miércoles, 21 de octubre de 2009



Keith Hyams*


Every philosophy has been and still is necessary. Thus none have passed away, but all are affirmatively contained as elements in a whole. But we must distinguish between the particular principle of these philosophies as particular, and the realization of this principle throughout the whole compass of the world. The principles are retained, the most recent philosophy being the result of all preceding, and hence no philosophy has ever been refuted. What has been refuted is not the principle of this philosophy, but merely the fact that this principle should be considered final and absolute in character. [1]

In order to understand Hegel’s view of the relation between philosophy and historical change, we must look more generally what Hegel thought that philosophy is. Hegel argues that really there is, and only ever has been, just one philosophy. Different philosophers have appeared to advocate different philosophies, but in reality they were just describing different historical moments of this one philosophy. [2] For each stage in the development of social history, there is a corresponding stage in the development of the history of philosophy. [3] The development of philosophy is just one aspect of the development of Geist, whose underlying reality likewise remains constant through time as it moves closer and closer to realisation. [4] Thus the history of philosophy, for Hegel, is ‘a progression impelled by an inherent necessity, and one which is implicitly rational and a priori determined through its Idea’. [5] That is, it is to be regarded as a step by step comprehension of what is implicitly rational. [6]

Each philosopher, according to Hegel, builds on the work of his predecessors (though he may think he’s contradicting them at the time), coming closer to complete recognition of the Idea with each movement. [7] This development occurs through the step by step resolution of contradictions present within the thought of philosophers of each sequential age: hence the staggered nature of philosophical development through history. Each stage of philosophy was a necessary stage in this development, for without having progressed through each stage philosophy could never have reached its end point, the final recognition of the Idea achieved in Hegel’s own philosophy. [8] Hegel draws an analogy with a tree developing from its germ – it appears to change, but in reality it is always the same thing, developing in stages to complete realisation. Indeed, this is not merely an analogy for the sake of explanation, but a form of contradiction which he thinks is present in all development. [9] Beyond the preface, Hegel’s Lectures move on to describe how each of the great philosophers of the past have followed this sequence, building on the philosophy of their predecessors by resolving contradictions and moving closer to the complete comprehension of the Idea.

For present purposes, the most important feature of Hegel’s view of philosophy is his claim that a particular philosophy arises to correspond with all other forms (Gestaltungen) of an age. For example, in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel says:

Men do not at certain epochs, merely philosophise in general, for there is a definite Philosophy which arises among a people, and the definite character of the standpoint of thought is the same character which permeates all the other historical sides of the spirit of the people, which is most intimately related to them, and which constitutes their foundation.. The particular form of philosophy is thus contemporaneous with a particular form of constitution of the people amongst whom it makes its appearance. [10]

In fact, despite Hegel’s use of the term ‘cotemporaneous’ in the above passage, it would be wrong to conclude that a new philosophical stage of development comes on the scene at the same time as a new stage of social history is born, for Hegel also holds that ‘within a given form of Spirit philosophy comes on the scene at a determined time, not simultaneously with the other aspects’. [11] Philosophy, in fact, lags behind all other aspects of history. A particular stage of philosophical development comes on the scene only as the corresponding stage of social development is in decline, about to be replaced by the next stage. Hegel emphasises the tardiness of philosophy both in the famous passage of the Philosophy of Right, ending with the poetic metaphor, ‘The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk’, [12] and also in a strikingly similar section of his Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy, where he says:

Philosophy begins with the decline of a real world. When philosophy comes on the scene and – painting grey in grey – deploys its abstractions, the fresh colour of youth and vitality is already past. [13]

Philosophy is thus but a crystallisation of modes of thinking already present in the society of its time. It is the spirit of its time present in thought. Painting its grey on grey, using existing concepts and categories to express existing modes of thought, philosophy cannot therefore see beyond its own time. As such it seems impotent to change the world.


Marx’s well-known Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach states that ‘The philosophers have only interpret the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’. [14] A popular interpretation of this thesis is that Marx meant that the very purpose of philosophy is, and must be, to try to change the world. I will call this the simple interpretation. According to the simple interpretation, the activity of philosophical interpretation of the world is useful only in so far as it helps us to change it. The work of those philosophers who have just interpreted the world without trying to use that knowledge to change the world (or making it available to others in a manner which would allow them to use that knowledge to change the world) is of no genuine use.

