The Age of Ideologies (1): General Introduction
G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History (1831)
When we review the intellectual history of the 19th century in panorama, we cannot help but be struck by the enormous profusion of ideologies that century managed to produce: Liberalism, conservatism, Marxism, Darwinism, Positivism, idealism, Hegelianism, socialism, Owenism, anarchism, communism, Romanticism and the list seems to go on and on. I would suggest that the proliferation of these -isms, of these grandiose systems, was the product of an age in which intellectual life had become much more complex and intense. And there are several reasons for this complexity and intensity.
First, the area concerned was larger than ever. For instance, American and Russian thinkers were beginning to make important contributions. Historically, western intellectual life had been confined to the European Continent. Now, it seemed, intellectual life had become more global. At the same time, European thinkers were becoming more aware of ancient thought. This development has a great deal to do with the development of anthropology as well as Darwinian evolutionary theory and the geological discoveries of Charles Lyell (1797-1875). Eastern thought began to pervade western ideas during the 19th century. Many of the British Romantic poets were quite taken with eastern ideas as was the mid-19th century German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), whose ideas were to later influence Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). In general, new ideas and with them, a new vocabulary, entered into European intellectual discourse
Second, science, which had been chiefly a novelty throughout the 18th century, now made new conquests. This was especially so in the fields of geology, biology, botany and organic chemistry. The newest developments in the sciences were primarily in the physical and life sciences, all founded in the early part of the 19th century. Another way of looking at science in the 19th century is to say that whereas the 17th and 18th centuries were keen on investigating Nature from the standpoint of what was inorganic and heavenly, the 19th century discovered and took a lively interest in what was organic, vital and living.
Third, machine production, the factory system and the cash nexus profoundly altered the social structure first of England and then, by the end of the century, throughout Europe and eventually the world. This revolution in industry -- the Industrial Revolution -- gave man a new conception of power in relation to his physical environment (see Lecture 17). The Industrial Revolution was indeed revolutionary -- never before had the mode of production been so forcefully altered in such a short space of historical time. The Industrial Revolution, furthermore, was not simply some backdrop to other, more important events. It was the event itself, and such an event profoundly transformed all men and women directly and immediately. As Raymond Williams once remarked:
And with industrialization and the development of industrial capitalism, a whole new set of social, political, cultural and intellectual problems entered the European mind at all levels. No one was left untouched by this revolution in industry.
Fourth and lastly, there was also a profound revolt, a revolt both philosophical and political, against traditional systems of thought. This revolt had two faces -- one was Romantic and stressed the irrational and unreason, the other was rationalistic and stressed the human capacity of reason and rationality. The 18th century Age of Enlightenment was firmly entrenched in the capacities of Human Reason. But by the end of the century and into the early part of the 19th century, a reaction set in. Man was not a disembodied brain, a thinking machine, but an emotional and organic individual. The man of reason became the new man of feeling. Of course, the Romantic reaction was short-lived, only to be superseded by the positivism of the mid-to-late 19th century.
To repeat the above argument, the 19th century witnessed a proliferation of total systems of thought. One of the most important systems of thought to emerge in the period actually took place outside the confines of the 19th century by a man usually associated with the 18th century Enlightenment. But keep in mind what I said several lectures ago -- thinkers lead two lives. One occurs during their lifetime. The other occurs long after their death as a new series of thinkers take up their ideas anew, making modifications and stressing one set of values over another.
One of the most important systems of thought to appear in the 1780s was the philosophic system of the German idealist thinker, IMMANUEL KANT. Born in 1724, Kant completed his most creative work in the 1780s against the backdrop of a general crisis in Enlightenment thought. The major force in this crisis was David Hume (1711-1776). Hume denied the idea, popularized by Rene Descartes (1596-1650), that man has innate ideas. He also denied the existence of the self because we have no sense impression of it. Hume was bothered about the idea of cause and effect. Where did it come from? Where do we obtain the idea of cause and effect? Just because the sun rose in the east, and has for a long time, does not necessarily mean it will do so tomorrow. What Hume had done, it seems, was to cast his umbrella of doubt on scientific inquiry itself. The effect on Kant was profound. So profound, that Kant admitted that it was Hume who awakened him from his "dogmatic slumber."
