“thesis, antithesis, synthesis”
Peter Benson explains why Hegel was obsessed with the number three.
One of the best known popularizers of philosophy in Britain is Bryan Magee. Many people will fondly recall his illuminating series of interviews with philosophers for radio and television. So his lavishly illustrated book The Story of Philosophy (Dorling Kindersley, 2001) will attract many readers eager to learn more about the subject. Nor will they be disappointed, for it contains a wealth of information and useful summaries of philosophical ideas.
Nevertheless, I want to draw attention to a significant error in his chapter on Hegel (admittedly a notoriously difficult philosopher). The error is important because it represents a widespread misunderstanding of Hegel’s thought. Quite rightly, Magee emphasizes that, for Hegel, “everything — ideas, religion, the arts, the sciences, the economy, institutions, society itself — is always changing.” But he then goes on to say that Hegel “produced a vocabulary to describe [this process]. The process as a whole he called the dialectical process, or just the dialectic, and he analysed it as made up of three main stages …. thesis, antithesis, synthesis.”
This supposed ‘fact’ about Hegel’s philosophy continues to be frequently repeated in text-books and popular accounts of his ideas. Yet Hegel himself never used the words ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’ to characterize the dialectical process. It’s true that the word ‘antithesis’ occasionally appears in his writings. But I have never found any passage anywhere in his voluminous works where the third stage of a dialectic is referred to as a ‘synthesis’.
The use of these three words originates in a book about Hegel published shortly after his death (when he was no longer around to criticize it). The terminology was used again, greatly increasing its influence, in an 1847 book by a young philosopher named Karl Marx (I wonder whatever happened to him?)
If read carefully, Marx’s account of Hegel’s philosophy is fairly accurate. But his use of the word ‘synthesis’ has subsequently led to grave misunderstandings. Magee typifies this erroneous view when he writes, “because the synthesis is a new situation it contains new conflicts, and therefore becomes the beginning of a new triad of thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” Not surprisingly, statements like this have puzzled people and contributed to the exaggerated air of mystery surrounding Hegel’s thought. Are these new conflicts supposed to exist within the synthesis? (And if so, why are they different from the original conflicts out of which it was formed?) Or does the synthesis constitute a new thesis, over against which its equal and opposite antithesis must be formed? Both interpretations suggest a process which would carry on indefinitely, a waltz rhythm of:
|1, 2, 3,|
|1, 2, 3,|
|1, 2, 3,|
|…….to all eternity.|
If this is, indeed, a false and misleading interpretation of Hegel, how can we get a better idea of what he meant by ‘dialectic’, so that we can assess his philosophy more accurately?
Triads and Pyramids
First of all, it can’t be denied that Hegel was obsessed with dividing everything into threes. You don’t even need actually to read his books to recognize this — you only need to look at their contents pages. Each is divided into three sections, and each of those sections is further divided into three subsections, which themselves are often divided into three sub-sub-sections. Even individual paragraphs (sometimes even individual sentences) frequently have three distinct parts. Why this obsession with the number 3? Did Hegel believe (as many people have) that there is a mystic meaning to this numeral?
Hegel wasn’t in fact a mystic (at least, not in that sense). He didn’t believe in mysteries at all. On the contrary, he thought that absolutely everything, ultimately, could be explained. And his own philosophy would provide the groundwork for this complete explanation (which he called ‘Absolute Knowledge’). This is an ambition somewhat similar to the ‘theories of everything’ sought by modern physicists. It doesn’t mean that one knows absolutely everything, only that one has a general underlying framework for all such knowledge.
Hegel set out his philosophy most fully in his Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences which, needless to say, has 3 volumes. The first is on Logic; the second is on Nature; and the third is on Spirit (which includes everything to do with human life). The whole work is constructed in Hegel’s dialectical manner, subdivided into smaller and smaller triads. And this demonstrates that Hegel’s dialectic is not an endless waltz. It is notformed like this:
Instead, Hegel’s dialectic is formed like this:
The dialectic forms a pyramid. The various sub-categories can be sub-divided further and further and further. But at the top everything converges on a single A (standing here for ‘Absolute Knowledge’). This Absolute Knowledge divides into its three aspects: I Logic; II Nature; III Spirit. And each of these is divided into further triads of sub-categories.
