Hegel's Undiscovered Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Dialectics: What Only Marx and Tillich Understood

Hegel's Undiscovered Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Dialectics: What Only Marx and Tillich Understood

by Leonard F. Wheat

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For over fifty years, Hegel interpreters have rejected the former belief that Hegel used thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics. In this incisive analysis of Hegel's philosophy, Leonard F. Wheat shows that the modern interpretation is false. Wheat rigorously demonstrates that there are in fact thirty-eight well-concealed dialectics in Hegel's two most important


For over fifty years, Hegel interpreters have rejected the former belief that Hegel used thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics. In this incisive analysis of Hegel's philosophy, Leonard F. Wheat shows that the modern interpretation is false. Wheat rigorously demonstrates that there are in fact thirty-eight well-concealed dialectics in Hegel's two most important works—twenty-eight in Phenomenology of Spirit and ten in The Philosophy of History. Wheat also develops other major new insights:

• Hegel's chief dialectical format consists of a two-concept thesis, a two-concept antithesis, and a two-concept synthesis that borrows one concept from the thesis and one from the antithesis.
• All dialectics are analogically based on the Christian separation-and-return myth: the dialectic separates from and returns to a thesis concept.
• Hegel's enigmatic Spirit is a four-faceted, deliberately fictitious, nonsupernatural entity that exists only as an atheistic redefinition of "God."
• Spirit's "divine life" begins not with consciousness but with unconsciousness, in the prehuman state of nature-before Spirit acquires its human mind.
• Hegel's concept of freedom is not a sociopolitical concept but release from bondage to religious superstition (belief in a supernatural God).
• In Hegel's widely misinterpreted master-and-slave parable, the master is God, the slave is man, and the slave's gaining his freedom is man's becoming an atheist.
• The standard non-Hegelian base-superstructure interpretation of Marx's dialectics is false. Marx's basic dialectic is actually this: thesis = communal ownership poverty, antithesis = private ownership wealth, synthesis = communal ownership wealth.
Wheat also shows that Marx and Tillich, who subtly used Hegelian dialectics in their own works, are the only authors who have understood Hegelian dialectics.

Thoroughly researched and exhaustive in detail, this radical reinterpretation of Hegel's philosophy should greatly interest Hegel scholars and students.

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HEGEL'S Undiscovered Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Dialectics

What Only Marx and Tillich Understood

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 Leonard F. Wheat
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-642-9

Chapter One


More than two centuries have elapsed since 1807, when G. W. F. Hegel published his first major—and most famous—work, Phenomenology of Spirit, a.k.a. Phenomenology of Mind. The philosophy presented in this work and in Hegel's later posthumously edited history lectures, The Philosophy of History, is noted for its mystifying dialectical method. Hegelian dialectics is said to revolve around three progressive stages of development: (1) a thesis, which is an idea or concept, (2) an antithesis (anti-thesis), an opposite idea that contradicts the thesis, and (3) a synthesis, a climactic idea that somehow combines the thesis and the antithesis, or the best parts of them, into a sort of compromise, reconciliation, or previously unperceived identity. Yet to this day, none of the innumerable Hegel interpreters who have written in English or whose works have been translated into English—and, from powerful indirect evidence, none of the untranslated European interpreters either—has more than a superficial, nonsubstantive understanding of what a thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic is. No author has presented even one accurate example, taken from Phenomenology of Spirit or The Philosophy of History, of a sequential thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic. (The static triads of Hegel's Logic have been called "dialectical" in different senses but do not qualify as thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics.) To make matters worse, for the past half century it has been fashionable to deny that Hegel really used thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics. Writing in 2007, Verene provides an accurate, up-to-date assessment of the prevailing attitude among scholars toward the moribund idea (which I intend to resuscitate) that Hegel uses thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics: "No first-rate Hegel scholar speaks of Hegel having a dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis."