Kant found Humes skepticism unsatisfactory. Kant wanted truth, verifiable truth. He couldnt live with the idea that there were some things we could never know. He wanted to rescue knowledge from the grips of the skeptic and thus restore human confidence. Kant was an Aufklarer, he was a spokesman for the Enlightenment (see Lecture 9). But in his philosophy, often called the "critical philosophy," he went beyond the Enlightenment. It was Kant, after all, who had initiated what has often been called a "Copernican revolution" in philosophic thought -- a revolution in knowledge. His primary objective was to rescue science from the skepticism of Hume. As an empiricist, Hume, like John Locke (1632-1704), believed that all human knowledge comes from the senses -- sense impressions reveal the unrelated data of experience. But, according to Hume, the principle of cause and effect cannot be derived from experience. We simply assume it exists. It is, as Hume put it, an accident of human thought itself.
Kant replied that the human mind contains organizing principles or categories that impose order on our sense impressions. These categories are not to be found in nature, but in the human mind. These fundamental categories are apriori, that is, they exist prior to experience. Kant specified these forms and categories: there are two forms of perception -- Space and Time -- and twelve categories of perception -- plurality, negation, totality, necessity, cause and effect and so on. So, for Kant, the human mind conditions and determines knowledge -- it synthesizes experience, it "works it up." Kant denied that there was nothing in the mind except sense data. There is MIND itself -- a mind which sorts, classifies, relates and works up the raw material of the phenomenal world thus making it intelligible to us. The mind is creative -- not passive. And Reason is apriori, it exists prior to experience. Yet reality does exist -- things are out there. The point is that we could not understand reality if we did not have minds equipped with a rational structure. The world appears rational not because the world is rational -- the world appears rational because the mind is rational. The mind, in a sense, creates knowledge.
The first fifty years of the 19th century were full of change. It was an Age of Change. It was a hopeful half century. There is an exuberance in the literature of the period that reflects this basic optimism. One sees it in the volumes which poured off the desks of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) or Honorè de Balzac (1799-1850). There was an explosion of hopeful solutions to the problems of humanity, problems which had been exacerbated by the uncontrolled and unregulated effects of the Industrial Revolution.
Liberalism, like Romanticism, is a complex term. It is broad and narrow, vague and clear, all at one and the same time. England has always been associated with this word, although the word itself did not enter popular discourse until the 1830s. England had its Magna Carta and its Bill of Rights. The English seemed to be a freer people than anywhere else on the Continent. Montesquieu recognized this. So too did Voltaire. In his Letters on England, published in 1733, Voltaire wrote:
Although Voltaire used such a comment to condemn the failure of the French government to permit religious toleration and liberty of opinion what he also says is that the English are the most tolerant and liberal people in Europe.
Voltaire aside, English liberalism was associated with two notable intellectual modes of thought characteristic of the early 19th century: utilitarianism and political economy. Utilitarianism was the offspring of that strange man of genius, JEREMY BENTHAM (1748-1832). Having done most of his work in the 1770s, Bentham was an old man in 1810 when his ideas began to increase in influence. He belonged to the Enlightenment -- there is nothing at all Romantic about Bentham the man, or Benthamism the system. He was a thoroughgoing rationalist, a man who scoffed at religion, a man without poetic instinct -- a disembodied brain. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), educated as he was in the Benthamite tradition, suffered a mental crisis as a result of his early education, an education solidly based on Benthamite utilitarianism. In his Autobiography (1873), Mill recounts his mental crisis for us. Imagine every social change necessary to better mans happiness, Mill asked. Would you then be happy? Mills answer was an astounding NO! Such a response sent the young Mill into profound despair, only to be rescued by the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Mills education was impeccable. But there was one thing in which he was not instructed -- life itself.