Of course none of us, not even Hegel, start our investigations from a position of Absolute Knowledge. That is, rather, where we hope to end up. Each little area of knowledge has to be slowly acquired over the course of our lives, and over the long laborious course of human history. According to Hegel, history also has a dialectical structure. Essentially, it is the process of starting way down on the pyramid, and making our way, with plodding effort, towards the top. History is not just a random succession of events. Its pattern arises partly because we can learn from the past, preventing ourselves from repeating it. Our growing knowledge is not just an aggregate accumulation of separate facts. At certain crucial turning points, our insight can rise to a new level of awareness, taking a step up the pyramid. This doesn’t happen by synthesizing everything we know, but rather by exhausting all of the possibilities at one level, so that we are forced to seek a completely new perspective. Having tried every available avenue, and found them all wanting, we are compelled into forming a new view of our world, to get us out of the maze we have been trapped in. Of course, after a brief period of euphoria, we find we are only in a new, and perhaps even darker maze. It is no wonder that Hegel calls the process “a highway of despair”. Only desperation and failure push our feet further forward.
The place where each of us starts on this journey depends on the historical period into which we happen to be born. Hegel himself was born in 1770, the same year as William Wordsworth. Both, in their youth, experienced the great excitement generated throughout Europe by the events of the French Revolution. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth. But it was a bliss that didn’t last. Hegel wrote about the French Revolution in his Phenomenology of Spirit in a chapter with the striking title ‘Absolute Freedom and Terror’. It was not enough, for Hegel, to bemoan the way that things had gone wrong, as if they might have followed a preferable path. In retrospect, it became possible to see such a descent into Terror as an inevitable consequence of the breakdown in stable social structures occasioned by the Revolution. Nevertheless, that breakdown itself was a necessary effect of the conflicts within the previous state of French society. The freedom that briefly erupted was not completely illusory, but new social structures would be needed to accommodate the legitimate demands of freedom. It should be obvious, however, that the next step could hardly be a synthesis of Freedom and Terror (containing, presumably, the ‘best’ parts of each)!
In fact, the next step in this historical dialectic took an unexpected turn. Paradoxically, individual freedom was best consolidated and developed (at this particular historical juncture) under a dictatorship (that of Napoleon). Such paradoxical results of historical dilemmas are the frequent focus of Hegel’s reflections.
Following this journey through Freedom, Terror, and Dictatorship, Europe entered a completely new phase of history, one dominated by the political philosophy of Liberalism and the pursuit of the Universal Rights of Man as first declared by the Revolutionaries in France. Liberal societies are marked by a striking and continuing conflict between the demand for individual rights and the need for social cohesion. “This collision, this problem is that with which history is now occupied,” wrote Hegel (in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History), “and whose solution it has to work out in the future.”
So he did not believe that liberalism was a final ‘end of history’ (a view often wrongly attributed to him by more recent thinkers such as Kojève and Fukuyama). More significantly, from Hegel’s viewpoint, liberalism allowed for the dissemination of a new form of ethical thinking which placed individual choice at its centre. At a higher level of Hegel’s system from that of the sequential events of political history, there is a slow transition between different forms of ethical thought. And this whole level (of ethics) forms only one component of the even higher level which he calls Geist (‘Spirit’).
Hegel’s account of the twists and turns of history, set out most eloquently in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, has proved endlessly fascinating to subsequent thinkers. But this has sometimes led to the mistaken belief that all of his thought is fundamentally a philosophy of history. It would be more true to say that this is only one aspect or, rather, one perspective view of the vast multi-levelled edifice of Hegel’s philosophy.
Triangles and the Trinity
It is possible to view Hegel’s system of thought from (at least) two directions. On the one hand, we can follow the process whereby, via alternating error and insight, the slow progress of humanity ascends towards Absolute Knowledge. This is the story Hegel tells in his Phenomenology of Spirit. On the other hand, we could start from the complete totality of everything, the Absolute itself, and show how this can be divided up into smaller and smaller aspects, until every different domain of the world, and of human life, reveals its place within the whole. This is the system as set out in Hegel’s Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences.
The first journey (the upward progress) is only propelled forward because, at each stage, dissatisfied humanity finds it has not arrived at the complete, coherent and consistent truth. For Hegel, complete truth can only be found in the whole, not the part, and in the way that each part has its assigned place within this whole. The ‘whole’ (which we might also call ‘Totality’ or ‘Absolute’) contains not only all substance (all ‘things’) but also subjectivity, which is equally a part of reality. And this ‘whole’ is, for Hegel, a unity. It is in fact (as Hegel states on many occasions) God, as the self-consciousness of the universe.
Hegel’s view of God is somewhat unorthodox, and his view of the relation of the individual human being to God is even more unorthodox. Nevertheless, he persistently insisted that he was a Christian, and that, among all the religions that have evolved historically on earth, Christianity was the most complete expression of truth. Out of all the various dogmas of the Christian Church, however, there is only one that figures prominently in Hegel’s discussions: the dogma of the Trinity — i.e. that there are three persons (Father, Son, and Spirit) within the single being of God.
So, if we look at Hegel’s system from the top downwards, starting with the totality and seeing how everything is contained within it, we can see more clearly the source of the tripartite divisions into which it repeatedly divides. The original triad, from which all the others can be derived, is formed by the three persons of one God. To get a grasp on Hegel’s dialectic, it is far more helpful to think in terms of Father, Son and Spirit, than to worry about the quasi-logical terms Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.
