Marx misinterprets Hegel?

38 posts / 0 new
Last post
Joined: 19-06-07
Sep 12 2007 16:22
Marx misinterprets Hegel?

I'm on a Hegel discussion list, and the following was posted recently as part of a discussion about the myth of 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis'.

The Hegel Legend of "Thesis-Antithesis- Synthesis"
Gustav E. Mueller
Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 19, No. 3. (Jun., 1958), pp.
More from:
http://www.revleft. com/lofiversion/ index.php/ t53615.html

In fact, as it now turns out, Marx misunderstood Hegel, since he got
his ideas from a second-rate Hegel interpreter Heinrich Moritz
Chalybäus; as I have pinned in the stciky section, this is the truth
(disappointing as this might seem):

Some say Hegel used the method of: thesis-antithesis- synthesis, and
others deny this. Who is correct? The most vexing and devastating
Hegel legend is that everything is thought in "thesis, antithesis, and
synthesis." [...]

The actual texts of Hegel not only occasionally deviate from "thesis,
antithesis, and synthesis," but show nothing of the sort. "Dialectic"
does not for Hegel mean "thesis, antithesis, and synthesis." Dialectic
means that any "ism" - which has a polar opposite, or is a special
viewpoint leaving "the rest" to itself - must be criticized by the
logic of philosophical thought, whose problem is reality as such, the
"World-itself. "

Hermann Glockner's reliable Hegel Lexikon (4 volumes, Stuttgart, 1935)
does not list the Fichtean terms "thesis, antithesis, synthesis"
together. In all the twenty volumes of Hegel's "complete works" he
does not use this "triad" once; nor does it occur in the eight volumes
of Hegel texts, published for the first time in the twentieth Century.
He refers to "thesis, antithesis, and synthesis" in the Preface of the
Phenomenology of Mind, where he considers the possibility of this
"triplicity " as a method or logic of philosophy. According to the
Hegel-legend one would expect Hegel to recommend this "triplicity. "
But, after saying that it was derived from Kant, he calls it a
"lifeless schema," "mere shadow" and concludes: "The trick of wisdom
of that sort is as quickly acquired as it is easy to practice. Its
repetition, when once it is familiar, becomes as boring as the
repetition of any bit of sleigh-of-hand once we see through it.
The instrument for producing this monotonous formalism is no more
difficult to handle than the palette of a painter, on which lie only
two colours ..." (Preface, Werke, II, 48-49).

In the student notes, edited and published as History of Philosophy,
Hegel mentions in the Kant chapter, the "spiritless scheme of the
triplicity of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis" (geistloses Schema)
by which the rhythm and movement of philosophic knowledge is
artificially pre-scribed (vorgezeichnet) . In the first important book
about Hegel by his student, intimate friend and first biographer, Karl
Rosenkranz (Hegels Leben, 1844), "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" are
conspicuous by their absence. It seems Hegel was quite successful in
hiding his alleged "method" from one of his best students.

The very important new Hegel literature of this century has altogether
abandoned the legend. Theodor Haering's Hegels Wollen und Werk (2
vol., Teubner, 1929 and 1938) makes a careful study of Hegel's
terminology and language and finds not a trace of "thesis, antithesis,
synthesis." In the second volume there are a few lines (pp. 118, 126)
in which he repeats what Hegel in the above quotation had said
himself, i.e., that this "conventional slogan" is particularly
unfortunate because it impedes the understanding of Hegelian texts. As
long as readers think that they have to find "thesis, antithesis,
synthesis" in Hegel they must find him obscure - but what is obscure
is not Hegel but their colored glasses.

Iwan Iljin's Hegel's Philosophie als kontemplative Gotteslehre (Bern,
1946) dismisses the "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" legend in the
Preface as a childish game (Spielerei), which does not even reach the
front-porch of Hegel's philosophy. Other significant works, like
Hermann Glockner, Hegel (2 vols., Stuttgart, 1929), Theodor
Steinbüchel, Das Grundproblem der Hegelschen Philosophie (Bonn, 1933),
and Theodor Litt, Hegel: Eine Kritische Erneuerung (Heidelberg, 1953),
Emerich Coreth, S.J., Das Dialektische Sein in Hegels Logik (Wien,
1952), and many others have simply disregarded the legend.