It was Bentham who argued that a good government is one which secures for its people the greatest happiness of the greatest number. In his Fragment on Government (1776), Bentham wrote:
He also shared the idea -- then current in France -- that the best thing governments could do was to leave people alone. As Thomas Paine (1737-1809) remarked, the best government is the one which governs least. This is the principle of laissez-faire. Based as it was on Enlightenment hedonism, utilitarianism was thoroughly rationalistic. It was a cold, practical, intellectual rationality.
Sweep away illogical systems, urged the utilitarians, and replace them with a bright new model based on truly scientific foundations. The utilitarians went on to propose drastic change: the aristocracy ought to be removed, so too the monarchy. Prisons and schools ought to be reformed. Everything ought to be reformed: factories, divorce laws, schools, the franchise, welfare, everything that touched the individual in his collective capacity. It is no accident then, that the utilitarians were often called philosophical radicals. Most radical of their proposed reforms was universal suffrage. Only the individual is the best judge of his own actions. Why? Because each man is both rational and self-interested. If men are allowed to pursue their interests -- and they will because they are rational -- then social harmony will result. This is straight from Adam Smith (1723-1790), the father of economic liberalism. Each ought to count as one. The utilitarians were an interesting and powerful group.
In the 1820s they worked tirelessly with other radicals and the English working class to push through the 1832 Reform Bill, a Bill which extended the franchise to the middle class. The utilitarians tended toward a laissez-faire state -- a state which does not intervene in human affairs. The individual is enlightened -- and his self-interest can be pursued without intervention because man is rational. The greatest happiness of the greatest number results when all men pursue their own interests. What the utilitarians forgot is that not every individual acts according to rationality or self-interest.
Bentham and his followers believed they had formulated an exact science of politics. They rejected the idea that men had inalienable natural rights, rights given to them by virtue of their existence. For the Benthamite, a natural right was both false and meaningless. Men are born without rights. Rights are only granted by the state. I trust you all understand the significance of this line of thought. We tend to believe that the state exists to serve man. But in the Benthamite way of thinking, and for all its liberal content, man exists to serve the state. If all this shows anything it is how confusing the words liberalism and conservatism were in the early part of the 19th century.
From Bentham there emerged the basis for a whole new science of welfare. The proof can be found in the enormous number of parliamentary committees all manned by Benthamites. They measured, quantified and scientifically deduced the necessary social changes which would produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Closely allied with the utilitarians in England were the political economists. By the 1830s at the very latest, the ideas of the French Physiocrats and Adam Smith reached maturity in the writings of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) and David Ricardo (1772-1823). The British took over the subject of political economy almost entirely. After all, England was the home of the Industrial Revolution -- perhaps individualism suited the English. But even in England, there were those like Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) who hated political economy, preferring to call it instead, "the dismal science."
In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith argued that it was a law of nature that the invisible hand of the marketplace caused social and individual objectives to coincide. The principle of laissez-faire -- with competition and the profit motive as adjuncts -- would secure the most efficient production and distribution of a nations goods. "The whole art of government," Smith wrote, "lies in the liberty of men and things." Free competition is best -- state intervention seldom serves a useful purpose. The political economists became the arbiters of public policy in England. Their message fell on ready ears -- in this case, it was the middle classes for whom the political economists spoke. Here the message was hard work and austerity: in a word, values. Political economy spoke to the Calvinist spirit of the industrious small manufacturer who was in the process of climbing from rags to riches. Post-Napoleonic England was fertile ground for the ascendancy of the self-made man. So the slogan for the industrious middle-class was "self-help." "Heaven helps those who help themselves," was the way Samuel Smiles (1812-1904) put it in his best seller of 1859, Self-Help. The creed which Carlyle went on to call the "gospel of Mammon," seemed to be the law of life and progress and prosperity for the English middle class. As Carlyle remarked in Past and Present (1843):
And, as Britain made her bid as Workshop of the World, it was the power of the middle class that was most responsible for her success. They had energy -- and it was the system of competitive or industrial capitalism which provided all the incentives needed by the middle class.
