Dewey’s Hegel’s spirit

Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit
John Dewey, University of Chicago, 1897
(in Shook & Good, John Dewey’s Philosophy of Spirit, 2010)

Dewey is one of those authors that I have meant to read for quite a while but somehow never really got into it. Finally, in avoidance of other work, I procrasti-read his lecture on Hegel’s philosophy of spirit and wasn’t disappointed.

The lecture starts with a short biographical note where Dewey emphasises the unremarkable youth of Hegel. No one would have guessed that he is a genius. Dewey repeats the often quoted remark how Hegel had no interest whatsoever in philosophy. This is, however, a mistake a copyist’s error changed “philosophiae multam [a lot, many] operam impendit” into “philosophiae nullam [none] operam impendit” in Hegel’s graduation certificate.

That aside, it is clear that Dewey thinks that Hegel is a genius. In a manner that would warm any pragmatist’s heart, Dewey sees that Hegel’s philosophy stems from life – not from academic and technical meddling like tha of Kant’s. Although Hegel is an idealist, he “is never more hard in his speech, hard as steel is hard, than when dealing with mere ideals, vain opinions and sentiments which have not succeeded in connecting themselves with this actual world” (p.97). This foreshadows what is to come. In other words, what Dewey offers is a so-called materialist (left-Hegelian) reading of Hegel – a line of interpretation that is probably the most prominent right now. It is clear though that in Dewey religion is much more present than in the contemporary interpretations.

For Dewey the Hegelian spirit is active, free, and wants to manifest/reveal itself. The faculties of mind are researched in connection to and as parts of a living organistic whole. The philosophy of spirit “is not the process by which the individual mind knows a reality over against itself, it is the process by which this reality comes to a consciousness of its own basis, meaning and bearings” (p. 117). Dewey gives in his lectures a close reading of the various phases of spirit’s development towards this consciousness.

I will not offer such a close reading of a close reading. Instead, I shall limit myself to a few remarks on the themes that stood out as interesting for me. The first is Hegel’s casual racism. Soul divides itself into race souls and these, in turn, divide into different nationalities. This certainly sounds bad by today’s standards but the interesting point here is that if the soul is “sleeping spirit” (p. 123) that is clinging to nature and determined by it, then the fully developed sprit would probably overcome the racial divides and narrow nationalism that are present in the soul.

Secondly, Dewey sees Hegel as committing to something that could be called an image theory of memory (and language). Memories are images that have the same content as perception. Involuntary memory becomes imagination when we manage to voluntarily bring up the ideas as a matter of will. Imagination forms trains of images and through relating and associating these images with each other, we reach generic ideas. When an image becomes to symbolize a generic idea, we have a sign or a token. Dewey goes on to emphasise the role of speech at this stage. If the next quote does not make you think of Wittgenstein, then nothing will.

We only know of our thoughts when we give to them an objective form, when we get them, as it were, outside our own inner being and get them out into spoken sounds or written words; thus they no longer belong simply to us as individuals, but get a certain universality of their own. The fact, then, that thought is so bound up with the word is not to be regarded as a lack in thought and as something unfortunate for thought; it is not true that the inexpressible is the most valuable thing. The inexpressible thing is only something confused, it is an empty void which gets clearness and content only when it goes over into words. (p. 144-145)

Reading these sections made me really want to research the connections and differences between Hegel, Dewey and Wittgenstein. Then again, I don’t really have time for it and someone has probably done it already. Nevertheless, this all is interesting as the image theory of concepts and imagination makes intelligence in some sense an individualistic property (or at least a property that has ‘atomistic’ origin). This seems to go somewhat against the more or less common interpretation that Hegel’s philosophy is holistic all the way through.

One more thing that struck me was the lack of criticism. In fact, it is really hard to tell whether Dewey is trying to depict and explain Hegel the best he can or if he also agrees with what Hegel is saying. The first – and only? – critical tones come closer to the end where Dewey mentions that Hegel’s discussion on the internal organization of the state is artificial and unsatisfactory.  To me it was a little bit unclear why this is so but one can assume that Dewey is not as big fan of monarchy as Hegel was.

Ultimately, this over hundred-year-old lecture on Hegel is one of the most enjoyable ones I have ever read. I would have loved to see how Dewey actually gave these lectures. I do not like the ‘reading aloud’-method of presentation at all but then again, it is clear that if someone would collect my ramblings and PowerPoints on recognition from this spring, it would not make even nearly as good reading as this. I’ll leave you with the last lines of the lecture that are certainly more grandiose than my own “thanks for attending and remember to give feedback”.

Philosophy is nothing but a full realization of what has been thought and discussed previously. It is simply closing the work with which we have been previously occupied. It is getting that point of view whence we see nature, life and experience as elements in the active process of the self-revelation of spirit to spirit. It is the work of philosophy as such simply to place the dot which ends the sentence, thus for the first time getting the full meaning of that sentence. (p. 174)


2 thoughts on “Dewey’s Hegel’s spirit

  1. Hey, Onni! It really enjoyed reading about your reactions to Dewey’s lectures on Hegel, which were one of the most important references of dissertation. I never came to think of the point you make about memory, to be honest. That seems to have a kind of structural similarity with the arguments that Hegel and Dewey both are making with reference to the relation between singular acts and the mechanism of habit. Anyway, just wanted to say that I do not know of any inquiry into the relations between Wittgenstein, Dewey and Hegel. There are, of course, many people relying heavily on Wittgenstein and Dewey (Putnam and Rorty just to name the most prominent) and many social philosophers whose heroes are Hegel and Dewey (Dick Bernstein and Honneth for example). But I do not really know of any study about the three of them. So I guess you’ve just found a niche! By the way, I’m looking forward to hearing what you’ve got to say about Dewey’s Lectures in China!


    1. Thanks Arvi! I’m not too sure if I’m going to do anything about that niche. 😉 That would require actually reading all those three philosophers in a much greater detail than I’m currently willing to do.

      As for the structural similarity – it surely sounds like that!

      I’m quite looking forward to reading the Lectures in China… 😉


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