Does this mean that Hegel’s system ultimately has its foundation in Christian faith, and is of no relevance to unbelievers? Not at all. Hegel thought that his philosophy would replace faith with knowledge. The trinitarian structure of God was not to be taken on trust, but was revealed by the triadic structure of the world and of experience. Hegel’s dialectic is not the repeated application of a logical formula (Thesis; Negation of Thesis; Negation of the Negation; etc.). On the contrary, each of the triads that appears in Hegel’s work is discovered anew, through the specificities of each situation, following no path known in advance. But gradually they reveal a congruence with the three aspects of God as elucidated in Christian theology.
The doctrine of the Trinity was first expounded at length by St Augustine in his treatise De Trinitate, written around 400 A.D. This has been the basis for all subsequent discussions of the topic. (Thomas Aquinas, for example, relies heavily on Augustine.) Anticipating Hegel, Augustine found 22 different examples of triads in the cosmos and within the human being, which are analogous to the divine Trinity. The most important of these, in the human realm, is Mind, Knowledge, and Love.
This closely parallels Hegel’s principal division of his system into Logic, Nature, and Spirit. Hegel’s Logic is not (and was never intended to be) a set of principles of deductive reasoning like those of Aristotle. It is, rather, a systematic array of concepts, before those concepts are instantiated by particular things. As Hegel put it, only half-metaphorically, the content of his Logic is “the exposition of God as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of nature and a finite mind.” Logic can therefore be aligned with God the Father: the ‘creative principle’, according to Augustine.
Nature is the created world, of which we can have knowledge. It is the world in which, in the famous words of St John’s Gospel, the Word (i.e. the concept) becomes flesh (i.e. concrete and particular). In the incarnation of Christ the universal (God) becomes particular (a single human being). Similarly, Hegel’sPhilosophy of Nature shows how the array of universal concepts from the Logic guide (without determining) the scientific search for specific knowledge of facts.
The third part of Hegel’s system is the Philosophy of Spirit. The word ‘Spirit’ (Geist in German) is used by Hegel in a very specific sense which is at the core of his philosophy. Spirit, for Hegel, always involves relation. An isolated individual might be a consciousness, but only in relating with others can the level of Spirit (higher than that of mere consciousness) be reached. This is the level which includes all the phenomena of art, religion, and society.
The parallel with Augustine’s exposition of the Trinity is particularly striking here. In Book 15 of his treatise, Augustine writes “If the love whereby the Father loves the Son, and the Son the Father, reveals in an ineffable manner the union between both, what more fitting than that He, who is the Spirit, common to both, should be properly called love?” So the Holy Spirit is not so much a separate being (that vague and symbolic dove that appears in Renaissance paintings) but the embodiment of the love between the Father and the Son. There is the Father, the Son, and also the relation (of love) between them, which is Spirit (exactly as Hegel understands the word).
I can only give a very brief indication of the relevance of all this to Hegel’s philosophy as a whole. But it is worth considering the very first chapter of The Phenomenology of Spirit, one of the most widely discussed and persistently relevant sections of Hegel’s work, in which he gives a critique of empiricist attempts to ground truth in the unquestionability of sense data. The details of his discussion are well worth reading because the ideas he is criticizing remain widely influential today. But it is also worth looking at the structure of the chapter as a whole. First (paras. 94-99) Hegel considers the view that we have immediate knowledge of the object of our sense perceptions. Then (paras. 100-102), when this proves to be delusory, he considers the possibility that at least we have certainty of ourselves as the subjects of experience.Finally (paras. 103-110) he considers the view that the relation between subject and object must be an undoubted certainty.
At a pinch, we could call these three Positions the thesis, antithesis and synthesis. But the third position is not a combination of the first two, but a focus on the relation between them. It is therefore (at a lowly level) analogous to the Hegelian relational category of ‘Spirit’. And, far from resolving the conflict, the ‘synthesis’ proves just as unsatisfactory as the previous approaches, forcing the thinker to reconsider the whole way of posing the problem, using a new set of concepts which will move the discussion to a higher level and create the second triad in the book’s structured progress. And the third term of the first triad isnot the first term of the second triad, which is already posed within the new conceptual schema.
As the Phenomenology ascends through a bewildering and fascinating maze of themes, involving philosophy, history and literature, it is easy to lose one’s bearings. Remembering that the Christian Trinity provides the underlying model for the Hegelian dialectic will help us to find our way through its notoriously convoluted twists and turns.
© Peter Benson 2003
Peter Benson has been a participant for several years in the seminars on Hegel run by Pamela Jencks at Birkbeck College, London.