Monday, 1 January 2018

Wilhelm Dilthey's Hegel as seen by György Lukács

Statue of György Lukács by Imre Varga in Budapest.
This post considers Hungarian critic György Lukács’ (1885-1971) reading of Wilhelm Dilthey on Hegel’s Frankfurt period. Lukács’ trenchant materialist analysis of Hegel is at odds with Dilthey’s predominantly religious interpretation, so his concessions to it are worth considering.

On Life and Reason:

György Lukács on Dilthey’s Hegel


The German scholar Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) was a major influence both on Hegel studies and the Humanities in general in the first half of the twentieth century. Dilthey attributed a mystical and religious conception of "life" as the background to thought to the young Hegel, which he claimed was a key to Hegel's later system. In view of the slender textual basis of this account of Hegel’s “mystical pantheism” in the Frankfurt period, it is worth examining the views of one of Dilthey's critics, György [Georg] Lukács. Lukács’ view of Dilthey is worth considering in its own right as Lukács reflected on Dilthey over a long period. In the 1962 biographical introduction to his Theory of the Novel (1916, 1920), Lukács writes of his “youthful enthusiasm for the work of Dilthey” (12) and of “the fascination exercised by Dilthey’s Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung [Experience and Poetry] (Leipzig, 1905)” (13), a work that appeared when Dilthey was working on Hegel and which reflects the influence of Hegel on his late thought. Late in life, Lukács pauses in the middle of the doctrinaire chapter on Dilthey in The Destruction of Reason (1952) to concede that he was "all in all a man of exceptional knowledge and genuine learning" (420).

Lukács was a significant figure politically in Hungary and in the relations between Soviet and Western Marxism. He wrote voluminously on aesthetics and literature in both German and Hungarian and worked on Karl Marx’s early manuscripts in Moscow in the 1930s. Lukács was influenced by Dilthey, but not concerned principally with him after his conversion to communism after the October revolution. He later fell out with the East German communists and became a critic of communist party structures. German scholar Jürgen Habermas discusses him in Theory of Communicative Action Volume 1 and he was a formative influence on the “Budapest school” of social theorists.

Lukács’ views on Hegel’s early writings are contained in Part II of his The Young Hegel: Studies in the Relations between Dialectics and Economics (1948; English, 1975). In the UK, the translation of The Young Hegel came out in 1975 from a small publisher (Merlin Press) and seems to have been overshadowed by Charles Taylor’s big book Hegel that appeared around the same time. Lukács also reviewed Dilthey’s Hegel book and his essays collected in Goethe and his Age (1947; English, 1968) are also relevant to Hegel. His late work, The Ontology of Social Being, has a section on Hegel.

Despite his often critical approach to Dilthey, Lukács concedes that Dilthey is right on several key points in relation to Hegel’s early religious ideas. This is significant given his resolute secularism and stress on economic and social analysis. Lukacs’ main significant statements concern:
  • Thought as a Reflection of Life 
  • Hegel and Christian Mysticism
  • Religion and Society
  • Romanticism
The remainder of this essay discusses these and the conclusions we can draw from them. Page references below are to the English edition of The Young Hegel, to Nohl's 1907 German and T.M. Knox's English edition of Hegel's Early Theological Writings (1948).