In my own monographs on Hegel über Offenbarung, Kirche und Philosophie
(Munich, 1939) and Hegel über Sittlichkeit und Geschichte (Reinhardt,
1940), I never found any "thesis, antithesis, synthesis." Richard
Kroner, in his introduction to the English edition of selections from
Hegel's Early Theological Writings, puts it mildly when he says: "This
new Logic is of necessity as dialectical as the movement of thinking
itself. ... But it is by no means the mere application of a monotonous
trick that could be learned and repeated. It is not the mere
imposition of an ever recurring pattern. It may appear so in the mind
of some historians who catalogue the living trend of thought, but in
reality it is ever changing, ever growing development; Hegel is
nowhere pedantic in pressing concepts into a ready-made mold.

The theme of thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis, like the motif of a
musical composition, has many modulations and modifications. It is
never 'applied'; it is itself only a poor and not even helpful
abstraction of what is really going on in Hegel's Logic." Well, shall
we keep this "poor and not helpful abstraction" in our attic because
"some historians" have used it as their rocking-horse? We rather agree
with the conclusion of Johannes Flügge: "Dialectic is not the scheme
of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis imputed to Hegel."

In an essay by Nicolai Hartmann on Aristoteles und Hegel, I find the
following additional confirmation of all the other witnesses to the
misinterpretation of Hegel's dialectic: "It is a basically perverse
opinion (grundverkehrte Ansicht) which sees the essence of dialectic
in the triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis." The legend was
spread by Karl Marx whose interpretation of Hegel is distorted. It is
Marxism superimposed on Hegel. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, Marx
says in Das Elend der Philosophie, is Hegel's purely logical formula
for the movement of pure reason, and the whole system is engendered by
this dialectical movement of thesis, antithesis, synthesis of all
categories. This pure reason, he continues, is Mr. Hegel's own reason,
and history becomes the history of his own philosophy, whereas in
reality, thesis, antithesis, synthesis are the categories of economic
movements. (Summary of Chapter II, Paragraph 1.)

The few passages in Marx' writings that resemble philosophy are not
his own. He practices the communistic habit of expropriation without
compensation. Knowing this in general, I was also convinced that there
must be a source for this "thesis, antithesis, and synthesis," and I
finally discovered it. In the winter of 1835-36, a group of Kantians
in Dresden called on Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus, professor of
philosophy at the University of Kiel, to lecture to them on the new
philosophical movement after Kant. They were older, professional men
who in their youth had been Kantians, and now wanted an orientation in
a development which they distrusted; but they also wanted a
confirmation of their own Kantianism.

Professor Chalybäus did just those two things. His lectures appeared
in 1837 under the title Historische Entwicklung der speculativen
Philosophie von Kant bis Hegel, Zu näherer Verständigung des
wissenschaftlichen Publikums mit der neuesten Schule. The book was
very popular and appeared in three editions. In my copy of the third
edition of 1843, Professor Chalybäus says (p. 354): "This is the first
trilogy: the unity of Being, Nothing and Becoming ... we have in this
first methodical thesis, antithesis, and synthesis ... an example or
schema for all that follows." This was for Chalybäus a brilliant hunch
which he had not used previously and did not pursue afterwards in any
way at all. But Karl Marx was at, that time a student at the
university of Berlin and a member of the Hegel Club where the famous
book was discussed. He took the hunch and spread into a deadly,
abstract machinery. Other left Hegelians, such as Arnold Ruge, Ludwig
Feuerbach, Max Stirner use "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" just as
little as Hegel (quote from the article of Gustav E. Mueller: The
Hegel Legend of "Thesis-Antithesis- Synthesis" , in "Journal of the
History of Ideas", Volume XIX, June 1958, Number 3, Page 411. The
article is still as valid today as it was in 1958)

From: http://www.hegel. net/en/faq. htm#6.4

MJ's picture
Joined: 5-01-06
Sep 12 2007 16:31


Joined: 25-07-05
Sep 12 2007 16:34

folks "are" always going on about this.

i would be more interested in hearing an alternative to make inadveratant sufferers better hegelians; how to spot it; why it's devastating. these polemics i don't see how's there's much to them as no-one i know actually ascribes to t-a-s self awares.

