Expanding on the work of Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century, German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel laid the foundations for what would later become two opposing political systems, socialism and free market capitalism. His comprehensive framework of Absolute Idealism influenced numerous philosophers and thinkers of all shades including Karl Marx and Ralph Waldo Emerson. While many thinkers later rounded on Hegel’s world view as nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to justify totalitarianism in his own nation, there is no argument as to the profound influence of his works on later thinkers from both the left and the right wings of the political spectrum.
[div class=attrib]From FairObserver:[end-div]
It is common knowledge that among developed western countries the two leading socioeconomic systems are socialism and capitalism. The former is often associated more closely with European systems of governance and the latter with the American free market economy. It is also generally known that these two systems are rooted in two fundamentally different assumptions about how a healthy society progresses. What is not as well known is that they both stem from the same philosophical roots, namely the evolutionary philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a leading figure in the movement known as German Idealism that had its beginnings in the late 18th century. That philosophical movement was initiated by another prominent German thinker, Immanuel Kant. Kant published “The Critique of Pure Reason” in 1781, offering a radical new way to understand how we as human beings get along in the world. Hegel expanded on Kant’s theory of knowledge by adding a theory of social and historical progress. Both socialism and capitalism were inspired by different, and to some extent apposing, interpretations of Hegel’s philosophical system.
Immanuel Kant recognized that human beings create their view of reality by incorporating new information into their previous understanding of reality using the laws of reason. As this integrative process unfolds we are compelled to maintain a coherent picture of what is real in order to operate effectively in the world. The coherent picture of reality that we maintain Kant called a necessary transcendental unity. It can be understood as the overarching picture of reality, or worldview, that helps us make sense of the world and against which we interpret and judge all new experiences and information.
Hegel realized that not only must individuals maintain a cohesive picture of reality, but societies and cultures must also maintain a collectively held and unified understanding of what is real. To use a gross example, it is not enough for me to know what a dollar bill is and what it is worth. If I am to be able to buy something with my money, then other people must agree on its value. Reality is not merely an individual event; it is a collective affair of shared agreement. Hegel further saw that the collective understanding of reality that is held in common by many human beings in any given society develops over the course of history. In his book “The Philosophy of History”, Hegel outlines his theory of how this development occurs. Karl Marx started with Hegel’s philosophy and then added his own profound insights – especially in regards to how oppression and class struggle drive the course of history.
Across the Atlantic in America, there was another thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was strongly influenced by German Idealism and especially the philosophy of Hegel. In the development of the American mind one cannot overstate the role that Emerson played as the pathfinder who marked trails of thought that continue to guide the current American worldview. His ideas became grooves in consciousness set so deeply in the American psyche that they are often simply experienced as truth. What excited Emerson about Hegel was his description of how reality emerged from a universal mind. Emerson similarly believed that what we as human beings experience as real has emerged through time from a universal source of intelligence. This distinctly Hegelian tone in Emerson can be heard clearly in this passage from his essay entitled “History”:
“There is one mind common to all individual men. Of the works of this mind history is the record. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. All the facts of history pre-exist as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of this manifold spirit to the manifold world.”
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[div class=attrib]Image: The portrait of G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831); Steel engraving by Lazarus Sichling after a lithograph by Julius L. Sebbers. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]