Thought as a Reflection of Life

The key chapters for Lukács’ evaluation of Dilthey on Hegel are Part II Chapters 6 and 7 of The Young Hegel. These address The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate (SCF) and the Frankfurt Fragment of a System - the central texts from which Dilthey draws his conclusions. Lukács acknowledges that the Frankfurt texts weld particular experiences together into a “totality which Hegel repeatedly designates with the word “life” [...] In the Frankfurt period however, his conception of “life” is not only confused in itself, but its content is essentially mystical.” (97-98) This cedes some ground to Dilthey’s analysis. The interpretation of life (biological and social) played an active role in Hegel’s generation, but it was also a theme in Lebensphilosophie [philosophy of life], a style of philosophizing that is attributed partly to Dilthey himself. Its heyday is said to have been in the 1920s when it helped pave the way to existentialism. In his books The Destruction of Reason and The Young Hegel, Lukács blamed Lebensphilosophie for contemporary irrationalism and saw it as an expression of bourgeois ideology. He also condemned its role in the Hegel-scholarship of his day. Lukács wrote:
“We have already mentioned the growing influence of irrationalist “Lebensphilosophie”. The great popularity enjoyed by Dilthey’s contribution to the revival of Hegel can be traced back to the fact that here Hegel’s dialectics are distorted so as so as to harmonize with the emergence of philosophical irrationalism. In this sense Dilthey’s monograph of 1906 on the young Hegel betokens a turning-point in the history of Hegel-studies. The crux of the matter is that Dilthey meets the imperialist and reactionary revival of Romanticism half-way when – by ignoring or distorting the most vital historical facts – he brings Hegel within the orbit of philosophical Romanticism.” (The Young Hegel, xviii) 
It seems that the “problem of irrationality” was widely perceived as an issue at this time more widely than in Lukács’ version of Marxism. Perhaps it was ever thus. Richard Kroner’s From Kant to Hegel (1921-24) was also clearly a key text at this time: it was “of decisive importance” for the later development of neo-Hegelianism” according to Lukács (The Young Hegel, xviii). The contentious use of the concept of life finds support when the neo-Hegelian biographer Theodor Haering, makes “life” fundamental to his interpretation of Hegel. He wrote:
“He who has followed Hegel’s early development step by step with the manuscript material at hand sees with astonishment how the apparent and supposedly so pure, theoretical, abstract and universal thinker Hegel started first of all from a purely practical and concrete problematic, from a question of popular education, so to say. “How can a people’s life, that has become stiff and lifeless in all its expressions (Hegel at that time said “positive”, “objective”, later “abstract”, “merely reflective”, “firm” and “fast”, etc.), awaken to new life, be filled again with new living spirit?” – that is the fundamental question that stands everywhere behind his brooding meditations.” (Gemeinschaft und Personlichkeit in der Philosophie Hegels [Community and Personality in Hegel’s Philosophy], 1929, 5-6.) 
Lukács argues instead that the rational core of the talk of social obstructions to the spontaneity of life is the economic division of labour in society. This strikes me as a potentially fruitful interpretation. However, the intellectual basis of Marxism – i.e. the labour theory of value – has diminished in plausibility since the decades when Lukács wrote.

Hegel and Christian Mysticism

On SCF, the main work of the period of alleged “mystical pantheism”, Lukács states that “Hegel has a much clearer, more approving attitude towards Jesus in this work than he ever had in Berne.” (177) However, this is a relative statement. On the ambiguity of Hegel’s relations to Christianity, Lukács writes: “The religious categories of Christianity are of the highest importance for his entire philosophy.” In Frankfurt, he concludes, “Hegel had abandoned his earlier rejection of Christianity.” (123)

Lukács concedes then that Hegel’s thought at this time is religious in character. For example, he describes Hegel as “lost in the murky depths of mysticism” (150), as espousing an idealism “tinged with religiosity” (160), as feeling “impelled to look to religion as the only thing that can provide an answer to positivity [arbitrary external authority] in life, and likewise he is drawn to regard Christianity as the prototype of religion.” (180) Lukács admits: “He really does regard religion as the pinnacle of philosophy; it is the annulment of positivity in terms of the religious union of man with God.” (185) The surprise (“really”) is perhaps revealing about Lukács at this time. Lukács notes the “extreme mystical formulations” (214) and “enthusiastic mystical outpourings” (220) of the Fragment of a System. This latter text sees religion as a fulfillment of philosophy. Hegel says in it that we must “at least presume that man has a natural sense or consciousness of a supersensible world and an obligation to the divine”. (227; Nohl 146, Knox ETW 175-76)

Lukács thinks Hegel mistaken in this high view of religion and claims that Hegel was “tentative and ambiguous” (181), but he concedes that it is a genuine feature of his thinking. Only gradually did he engage in a “process of overcoming the religious mysticism of his Frankfurt period”. (222) Yet he retained a “tendency to idealize religion which never disappears, even after he has long since overcome the mystical excesses of the Frankfurt period.” (227-28) Lukács says: “In Frankfurt, the period of mental crisis represents a high point in his religious beliefs.” (233) However, he argues that this did not continue in Jena where his ambivalence reasserted itself. Despite this,
“the foundations for his later ideas were laid during the crisis in his mental life in Frankfurt, [...] The creative product of the Frankfurt period is the intellectual framework necessary to gaining a philosophical purchase on reality.” (234) 
This is not to say that religion played a positive role in the “chaos of conflicting tendencies” (234), as his general reading, observation and purely metaphysical and social analysis were also driving his thought forwards.