Khawaga's picture
Joined: 7-08-06
Sep 13 2007 08:18

I'm sure Gustav thinks he's really smart now...

Joined: 18-07-06
Sep 13 2007 19:16

This is pretty well known, especially among the more Hegelian Marxists, but I've never seen its importance. The "thesis-antithesis-synthesis" was never part of Marx's main criticisms of Hegel in the 1843 critique nor the 1844 Manuscripts. And even with the thesis-antithesis-synthesis stuff, Marx seems to have been basically summarizing Feuerbach's criticisms of Hegel focusing on the positive, negation, and negation of the negation, which could reasonably be seen as a form of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

dave c
Joined: 4-09-07
Sep 14 2007 22:29

Marx's fundamental claim in the section of The Poverty of Philosophy referred to is that Hegel reduced "all things" to "a logical category," "and every movement, every act of production, to method." (International Publishers, 79) He claims that Hegel's method is the abstract "movement of pure reason," which functions by "posing itself, opposing itself, composing itself," etc. (79) Marx quotes from Hegel's Logic: "Method is the absolute, unique, supreme, infinite force, which no object can resist; it is the tendency of reason to find itself again, to recognize itself in every object." (79) "The tendency of reason to find itself again," in the context of the Hegelian system, can be seen in a concept whose negation is contained within it, where the reason that posited the concept is not lost in a determinate negation of its essence but is found again in the outcome of the dialectical contradiction; or, in the positing of Reason, or God existing, objectifying itself in the world, and the world (humanity) coming to consciousness of itself, etc. None of this means that we are dealing with a "purely logical formula," in the sense of an abstract schema. Marx, by contrast, says of Hegel, "He thinks he is constructing the world by the movement of thought, whereas he is merely reconstructing systematically and classifying by the absolute method the thoughts which are in the minds of all." (80) You cannot "[construct] the world by the movement of thought" because the antagonisms of society are not reducible to logical contradictions. Feuerbach, for example, distinguishes between Hegelian contradiction of categories, and materialist, not-strictly-logical, contradiction: "The pain of contradiction consists precisely in that I am and passionately wish to be now that which in the next instant I, just as vigorously, am not and wish not to be, in that affirmation and negation follow each other, each excluding the other and each affecting me in its full determination and sharpness." (Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, Hackett, 64).

Since Marx builds on this foundation, a second important claim of this article is easier to counter: "He [Marx] took the hunch and spread into a deadly, abstract machinery." Marx's criticized Hegel for reducing things to logical categories, so why would he use abstract categories such as thesis, antithesis, synthesis, as any basis for his writing? The force of this statement, however, is obviously that Marx constructed something "deadly." It was "abstract," it was divorced from the real needs of people who had to be forced into his schema, and because of this, it was deadly. This sort of criticism was anticipated by Max Stirner: Stirner argues that communists want the "welfare of all" and reduce everybody's welfare to one, "true welfare" which then must be imposed on the people. (The Ego and Its Own, Cambridge, 273). Thus Marx's politics were driven by such abstract imperatives. This sort of criticism is quite common. Perhaps this is what motivates the article, since it does not explain how Marx's writings showcase his supposed misunderstanding of Hegel apart from the offending phrase.

Khawaga's picture
Joined: 7-08-06
Sep 15 2007 09:35

edit: never mind...

Joined: 25-07-05
Sep 26 2007 21:01

can anyone recommend 2ndary text that deals with the phenomenology of spirit's preface. i'm totally lost just keep getting never ending strings of equivalent entities.

Joined: 1-02-07
Sep 27 2007 07:25

'Hegel: A Reinterpretation' by Walter Kaufmann is more or less all just about the preface, and then it contains an annotated version at the end.

Nate's picture
Joined: 16-12-05
Sep 28 2007 03:40

I'll fight any sonofabitch who disses Marx, drunk or sober...!

