On Hegel and the Intelligibility of the Human World

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I’ve been studying Hegel lately because I find a value in his idea that history has an objective structure and is intelligible.  He argued that History is rational, and therefore its chain of causes and effects can be understood by Reason. I deeply believe in the intelligibility of history and the human world at large, as I advocate for the human world to be  administered in a planned and democratic way, which requires the possibility of scientific understanding. In contrast, many contemporary thinkers are extremely skeptical about the intelligibility of the human world. For example, many economists proclaimed that socialist planning is flawed because the supply and demand of goods cannot be rationally made intelligible to planners. We see similar arguments from the Left in the form of post-structuralist attacks against the  “master narratives” that seek to unearth the rational structure of the human world. For example, contemporary criticisms of the Enlightenment sometimes argue that the same reason used to understand the world is used to dominate human beings, because Reason starts to see humans as stacks of labor power to be manipulated for some instrumental end.

However in my opinion, to deny the intelligibility of the human world,  or to deny that this intelligibility can ever be used for emancipation, is to deny the possibility of politics, for political actors must have a theory of where history is marching, in other words,  “in what direction does the wind blows”. Political agents need to ground themselves in a world-theory so they can suggest a political program that would either change the direction of history to another preferred  course, or enhance the direction that it is undertaking right now. The IMF, Breton-Woods, the Iraq War, the current austerity onslaught, etc. have or had an army of politicians, intellectuals, and technocrats wielding scientific reason, trying to grasp where the current of history flows, and developing policy in line with their world-theory.  In lieu of our “enemies” (capitalist state, empire) using a scientific understanding of history in order to destroy the world, I will attempt to instrumentalize my reading of Hegel in order to make a case of a socialist intelligibility of the human world, that has the purpose of freeing humanity through the use of socialist planning. I am however, not trained in philosophy, so my reading of Hegel may not be entirely accurate – yet accuracy isn’t really my goal as much as using him as an inspiration for making my case.

Hegel and many  thinkers in the 19th century were optimistic about uncovering the laws of motion that drive history, and thus the evolution of the human world.  Hegel thought that history was intellectually intelligible in so far that it is can be rationally understood as marching in a certain rational direction, that is, towards freedom even if the human beings that make this history are often driven by irrational desires.  For example, Hegel thought the French Revolution, following the evolutionary path of history, brought about the progress of freedom in spite of its actors being driven by desires that may have concretely nothing to do with freedom (e.g. glory, self-interest, revenge, etc.).  To Hegel, the French Revolution was a logically necessary event that follows accordance to a determined motion of history towards freedom. In parallel, Marx, who “turned Hegel on its head” thought that the human world could be understood as functions of the underlying economic structure (e.g. capitalism or feudalism) and its  class composition. Furthermore Marx argued that the working class, due to its objective socio-economic position as the producer of the world’s wealth, could bring about socialism.

Not only were Hegel and Marx optimistic in the intelligibility of the human world, but they found that a liberated society would make use of this intelligibility to make humans free. In the case of Hegel, he thought that the end of history would be realized by a rational State that scaffolds people’s freedom by making them masters of the world they can understand and manipulate in order to realize their liberties/rights. This is why Hegel thought the French Revolution revealed the structure of history, as this event  demanded that the laws of the government become based on reason and serve human freedom. In the case of Marx and his socialist descendants, the fact that the economy is intelligible means that a socialist society could administer it for social need, as opposed to the random, anarchic and crisis ridden chaos of capitalism. The socialist case for the intelligibility of the human world gave rise to very ambitious and totalizing political programs, with calls for the economy to be planned for the sake of social need, and with the working class as the coherent agent for enacting this political program. Sometimes these socialist totalizing narratives are described by some marxists as programmatism,  where programmatism is the phenomenon of coherent socialist parties that have grandiose and ambitious political programs of restructuring the world through the universal agency of the working class.

