Hegel, Art and the Dialectical Method


Paradoxically, G. W. F. Hegel created a tripartite philosophical system that attempted to flee the static universe of Emmanuel Kant by positing universal and transcendent Absolutes.  For Hegel the subjective mind or spirit created or evolved into the objective mind or spirit that manifested itself by creating a world that was external.  The dialectical of subjective and objective spirit produced the human spirit that was expressed through art, religion and philosophy. Hegel was determined to avoid debate and argument, often the basis of philosophy.  As opposed to putting forward different epistemological systems, Hegel thought that the role of philosophy was to explain the universe.   Rather than getting bogged down in debates over where knowledge could be located, in the realm of the Ideal (Plato) or the Material (Aristotle), Hegel retreated into abstractions, which were based upon the logical and reasonable method of deduction.

Hegel wrote in a deliberately obtuse manner in his major works, The Phenomenology of the Spirit, 1807, The Science of Logic (1813-16) and Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, 1817, refusing to make philosophy either easy or accessible.  He wanted to put philosophy on the same basis as the sciences as a new kind of truth reached through process of trial and error or thesis and antithesis, producing an agreement or synthesis, which is a resolution of conflicts. Science proceeded via this deductive manner from hypothesis to testing to theory.  The theory that resulted from the process of deduction would stand as a thesis until it was tested by a new antithesis.  Theories are never proven.   Theories are always in the process of being tested.  Borrowing deduction from  science, Hegel, like a scientist, sough the truth. The mind had to be always active and always evolving towards an ultimate goal.  Art was part of the mind’s journey towards the truth.

Being conscious means having a mind, but Hegel disagreed with Kant’s static philosophy and insisted that contemporary history had to be taken into account as it affected the mind.  Unlike Kant, Hegel located his philosophy in history.  Kant’s categories of the mind were static and ahistorical and immobilized by his architectonic system, but Hegel’s concept of the mind was dynamic and he considered the functions of the mind to be development, over time, or across history.  IF the mind is not independent of reality but is experiencing things or content, then the mind changes constantly, so that the self and the object are not distinct but dialectic and complementary structures within an experience.  In other words, there is no object without a self and no self without an object.  For Hegel, the Ultimate Truth is that consciousness is not substance but a prime metaphysical concept.

Hegel developed the Begriff or the notion or concept generated within content and reflects its uniqueness.  The mind creates culture and therefore, logically, the mind is not independent and can never get away from its other or content.  Hegel’s other major concept is Being, or experiencing content, meaning that the mind is always changing and shaping forms.  Hegel disliked the formalism of traditional rationalism, which forces content to conform to arbitrarily chosen concepts, ignoring mediating character of experience. Opposing Kant’s architectonic structure of categories, Hegel considered the Search for “truth” to be both a developmental and an empirical inquiry.  The mind is an inner force creating and shaping outer forms.

The result of Hegel’s challenges to Kant was several conclusions. First, truth was a historical or genetic approach, the evolution or necessary outcome of series of conflicts and corrections.  Second, Negation actually had the power to advance mind to higher levels.  And third, Experience “carries the process of its own dissolution within itself…” For Hegel, the   Self was a process of dissolution and the Spirit was our own experience, in other words, a living process.  Thus True Reality was the process of reinstating self-identity or the process of self’s becoming.  Reality was related to science, which is a process in its entirety or a total system of knowledge.  The result is the Whole or Reality itself, which is actual knowledge.  Paraphrasing Kant, Hegel remarked, “Content is nothing but the transformation of form into content, and form is nothing but the transformation of content into form…”

Truth, for Hegel was an historical approach, an evolution to particular stage, or a necessary outcome of series of conflicts and successive corrections of concrete universals or notions, which are contextual and more precise than abstract universals.  Thesis, antithesis and then synthesis—this is the “progress” of history.  These contradictions between thesis and antithesis are levels of consciousness.  According to Hegel, “The truth is the whole”, in other words, truth is realized in the form of system.  The idea that represents the absolute as spirit (Geist) is the total system of knowledge or reality itself.  “I” am transcended as well as “my object.”

Transcendence is the synthesis of idea and nature or Spirit.  Hegel did not allow for dualism and always sought synthesis or the absolute spirit.  Hegel put forward the concept of Weltgeist or a world spirit or the “universal mind.”  According to Hegel,  “Our epoch is a birth-time, and a period of transition.  The spirit of man has broken with the old order of things hitherto fore prevailing, and with old ways of thinking…”  The paradox in Hegel is the conflict between history itself, which is always pushing the human mind forward, from thesis to antithesis, and the ultimate goal with is abstract and beyond time.  It is here that beauty, the ultimate goal of art, can be found.

Read also “Kant and Reason” and “Friedrich Schiller” and “Hegel” and “Hegel and His Impact on Art and Aesthetics” and “Hegel and the Dialectical Method”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.


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