history asserted, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Karl Marx, Preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” 1859).
Marx’s theory is founded upon his observation that, within the capitalist mode of production, workers invariably lose determination of their lives and destinies by being deprived of the right to conceive of themselves as the director of their actions. For Marx alienation of man created by the fact people’s own labour rules them, giving workers little control over what they do.[ii]
All men are free, but the mechanisms of the labor process govern the freedom of them all. Marx’s shift to economics made money the impediment to human freedom and self-understanding. Marx’s theory of history is centered around the idea that forms of society rise and fall as they further and then impede the development of human productive power. Marx used Hegel’s theory of the dialectic to back up the theory of communism.
Karl Marx observed societies with poverty and inequality, and, in response, developed a theory based on exploitation and class antagonism. Marx focused on the labour theory of value, and profit as the extraction of surplus value from the exploited proletariat. In the need to focus on the proletariat, the individual disappeared from his philosophy, and personal freedom became an abstract concept. Lenin adapted Marx’s ideas to support the Russian Revolution run by a minority, and inserted a band of revolutionaries at the head of an elitist revolution onto an unwilling population. Lenin established a small group, that evolved into an oligarchy, to control the USSR.[iii] Marx sought to end exploitation, but the system that sought to apply his ideas gave rise to its own version of exploitation of the weak by the strong.
The thinkers of the Enlightenment believed that ‘truth’ discovered through reason would free people from the shackles of corrupt institutions, such as the church and the aristocracy, whose misguided traditional thinking had kept people subjected in ignorance and superstition. Voltaire (1694-1778), an outspoken writer known for his brilliant wit and sarcasm, preached freedom of thought. To Immanuel Kant, combining free will and reason creates the capacity for free choice. Man’s purpose, Kant claimed, was to develop fully his capacities for reason and freedom (free will).
Like Kant, Hegel believed that we do not perceive the world or anything in it directly and all that our minds have access to is the ideas of the world – images, perceptions, and concepts. For Kant and Hegel, the only real reality we know is virtual reality. Hegel’s idealism differs from Kant’s in two ways. First Hegel believed that the ideas we have of the world are social, which is to say, the ideas that we possess individually are for the most part shaped by the ideas that other people possess. Our minds have been shaped by the thoughts of other people through the language we speak, the traditions and mores of our society, and the cultural and religious institutions of which we are a part.
The second way Hegel differs from Kant is that he sees the spirit or collective consciousness of a society evolving in a system called ‘a dialectic’, a progression in which each successive movement emerges a solution to the contradictions inherent in the preceding movement with the development of freedom and the consciousness of freedom. There can be no progress, according to Hegel, without struggle. The synthesis that emerges from this struggle then discovers its own internal contradiction and starts the process anew. For Hegel, the struggle against alienation becomes the attainment of freedom.[iv] The necessary ingredient for Hegel’s philosophy was freedom of action, not just freedom of thought.
[i] “Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ludwig-feuerbach/
[ii] “capitalist mode of production.” https://www.boundless.com/sociology/definition/capitalist-mode-of-production/
[iii] Horsman, Greg. Evolutionary Economics and Equality: An Age of Enlightenment. 2013. p. 177.
[iv] “GEORG WILHELM FRIEDRICH HEGEL (1770–1831).” http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/hegel/themes.html