Paul Maxwell

The father of dialecticism.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (G. W. F.) Hegel (1770–1831) was the first to use the term “the death of God,” and he did so in a quasi-Lutheran way, with reference to the death of God in Christ, which is God’s “negation of negation” — God’s death is the undoing of the undoing of metaphysics in Kant. 1 Eberhard Jüngel sees Hegel’s talk of the “death of God,” not as avant-garde atheism, but as a recovery of Christian theology from the early church: “Talk about the death of God is not entering theology for the first time in our century; rather, it is returning home to theology.” 2 Hegel is a controversial figure, in that both Christians and atheists appeal to his arguments to prove their theological convictions. 3

In Platonic thought, religious language was used to describe the world of forms, precisely because it imbued attributes of immutability and infinitude. Yet, for Hegel, it is the opposite — religious language represents the material and dynamic particulars of our present age, and it has yet to be unveiled:

“The Spirit manifested in revealed religion has not as yet surmounted its attitude of consciousness as such. . . . Spirit as a whole and the moments distinguished in it fall within the sphere of figurative thinking, and within the form of objectivity. The content of this figurative thought is Absolute Spirit. All that remains to be done now is to cancel and transcend (aufheben) this bare form.” 4

For Hegel, the subject is “the process of positing itself, or in mediating with its own self its transitions from one state or position to the opposite.” This dialectical back-and-forth which was, for Kant, conceived as a metaphysical feedback loop between Kant’s phenomena and noumena, is perhaps what Hegel is most known for — i.e., “The Hegelian Dialectic,” which can be charted in this way:

The Hegelian Dialectic

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This process (which Hegel himself did not chart, but was elucidated by Hegelians after him) was leading toward a goal — this dialectic was the process which constituted everything in the world, and which would, at an indeterminate time in the future, instantiate an inevitable eschatological event in which Thesis and Antithesis would merge into a final synthesis; universal and particular, subject and object, logic and experience, Christianity and atheism, would eventually follow Kant’s proposed path of Enlightenment and self-correction until perfect unity is manifested. This perfect unity, which is also the guiding force of the process itself, Hegel called Geist — or “Spirit,” and he sometimes called it “The Absolute” (or “The Ideal,” as Hegel’s system, developing Kant, became the foundation for the philosophy called “Idealism” — the notion that there are such things as mental realities; i.e., the notion that ideas are real things). Geist is, for Hegel, the guiding force of the Thesis dialectic which constitutes the universe, as well as its guiding force, which both conceals itself through dialectic and reveals itself through the emergence from that same dialectic. 5

This dialectical process is also the means by which rationality exercises its authority in the world — as we noted Hegel saying in a previous lecture,  “What is rational is real; And what is real is rational.” 6 The dialectical emergence of rationality is the means by which the subject and the object — the phenomena and the noumena — are reconciled. Hegel explains: “The right to recognize nothing that I do not perceive as rational is the highest right of the subject, but by virtue of its subjective determination, it is at the same time formal; on the other hand, the right of the rational — as the objective — over the subject remains firmly established.” 7

Yet, because this rationality is dialectically realized, Kant’s Descartes-Hume dilemma remains for Hegel as well. One scholar explains: 

“It is exactly this double bond between the equally normative backgrounds of the subjective idea and motivation of freedom on the one hand, and objective ethical life on the other, that offers the opportunity of stability for the diverse world of practices, and the multitude and multiplicity of particular lifeworlds.” 8

Thus, if Geist is for Hegel the unforeseeable and gradual emergence of rationality in the world, human freedom is invariably the dynamic agent through which Thesis and Antithesis exercise their power — each person a piston in the organic unfolding of irreconcilable ideas which are mutually requiring of each other. Because the epistemological problem of human situatedness is a product of finitude, and finitude is an operation of particularity (in distinction from universality), and the eschatological emergence of the Geist reconciles universality and particularity, then history is unfolding toward the good and right erasure of human freedom in the world, as it gives way to order. 9

Because of the epistemological suspense which Hegel’s dialectic leaves us yields so much uncertainty, Hegel believes that humanity’s only recourse is rationality, and emotionality is a sign of disorder and of retrogressing back into Humean skepticism. He therefore says about religion (criticizing a notion reminiscent of Schleiermacher): “If religion in man is founded only on a feeling, then it rightly has no other determination than to be the feeling of his dependence, and in this way the dog would be the best Christian, for it carries this most strongly in itself.” 10

Hegel perceives that version of Christian piety emerging in the 18th century doubly transgresses against the Enlightenment — both in its institutionalized endorsement of “man’s self-incurred immaturity” (Kant), and in its emotionality, which blinds them to their very existence within the dialectic. Christian eschatology, for Hegel, insists on making the same error as every past generation and culture: to insist that the future Utopia must be understood in the terms of their system, which won’t be rebutted through antithesis. For Hegel, these systems (such as Christianity) concretize colloquialisms and by calling them “dogma” and thereby blind themselves to their indisputable role in history, which is subservient to the dialectic, and not above it. 