Joined: 22-12-04
Sep 28 2007 10:58
'Hegel: A Reinterpretation' by Walter Kaufmann is more or less all just about the preface, and then it contains an annotated version at the end.

Have a look at Yirmiahu Yovel's translation of the preface. It's abook in it own right with a fairly lengthy introduction, and annotates the text of the preface with extensive notes. It's not amazingly helpful, but it serves as a good introduction.

What issues in the preface are you particularly concerned with?

Joined: 19-06-07
Sep 28 2007 14:51

I've just begun a Hegel reading group, and we begin with the Preface on Sunday.

Joined: 25-07-05
Sep 28 2007 15:47

pretty much all of it sad

the definition of Concept is what I'm working on now.

Joined: 25-07-05
Sep 29 2007 19:08

These are my notes from the Preface. Can anyone points out any mistakes made [probably won't follow unless you've read it]
1. Culture has developed an attained Concept
This is the beginning of the new spirit, it must be redeveloped in the form of philosophy
The spirit is that which is other and related; the in itself and for itself

2. The individual must pass through the stages of education of the general spirit
The individual must take possession of the general spirit his substance which currently seems external to him
This is the transformation of notion into generality and this into Concept
The Concept is a way of thinking about the whole, a system, made of a series of propositions; the true understood as subject and object
First comes a positing of existence, a differentiation, then secondly a becoming of [determinate] simplicity; this is a movement of thought so that existence* is for itself [explicit and relational]
Movement is driven by the implicit subject [purpose, which contains actuality within it] that becomes actual through the subject’s own movement, identity moved and reflected back into itself, negativity
Movement is dialectic [comprehension solely of Concepts] the contradiction and qualification of one proposition by the next.
The end is the aim of the true, which is implicit in the beginning as the subject
Notion proceeds to thought by analysis – getting notions of moments that do not have notions just raw datums that were immediately part of the self
Thought actualized to Concept by abstracting from tself and recognizing it to be moment, abandoning the fixity of itself its self positing; in such a Concept truth is actual
Expressions of immediate knowledge become other and then that otherness is sublimated [aufheben]
The subject’s existence thus is its essence
Each evanescent is necessary
As Concept the spirit is not actual it is solely for us; it is just the beginning

3. The spirit must become actual by becoming an object for itself followed by aufheben, then it is truth in the form of the true
Achieved spirit is actualized by a science of the above [in 2] experience made by consciousness [the movement of estrangement of sense and then return], a science of the object of consciousness, organized by Concepts
The negative then is just as much the non identity of object with itself as non identity between ego and object
Science develops Concepts [that become more determinate as it takes the sense of the other into itself] by an action of the objectve content
Existence then is self identical determinateness, which means existence is understanding of existence!
The spirit is time

cantdocartwheels's picture
Joined: 15-03-04
Sep 30 2007 09:56

this thread makes me want to advocate mass burnings of philosophical works

Joined: 25-07-05
Sep 30 2007 12:49

anyway ^^ wink

who does the discerning Marxist turn to for Hegel - I've seen three strands mentioned other than t-a-s, that's Gadamer, Koejeve, and Hypoolite?

Joined: 25-07-05
Sep 30 2007 19:34
cantdocartwheels wrote:
this thread makes me want to advocate mass burnings of philosophical works

btw, what?

Joined: 22-12-04
Oct 1 2007 13:00

hi lem,

if you're looking for Hegel interpreters, people who can help yuo make sense of Hegel, have a look at Stephen Houlgate. He's by far the best that I've yet come across. he won't give you any sense of what Marx is taking from Hegel, but is absolutely excellent in terms of making sense of what hegel's actually saying (quite an achievement). as regards figuring out what marx takes from Hegel, I'd reccomend focussing on Hegel, trying to understand him, and then reading what Marx says about him.