About the same time that Kantian idealism and political economy were made parts of the intellectual landscape of Europe there entered socialism. In Britain, Robert Owen was popularizing his plan for a New Moral World, a plan which would seek to replace competition with cooperation (see Lecture 22). The idea of socialism has a rather long history. Traces of what we would today call socialism can be found in Plato, the Early Church and in the writings of Sir Thomas More (1478-1535). We can also locate socialist ideas in the Enlightenment itself. Rousseau regretted the institution of private property (see Lecture 17). Our lives in the state of nature took on new meaning when the first person said, "this is mine, not thine." Henceforth, according to Rousseau, mans problems have sprung from this simple statement. Now man needed government to protect what was his, hence the institution known as private property. Rousseau admitted that private property ought to exist, but in a much more limited fashion. Men should be allowed to possess only what they themselves had acquired by their own labor. The pursuit of wealth was in itself an evil -- it was also the cause of all the ills suffered by society.
During the French Revolution itself, Graachus Babeuf (see Lecture 19) advocated a distributive socialism through his short-lived group, the Conspiracy of Equals. In fact, the first half of the 19th century brought to light a number of fantastic schemes which were all intended to better mans lot in the here and now. Most of the schemes turned upon freedom, liberty, equality and the abolition of private property, or at the very least, a more equitable distribution of property. This tendency owed its existence almost entirely to the Enlightenment, Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution.
The first socialists were an interesting lot. One of them, Robert Owen (see Lecture 22), deserves perhaps the greatest amount of attention. Although he was born into poverty, Owen rose to become a wealthy and successful cotton factory owner. He went into business at the age of eighteen in Manchester and later bought mills at New Lanark in Scotland. At New Lanark he set out to reform the habits of the mill workers. He reduced working hours, improved housing, established schools, banned alcohol, set up common stores and found that all these changes had a few profound results: the workers produced more, the workers seemed more content and Owen made money. Owen was a benevolent sort of dictator. Visitors from all over Europe came to visit his New Model Factory at New Lanark. He visited the United States in 1825 and set up another factory village at New Harmony, Indiana, a venture which subsequently failed for two reasons: American workers were not European workers and therefore not that keen on being told what to do. Second, Owens American partner skipped town with all the funds.
The Owenites -- as Owens followers were called -- attempted to abolish money by devising a system of exchange based upon a persons labor power. This would, it was hoped, prevent competition and capitalist exploitation. However, this scheme proved entirely unworkable. Owenite communities tried to abolish the family, founded as it was on private property and egoism. The family was to be replaced by the community. This idea, of course, shocked Owens critics and alienated his people from the neighboring villages, whether in New Lanark or New Harmony. And although Owenism eventually failed, the amount of propaganda Owen stimulated was positively enormous. The peak years of Owenite propaganda were 1839-1841. In that brief period, 2.5 million Owenite pamphlets were distributed. Owen himself was delivering 1450 lectures per year. And his mass outdoor meetings, held on Sundays, were said to attract 50,000 on a regular basis. The Owenite movement eventually faded away -- it died, in general, with the death of Owen in 1857. But the Owenites, though a failed movement, did leave behind a legacy of socialist, communitarian and cooperative thought.
The Industrial Revolution was perhaps too strong to be overcome by the solitary though valiant efforts of Owenite cooperators. In fact, there were very few people before 1850 who were convinced that the Industrial Revolution was a permanent phenomenon. Many critics on both the left and the right, saw it as a passing phase. Like the French Revolution, the revolution in industry produced both supporters and critics. Karl Marx was one such critic. But remember, revolutionary times produce revolutionaries, and for lack of a better word, counter-revolutionaries.