It is true that a few of Hegel's labels for specific dialectical stages—for example, "Oriental despotism" as a history thesis—have been offered. But nobody has recognized the antithetical concepts that particular pairs of thesis and antithesis labels represent. Neither has anyone shown how or where Hegel merges the two members of any pair of opposing concepts into a synthesis. The thesis-antithesis conceptual pairs include the following:

1. universal and particular

2. one and many

3. union and separation

4. essence and existence

5. divine and human

6. inner and outer

7. in itself and for itself

8. potential and actual

9. unconscious and conscious

10. artificial (man-made) and natural

11. God and man

12. Father (God, heaven, divine, man-made) and Son (Jesus, earth, human, natural)

13. God in heaven and God incarnate

14. abstract and concrete

15. theology (revelation) and philosophy (reason)

16. God (divine ruler) and monarch (human ruler)

17. independence and dependence

18. freedom (release from superstition) and bondage (enslavement by superstition)

19. truth and falsehood

20. natural (physical) law and psychological (mental) law

21. moral (societal) law and natural (personal) impulses

22. inner law ("of the heart," personal) and outer law (societal)

23. predator and victim

24. subject and object

25. internal (self) approval and external (societal) approval

26. theory and practice

27. validity and invalidity

28. woman (family, divinity) and man (state, humanity)

29. divine law and human law

30. morality (moral law) and human nature (natural behavior)

31. conscience (inner law) and morality (outer or societal law)

32. identity (one) and nonidentity (many)

33. thought (an idea, intangible) and substance (something physical, tangible)

34. one ruler and many rulers

35. one ruled territory and many ruled territories

In some of these thesis-antithesis pairs, the thesis concept is combined with either "unconscious" ("unconscious union") or "potential" ("potential union"). The antithesis concept is, in turn, combined with "conscious" ("conscious separation") or "actual" ("actual separation"). Double opposition between a two-part thesis and a two-part antithesis results. Perhaps, given this clue, you can already anticipate the format many of Hegel's syntheses use.

Some of the above concepts have been discussed in the literature, but not in the context of thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics, identified as such. Where particular concepts have been discussed, they have often been treated incidentally, without particular emphasis on those concepts and without their being labeled "thesis" and "antithesis." And no synthesis has been identified. Nor has anyone explained the several formats a Hegelian synthesis can use. Moreover, nobody has recognized how Hegel based his thesis-antithesis-synthesis formula on Christian theology's two "separation-and-return" (union, separation, reunion) doctrines. In fact, thirteen interpreters—I'll get to them shortly—explicitly deny that Hegel's thought really is dialectical in a thesis-antithesis-synthesis sense, because neither these interpreters nor any of the hundreds of other interpreters they have collectively consulted have been able to deduce and assemble specific Hegelian dialectics. Other interpreters have indirectly denied the existence of thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics by defining "dialectics" as meaning something else. That "something else" has typically been either (a) the static triads found in Hegel's Logic—being, nothing, and becoming is the usual example—or (b) a clash between two different viewpoints, not reduced to concepts, that Hegel supposedly never merges into a clearly articulated synthesis.

