Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher, and a major figure in German Idealism. His historicist and idealist account of reality revolutionized European philosophy and was an important precursor to Continental philosophy and Marxism. (Credits: Wikipedia)
By: Nancy Pearcey
How has evolution shaped our view of humanity? We often hear that evolution is the key scientific prop for the philosophy of materialism, with its reduction of the human person to a complex biochemical machine.
But spiritualized versions of evolution have appeared as well — for example, in the philosophy of Hegel. In our own day, Hegel’s spiritual/cultural view of evolution has led to its own form of reductionism: the postmodern reduction of individuals to social groups based on race, class, and gender.
Hegel’s Evolutionary Deity
… Hegel called his pantheistic deity the Absolute Spirit or Universal Mind. And because it was the soul of the world, it was said to evolve along with the world.
What Hegel was offering was a spiritualized version of evolution. (Nietzsche even said that “without Hegel, there would have been no Darwin.”) The difference is that Hegel applied the concept of evolution not to biology but to the world of ideas. His claim was that all our ideas — law, morality, religion, art, political ideals — result from the gradual “actualization of the Universal Mind” over the course of history.
For many people, the law of historical progress functioned as a substitute for divine Providence. “When science seemed to take God out of the universe, men had to deify some natural force, like ‘evolution,’” explains Randall….
Hegel’s philosophy is a form of historicism, the doctrine that all ideas are products of historical forces — that what is “true” at one stage of history will give way to a higher truth at the next stage. In essence, Hegel surveyed all the conflicting philosophies and worldviews, all the competing religious claims, all the warring camps and cultures, and proposed to overcome the strife by treating each one as a partial and relative truth in the upward progression of Mind, the evolution of consciousness.
What is the logical flaw in historicism? It is self-refuting. The claim that every idea is a partial and relative truth must include its own claim. Like every other evolving idea, it is relative to its own moment in history, and therefore not true in any transhistorical sense. As philosopher John Passmore says, you cannot “maintain, as a timeless philosophical truth, that there are no timeless philosophical truths.”
Hegel avoided this devastating conclusion only by tacitly making an exception for himself. He wrote as though he alone was mysteriously able to rise above the evolutionary process — as though he alone was capable of an objective, timeless, complete view of the entire historical process….
Triumvirate of Race, Class, Gender
How did we get from Hegel to postmodernism? For Hegel, the real actor in history is not the individual but the Absolute Mind or Spirit, which expresses itself through a community’s laws, morality, language, social relationships, and so on. Hegel accepted Kant’s idealism in which the world is constituted by consciousness, but for him it was a collective consciousness. As one philosopher explains, the Absolute Mind creates the world “through the shared aspects of a culture, a society, and above all through a shared language.”
Indeed for Hegel, individuals do not even have original ideas of their own. Their thoughts are merely expressions of the Absolute Mind. In his words, individuals “are all the time the unconscious tools of the World Mind at work within them.”
Over time, Hegel’s pantheism was secularized and his Absolute Spirit was reduced to a metaphor — the spirit of the age, the Zeitgeist. (In German, Zeit means time or age; Geist means spirit.) What remained, however, was the idea that individuals are “unconscious tools” of the Zeitgeist. They are not producers of culture so much as products of a particular culture. Individuals are shaped by the communities they belong to, each with its own shared perspective, values, habits, language, and forms of life.
In our own day, this has led to the extreme conclusion that everyone’s ideas are merely social constructions stitched together by cultural forces. Individuals are little more than mouthpieces for communities based on race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual identity.
Truth has been redefined as a social construction: Every community has its own view of truth, based on its experience and perspective, which cannot be judged by anyone outside the community. One postmodern theologian makes the claim in these words: “There is no absolute truth: rather truth is relative to the community in which we participate.”
Postmodernism is thus a form of anti-realism, the doctrine that reality depends for its character and possibly even its existence on our minds. The term anti-realism was coined by Nietzsche to describe his own view, which he summed up in the slogan “There are no facts, only interpretations.” Or as one postmodern writer puts it, “Reality has now become a mere bunch of disparate and changing interpretations, a shifting loosely held coalition of points of view in continual debate with each other.”
Roots of Political Correctness
If reality has shattered into clashing interpretations, so has the concept of personal identity. Postmodernism says there is no unified self. Instead the self is simply the locus of the shifting points of view absorbed from various interpretive communities, each defining its own “truth”…
Postmodernism thus reduces individuals to puppets of social forces. The implication is that people hold certain ideas not because they have good reasons but because they are black or white, a man or a woman, Asian or Hispanic, or whatever.
This is radically dehumanizing. It implies that individuals are powerless to rise above the communities to which they belong. It is a form of reductionism that dissolves individual identity into group identity….
Postmodernism is leagues away from the materialism rampant in the science department, but it is equally dehumanizing. Materialism reduces humans to products of physical forces. Postmodernism reduces them to products of social forces.