As regards teh Concept/Notion (Begriff):]
I find the easiest way to think about this is in terms of a living body (might be worth noting that Hegel is constantkly using organic metaphors, and there are plenty in the Preface). First, think about a universal concept - cat, house, etc.. This is a universal that contains any number of diverse particular individuals (i.e. lots of different cats), and it unites them by virtue of what they have in common (i.e. all houses are buildings for living in). It leaves out everything that is distinct about these individuals (this big, small, red, white house) in order to group them together according to that which is similar between them.
This is a conceot of the 'Understanding'; it describes that which is the same amongst diverse things, but leaves out their diversity. It doesn't express unity in difference.
The Concept, on the other hand, is like the life of a living body: in such a body there are any number of different organs and functions, all of which are distinct, but all of which only make sense as part of the whole and in relation to the others. The life of the whole is an identity that comprises the diversity of the parts, and the parts are only in so far as they are part of the whole.
So, the Concept is like the life of the universe, and Hegel's project is like that body understanding itself as a living, organic unity. Another thing to bear in mind is the sense in which things strive to match their concept; this house might be shit house because it doesn't match up the concept of a house (i.e. it might fall down, or is unsuitable for living in). The universe shapes itself in such a way that it matches its own Concept - and the truth of the Concept is reason comprehending its own necessity. Hence the sense in which Hegelain philosophy is the self-consciousness of being itself.
Does that help? Don;t have time to write much more, but let me know if I've just muddied the waters still further

Joined: 25-07-05
Oct 5 2007 16:32
yoshomon wrote:
I've just begun a Hegel reading group, and we begin with the Preface on Sunday.

hey yoshomon do you want to post up your results?

Joined: 18-07-06
Oct 9 2007 18:25
cantdocartwheels wrote:
this thread makes me want to advocate mass burnings of philosophical works

"When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion." -- David Hume

Joined: 25-07-05
Oct 9 2007 18:34

i do not exagerate when i say that hume is the dullest, most repeitive, unispired philosopher i have read anything by.

eta what's he actually saying there it's kinda vague or patently false confused

Joined: 21-03-05
Oct 11 2007 18:14

Frankly, most Hegelians are even worse on Marx than anti- or non-Hegelians because they are at great pain to prove that Hegel is valuable and good and did not necessarily lead to Marx and that they are responsible academics and anti-communists. At that point, whatever critical intelligence they have has generally deserted them.

Stephen Houlgate is a perfect example of this. A wonderful Hegel scholar, very bright, utterly banal when it comes to Marx. He actually thinks that G. A. Cohen's "Karl Marx's Theory of History" accurately presents Marx's views, that Marx is a technological determinist, blah blah blah, despite Houlgate's familiarity with Adorno, for example, and I am quite sure with Benjamin. Compare any of Houlgate's treatments of Marx to his book "Hegel, Nietzsche and the Criticism of Metaphysics" and the obvious difference in quality is immediately evident, even though Nietzsche is far more hostile, philosophically and personally, to Hegel, dialectic, Reason, etc.

There are a number of thoughtful discussions of the relation between Marx and Hegel, some of them even pleasantly brief.

Jairus Banaji's article ‘From the Commodity to Capital: Hegel’s Dialectic in Marx’s Capital’ in Diane Elson's old book "Value" from the 1970's Conference of Socialist Economists book series is outstanding, not to mention a pleasant antidote to the della Volpes, Collettis, Althussers and other not terribly illuminating anti-dialecticians.

Scott Meikle's "Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx" is a solid exposition that raises as many questions as it answers, and is certainly not a popular tome in a world of anti-essentialist philosophy, but I am fond of it. His essay in the "Cambridge Companion to Marx" is a good essay.

Lukacs' The Ontology of Social Being, 3 Vols., is useful, and Meikle certainly has his opposition to it in mind when he writes his own book, but it is one of the other few serious works on the relationship of Hegel and Marx and their work as first and foremost ontological.

Also from the "Cambridge Companion to Marx" is Lawrence Wilde's essay "Logic: Dialectic and Contradiction", which goes into why Marx and Hegel both share a notion of contradiction that is ontological, not logical, and that they never eschew analytical logic. Goes well with Meikle and Lukacs.

I would also throw in my usual references to Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt, esp. their articles in the Open Marxism vols. and in the Bonefeld/Tischler compilation "Human Dignity", but they are only tangentially on this topic.

