In Herbert Marcuse’s book Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, Marcuse wants to dispel the notion that the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel as “hostile to the tendencies that have led into Fascist theory and practice.” I will focus only on the first introductory sub-chapter in this synopsis, where Marcuse sets up the philosophical & historical context of Hegel’s thought.
In the first sub-chapter of the introduction, “The Socio-Historical Setting,” Marcuse places Hegel within the context of German idealism. This is typically thought of as a type of German philosophy progressing chronologically from the inspiration of Kant (1724-1804), to Fichte (1762-1814), to Schelling (1775-1854), & culminating with Hegel (1770-1831), roughly, the last quarter of the 18th century through to the early quarter of the 19th century. Hegel’s brand of German idealism is known as Absolute idealism because it seeks to bring all of being into one absolute, specifically an absolute spirit (the totality of all being as it progresses throughout history).
As Marcuse describes it Hegel’s philosophy was largely influenced by the French Revolution & the leading Enlightenment ideal that rational thought leads people to freedom (apart from the authority of the church & apart from the authority of a monarchy). The French Revolution idealistically completes the job by the Reformation to allow people to become masters of their own lives. Hegel wanted us to realize the power of our own rational will & authority.
In France, capitalism became a necessary force & expression brought about by the rationalistic ideals of the French Revolution, while Germany’s development was a bit slower to fully embrace the radical new ways of thinking taking shape in France, Europe, & even in the ideological founding of the United States. Even if this fresh idea freedom was in the air, most German intellectuals were embracing this as an idea, an ideal—not necessarily as a material & practical exercise of freedom. Let me put it this way, it’s one thing to embrace an idea & it’s another thing to take that idea & put it into practice.
Reason is center & paramount in Hegel’s philosophy & for Hegel history is the progression of reason, as much as the state is also an embodiment of reason. If most of Hegel’s philosophy is concerned with the progression of reason, it must be understood that reason is threaded through Hegel’s ideas on freedom, substance becoming substance & what we would call idea (begriff in German, often translated by Hegel scholars as “notion”). For Hegel reason working through these concepts is what governs consciousness, reality, the state, the course of human history, &c. The progression of reason is not static is active. People no longer needed to accept things as they are—since reason needs to be taken as sovereign. Our reality is only real by way of reason. Anything outside of that which falls outside of reason needs to be harnessed, transformed, & worked through with reason to be made conscious & to be real. As Marcuse summarizes of Hegel, “[rational] thought ought to govern reality.” Whatever cannot be worked through with reasoned consciousness is rendered unreal & unreasonable. In Kant & Hegel’s context, reason must be firmly established as universal & objective. Objectivity keeps us from relativity, thus a good defense of objectivity in the name of critiquing the relativistic perils of empirical skepticism. The authority of reason needs to be consciously brought about in this world by way of conscious action. Reason does not appear of its own accord.
The concept of “substance becoming subject” is central to the way consciousness brings about reason from the chaotic morass of reality for Hegel. Substance in this case, represents a contradictory force for the consciousness. It is only when we make inert substance into something that is real does it become rational consciousness. Raw substance becomes the subject of rational thought. By way of conceptualizing the ways in which we work (in thought & with our hands) through ideas, physical substances & forces, wood, metal, velocity, horse-power, &c. When we make these things rational, they become the way we think about substance in a rational way.
When we think about something that is contradictory, negative, antagonistic, &c. for Hegel this is the driving element in the dialectic. The dialectic is rational & it is logical, but it is Hegel’s logic. Herein we have the so-called dialectical triad of thesis, antithesis, & synthesis. When we recognize that substance becoming substance is dialectical. Substance is not consciousness so it is contradictory to consciousness because it is not consciousness. Consciousness must recognize this in order to make substance known & understood as something reasonable. Reason has to be brought about by the resolution of the contradiction. The negative becomes a necessary way in which reason is considered. The confrontation with negative bring us to a place where it draws the synthesis up to where it would not otherwise be without it. Consciousness, for Hegel, is dialectical, reason is dialectal, freedom is dialectical & history is dialectical. All of these things need & rely the negative to be what they are.