In Defense of Hegel’s Idealism

It is conventional for Marxists to present Marx’s conception of history as superior to Hegel‘s (which is I think true), and to present this superiority as being essentially a matter of replacing ‘idealism’ with ‘materialism’ (which I think is ambiguous). I want to argue that there are two separate oppositions that could be called ‘idealism vs. materialism’ and applied to Hegel vs. Marx, and that while one gives Marx and ‘materialism’ the advantage, the other does not.

(Obviously this isn’t about materialism in the sense of greed and desire for material things, or idealism in the sense of having high ideals)

Hegel’s philosophy can be called idealism in two ways. The more conventional philosophical way is as a metaphysical description: in Hegel’s view, everything that exists is some form or manifestation of ‘consciousness’, ‘mind’, or ‘spirit’.

hegel-main_FullThat’s not the sort of idealism associated with Bishop Berkely, for whom this ‘spirituality’ of all things means that, for example, the mug I drink out exists only as my idea, an image in my mind, that only exists as long as I can see or feel it. For Hegel, the mug is perfectly real and independent of me – but its nature is basically the same as mine, since we are both (in a vague sense I won’t try to pin down) ‘manifestations of spirit’.

Hegel’s view of history is thus that it is ‘a process of spirit becoming aware of itself’ – so at first spirit manifests only as rocks and space dust, then as bacteria, which are alive, then living and conscious things (higher animals), and then finally living, conscious, and self-conscious things (humans). Humans then in turn progress through various stages of illusion and ignorance, progressing, through science, art, religion, and philosophy, towards greater and greater ‘self-consciousness’.

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