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Accessible introduction to Hegel’s spirit of contradiction

Hegel 

by JM Fritzman

(Polity, £15.99)

JM FRITZMAN’S pithy introduction to Hegel, whose work Bertrand Russell claimed was the hardest to understand of all the great philosophers, reminds the reader of Karl Marx’s famous observation: “Philosophers have interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.” As we are led through the metaphysical thickets of Hegel’s thinking, we might well agree with both statements. 

First there is the language problem, always an issue with philosophy. The author engagingly comments on the danger of “Hegelese” — Hegel’s own terminology — which can lead us to “realise that we don’t know what we are talking about.” Even the title of his major work Phenomenology Of Spirit, where we are faced with such concepts as “thought thinks itself,” can daunt the reader’s enthusiasm. 

Not Fritzman’s, however. He tackles both the original German language and his author’s intractable linguistics with the humour and verve of a good teacher, though he does concede that “Hegel’s metaphysics departs significantly from untutored common sense on a number of issues.” 

Many of Hegel’s beliefs — such as his rejection of evolution and urging his readers that they should be reconciled to their world  sound reactionary.

But it should be remembered too that he greatly influenced the young Marx with his method of seeking the truth through his “dialectic” process.

His maintaining that historical progress was the “increasing realisation of human freedom” would also appear to chime with Marxism, although his questionable definition of freedom had nothing to do with Marx’s understanding that dialectical materialism explained man’s relationship to nature and society, nor that class conflict supplied the driving force to historical progress.

At the centre of Hegel’s philosophy, which engages with all aspects of existence, is the concept of “spirit,” another of his terms that shift awkwardly for the reader but which Fritzman helpfully glosses as “human culture which culminates in art, religion and philosophy.” 

For all his supportive understanding, Fritzman does not baulk at criticising Hegel. On The Philosophy of Right, where Hegel’s describes his rational state based on family, civil society and state, he remarks that “he seems to have no historical sense of the ways in which the family of his time is a product of social and economic conditions.” 

Yet he recognises that capitalism is inherently unstable, leading to immense disparity of wealth and cycling between economic booms and depressions.

If we read Hegel while drawing on the hindsight of Marx, he may then appear to provide a treasure trove of concepts and ideas which wove together a total world view full of the contradictions he believed to be the bedrock of philosophy. 

Marx took from this stash what was useful in making his own “philosophy” and that has become a fundamental contribution to our critical understanding of the human condition and the need to change our world because, as Fritzman suggests, “Western liberal welfare capitalism isn’t sustainable.”

GORDON PARSONS

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