A rather anti-Marx book that is quite good is The Communist Ideal in Hegel and Marx by David MacGregor. I can't think of anything by other Hegelians that is of much worth on the Hegel-Marx relationship, except maybe Hegel Contra Sociology by Gillian Rose, a smart little book.

You can of course get doses and doses of the relation of Hegel and Marx from other works, like Raya Dunayevskaya, CLR James, the Frankfurt School boys, Lukacs' other works, Zizek, etc. but I like the above best.


Joined: 3-05-07
Oct 13 2007 18:59

Hegel was an utter nutter and a religious maniac who talked absolute (or should that be Absolute?) rubbish. I can't understand why people take him seriously.

Joined: 18-07-06
Oct 13 2007 19:08
capricorn wrote:
Hegel was an utter nutter and a religious maniac who talked absolute (or should that be Absolute?) rubbish. I can't understand why people take him seriously.

It shields Marxists from having their statements falsified. If you make all of your claims "dialectical", you can say that when you contradict yourself you are still correct. And instead of assessing whether or not statements are true, you can go on and on about method. And dialectics claims to be a super-method which reveals super-truths about the world.

Joined: 25-07-05
Oct 13 2007 19:19

what do you mean mikus - every claim any marxist wishes to advance is grounded, or that there are certain basic propositions that won't change, or what.

do i really need to say that afaict no-one in philosophy takes popper's philosophy of science seriously. i also wrote an essay on how Popperian science relies on arbitary judgements, something like that i forget. the source was popper the irrational rationalist" by newton smith.

Joined: 18-07-06
Oct 13 2007 19:21

I'm not a Popperian. You don't have to be a Popperian to allow that statements can be falsified under certain conditions.

Joined: 25-07-05
Oct 13 2007 19:26

statements must be falsifiable under certain conditions? isn't that what you're saying. though of course i do believe that you're not a popperian.

sorry you've lost me a bit with the term falsifiable. what about existential statements like "there is a black cat"? are these unacceptable sentences?

Joined: 18-07-06
Oct 13 2007 19:37
lem wrote:
statements must be falsifiable under certain conditions? isn't that what you're saying. though of course i do believe that you're not a popperian.

Hmm, I'm not sure. What do you mean they must be? For what purpose? If Marxists want to advance their theories then yes, I think the theories should be falsifiable. If they want to promote a worldview which has nothing to do with facts but is more an attitude, then their statements should not and will not be falsifiable.

I don't think that every statement ever made must be falsifiable. (For what it's worth, Popper didn't either.) I make unfalsifiable statements all the time. I just don't pretend that they are scientific statements, let alone super-scientific statements.

I don't know that one can't think that scientific statements should generally be falsifiable and still not be a Popperian. Making falsifiable statements is just a part of normal scientific practice.

To be a Popperian seems to me to be something much more specific, although I'm no Popper expert. I don't think that the criterion of falsifiability of sufficient for scientific practice. But I'm not terribly decided on these issues.

Joined: 25-07-05
Oct 13 2007 19:40

so you are using falsifiable as a criteron of being about facts. this is too strong! it is a fact that there is a black cat.

I don't think that every statement ever made must be falsifiable.

yes it annoys me that otherwise intelligent people are prone to shouting that popper was not falsifiable wall

Joined: 18-07-06
Oct 13 2007 19:57
lem wrote:
so you are using falsifiable as a criteron of being about facts. this is too strong! it is a fact that there is a black cat.

Yeah I agree with this. I do think pure falsifiability suffers from analogous problems as pure verifiability. Although I suspect that more scientific statements are falsifiable than verifiable.

But your criticism doesn't quite get at Popper since he doesn't use falsifiability as a criterion of being about facts, but as a criterion of being scientific. He doesn't deny that non-scientific statements (i.e. unfalsifiable statements) can be about facts or even can be true, but he denies that they can form a part of scientific practice. I still don't think he's right, but it does mean that your summary is wrong. I think a lot of criticisms of Popper rest on this misunderstanding.


Joined: 25-07-05
Oct 13 2007 19:59

no that's not what i was saying at all.