I do not mean to suggest that the simple interpretation regards Marx as merely claiming that both philosophy and action are essential revolutionary activities, although this interpretation has been popular amongst Marxist revolutionaries. As Cohen aptly puts it, Marx’s theory of the unity of theory and practice does not simply enjoin the revolutionary to spend half his day in the library and half his day at the factory gates, putting the knowledge or experience gained in each setting to good use in the other. [15] Rather, the thought behind the simple interpretation is that Marx thought that philosophy derives its import from the role it plays in guiding the course of the forthcoming revolution. Marx thought, of course, that the proletarian revolution had to happen eventually, for that would bring society to the final stage in the necessary progression of history: communism. But it is not inconsistent for Marx to have also held that through philosophy the revolution could be brought about sooner, more efficiently, or more successful than it might otherwise have been. [16]

Textual support for the simple interpretation is not hard to come by. For example, in The Poverty of Philosophy Marx writes that, ‘As the Economists are the scientific representatives of the bourgeois class, so the Socialists and Communists are the Theorists of the proletarian class’. [17] In The Communist Manifesto he and Engles write that ‘theoretically, they [the Communists] have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of the march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement’. [18] And in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx writes that, ‘Philosophy is the head of this emancipation [of Germany] and the proletariat is its heart’. [19]


In the light of the positions described above, we seem to have a clear cut conflict between the inefficacy of philosophy on Hegel’s view and the call to action of Marx’s Eleventh Thesis. ‘The owl of Minerva, emblem of Wisdom,’ writes Cohen, ‘flies in the evening, when the day’s work is over. The Eleventh Thesis sets the tasks of a new day’. [20] Had Hegel have been able to respond to Marx’s thesis, we might have expected him to say something like: ‘Philosophy cannot change the world since philosophers cannot see beyond the society in which they live. To change the world in accordance the insights of philosophy at any particular stage in its development is not to change anything at all, but precisely to maintain the status quo’.

One important question which arises is, did Hegel think that philosophy had necessarily to come on the scene only as the sun was setting on all other aspects of a historical epoch? Or did he think that in the past philosophy in fact had come on the scene at this time, but that things could have been otherwise: philosophy might sometimes have come on the scene at the beginning or in the middle of an epoch, rather than in its twilight years. Cohen suggests the possibility of the latter interpretation when he writes that, ‘It is not clear that Hegel thought the diurnal self-restraint of Minerva’s owl permanently necessary’. [21] On this latter interpretation, the main force of the disagreement between Hegel and Marx vanishes. For if Hegel did not hold that there was any necessary reason why philosophy should not appear earlier on in an historical epoch, he might perfectly well have agreed with Marx that in the past philosophy had only been backwards looking in merely interpreting the world, but that it needn’t be so, and that it might look forward and play a role in changing the world. [22]

But it seems to me that Hegel’s texts give the overwhelming impression that the former interpretation is in fact the correct one. That is, contra Cohen, Hegel did think the diurnal self-restraint of Minerva’s owl was permanently necessary. For example, in his attack on the Enlightenment project in the Philosophy of Right, Hegel seems to ground just such a necessity in philosophy’s being ‘exploration of the rational’ (note also the suggestive use of the word ‘even’ in the last sentence):

Since philosophy is exploration of the rational, it is for that very reason the comprehension of the present and the actual, not the setting up of a world beyond which exists God knows where – or rather, of which we can very well say that we know where it exists, namely in the errors of a one-sided and empty ratiocination. In the course of the following treatise, I have remarked that even Plato’s Republic, a proverbial example of an empty ideal, is essentially the embodiment of nothing other than the nature of Greek ethics. [23]

Most of Hegel’s commentators have agreed both that Hegel denied philosophers the ability to see what lay ahead and that as such Marx’s theory of philosophy and its relation to action was wholly opposed to Hegel’s. For example, Kolakowski claims that Hegel ‘restricts philosophy to awareness of the past historical process and denies it the right to peer into the future’; [24] whilst Berki writes that ‘the Marxian view of the role of the political philosopher appears as the opposite of Hegel’s’. [25] Yet I think that this crude opposition rests on too simple an interpretation of both Hegel and of Marx. When one looks more closely at their respective positions, one finds subtle complexities in their views which, whilst failing to achieve a complete reconciliation, make the disagreement less straightforward than it has so far been made to appear.


We left Hegel earlier with philosophy painting its grey on grey, unable to bring about social change due to its inability to see into the future. Yet there are reasons to believe that the matter is not quite so simple.