I base these statements on a survey of the writings of (a) 190 authors of books, book chapters, book introductions, and articles explaining Hegel's philosophy and (b) an additional 56 authors of material on the dialectician Karl Marx (not counting 13 Marx authors also on the Hegel list). Most of the surveyed authors read German and cite German-language studies. Yet none of these 246 authors understands concretely, not just abstractly, what a sequential thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic is, even after doing an independent literature survey and independently analyzing Hegel's or Marx's writing. For example, Stern, in his book Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit (2002), lists in his bibliography 167 Hegel interpreters whose works he consulted and who, in turn, did their own literature surveys, bringing the number of directly and indirectly surveyed authors into the high hundreds. The works Stern cites include 13 written in German and 3 in French. If the 167 authors surveyed by Stern included in their own surveys and average of just 2 additional authors not on the survey list of Stern or the list of one of his other surveyed other authors, Stern would have indirect coverage of 2 X 167 = 334 additional Hegel interpreters, or direct and indirect coverage of 501 authors. Yet neither in his own survey nor in his own highly detailed analysis of Phenomenology has Stern found a triad such as (1) predator, (2) victim, and (3) predator = victim (Hegel's Faust dialectic) whose concepts he can identify and whose synthesis (e.g., Faust, a predator who becomes a victim in the Faust dialectic) he can clarify. Like many others, Stern mistakenly regards Hegelian dialectics as nothing more than an abstraction—opposing viewpoints, imprecisely defined and not necessarily opposites, whose opposition Hegel never satisfactorily resolves in a recognizable synthesis that incorporates both the thesis and the antithesis or parts thereof. If none of my 246 authors and none of the literally hundreds if not thousands of other Hegel interpreters they have directly and indirectly surveyed has ever been able to identify in Hegel's thought a genuine thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic, then it is virtually inconceivable that some other author, the many German authors included, has provided the missing insights. Conceivably, some of the early post-Hegelians—the so-called Right Hegelians and Left (or Young) Hegelians—did understand Hegel's dialectics. One of the left Hegelians, Karl Marx, definitely did. But any such understanding among the other post-Hegelians has vanished. It probably never existed. Be that as it may, the only writers I have encountered whose works do reveal a solid understanding of Hegelian dialectics are Marx, Marx's collaborator Frederick Engels, and Paul Tillich. (I'm not entirely sure about Engels.) But these philosophers, dialecticians themselves, have not tried to explain Hegelian dialectics. Their understanding is revealed largely in the dialectical formats they use in their own philosophies, analogical formats that reveal a secure grasp of Hegel's dialectics. Tillich does provide some additional detail concerning dialectics, most notably (a) the relationship of dialectics to Christianity's two separation-and-return myths, (b) separation's being an antithesis and return's being a synthesis, and (c) the existence of an original identity—alluding to a thesis—of the one and the many (many separated objects) to which Hegel so often refers.

I emphasize that I refer only to the sequential triads of Phenomenology and Hegel's Philosophy of History, not to the static triads of Hegel's Logic, most of his other later writings, and parts of Phenomenology. (A very few of Hegel's dozens of dialectics do not display thesis-antithesis time sequence.) The sequential dialectics describe both the Spirit's approach to self-realization over time and history's unfolding over time. Findlay accurately summarizes and paraphrases Hegel: "Time ... is the form of this self-realizing process. Until Spirit reaches the end of the requisite temporal process it cannot achieve complete self-consciousness."


Before examining the abortive efforts of some authors to identify true dialectical triads in Hegel's thought, we need to be aware that almost all Hegel scholars who mention dialectics now deny that such triads even exist. I have already commented that it has become fashionable to deny that Hegel uses thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics. The thirteen interpreters mentioned earlier who deny that Hegel's writing contains any dialectics are Mueller, Kaufmann, Young, Wilkins, Maker, Solomon, Wood, Pinkard, Dove, Crites, Fox, Beiser, and Verene. Mueller was the first to reject the formerly popular idea that Hegel uses dialectics. Ever since Mueller propounded his thesis, new authors have been jumping on the Mueller bandwagon. Still other authors, such as Forster,6 ascribe dialectics to Hegel but reinterpret the concept so that dialectics no longer means thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. To many authors, a "dialectic" is nothing more than a section or subtopic of Phenomenology. Consider what the following skeptics have to say.

Mueller. Gustav Mueller (1958) wrote an article that marks the beginning of a wave of skepticism about Hegel's dialectics. This wave is now rolling into its second half-century. The article's title, "The Hegel Legend of 'Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis,'" states Mueller's conclusion: Hegelian dialectics is just a legend. Mueller writes that "Hegel's peculiar terminology and style" have produced several legends. "The most vexing and devastating" of these "is that everything is thought in 'thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.'" Mueller begins by attacking Stace, who, after trying and failing to show that Hegel used dialectics, excused Hegel's failures as "irregularities." But, says Mueller, "the actual texts of Hegel not only occasionally deviate from 'thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,' but show nothing of the sort." Mueller goes on to argue that Hegel used the three terms together only once. The first Hegel biography, he argues, does not mention thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. More telling, "the very important new Hegel literature of this century has altogether abandoned the legend." How did the "legend" originate? Mueller says it originated in a "very popular" 1843 book by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus, professor of philosophy at the University of Kiel. Chalybäus, referring to Being, Nothing, and Becoming as "the first trilogy," applied the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis labels to the three concepts. Marx took up and spread the terminology. Mueller concludes: "Once the Hegel legend was established, writers of textbooks in the history of philosophy copied it from their predecessors." An obvious fault of Mueller's analysis is that he is looking in the wrong place—Hegel's Logic, which is where Stace looked—for dialectics. He should have looked in Phenomenology and in The Philosophy of History. Ironically, Mueller was right about Hegel's Logic: it has no dialectics.