However,  from the 20th century onwards, much of  intellectual activity was spent in arguing against this intelligibility of the human world, and therefore against the totalizing socialist program. In the economic sphere, Hayek argued that the economy was too complicated and fine-grained to be consciously understood by human actors, therefore making conscious economic planning an impossibility. From the Left, post-structuralist theorists attacked  the idea that there exists underlying, objective structures that steer and scaffold the human world. Philosophers such as Laclau and Lyotard criticized nineteenth century thinkers such as Marx and Hegel for having totalizing narratives of how history marches and the certainty of scientific approaches to the world. In many ways these post-structuralist and marginalist views do reflect a certain aspect of the current political landscape.  The market in the West has considerably liberalized since World War II, expanding the roles price signals in directing the distribution of goods, which seem to echo Hayek’s propositions. In western-liberal democracies, electoral politics is often interpreted as a heterogenous and conflicting space formed of different identities and interest groups, pushing their own agendas without a discernible universal feature that binds them all – which echoes the post-structuralist attack against Marxist and Hegelian appeals to universalism. Furthermore, the decline of Marxism, anarchism, and other radical political movements that posited a coherent revolutionary actor, such as the working class, give even more credence to the post-structuralist insistence on how the social world cannot be made intelligible by totalizing and “scientific” theories.


However these attacks on human-world intelligibility miss a crucial point, which  makes the critique fatally flawed. These attacks only feature as evidence for their arguments  the ideological justifications of the ruling class and the defeat of the programmatic Left. It is true that Hayekian marginalism is used as “proof” that the economic world is not intelligible to the human mind, therefore justifying increasing neoliberalization. Or that the totalizing social movements of the early 20th century with coherent political programs and revolutionary subjects have been almost completely supplanted with heterogenous, big-tent movementism. Yet the ruling classes – those who control the State, still act from the perspective that the human world is intelligible. The State’s actors cannot make political interventions without assuming a theory on how the human world works and having a self-consciousness on their own function of how to “steer” this human world into  a specific set of economic and social objectives. For example, the whole military and intelligence apparatus of the United States studies scientifically the geopolitical order of the modern world in order to apply policy that guarantees the economic and political supremacy of the American Empire. Governments have economic policies that emerge from trying to understand the laws of motion of capitalism and using that understanding to administer the nation-state on a rational basis.

The skeptics of the intelligibility of the human world could protest in different ways to the above assertions. One of the protestation could be that existence of the technocratic state still does not reveal some universally, coherent ruling class. In other words, there is no bourgeoisie, “banksters” or other identified subjects that control the technocratic state for some identifiable reason   – ithe State is simply some autonomous machine with no coherent identifiable trajectory or narrative. Furthermore, a second protestation is inherent in some interpretations of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment: to make the human world intelligible to science is a method of domination, where human beings can be instrumentalized into stacks of labor power to be manipulated and administered.  Furthermore, according to this criticism of Enlightenment, those particularities that might not be scientifically uncovered in the human world, are forced to violently fit certain universal – for example, the Canadian violence done unto First Nations where they attempted to “anglicize” First Nations violently by abusing and destroying them in Residential Schools.

Curiously this second protestation, the one of how rationality is used to scientifically dissect the human world to dominate it, shows the weakness of the whole counter-rational project. The ruling classes do make the human world intelligible for domination, through their technocrats, wonks, and economists.  However the key idea here is that they administer the world in the name of some objective that does not treat social need as its end. The behavior of the State does indeed show that the human world and history are intelligible – it’s just that its intelligibility is instrumentalized in favour of some anti-human end. In reply to the first protestation, about how it is impossible to recognize a universal subject and the end the technocratic state pursues, I will say that the complexity of world capitalism does not imply there are no dominant trends in it that cannot be analyzed. It just happens that systems experiences various tendencies, some in conflict with each other, but that can be still understood from a bird’s eye view and scientifically. For example, one of the key trajectories of the modern capitalist state is the safeguarding the institution of private property and attempting to stimulate capital accumulation (e.g. GDP growth) – this is certainly an intelligible aspect of modern world history.   The existence of conflicting trends within the State that counter the feedback of capital accumulation, such as inefficiencies caused by rent-seekers and corruption, only means that the State (and the human world) are complex systems with counteracting feedback loops, not that these objects cannot be made intelligible by scientific reason in order to understand them and ultimately change them.

