Book Summaries

Hegel (A History of Western Philosophy)

Hegel was one of the most influential philosophers in history. In addition to Protestants and philosophers, Marx borrowed ideas from Hegel. But Russell thinks that Hegel’s doctrines are false.

The Law of Non-Contradiction

Hegel asserted that the rational is real and the real is rational, “the nature of Reality can be deduced from the sole consideration that it must be not self-contradictory.” But this is different from the empiricist definition of ‘real’. The empiricist uses senses to understand one objective part of reality, but it is only one part, and thus it cannot be rational. Only the “whole” can be “rational” and the “real.”

Any description of reality is self-contradictory, because when you say something specific about it, you leave out an infinite number of things. When you describe only a part of reality, your description will be incomplete, and thus, the truth of what you are saying is only partial.

The Dialectic

Hegel’s dialectic is essential to understanding the world. In fact, there are only two ways of knowing the world. Through logic (ex: the law of noncontradiction) or the dialectic.

First, he presents the thesis that “the Absolute is Pure Being,” but an absolute without qualities is nothing. This requires an antithesis that “the Absolute is Nothing.” These two are then synthesized in the union of being and nonbeing, which is “becoming.” Thus the synthesis is “the Absolute is Becoming.” But the absolute cannot be nothing, so another iteration is made, and so on. The dialectic is the process by which we achieve truth.

This illustration might also be used to illustrate the dialectic, which consists of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. First we say: ‘Reality is an uncle.’ This is the thesis. But the existence of an uncle implies that of a nephew. Since nothing really exists except the Absolute, and we are now committed to the existence of a nephew, we must conclude: ‘The Absolute is a nephew.’ This is the antithesis. But there is the same objection to this as to the view that the Absolute is an uncle; therefore we are driven to the view that the Absolute is the whole composed of uncle and nephew. This is the synthesis. But this synthesis is still unsatisfactory, because a man can be an uncle only if he has a brother or sister who is a parent of the nephew. Hence we are driven to enlarge our universe to include the brother or sister, with his wife or her husband. In this sort of way, so it is contended, we can be driven on, by the mere force of logic, from any suggested predicate of the Absolute to the final conclusion of the dialectic, which is called the ‘Absolute Idea’. Throughout the whole process, there is an underlying assumption that nothing can be really true unless it is about Reality as a whole. For this underlying assumption there is a basis in traditional logic, which assumes that every proposition has a subject and a predicate.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

For example, consider the debate between liberals and conservatives. The liberal point of view is more open to new ideas, inclusive, and experimental. The conservative view is closed-minded, exclusive, and traditional. Each side views the other side as wrong. The liberal thinks that the conservative is an idiot, and the conservative thinks that the liberal is an idiot.

But under Hegel’s philosophy, it would not make sense to say that either is rational. Both philosophies are necessary for the existence of the whole. It is the struggle itself that gives rise to new forms of order. Which new forms of order and organization and to what end?

Another example: Our sense perception allows us to know about external things (ex: blue chairs) which are objective truths. But more careful thinking (the antithesis) makes us realize that our perceptions of these external objects (blue chairs) are, in fact, subjective. The synthesis leads to the conclusion that self-consciousness is the highest form of knowledge because there is nothing anyone can know outside of themselves.


We must first start with the individual. According to Hegel, the essence of the spirit of freedom. A whole society is constantly trying to become free, and throughout time it has succeeded. Societies used to own slaves, and then they became feudal, and then they became free. This suggests that the forces of history are not random, that they are moving humanity towards the point of ultimate freedom. But this freedom cannot exist without law, it cannot come about through barbarism or anarchy – this underlies Hegel’s veneration of the state.

But Russell is critical of such a conclusion, and for good reason. It is easy to see how the glorification of the state can come at the expense of the individual and how leaders can use such a philosophy to abuse their power. Russell is also critical of Hegel’s assertion of the truth of the “whole” because it suggests that whatever is, is right. This is quite a passive and defeatist philosophy. It is as if there is never any room for progress because everything is as it should be. People go to war because it is good for them, states are despotic because they want to preserve the peace.

And Russell points out an inconsistency in Hegel’s philosophy, noting that if the latter believes that the whole is always greater than the parts, why he does not think that a super-state (a single state governing the world) should exist instead of multiple warring states, why does Hegel glorify war?

Hegel does not mean only that, in some situations, a nation cannot rightly avoid going to war. He means much more than this. He is opposed to the creation of institutions—such as a world government—which would prevent such situations from arising, because he thinks it a good thing that there should be wars from time to time. War, he says, is the condition in which we take seriously the vanity of temporal goods and things. (This view is to be contrasted with the opposite theory, that all wars have economic causes.) War has a positive moral value. ‘War has the higher significance that through it the moral health of peoples is preserved in their indifference towards the stabilizing of finite determinations.’ Peace is ossification; the Holy Alliance, and Kant’s League for Peace, are mistaken, because a family of States needs an enemy.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

In the final sentence of the chapter, Russell takes a final hit at Hegel when he criticizes the basic foundation of Hegel’s philosophy (that if you knew enough properties about something, you can deduce other relational properties), “Hegel thought that, if enough was known about a thing to distinguish it from all other things, then all its properties could be inferred by logic. This was a mistake, and from this mistake arose the whole imposing edifice of his system. This illustrates an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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