Philosophy appears on the scene when an epoch is in decline. When the contradictions contained within the Spirit of that time have become intolerable, men seek refuge in thought. In thought these contradictions can be laid bare, without the immediacy of involvement, and a resolution of the antagonisms can begin. But the resolution is so far in thought alone, not yet in reality:

When Mind manifests indifference to its living existence or rests unsatisfied therein, and moral life becomes dissolved. Then it is that Mind takes refuge in the clear space of thought to create for itself a kingdom of thought in opposition to the world of actuality, and Philosophy is the reconciliation following upon the destruction of that real world which thought has begun. When philosophy with its abstractions paints grey in grey, the freshness of life has gone, the reconciliation is not a reconciliation in the actual, but in the ideal world. [26]

This quotation ends with the caveat that the reconciliation found in philosophy is only within thought, not actuality. But we are told just three pages later that in fact it is nevertheless the ‘inward birth-place’ of what will eventually arise in its actual form. Hegel gives the example of the stage of Geist arising in Greek philosophy later obtaining actuality in the Christian world that followed:

Through knowledge, Mind makes manifest a distinction between knowledge and that which is; this knowledge is thus what produces a new form of development. The new forms at first are only special modes of knowledge, and it is thus that a new Philosophy is produced: yet since it already is a wider kind of spirit, it is the inward birth-place of the spirit which will later arrive at actual form. We shall deal further with this is the concrete below, and we shall then see that what the Greek Philosophy was, entered, in the Christian world, into actuality. [27]

Here, then, we have a significant piece of evidence that Hegel thought that philosophy did in fact play a role in social change after all. But what is this role? What exactly are we to make of this obscure passage?

I think that Taylor’s suggestion that philosophy ‘can sometimes be thought afterwards to have shown the world the way it had to go’ is a useful start. [28] Perhaps Hegel’s thought is that philosophy, by crystallising the mode of thinking characteristic of its time, brings to the fore the contradictions present within that mode of thinking. It is precisely the final, clear recognition of these contradictions through philosophy that makes possible their eventual resolution through social upheaval and the inauguration of a new era of history. In this way, by crystallising the mode of thought of its time such that its contradictions are laid bare, philosophy has played a role in bringing about social change throughout history. Yet philosophy never once actively looked into the future. It changed the world without realising that it was doing so, and without intending to do so. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings as the sun goes down, but the sun waits until the bird is in flight before it makes its final disappearance beneath the horizon.

This interpretation of Hegel may be regarded as denying the importance of a distinction which seems to me to underlie the crude disagreement between Hegel and Marx described above. The crude disagreement draws a clear line between two possible views about philosophy. On the one hand are views of philosophy which allow it to see only the past and the present, and which regard it as impotent to change the world. On the other hand are views which allow philosophy to peer into the future and to be potent to change the world. Hegel’s view of philosophy is supposed to be of the former type, Marx’s of the latter. Thus the crude disagreement. But now we see that Hegel would have rejected this distinction, for, on the interpretation suggested here, he holds that contained within a philosophy of the present are the seeds of the future. By crystallising the mode of thinking pervading the present, philosophy brings contradictions to the fore and nudges the world along to the next stage of history, where some of those contradictions will be resolved. [29]


The simple interpretation of Marx discussed above is doubtless correct to claim that Marx thought that philosophy ought to play a role in social change. But this statement alone does not do justice to the extent of the much deeper connection between philosophy and change that one finds in Marx’s writings. We can approach this point by building on an interpretation of Marx’s Eleventh Thesis suggested by Cohen, who writes:

[Marx] wrote that ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’. I suggest that we may add: ‘to change it so that interpretation of it is no longer necessary’. […] The unity of theory and practice in the present sense is a constituent of the revolutionized rational world that policy achieves. It is a world in which the theory explaining the practice of socialist man appears in his practice, and no separate elaboration in a theorists head. [30]

The Marxian thought drawn out by this interpretation is that under communism the reality of things will be just as they seem, for everyone. Theory (that is, the grand scheme of things – why society is organised the way it is) will be clear to everyone through their realisation of that theory in practice. As such, philosophical interpretation is rendered redundant. Interpretation was only necessary prior to the proletarian revolution in order to try to see beyond the distorted thinking arising from pre-communist economic relations. Once such distortions are abolished, philosophical interpretation is no longer necessary. As Cohen notes, when the Eleventh Thesis is interpreted in this manner, as making an epistemological claim about communism, it seems wholly in line with Hegel’s position concerning the possibility of Absolute Knowledge in the true state, when the Geist has finally achieved complete freedom.

What is useful about Cohen’s interpretation is his emphasis on epistemology, largely absent from the simple interpretation of section one above. But Cohen’s interpretation also shifts the focus of the Eleventh Thesis from the role of philosophy in social change to the epistemological character of communist society. Yet in order to include the epistemological slant, we do not need to accept Cohen’s change of focus. For there is textual support for the possibility of building the epistemological slant into an interpretation which retains as its central focus, the role of philosophy in changing the world. This becomes clearer when we look at how Marx thinks that philosophy brings us to the final stage of history, where theory is immediately obvious and interpretation is no longer necessary.