The existence of contradicting feedback loops embedded in a complex system is not an argument against the scientific understanding of the human world. One can still try to understand the various emergent properties even if they contradict each other.  For example, a very politicized complex system today is the climate. Although we cannot predict the weather, that is the atmospheric properties in a ten square kilometers patch during a specific day, we can predict the climate, that is the averaged out atmospheric properties of the whole Earth during tens of years. For example, we have very good idea how the average temperature of the Earth evolves.  In the case of the human world, the same heuristic applies – we cannot understand everything that happens at the granular level but we can have ideas about the average properties integrated throughout the whole human world.  Similarly, the climate  system has counteracting feedbacks, for example, clouds may decrease the temperature of the Earth by reflecting solar radiation into outer space, but at the same time heat up the Earth through the greenhouse effect of water vapour.

These contradicting feedbacks does not make the climate system incoherent to science. Similarly, the existence of various subjects with conflicting interests in capitalism does not mean that there cannot be dominant trends, or some sort of universality underlying many of the subjects.  At the end of the day, the basic human needs, such as housing, education, and healthcare are approximately universal.

The fact that the human world is intelligible and this intelligibility is instrumentalized by our enemies, that is the capitalists, the military apparatus, and the technocratic state, in order to exploit and degrade the Earth and its inhabitants for capital accumulation,  means that we should make use of this instrumental reason to counterattack, not just pretend that this Reason is incoherent or that it is a tool that corrupts its user. In fact, there are many examples where instrumental reason is used for “good”, for example, the concerted medical effort of curing certain diseases, which makes the human body intelligible in order to understand it.  At the same time, in a Foucauldian sense, it is true that the clinic can be used for domination but this power dynamic is just one feedback loop amongst other more positive ones, such as emancipating humanity from the structural obstacles of disability and disease. Thus, universal healthcare is proof of the use of instrumental reason for the purpose of human need/emancipation.

The usage of instrumental reason for social need and freedom harkens back to Hegel. The world Hegel promised us at the end-point of history,  that is the world of absolute freedom, is the world where human beings become conscious of the intelligibility of history, and therefore they rationally administer history in order to serve  well-being and freedom. The only problem with Hegel’s perspective is that he thought history marched in a deterministic sense towards freedom. Instead, to make history and the human world intelligible for human needs is a political decision that is not predetermined by the structure of history itself.  Until now, the historical march of the last couple centuries have been for increasing domination of the Earth and its inhabitants for the purpose of capital accumulation. However, in the same way the ruling classes make history intelligible in order to serve profit and private property, there is no necessary reason or law that prevents using the intelligibility of history for social need.  The socialist political program is precisely this – to make the human world transparent to science and reason in order to shape it into a free society that is dominated by human creative will, as opposed to the imperatives of toil and profit.

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5 thoughts on “On Hegel and the Intelligibility of the Human World

  1. I thought this article was really interesting. Though I think there are legitimate critiques of reason as domination. You should read History of Western philosophy by Nigel Tubbs, which works with Hegel’s historicity to tell the story of the development of Western philosophy.

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  2. this would be indefinitely more persuasive if there was a single example of any such program actually reaching its identified ends. even all mighty neoliberal democracy hasn’t, and regularly fails at its own stated (and even attributed) ends.

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    1. What are you talking about? The U.S. is the supreme economic power and western style liberal democracy is almost hegemonic in most of the economic core. If there is anything that vindicates Hegel in contemporary history are these trends. The issue with the criticism against hegel/marx is that they see failures as totally debunking these ideas but real life is obviously messy and iimperfect and nothing will fit one hundred percent these forms.

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      1. the US hasn’t achieved a single military objective since WW2, nor has it been able to enforce its most ambitious prohibition project, the War on Drugs. its attempts at border control have utterly failed by any standards, and all this having the (allegedly) mightiest military force in the world.

        all its social reformers have ultimately been unable to reach the end of their reform projects – education still sucks, civil service is just as corrupted if not more than in the 19th century. corporations have seen cyclical crises chronically dwindle their profits, debt have scaled on all levels of society. even the internet, arguably the most successful state developed technology, has only achieved its success by subverting its own original goals.

        there’s this prevalent illusion that somehow ends are achieved by careful planning rather than sheer luck – and possibly coincidence intensification, maybe an impersonal will in the world – but it’s all that is: illusion. all projects get derailed by their own execution (and anybody who’s ever got that shorter end of the stick called project management knows adaptation is rule #1).

        anarchy is the way of the world.

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