Knowledge and Freedom in Hegel

Another of the most important emancipation narratives in Western philosophy is found in Hegel. Like Plato, Hegel thinks that human beings achieve their freedom through the exercise of reason. Yet Hegel’s narrative differs in important ways from Plato’s. Chief among the differences is that Hegel historicizes our thinking and makes the achievement of truth a collective process that occurs over the course of history.

For this narrative, like Plato’s, some of these most general characteristics of it are worth continuing to reflect upon, even though most will find much to disagree with in the details of Hegel’s philosophy. (I will highlight some details of the Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic in a revised post). For an overview of some of issues related to this in Hegel, it is worth looking at Axel Honneth’s The Struggle for Recognition.

Though Hegel was ultimately a proponent of constitutional Monarchy, the general features of Hegel’s understanding that humans are collectively becoming freer inspired Marx’s own view of how human emancipation was being achieved over history, even though Marx ends up somewhere radically different from Hegel, affirming anarchist communism as the endpoint of history. While there are some structural broad similarities in Hegel’s and Marx’s arguments, Marx does not primarily focus on the philosophical issue of knowledge making us free. A position like that might be culled from his texts, but his main point is that increasing numbers of people gain freedom and better lives over the course of history. This fits into an economic and philosophical theory in complex and fascinating ways.

Hegel and Marx for their part in any case have inspired various recent understandings of social evolution, from views of diverse Orthodox Communists, to positions more amenable to and supportive of Western constitutional democracies such as we find in Juergen Habermas. Habermas does relate social evolution to an increase in learning throughout history in a more direct way than Marx. In his view, humans are a species that learn in reference to diverse interests (or in reference to communicative capacities) and that as we learn more we become freer. Axel Honneth, whose article on Hegel’s philosophy is linked above also develops a view with some parallels to this, but with a focus, like Hegel’s view, on the concept of “recognition.” Habermas and Honneth are critical theorists, individuals identified with a Neo-Hegelian inspired social theory of considerable importance in 20th and 21st century political thought. They, like various other critical theorists, do accept a narrative that there is an increase in freedom throughout our history, also as we move toward greater political and economic equality in societies. But both of them do this from a perspective that eschews (or tries to demystify) the logo-mysticism generally associated with Hegel’s view.

An alternative Neo-Hegelian social evolutionary position to that of Habermas and Honneth is that of Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist at George Mason University, who in The End of History and the Last Man has argued that there is progress in history toward forms of government that are democratic and (in his view probably) capitalistic —  albeit, as his recent work shows, of a less laissez-faire variety than some would want, though still of a more laissez-faire variety than others would. The linked review of Fukuyama’s work might be useful. For his part, Fukuyama doesn’t so explicitly relate this to the idea that we gain greater truth through history. As a political scientist, he is not driven so much by this philosophical question.

My purpose here is not to point out the details of these various accounts. Doing justice to that project would require a book length project. My point in bringing up these narratives here is to invite reflection on how knowledge contributes to human freedom. In these Western narratives the tendency is to associate the kind of knowledge that does contribute to freedom as involving discursive reasoning. The social evolutionary views of Hegel, Habermas and Honneth do this in some explicit way. Some other social evolutionary thinkers link this especially with the growth of knowledge through science.

This main tendency to relate freedom and truth in the West does have considerable differences from Buddhist or Taoist views of how we achieve truth. The Western views tend to focus on the importance of rationality in this process in a way the Eastern views mentioned in early posts do not.



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