Hegel and Modern Society (Charles Taylor)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Why should a Christian care about Hegel? Certainly not to adopt his metaphysics (perish the thought!). However, Hegel's analysis anticipated the modern age, including theological discussion. It behooves us, then, to understand exactly what he is saying in order to better respond. Christian thinkers will be interested to see early developments of process theology and social trinitarianism.

Charles Taylor claims this isn't merely a summation of his earlier tome on Hegel. That's not really true. A number of pages are lifted but I think he succeeds in succinctly tying Hegel's ontology to Hegel's politics and showing the latter's relevance for the modern age.

Hegel's Ontology

Hegel sought to synthesize the Romantic desire for freedom and expression with the Rationalist desire for Reason. The Romantics saw Enlightenment science severing man’s unity. Man can only be self-conscious when he abstracts himself from the world. But when he does that, he severs himself from the organic unity of life. Reason and Life are thus opposites. But they are opposites which can’t exist without the other.

This leads us to Geist (God, sort of) as the Embodied Subject. A rational subject must be embodied because their must be an opposite pole in which it may flourish. Hegel rejects both Christian theism (God independent of the world) and naturalism (God as not absolute). Self-positing: God eternally creates the conditions of his existence. Hegel is not so much arguing for an existent reality, but for the conditions that Geist be.

What is the Dialectic?

we start with the most elementary notion of what consciousness is, “to show that this cannot stand up, that it is riven with inner contradiction and must give way to a higher one, which is also in turn shown to be contradictory” (55). Ironically, Hegel never said the dialectic attributed to him. By Hegelian dialectic we usually think that Hegel said, "First we take a thesis, then we actively negate it to get an antithesis, only to get our pre-arranged synthesis." Hegel said no such thing. Dialectic for him happens, as it were, in the middle voice.

Politics as Alienation Overcome

Modern society has seen the proliferation of Romantic views of life along with the rationalization and bureaucratization of collective structures and an exploitive stance toward nature (71). The adequate form of Spirit (remember, Spirit must be embodied) is social. Man has to be part of something larger than himself, since man cannot exist by himself.

alienation: this happens whenever the public existence no longer has meaning for me: e.g., the perceived futility of voting; nominal religious belief in Church-States. Individuals then strike out on their own to define their individuality. They then (ironically) come together as a new social unit.

Negative freedom would require that the whole outcome be decided by me. Yet, the whole outcome is a social one, so it cannot be decided by me alone. Thus, negative freedom is impossible.

The Modern Dilemma

Here is why modern liberal society is doomed: radical participation in civic structures is only possible if there is a ground of agreement, or underlying common purpose (Augustine’s common objects of love).Democracy and participation cannot create this; they merely presuppose it. The demand for absolute freedom by itself is empty.
Modern ideology and equality leads to homogenization [Taylor isn't always clear on what he means by homogenization] of society. It is an acid drip on traditional structures, yet it cannot replace them.

Hegel and Marx

This is where Charles Taylor, using Hegel's analysis, cuts Marxism to the bone. The Soviet view sees the proletarian party as “engineers of building in conformity with the laws of history…[combining] two opposed pictures of the human predicament. It shows us man, on one hand, imposing his will on the course of history...On the other hand dialectical materialism sets out the laws which govern man and history with an iron necessity” (151). “The laws of history cannot be the basis of social engineering and reveal the inevitable trend of events” (152).

Analysis and Conclusion

A Christian cannot accept Hegel's ontology. It echoes pantheism and is openly process theology. Hegel's analysis of epistemology on lower levels is sometimes interesting. Hegel's insights on politics (if not his conclusions!) are occasionally brilliant.

The concepts of social alienation are more pronounced today than ever before. Hegel was spot on. His critique of Negative Freedom of the French Revolution applies equally to Marxism (and its body count) and the Cultural Leninism of today's America.
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