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Hegel and Marx on Dialectic

Barbara Goodrich, Ph.D.


Hegel's notion of Dialectic

Various Examples of Dialectic

The Example of the Family, Civil Society, and State

Marx's version of the Family, Civil Society, and the State in Capitalism

Hegel's notion of Dialectic

Hegel noticed that many things develop, not linearly, but in a certain complex pattern.   As babies grow, they don't just continuously add weight, height, and vocabulary (say, 5 pounds, 4 inches, a hundred words, and 5% of adult self-consciousness and self-discipline per year).    And it's not just that it occurs in spurts.  

Instead, children develop some of their most important characteristics by stages of reorganization.   (Biologists agree.  In fetal development and in the first few years, neurons and neuronal connections multiply rapidly.   But then many of the connections are "pruned," and some of the remaining connections are strengthened, as the brain sculpts itself according to its own experiences!  Incidentally, this is one reason why simplistic genetic determinism just won't work.)  

Psychologically, children develop in interactions with others.   Paradoxically, children achieve individuality and freedom not by being isolated, but by interacting with other people in progressively more complex and mature ways. 

Hegel thought of this in terms of a series of stages ( or "moments") of conflict and resolution, conflict and resolution.   Here's the abstract version:

  • The first stage or moment, called the thesis (pronounced thEEE-sis) will inevitably be one-sided or inconsistent in some way.   (It may contain "inherent contradictions" which, while stressful, can ultimately be a source for creation.)  Because of this, it'll tend to give rise to its opposite, to try to balance things out.    (Or, e.g., a backlash.)
  • The antithesis (pronounced An-TITH-uh-sis) is this opposite, which seeks to "negate" the thesis, conflicting with it.   (If we want to emphasize how much the antithesis will change the thesis, we can say that the imbalanced thesis "contains the seeds of its own destruction."   It won't really be destroyed, though, just transformed.)
  • These two are resolved at a higher level in the third stage or moment, the synthesis (pronounced SIN-thuh-sis).    They are reorganized into a new Gestalt.   Hegel uses the German word Aufhebung to describe what happens, and unfortunately it's not translatable into English (the closest we can come is "cancel though preserve").   But what it means is that the two opponents, the thesis and antithesis, are transformed, combined, and transcended, so that the new synthesis contains the best of them both, made more sophisticated, and unified.   (If you like playing with terms: this new unification thus "negates" the early "negation," which just divided things.)     This new resulting synthesis can then act as a thesis, generating its own antithesis, etc.. 


....................2. Antithesis

1. Thesis...................

Hegel saw this pattern, the dialectic, in many things: in organisms' growth and development, in psychological growth, in political history, in art history . . .  Once you look at some examples, it'll come to life, and you'll sense why so many people have found it such a useful idea.

Various Examples of Dialectic

A) Emotional development in early childhood:

Thesis: The baby is spontaneously hungry, or curious, or uncomfortable, or empathetic, etc.. She lives in a kind of instinctive connectedness with everything around her. She isn't self-conscious, yet. Nor is she yet capable of real autonomy, real initiative. To achieve these, she must develop a sense of separateness as well as a sense of connectedness.

Antithesis: That sense of separateness usually starts developing around the second birthday, hence "the terrible twos."   This phase has been aptly described as "the no-saying phase." The child must discover that she can refuse to obey her parents; she can decline proferred food, gifts, and so on; she can surprise her parents by violating their expectations. This stage is highly inconvenient for the poor parents, but it is necessary for the child to get a sense of herself as distinct from her environment, of herself as capable of acting on that environment and making conscious choices about it.  Notice that as the child grew, tendencies that didn't fit into her previous habits of behavior and thought began to emerge. Her previous way of experiencing things was not fully adequate. Its own felt lack of balance caused the opposing tendencies to show themselves. The tensions within this old way of experiencing things (its "inherent internal contradictions") propelled her into this "no-saying" stage in order to achieve a resolution of those tensions.

Synthesis: Eventually, she'll combine both the sense of connectedness and the sense of separateness, to form a more complex, more articulated self.  She'll be able to distinguish herself and her mother, say, and be able to achieve a real closeness with her. In fact, paradoxically, the two people might become even closer. Now the child can begin to appreciate her mother as a separate individual, and this allows for greater and more mature love and intimacy.

(A similar dialectic of rebellion and resolution occurs later, of course, during adolescence.)

B) Kitten instead, they are focused towards food, etc..

Sweet but sort of boring, to tell the truth.

Antithesis: At about 4 weeks old, they start to play, to play-fight, to play- stalk.   Sometimes they get carried away with play-fighting.   (In fact, we have one rather abnormal cat who excelled at this stage as a tiny kitten and then never grew out of it.   We suspect that the evil Binky is part Siamese, or possibly part Pit Bull.)

Synthesis:  both options, cuddly companion and competing predator, are now available depending on the circumstances. There's a new level of choice.  (Except for poor demented Binky.)

C) Compassion (I owe this example to James Kimble, Ph.D.,  professor emeritus of the University of Colorado at Boulder):

One here is addressing suffering, but one must keep respect for victim's dignity clearly in mind, so as not to slip over into a demeaning pity. (Note: this is not a balance or medium between poles of extremes, but a genuine conflict.)