Hegel was also concerned with social and political issues. Lukács calls SCF “a great debate with Christianity”. (179) Hegel is asking whether the answers of Christianity are viable in the modern world. The term ”modern” suggests a social world structured by commercial relations and a predominantly mechanical understanding of nature. From a Marxist standpoint, its character is determined ultimately by the development of the forces of production which in turn determine the relations of production (i.e. property rights). Lukács characterizes the “union” by which Hegel seeks to overcome “positivity” in terms of the kind of unity achieved by practical activity, as when a potter turns clay to his own purposes by making a cup or a bowl, or steam energy is harnessed in a steam engine. Lukács points out that from a realist viewpoint such “union” can never be complete as the external world has its own reality independent of our purposes, though we can make a mark on it. Thus he cites Lenin’s dictum that “Idealism is clerical obscurantism.” Hegel’s idealism leads him to conceive “positivity” too broadly in terms of the more general concept of objectivity. Such absolute idealism is bound to end in disappointment. Lukács argues that Hegel must either “take his objectless objectivity seriously” (189) – in which case his thought dissolved in mysticism – or else maintain the role of reflection in religion, in which case the inadequacy of religion to the problems of modernity becomes apparent. He says that “Hegel does not consistently dissipate objectivity in a haze of mysticism; he is, especially when he comes to deal with social or historical phenomena, much too down-to-earth and realistic to take the religious postulate of an objectivity without objects seriously.” (192) The inconsistency is, he implies – relatively speaking – a virtue. In my view, the ambiguity of the term "idealism" is a hindrance here.

As regards religion, Dilthey was a major scholar of the theologian Schleiermacher, though in his last years he dwelt on Hegel. Disappointingly, Lukács seems to have little to say on the relation of Hegel to Schleiermacher, though Dilthey thought that Hegel’s reading of Schleiermacher’s Discourses on Religion to its Cultured Despisers (1799) was a key event. There is a tension in Lukács’ argument, as he argues both that religious ideas were decisive for Hegel and played a role in his social thinking, but nonetheless that they belong to the past and can play no role in his own contemporary project of social reform.

Religion and Society

 In general then, Lukács stresses the social significance of Hegel’s religious formulations, while conceding, with some wavering, that his thought was framed originally in religious terms. The view of public religion as a symbolic enactment is sharpened by the attention given by Lukács to the social realities and aspirations being symbolized.  In particular, the realization of the mystical idea of unity is social in nature. Lukács says of the development of Hegel's social thought from the Berne period on:
“His efforts to discover a philosophical reconciliation between the humanist  ideals of the development of personality and the objective, immutable facts of society lead him to an increasingly profound understanding, firstly of the problems of private property and later of labor as the fundamental mode of interaction between individual and society.” (99) 
It is only in the course of this that there is “a definite turn towards religious mysticism”. (100) There is a further tension in Lukács’ thinking as to whether the source of Hegel’s ideas is Christianity or a general humanism that idealized ancient Greece and was later tinged with Christianity. He says: “of this period [the late 1790s] less than any other can it be maintained that he was fully in accord with Christianity.” (181) This seems to me a clear overstatement in light of the Berne texts. He suggests that the blow to republican idealism represented by Thermidor (the overthrow of Robespierre’s party in 1794) contributed to Hegel’s turn to religion, but this too is questionable.

Lukács argues that Hegel had an awareness of conflicts of value within society that Dilthey overlooks, particularly as regards the history of property rights. He writes: “However mystical many of Hegel’s utterances sound on this point, they yet contain a much more realistic core of truth about history and society than is to be found in the other German philosophers of this time: namely his rejection of the very common idea, still prevalent among intellectuals, that a man can stand above his age and society.” (176-77) Lukács however, shows no sign of having read Hegel’s edition of Cart, which has plenty to say about property. Hence he perhaps misrepresents Hegel’s knowledge of property relations.