While it was Kant who fashioned German philosophy as it entered the 19th century, it was the polymathic mind of GEORG WILHELM FRIEDRICH HEGEL (1770-1831) who was the real system builder. Hegel was clearly a giant and his influence on entire generations of thinkers was without parallel. Not since the days of Aristotle had any thinker constructed a philosophical system so thorough-going and complete. Hegelianism so triumphed in academic circles that by the end of the century, philosophers in Britain, Italy, France and the United States could call themselves Hegelian.
The system Hegel created was vast -- to some it was impenetrable. Yet despite its difficulties it exercised enormous influence on generations of social, political and religious thinkers. Like Aristotle, Hegel was a polymath -- he knew a great deal about a great many things. And like Aristotle, Hegel is difficult to understand. Passages must be reread several times for clarity and import. Perhaps his philosophy may be reduced to one fundamental principle: "what is real is rational. What is rational is real." What this means is that all history is the unfolding of reality itself, the Idea or Mind of the Universe. What happens in history is, in effect, the writing of a book of which God is the ultimate author, but in which humans participate. For those who followed Hegel -- the Young Hegelians -- history was no longer chaotic, jumbled or meaningless. Every great event had its place in the unfolding plot which, when the book finally ends, would leave no question unanswered. For Hegel, history was the story of mans becoming. All history was the story of mans progress and his becoming. That history was about to come an end, Hegel thought, in the Prussian state of 1805. History, then, had come to an end. No longer a process of becoming, history was now complete. The Idea, Spirit, the Logos, God had become manifest.
For decades German philosophy had been searching for the underlying ideal unity of all things. Hegel would show that this was a process working itself out over time. Behind the apparent jumble of events, the philosopher-historian can discern a great pattern, or process, at work. This process is nothing less than Thought, the Idea, working itself out in reality. But Hegel was obviously much more than just a philosopher of history. The self-unfolding of the eternal Idea includes nature as well as humanity. Again, as a polymath, Hegel knew a great deal about the sciences and lectured on them as well the state, politics, religion and law. He also wrote on logic and art and eventually wrote a very good history of philosophy. His Phenomenology of Mind (1807), is a kind of psychology, seeking to link inner consciousness with the outer pattern of historical evolution and development.
In reaction to Kant, Hegel tried to create a totality that saw the universe as one great whole. The self-realization of the Spirit, as it grows to full consciousness, takes place in and through human history. We are the instruments this divine Spirit has chosen with which to realize its cosmic purposes. Those purposes were to fully realize the potentialities of mind, to bring the Spirit to full self-consciousness, to perfect what Hegel called freedom. Hegels exciting vision of human progress -- all limited by what he called, "the cunning of history," -- stimulated great interest in history and historical scholarship. Although historians have disparaged Hegel, they cannot fail to neglect his influence. It was in Germany that the historical profession of the 19th century began. History revealed truths about humanity and nature. History was much more than simple narrative. History was much more than telling a story "wie est eigentlich gewesen ist" -- as it really was. History was nothing less than Gods will immanent in the world, the unfolding of a great purpose. History, in other words, has meaning.
Hegels grand philosophic system influenced a great many thinkers: Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), Karl Marx (1818-1883), Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), John Dewey (1859-1952), and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979). A good deal of the appeal to Hegel came from the fact that it was a complete system, a total system, an organic whole, a unified, total philosophy. The 18th century would have found Hegel confusing. We can only wonder how Voltaire or Adam Smith would have dealt with Hegel. And only a generation or two separate Voltaire from Hegel. Hegelianism was the first of numerous attempts at grandiose system building in the 19th century. The father of sociology, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), systematized his ideal of social investigation and called it positivism (see Lecture 25). And Marx, of course, gave us scientific socialism.