Kaufmann. Kaufmann, in his book Hegel: A Reinterpretation (1965), is particularly forceful in denying that Hegel used dialectics. Kaufmann cites Mueller and repeats Mueller's argument that Hegel didn't use the terms "thesis," "antithesis," and "synthesis" together to identify stages in an argument. (Kaufmann doesn't realize that Hegel generally used other terms such as "moment," "factors," "negation," "second realization," and "third stage" to identify dialectics.) But Kaufmann's indictment of the idea that Hegel used dialectics is largely original. He begins: "Whoever looks for the stereotype of the allegedly Hegelian dialectic in Hegel's Phenomenology will not find it. What one does find on looking at the table of contents is a very decided preference for triadic arrangements.... But these many triads are not presented or deduced by Hegel as so many theses, antitheses, and syntheses. It is not by means of any dialectic of that sort that his thought moves up the ladder to absolute knowledge." (Phenomenology's table-of-contents triads actually include four hidden dialectics.) Beyond the table of contents, Kaufmann says Hegel's master and servant fable comes closer to dialectics—I will show in chapter 4 that it actually is a dialectic—but he sees no identifiable dialectical stages in the fable or elsewhere in Phenomenology. Continuing: "Hegel's later works are different in many ways from his first book, but ... his dialectic never became the ritualistic three-step it is so widely supposed to be." In these later works, "the organization ... becomes neat to a fault—triads everywhere (but not theses, antitheses, and syntheses)." Kaufmann vehemently—and incorrectly—attacks the idea that Hegel's philosophy of history is dialectical. (It actually has ten dialectics.) Kaufmann's conclusion about whether Hegel has a dialectic: "there is none."

Young. Young (1972) develops the proposition that Hegel's dialectic is not thesis-antithesis-synthesis but is instead simply thesis and antithesis, repeated over and over. There is no synthesis. Or, as he puts it, "The dialectic method is essentially based upon a principle of negativity"—the opposition between two concepts. Developing his analysis, Young writes: "Even a superficial survey of the passages in Hegel's writings in which dialectic is made the subject of explicit discussion will reveal a surprising fact. Hegel does not define dialectic in terms of the triadic movement from thesis through antithesis to synthesis.... The dialectic, in his view of it, is more immediately related to the antithetic than to the synthetic aspect of his method." It would seem that, if Young is correct, Hegel's reference in Phenomenology's Preface to "the triadic form" that "has emerged" as a new "Science" must refer to either something other than dialectics or to something with no synthesis in its triad. Does "triadic form" really mean "binary form," which is what Young implies? And why did Young settle for a "superficial survey"? Superficial effort, superficial conclusions.

Wilkins. One of those who deny that Hegel used dialectics, Wilkins (1974), is notable for his focusing on Hegel's Philosophy of History, where Hegel's use of a three-level hierarchy of triads—ten triads altogether—is conspicuous, even if the dialectical content of those triads requires deciphering. Wilkins is content to paraphrase Mueller: "The legend or myth has grown that Hegel's philosophy was a tightly deductive system with an almost impenetrable technical vocabulary, and a system in which a dialectic of 'thesis-antithesis-synthesis' predominated. According to this legend or myth, everything in the world ... was held by Hegel to be deducible from his system and explainable in terms of the thesis-antithesis-synthesis formula." Wilkins exaggerates the "legend": I seriously doubt that anyone ever claimed that Hegel said "everything in the world" can be explained by dialectics. But that doesn't matter. What does matter is that Wilkins gives us another voice explicitly denying that Hegel used thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics.


Excerpted from HEGEL'S Undiscovered Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Dialectics by LEONARD F. WHEAT Copyright © 2012 by Leonard F. Wheat. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Leonard F. Wheat (Alexandria, VA), a retired economist, received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1958. He is the author of six previous books dealing with economics, religion, film, and literature. His most recent book is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials: A Multiple Allegory.

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