For Hegel, then, the most dignified use of human freedom is to first recognize that one exists at a time and place in history which will be rebutted and corrected, and second to utilize reason in order to rebut and correct errors in understandings of the world in order to prompt the full emergence of Geist, which is the dawn of the rational Utopia — a day when, and a place where, humans are no longer plagued by the disease of subjectivity, because they are subsumed into the objective.

1  See Hans Küng, The Incarnation of God: An Introduction to Hegel’s Theological Thought as Prolegomena to a Future Christology, trans. J. R. Stephenson (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1987), 162–173. Kûng summarizes Hegel: “The basic atheistic feeling of the modern age must therefore be understood on the level of speculative philosophy. The historical Good Friday of Jesus’ abandonment by God is to be understood on the speculative level, where faith and reason are found, as the Good Friday of the Absolute itself and hence as the good Friday of the abandonment by God of all that is.” Ibid., 169. Kûng continues: “The death of God theology can count on Hegel’s support when, with great honesty, genuine commitment and resolute solidarity with its secular contemporaries, it follows his example by a) taking with utmost seriousness the secular world with its ‘atheistic’ self-understanding, along with the fact that God no longer plays nay role in the modern experience of reality … b) attempting to understand modern atheism christologically in terms of the death of God; and c) using its discourse about the death of God — whether intentionally or unintentionally — to provoke a lively discussion about a living God.” Ibid., 170.
2  Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute Between Theism and Atheism, trans. Darrel L. Gruder (New York: Bloomsbury, 1983, 2014), 55.
3  “Readers disagree as to where, in his massive output, the ‘real’ Hegel is to be found.” Julian Young, The Death of God and the Meaning of Life (New York: Routledge, 2003), 57. For a wonderful summary of the complexity of Hegel’s thought, which should be one’s first (and hopefully last) experience with the philosopher, see Young, The Death of God, 57–70.
4  G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Mind, tr. J. B. Baillie, 2nd rev. ed. (London: George Allen, 1964), 789.
5 For Hegel, aesthetics are the origin and goal of existence; thus, world-history can be called a story of the emergence of beauty unto its own perfection. It is the awe of beauty which saves humanity from the clutches of subjectivism by drawing the art-viewer into the microcosm which the art presents, in order to bring into full view of consciousness the objective reality which it depicts — art is, for Hegel, a wonderful adjunct to philosophy because it concretizes and objectives philosophical concepts which words only tend to abstract and subjectivize. See William Desmond, Art and the Absolute: A Study of Hegel’s Aesthetics (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1986).
6  G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, trans. S. W. Dyde (London: George Bell and Sons, 1896), xxvii.
7  G. F. W. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. H. B. Nisbet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 159 (§ 132). Hegel understands the need for reconciliation and does not pretend that rationality supplies a de facto solution to the problem of human situatedness. For Hegel, “The subjectivity of rationality is a basic structural feature of the individual’s lifeworld and life conduct, while its objectivity is a structural feature of modern society” and it is thought a person’s participation in broader society that their subjective experience is dialectically aligned with external order. Erzsébet Rózsa, Modern Individuality in Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, Critical Studies in German Idealism (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 29. Moreover: As we go through the socialization process, we become individuated rationalizers — we undergo a “self-authoring” process in which our “consciousness … suffers violence at its own hands; spoils its own limited satisfaction.” Moreover, “When consciousness feels this violence, its anxiety may make it retreat from the truth, and strive to hold on to what it is in danger of losing. But it can find no peace.” G. F. W. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 51.
8  Rózsa, Modern Individuality in Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, 96. Hegel’s double bond is represented in his association of human freedom both with particularity’s spontaneity, as well as universality’s subservience to order: “Rational insight … alone gives dignity to the human being.” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right [Cambridge], 49 [§ 15]). And: “…subjectivity, in its comprehensive particularity, is itself the existence of freedom” (Ibid., 155 [§ 128]). Finally: “My particularity … is only a right at all in so far as I am free.” Ibid., 153 [§ 126]).
9  It is unsurprising at this point to note that Karl Marx was a Hegelian. 
10  Cited by Friedrich Schleiermacher, Der Christliche Glaube (Berlin, 1980), 253.

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Paul Maxwell (PhD) is an independent writer and researcher. He has published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals on futurism, psychology, philosophy, and religion.

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