But to a generation confused by many ideas and by sometimes drastic political and social change, Hegel offered a satisfactory unity that found a place for everything. Faced with the question, "who is right? Liberal, conservative, Benthamite or socialist?" Hegel could answer -- all are. Each has its time and its place, each is just one part of a final synthesis. Each is an example of the Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Times. Hegel also found a place for both reason and Christianity, which many had seen locked in conflict. Reason and Christianity were two ways of asserting the same truth. The synthesis provided by Hegel, a synthesis which harmonized all things -- both phenomenal and noumenal -- was as impressive as the medieval synthesis of Thomas Aquinas (see Lecture 2). However, the Hegelian synthesis proved equally as fragile. Some found it too abstract, a mere house of words. Why not? Were talking idealism here. Others converted Hegelianism to materialism and its logical outcome, atheism, by discovering that there was no need to posit Hegels Spirit underlying the world of Nature.
Still others, would use the idea of historical destiny to justify social revolution. Hegel influenced all schools of European thought in Germany, the Continent and in the United States. What is most interesting I think -- and this will give us a key to understanding the proliferation of -isms -- is that Hegel bequeathed his name to a world view, a philosophical disposition which we today call Hegelian. But, even in the early 19th century itself, an intellectual era in Germany dominated by Hegel, the expression Hegelian and Hegelianism became current. Again, all revolutions, whether a revolution of intellectual insight or one of political upheaval, force the individual to make a decision. In the case of early 19th century German academic circles, some men identified themselves as Hegelians.
In his youth Karl Marx belonged to a group of young philosophers known as the Young Hegelians (see Lecture 24). They met frequently at the Doctors Club in Berlin. The club was actually a tavern and there Marx and his cronies would mix Hegelianism with their beer. And why not? Hegel was lecturing just down the street at the University of Berlin. The Young Hegelians were left-wing exponents of the Hegelian fusion. All the Young Hegelians believed that Hegels thought represented the most advanced creation of the human mind. But they thought it needed to be reformulated, adjusted, and modified to fit their way of thinking. Hegels idealism, they said, should be stood on its head. Hegel had it backwards. Reality is material -- it is phenomenal. Reality is not spiritual. Reality is not ideas, it is not thought, abstract and anonymous thought. Ideas, any ideas, all ideas, are only a projection of reality, not the other way around.
So, with the Young Hegelians, out goes the old and in comes the new. Materialism replaced idealism. The Idea of God was invented as a symbol for human ideals and goals. So argues the materialist. It served its useful purpose, but now -- 1840, Berlin -- it could be abandoned because it had become, God had become, aware of himself! For Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), theology became anthropology -- the goal of social perfection lay not in ideas but through social action -- the action of men and women, living, breathing and producing individuals.
The Young Marx immersed himself in the debates of the Young Hegelians. He went on to define his own position by criticizing the Young Hegelians. In fact, nearly all of Marxs writings between 1841 and 1848 are concerned with a line-by-line critique of his fellow Hegelians. Marx had to clear the air. He had to start anew. He had to stand Hegel on his feet. In one of his earliest writings, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (also known as the Paris Manuscripts), Marx does incessant battle with Hegel and a Germany whose philosophers somehow missed the true significance of the Old Master. Had not Hegel taught that the dialectic goes on? Did he not teach that each age has its own statement to make? Hegel had made the ultimate statement for his generation -- and the next generation must do the same. The Hegelians believed that after 1831, that after the death of Hegel, speculative thought had gone as far as it could go. Hegel caused philosophical history to come to an end.
Marx thought otherwise. What remained was to stand Hegel on his feet. What remained was to unite theoria and praxis, that is, to translate thought into action. As Marx himself wrote in 1845,
The age of metaphysics and epistemology was dead. Henceforth, the age of social action and social theory would fill the void. With Marx, the sole aim and interest of humanity is to discover and create the good society on earth.
| The History Guide | |
copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis