Hegel, who was steeped in both Greek and German philosophy, accepted Kant’s assessment that dialectical reasoning led to contradictions, but he rejected the assumption that it was therefore an illusion. Instead, he took dialectical reason and the contradictions involved as the true form of reality and built his philosophy, from the ground up, into a sweeping new, dramatically reversed view of reality. With this new method, everything that before had been right now appeared wrong, and everything that had been wrong appeared right.

Hegel devised a philosophy that turned the world upside down. At a time when democracy was gaining respectability, he despised democracy and favored monarchy as the true state of freedom. At a time when people were hungry for peace and world harmony, he justified war. At a time when the generation following Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, etc., was trying to learn how to solve problems of power through parliamentary procedure, Hegel admired men like Caesar, Machiavelli, and Napoleon, who took power in their own hands and forced their will on the spirit of the world.

“These men are heroes and may justifiably contravene ordinary moral rules.”[27]

It was not Hegel’s brand of “situation ethics”, however, that brought him recognition. It was his theory of the dialectic that set Hegel apart, and made his philosophy the ground work of the most revolutionary movement that has ever beset mankind. Although the Hegelian Dialectic was influenced by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics and was given a vocabulary by Kant’s Critique, his logical theory of reason is something distinct and apart from older dialectical theories. His dialectic is a new idea of reason. He conceived of it as a “higher consciousness”,[28] a “new way of thinking”, “an elevation of the mind”[29] based on the rejection of the old-fashioned laws of thought, and the “old-fashioned”,[30] “dead bones”,[31] “static logic”[32] of traditional philosophy. It is Hegel’s Dialectic that is important for us to understand today. Other dialectical theories are of only historic interest compared to the influence of this revolutionary German professor.

Hegel’s whole philosophy stemmed from one idea. He believed he had discovered a new Logic. Just as Aristotle had brought a revolution to the world when he discovered the syllogism, so too, Hegel thought he was initiating another even more profound revolution by disclosing what he thought was a higher logic which he called the dialectic.

Hegel says in his preface to The Science of Logic (which is his major work) that he is doing something new.

“The fact that it has been necessary to make a completely fresh start with this science [the science of logic], the very nature of the subject matter and the absence of any previous works which might have been utilized for the projected reconstruction of logic, may be taken into account by fair-minded critics, even though a labour covering many years has been unable to give this effort a greater perfection. The essential point of view is that what is involved is an altogether new concept of scientific procedure.” (emphasis mine)[33]

Hegel says in his introduction,

“...the conceptions on which the Notion of logic has rested hitherto have in part already been discarded; and for the rest, it is time that they disappeared entirely and that this science were grasped from a higher standpoint and received a completely changed shape.” [34]

He states that this changed shape is the only true standpoint and in the future must always be the mode of treatment of logical reason.[35]

Kant had admired Aristotle’s logic as having given an exhaustive exposition of the formal rules of all thought.[36]  Hegel, however, disagrees with Kant and says,

“Now if logic has not undergone any change since Aristotle and in fact, Judging by modern compendiums of logic the changes frequently consist mainly in omissions then surely the conclusion which should be drawn is that it is all the more in need of a total reconstruction  for spirit, after its labours over two thousand years, must have attained to a higher consciousness about its thinking and about its own pure essential nature. . . In point of fact, the need for a reconstruction of logic has long been felt. In form and in content, as exhibited in the textbooks. it may be said to have fallen into  contempt. It is still dragged in, but more from a feeling  that one cannot dispense with logic altogether and because  the tradition of its importance still survives, rather than  from a conviction that such commonplace content and occupation with such empty forms is valuable and useful.” (emphasis mine)[37]

Hegel proposes a reconstruction of logic from a completely fresh start. From a “higher” standpoint and a “higher  consciousness” he designs to give logic a completely changed shape and to present an altogether new concept of scientific  procedure.

“Before these dead bones of logic can be quickened by spirit . . . , its method must be that which alone can enable it to be pure science.”[38]

This method is the “dialectical method”. Hegel maintains it is the only true method,

“I know that it is the only true method. This is self evident simply from the fact that it is not something distinct from its object and content, the dialectic which it possesses within itself, which is the mainspring of its advance. It is clear that no expositions can be accepted as scientifically valid which do not pursue the course of this method and do not conform to its simple rhythm, for this is the course of the subject matter itself.”[39]

Only those who understand that Hegel is talking about a completely New Way Of Thinking can ever begin to grasp what Hegel intends or understand the fervor of those who follow his method. The ordinary, common sense method of thinking in terms of clear concepts, judicious judgments, true facts, sound principles, and validly deduced conclusions is rejected by Hegel.[40] His method is, instead, one of grasping opposites in their unity, the positive in the negative. It is a movement of truth in spirit and as such cannot be defined or stated in propositions. It can only be grasped in its whole and cannot be summarized. Any attempt to explain the Hegelian dialectical method distorts it. What his dialectic is cannot be stated beforehand, but emerges as the final outcome and consummation of the total course of exposition.[41]

Unfortunately, the total course of exposition is a long, tedious course. Many years of study are required just to master Hegel’s vocabulary, many more to begin to guess what he is saying. The result is an esoteric philosophy that, for masses of people, is abstruse in the extreme. Understanding the New Dialectic belongs only to a small elite circle initiated to the mysteries, This elite circle consists of those who think they understand him or can effectively pretend they do. Strangely enough, this secret, enshrouded aspect of the new dialectic affords its strongest appeal. If it is the method of science and the method of reason and the method of understanding history, and only a few comprehend it, then these few are, therefore, very special people. Since they are the only ones who understand, they have a special right that others do not possess. In this manner the New Dialectic seems to select its own “chosen ones” to guide mankind to its realization. The New Dialectic, like Plato’s dialectic, is a means of salvation and a religion.

Hegel’s dialectic, as he meant it in its totality, is impossible to summarize. However, to evaluate his influence some summarization is needed, and, for this purpose what Hegel actually meant in his true inner heart is not as important as what others thought he meant. Very few accept him “as is” anyway. It is from interpretations, reinterpretations, and reconstructions that Hegel’s powerful influence has stemmed. From this source certain characteristics stand out. These features characterize the new dialectic a new meaning and are fundamental in understanding how the term is coming more and more to be used in the modern context.


The most important aspect of Hegel’s Dialectic is the attitude toward contradiction and conflict. Dr. Robert Tucker, believed that Hegel meant by dialectic the pattern of mechanism or development through inner conflict. He said,

“So Hegel asserts, in explaining his dialectical idea, that contradiction is the very moving principle of the world.”[42]

Herbert Marcuse says in Reason and Revolution,

“The ‘spirit of contradicting’ is the propulsive force of Hegel’s dialectic method.”[43]

Will Durant says in writing about Hegel,

“Such a philosophy of history seems to lead to revolutionary conclusions. The dialectical process makes change the cardinal principle of life  no condition is permanent  in every stage of things there is a contradiction which only the strife of opposites can resolve.”[44]

If there is an inner contradiction within things that forces progress, then contradiction in logic is not a fault to be avoided but becomes a step to a higher synthesis. Henry D. Aiken says of Hegel in The Age of Ideology,

“It will perhaps not come as a shock to the reader to learn, after all this, that Hegel is frequently charged with contradicting himself at every turn. No doubt he does, but he can at least claim the quality of his defects. For him, contradiction is not a sign of intellectual incoherence, but rather of creativity and insight.”[45]


“Negativity” is another important feature of the Hegelian dialectic. Hegel argues that it is through negativity more than any other factor that the dialectic can be translated into action. Herbert Marcuse says in his preface to Reason and Revolution,

“This book was written in the hope that it would make a small contribution to the revival, not of Hegel, but of a mental faculty which is in danger of being obliterated:  the power of negative thinking. As Hegel defines it:  ‘Thinking is, indeed, essentially the negation of that which is immediately before us.”’[46]  Marcuse says later, returning to this theme, “Hegel’s philosophy is indeed what the subsequent reaction termed it, a negative philosophy. It is originally motivated by the conviction that the given facts that appear to common sense as the positive index of truth are in reality the negation of truth, so that truth can only be established by their destruction. The driving force of the dialectical method lies in this critical conviction.”[47]

“The realization of reason is not a fact, but a task. The birth of truth requires the death of the given state of affairs.”[48]

Appreciating the The Negative is critical to the New Dialectic. The Negative berates the existing state of affairs and seeks to break down the habits of common sense thought. The New Dialecticians enjoy dumping heavy sarcasm and ridicule on their enemy. Their purpose is to demolish existing thought, not to speak truth, which is always yet to come. What the traditional thinker might interpret as slander, the negative thinker justifies as a necessary dialectical tactic. Negative criticism is a necessary stage in man’s realization of himself.

Subject and Object; Alienation

The third feature important in understanding the Hegelian influence on modern dialectics is the unity of subject and object. This is expressed in many ways. One interpretation is that the laws of thought and the laws of being are the same.

“Thought and being follow the same law.”[49]

“The movement of thought, then, is the same as the movement of being.”[50]

The third “law” states that the same laws that apply to nature also apply to logic. All reality follows the same law. A division between subject and predicate such as is found in the propositions of traditional logic is a false division. The abstractions of traditional logic again separate subject from object, theory from practice, and lead to alienation of man from nature, man from society, man from himself. These alienations must be crushed by overcoming the false duality imposed by traditional modes of thinking. These dualities include: 1. old definitions of man as a “rational animal”; 2. those old dualities that divided human nature into “body” and “soul” or “matter” and “spirit”; 3. theories that present human nature as distinct and separate from the nature of God. The realization of reason implies the overcoming of these alienations.

Although dialectic based on the Hegelian scheme puts great emphasis on the power of contradiction in the rhythm of the dialectic, the contradiction does not remain but is the force that leads to eventual synthesis and unity. The dualisms of traditional thinking become one of their prime targets. The language of logic should be similar in structure to that of the world. The real is rational and the rational is real.

These three features, contradiction, negativity, and unity of subject and object, distilled from the Hegelian logic, have given a new meaning to the term dialectic. It is a new dialectic, a new way of thinking and reasoning, a “new consciousness”. There is a sense in which it could be said that it stems from the older meanings, but the new dialectic should not be confused with ancient or medieval uses of the term dialectic, because in new dialectic “reason” does not seek to avoid contradiction, but embraces contradiction, as a means to ultimate synthesis.

After Hegel, the new dialectic wrought a profound influence on philosophy. Hegelian movements sprang up everywhere. Even in the United States, after the Civil War, a Philosophical Society was founded in 1866 to study Hegel and to apply his teachings to the emerging mass society and urban culture. One of the founders of this society, William Torrey Harris, became the first United States Commissioner of Education in 1889 and helped start the Journal of Speculative Philosophy published by this society was the most important philosophical journal in the U.S.A. for many years.[51]  John Dewey, who is often called the leading philosopher of the United States, was a Hegelian as a young man and his system of logic, although more positive in tone, was definitely influenced by Hegel’s dialectic and by Hegel’s intense dislike of traditional logic.

The influence of the new dialectic in the United States up until the 1960’s, although important, was minor compared with its prestige in Europe. In Europe, almost no one accepted the whole of Hegel’s philosophy. However, his dialectical vocabulary, his themes, his tactics, and the three schemes (mentioned above) set the stage for much subsequent European philosophy and for the history consequent on those philosophies. The negative attitude of Nietzsche, the super race of the Nazis, and the irrationalism of the Existentialists, all have roots in Hegel’s reinterpretation of logic.

Part of Hegel’s influence came simply from reaction. He wrote on logic and was referred to as a rationalist. Many who were appalled at his metaphysical obscurity, turned against all logic and all rationalism. Following the peak of Hegel’s popularity there was a wave of anti-rationalism that can still be felt. Many who now reject traditional logic cite Hegel as an example of traditional logic. Many who currently reject reason and the idea of rational improvement present Hegel as if he represented those attributes. Sometimes Hegel is given as an example of traditional logic. Hegel would love this inversion. He would see it as an example of things turning into their opposite.

The most far reaching influence of Hegel’s dialectic, however, burst forth from a group of German students who became, for a while, Hegel’s devoted followers and who are referred to as The Young Hegelians. All their energies seemed to concentrate in one person, “Hegel’s most passionate disciple”[52], a student named Karl Marx.

“For young Marx, as for all youthful Hegelians, Hegel’s philosophy was the promise of the fulfillment of the Faustian dream of ‘Divine Wisdom”’.[53]