Lukács cites a passage on sacrifice (from Nohl, 349; Knox ETW, 315-16) and comments on “purposive destruction”, which he equates with the use of raw materials and other resources in ordinary economic activity. He relates this to the “Need, work, enjoyment” section of the System of Ethics. He argues that religion can offer only a symbolic solution to real social divisions. In SCF and elsewhere at this time, Hegel criticizes Christ’s attitude to both private property (“Give what you have to the poor” Matt. 19.21) and to the state (“My kingdom is not of this world” John 18.36). Like the Romantics who looked to the Middle Ages, Hegel looked to the past for inspiration. Lukács comments:
“Thus Hegel finds himself confronted by an insoluble contradiction: the kingdom of God which is supposed to resolve the contradictions of modern society turns out to be a long-since-obsolete and superseded condition of man.” (183) 
He asks; “how did the situation arise which could encourage Hegel to imagine that Jesus might be a serious solution to the contradictions of life and of bourgeois society?” (184) The obvious answer is that it is not so surprising a thought for a former theology student.

In short, the dialectical content co-exists with Christianity in Frankfurt. Lukács says: “for all this mysticism, Hegel’s conception of a society and history made by men themselves does provide a firm foundation for a dialectical approach.” (185) He notes the three levels – of love, morality and religion - that Hegel distinguished in the Grundfragment. Hegel claims that religion unifies love and reflection. Jesus is characterized as a “tragic” figure subject to fate. Surely this is to apply a term from Aristotle's Poetics incongruously to events of theological significance in Hebrew culture.

For the purposes of evaluating his view of Dilthey, the fact that he concedes that Hegel did explore the former “mystical” alternative is key. Lukács describes the union of two spirits (e.g. in a common purpose or common life) as an instance of this mysticism. Hegel talks of a “divine” element in man. In my view, this is already a reductive view of the incarnation. Lukács rejects Hegel’s concept of a “holy mystery”. However, Hegel’s concept is itself inadequate in Christian terms. He later amended it in his Berlin lectures.


Lastly, Lukács accuses Dilthey of painting a picture of Hegel that makes too many concessions to the Romantic movement and reactionary history. He writes:
“The reactionary historians overemphasize and overvalue certain carefully selected aspects of the Hegelian view of history, with which they sympathize, because their own view of the development of the historical consciousness is that it stems from the reaction against the French revolution (i.e. from Burke) and then proceeds via Hegel to Ranke and later apologists. If we wish to understand both the strengths and weaknesses of Hegel’s developing system we must see through this sham tradition.” (229) 
These “weaknesses” in Hegel include his “unconditional acceptance of the Christian religion” (232) which he nonetheless seeks to explain historically. As an alternative to this, Lukács stresses the “dialectical” content of Hegel’s social thought, that is to say, its rational content based on an analysis of conflicting lines of possible social development. In religious terms, he contrasts Hegel’s recognition of the inevitability of private property and its rejection in Christ’s teaching (which Hegel calls “a litany pardonable only in sermons and rhymes” (177)). He relates the sharp division of mental powers and the concern with the wholeness of man in the philosophy of the time to the problems of the division of labor in early capitalism. Hegel uses the term “union” to include our union with the products of our labor as well as in a religious sense. Lukács argues that the “union” aimed at is thus related to overcoming of the division of labor and hence to social reform, for which Lukács considers religion an ineffective means. Lukács concludes that in Frankfurt “the tragic conflict of values now reaches right into Hegel’s view of religion.” (178) In my view, the truth in this does not justify a rejection of religion as such.


Lukács has a generally negative view of religion as a social phenomenon and thus attributes Hegel’s motivation at times to a “general humanist philosophy”. (223) This appears to be because of his perception that religion is symbolic in nature and hence not a driver of social change. In my view this is exaggerated, if not an outright mistake. Interestingly, he described his own move to Marxism as a religious conversion. The problems of Marxism as a practical creed - its attempt to impose by force through a "vanguard party" a version of the union that the church tries to achieve by persuasion - have led to a resurgence of a hermeneutic approach in the humanities that owes its origins to Dilthey. This approach validates the concept of purpose, but only subjectively. Its danger was already expressed by Hegel when he said that such scholarship would “until the end of time have only subjectivities to oppose to subjectivities, and not the absolute to the conditioned.” (On the Essence of Philosophical Criticism) The broader western tradition – Aristotle, Aquinas, James Mylne, Hegel – in which religion and social idealism go hand in hand - is a more adequate recourse than the dichotomy of the stalled traditions of either Lukács or Dilthey, despite their great merits as Hegel scholars.