Friday, May 16, 2014

The Hegelian Dialectic

This piece was written by Notre Dame freshman Alex Ehler and originally published as an article in Common Sense on April 23, 2014.

Racial equality; women’s suffrage; worker’s rights; marriage equality; reproductive rights; all of these were and are hotly contested issues within and outside of the United States. Some of these issues have become prominent within the past decade, while others have long been put to rest, with many now considering it taboo to discuss them.

Why is it that we no longer permit institutionalized slavery? Why is it that we extended suffrage to women in the United States? To ignore these questions or to simply explain that our ancestors “did the right thing” is insufficient. We must examine the dynamics of past debates, and we must analyze trends.

With regard to social issues, seldom do we observe a conservative force “winning out” in the long run. Most today acknowledge and appreciate this—if they do not, they are “backwards, racist, sexist, etc.”

Why are issues that were so evenly split in the political arenas of ages past now considered common sense? Why aren’t the pros and cons of race-based slavery still discussed today? To be clear, I find the practice of slavery to be, of course, abhorrent. German writer and philosopher Georg Hegel offers a springboard to answer these questions.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is the father of the aptly named Hegelian Dialectic. Dialectic, derived from the Greek dialegesthai—to converse with—is defined per Merriam-Webster as “discussion and reasoning by a dialogue as a method of intellectual investigation.” What makes the Hegelian Dialectic unique is its accurate account and explanation of the dialogue between liberals and conservatives—understood beyond the American and modern ideologies of “liberal” and “conservative,” as the theory is meant to transcend any one time and place.

The Hegelian Dialectic argues the following: when conflicts arise, opposing opinions or ways of thinking come to be. In other words, when a political issue becomes prominent, typically two large camps form with opposing solutions to the problem.

Today, social issues that serve as examples of such a conflict would be marriage equality and reproductive rights. The two forces aiming to come out the victor are Thesis—conservative force—and Antithesis—liberal force.

The Thesis stands for previously accepted modes of thinking and systems of belief, while the Antithesis is representative of the response or opposition to these accepted values. Seldom, if ever, Hegel argues, does one side definitively win the conflict. Rather, a fusion of the two previous opinions—a Synthesis—emerges.
The Synthesis, as one can expect, embodies values of both the Thesis and Antithesis. Within time, this Synthesis evolves into the new Thesis, the old way of thinking, and is challenged again by a new Antithesis, and so continues the dialogue between the forces—the dialectic.

What are the implications of what Hegel has astutely told us? One of the most empowering is that each and every one of us has a part to play in the dialectic that we, too, are a part of. With which side do we find ourselves sympathetic? From  issue to issue, perhaps we will vary between Thesis and Antithesis, conservative and liberal. I know I do—a fiscally conservative, socially moderate-liberal agnostic is sure to find him or herself on both sides of the various debates from time to time.

Beyond instilling within us a sense of power and purpose, Hegel also warns us to never, either as liberals or conservatives, set our hopes too high, as neither side is fully satisfied after the proverbial battle. Conservatives will incessantly see their preferred beliefs falling around them, while liberals will always be left wanting more for their cause.

There exists, however, one consolation for social liberals: time. If the Hegelian Dialectic continues, as it has done for centuries and maybe more, the dialogue is always shifting towards the “left” overall—never do we move backwards. Never has a prosperous society become more socially conservative and continued to be prosperous on a long-term scale. To refer to the previously-used example of American slavery, abolitionists never were able to see and realize their true dream of racial equality, but their efforts did achieve it in the long run in terms of the law and constitution.

Progress still needs to be made, to be sure, but William Lloyd Garrison would surely be proud of all the progress that we as Americans have made. Will we see full, 100 percent marriage equality in our lifetime? Perhaps we will, perhaps not. But  if social liberals continue to fight for equality in this arena, it will be so—maybe not for us, but for our children or children’s children.

This is not to say or to mean that individuals have no power to change the future or that the world we live in is a determinist one. Indeed, Hegel tells us quite the opposite: we all play an integral role in the dialectic, the dialogue, and every individual voice is of paramount importance in fostering development of both the dialogue as a whole as well as our societies.

Georg Hegel, with no knowledge of 21st Century American politics, has nonetheless taught social liberals that they have the power to fight for the future, and that history has a liberal bias.

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