Marx writes that ‘In short, you cannot abolish philosophy without realizing it’. [31] The manner in which philosophy brings society to that final stage of epistemological clarity, then, is precisely by realising itself. That is, the theory which will be clear for all to see under communism is precisely that which Marx was then, on the supposed eve of the proletarian revolution, already advocating. Furthermore, philosophy itself will be one of the main forces bringing about this revolution:

Material force can only be overthrown by material force; but theory itself becomes a material force when it has seized the masses. Theory is capable of seizing the masses when it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp things by the root. But for man the root is man himself. [32]

This argument from Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right claims that if theory is not at the same time a material force then it is impotent to bring about social change. But, it says, a theory which ‘grasps things by the root’ can bring about social change. It does so precisely because, by so grasping, the theory demonstrates ad hominem in a manner which captures the minds of the revolutionary class. It is precisely because Marxian philosophy does supposedly grasp things by the root, focussing as it does on the importance of man and of society, recognising man and his labour for himself rather than as a means to something else, that Marx thinks his philosophy is capable of seizing the masses and bringing about revolution. [33]

But what is meant by ‘grasp things by the root’? To grasp things by the root is to see the very essence of reality as it really is, the ‘objective truth’ in Marx’s terms. So a theory which sees the essence of reality is capable of changing the world. But we can go further still, for in his eighth thesis on Feuerbach, Marx claims that it is precisely by bringing about such change that a philosophical theory demonstrates its objective truth:

The question is whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question. [34]

Now, in the light of the preceding discussion, we can see the true depth of relation that Marx held to exist between theory and practice. The thinking that lurks behind the Eleventh Thesis is as follows. An objectively true philosophy which grasps things by the root, which sees the reality that lies behind the smokescreen of ideological distortions is itself a material force capable of changing the world through its influence on the revolutionary class. The change that it will bring is a realisation in practice of the very theory advocated by that philosophy in thought. Once this realisation has been achieved, the theory will be clear for all to see in their practice: the smokescreen vanishes and no further interpretation by philosophers will be required. Indeed, it is not in thought, but precisely by bringing about this change in practice, that a philosophy must prove its objective truth. Whilst the simple interpretation of Marx’s Eleventh Thesis is correct to say that Marx thought that the purpose of philosophy was to bring about social change, it is silent concerning these very deep reasons why he thought that this had to be so.


Following the above restatements of Marx and Hegels’ views, it is no longer clear that we have such a clear cut opposition. We certainly do not have complete agreement, but nor do we have absolute disagreement. Both Hegel and Marx regard philosophy as closely bound up with the dialectic development of history, playing a role in moving society onto the next stage of history. For Hegel, philosophy achieves this not by looking forward to some vision of the future, but precisely by interpreting the present and bringing its contradictions to the fore. And Marx, to some extent at least, would have agreed with this. The proletariat rises in revolutionary spirit when it achieves emancipation from the grip of ideology and recognises the exploitative relations of capitalism for what they really are. It rises up to free itself from those relations and in so doing, moves history onto its next, and final epoch. Marx does not regard philosophy’s role in this process as being to describe an irresistibly attractive model of future society which will inspire the proletariat to revolt. Rather, and this is where his view of philosophy converges on Hegel’s, he regards philosophy’s role as being to elucidate the distortions of the present such that they become intolerable to the proletariat. (Perhaps this is why, aside from his minimal comments in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx actually says very little about what communism would look like.)

So both Marx and Hegel thought that philosophy could change the world precisely by examining the present, not by looking to the future. Indeed, neither Hegel nor Marx had much time for the Enlightenment ‘planning’ style approach to social change, viz. work out what model of society is rationally best for society and then try to implement that model. Hegel held this aspiration to ‘absolute freedom’ [35] responsible for the ‘Terror’ of the French revolution, since it rejects the differentiation upon which society depends. Marx thought that a theory which advocated change based on notions of right, wrong, and the good would be grounded in Rechtsbegriffen: components of the ideology of a transitory ruling class and precisely that which would be done away after the next revolution.

Hegel and Marx clearly are not, however, in complete agreement concerning the relation between philosophy and social change. Aside from Marx’s emphasising the role of philosophy to a much greater extent that Hegel, [36] the main disagreement seems to me to concern the philosophers’ consciousness of the role they play in history. [37] Marx grants to philosophers (that is, to those philosophers who grasp things by the root and thus change the world) an awareness that their interpretation of the present will have revolutionary effects. Hegel, on the other hand, grants no such awareness. Hegel’s philosophers simply paint their grey on grey, unaware that by so doing they are laying down an undercoat for the rainbow of colours about to appear with the onset of a new epoch in history. In the light of this more subtle disagreement between Hegel and Marx, we might expect Hegel not to reject Marx’s Eleventh Thesis quite as forcefully as was suggested by the crude opposition. Rather, we might expect Hegel to respond: ‘Philosophers have indeed helped to change the world through their interpretations of it, but they did not and could not have been aware that that’s what they were doing’.

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