Thesis:  empathy, which can degenerate into disrespect.

Antithesis;  respect, distance.

Synthesis: compassion and respect, acknowledging difference.

D) Human freedom

Thesis:  Merely "negative" freedom is the rather empty freedom of a despot to follow his whims with no external control. It is arbitrary and irrational, immature.

Antithesis:  Tyranny: the situation of the despot's subjects: simply a lack of any say in one's life, being determined by someone else.

Synthesis:  "Positive" freedom, or self-determination, e.g. (according to Hegel) emerging in the Athenian democracy, and in 18th and 19th century Europe. Here individualism is highly valued, and is simultaneously part of the state. The individual has a say in the rational laws of the land; thus, in obeying the state's laws, one is obeying oneself, is self-determined, free in a much richer sense than the despot's empty, infantile freedom.

The Example of the Family, Civil Society/Work, and State

Family (kinship, solidarity)

Civil Society/Work (individualism, competition)

State (both solidarity and individualism)


Family: Here, one is loved and accepted for one's kinship.   "Your family will always love you."  One achieves a basic self-consciousness as an individual while still identifying with the family.

(Historically, Hegel cites the ancient Homeric society based on kinship.)


Civil society/work (Die Burgerliche Gesellschaft): Here, in work, commerce, the market, the individual can distinguish him or herself in a new way, not just by kinship, but in work achievements, or in competition with others.   More individuality is possible.

(Historically, classical Athenian democracy, i.e. a society based on individual citizens supporting the ruler.   Classical Athens felt the conflict between family and civil society, and e.g. Sophocles expressed this conflict in his "Antigone," Hegel's favorite play. )


The state (as in nation or country, Der Staat):  Here we have a sense of loyalty and belonging, identification, patriotism -- similar to belonging to a family.   But we also simultaneously have the independence and autonomy characteristic of how we develop in civil society.  (After all, we vote in private booths.)  This synthesis allows us the freedom and self-discipline to evaluate our government's policies, and to participate in setting those policies.  (Notice that this is more than just a collection of diverse individuals, who might well feel no need to abide by the law, the will of the majority.   It involves patriotism and solidarity, as well as individualism.)   

(Historically, Hegel believes this synthesis is only achieved with the 18th- 19th century European constitutional monarchy nation-state.)

Here the subject of history, the thing that is propelling all this forward, is not a single organism but human Geist, or Spirit, evolving towards maturity in different cultures.   When we speak of humanity as growing or advancing, we are intuiting the same thing.    What Hegel would call the evolving Spirit is implied in every bit of optimistic science fiction, from "Star Trek" on. 

4. Marx's version of the Family, Civil Society, and the State in Capitalism

Marx agrees with Hegel that human history tends to proceed along dialectical patterns.  

However, he thinks that it is propelled not by an evolving Spirit of humanity, but simply by  economic forces.   And the conflicts in this particular dialectic aren't really between ideas or aspects of culture, solidarity versus individualism, or anything so airy or theoretical.   The conflicts are the plain, sometimes violent conflicts of opposing economic groups, of different classes, and the conflict is created by any economic group exploiting or oppressing another economic group (which is inevitable if there are different economic groups, according to Marx):

Slaves versus slave owners,

Commoners versus aristocracy,

Landless peasants versus landowners,

Working class versus consuming class. 

Marx also rejects Hegel's analysis of three levels of society: In capitalism, these are not genuine.  They are a fraud, a mere misleading ideology aimed at giving the status quo an appearance of legitimacy.   Instead, if we look carefully, it's "civil society," i.e. the economy, that is really behind the other two categories.

The economy determines what form the family will take (more than one wife? a household of many servants and retainers?).

The economy is also the real power behind the apparently representative state, as long as economic power is not also held democratically.  Laws made even by legislators acting in the best of faith will inevitably tend to support the interests of those in economic power.  

So power isn't really vested in elected officials.  Power is really vested in the most wealthy, in their civil-society role as self-seeking plutocrats.   The appeal to patriotism is merely an ideological smokescreen.

"State" (the government protecting the interests of the most wealthy)

Civil $ociety

The Most Powerful in the Economy

"Family" (rich households include servants; poorer households are  determined by the economy, directly or indirectly)

Now, each of these different economic groups or classes may develop their own ideologies, which then seem to compete with each other as if in a war of ideas. The opposing ideas are mere symptoms of the real opposition, though, which occurs at the level of real economic power. (Feuerbach was another follower of Hegel, along with Marx, but Feuerbach tended to focus on the ideas alone. This is why Marx is so harsh in criticizing Feuerbach as an example of the worst of the overly theoretical "German Ideology.")

The economic conflicts do behave according the rules of the dialectic, according to Marx.  Thus, each new ruling class will "sow the seeds of its own destruction" by triggering its own antithesis.  Here's a quick example. Marx thought that business owners would aim to get their workers more educated, since the workers would then be more productive. However, a more educated workforce is dangerous to capitalistic interests, since the workers will then be in a better position to recognize that they are being exploited and to take action to stop it. By acting according to their own self-interest in the classic Adam Smithian way, these business owners are in the long run unwittingly destroying the subservience that allows their status to continue.

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