Hegel, Theodicy and Contradiction

This is a paper I presented at the “Hegel’s Conception of Contradiction: Logic, Life and History” conference in Leuven on 17th May 2013. In retrospect, it seems strange to talk about theodicy without also discussing God and the problem of evil. A quick google search for “theodicy” brings up the following definition: “the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil.” Well, Hegel is arguing for a sort of providence: the whole of human history, and all the suffering and evil that goes with it, is a necessary preparation for the end of history, where our deepest human needs can finally be realised.

I compare Raymond Geuss’s views with those of John W. Burbidge. Geuss seems to take a conventional view of what Hegel’s “end of history” looks like: it’s a world where post-Revolutionary liberal ideals have been put into practice and actualised in society. For Burbidge it’s more complex: at the end of history new conflicts arise again and again, new ideas about what’s best for society challenge the old ones: but from the “launching pad” of these conflicts we’re able to find, each time, a way to be “at home” in the world through compromise. Whether Geuss or Burbidge is right, Hegel’s “theodicy” means a vindication of the providence that he finds to be evident in history, an assertion that the suffering, conflict and evils of history prepare us for the better state of affairs that waits for us at its end.

Theodicy and Contradiction in Hegel

In this paper I’m going to discuss Hegel’s “theodicy”.  This is a term that Raymond Geuss makes use of when describing Hegel’s philosophy of art and philosophy of history.  In his essay “Art and Theodicy”, Geuss describes Hegel’s view:

“As human beings we have a fundamental – in fact Hegel calls it an ‘absolute’ – human need to be genuinely ‘at-home’ (either ‘zu Hause’ or ‘bei sich’) in the world, where ‘the world’ includes not just the natural universe, but also the social, cultural and political world in which we live.” (Geuss p.80)

We can find evidence that this is Hegel’s view in Hegel’s “Preface” to his Philosophy of Right:

“To recognise reason as the rose in the cross of the present and thereby to enjoy the present, this is the rational insight which reconciles us to the actual.” (Philosophy of Right, p.12/26-7)

“What Luther initiated as faith in feeling and in the witness of the spirit, is precisely what spirit, since become more mature, has striven to apprehend in the concept in order to be free and so to find itself in the world as it exists today.” (Philosophy of Right, p.12/27)

Geuss describes this need for reconciliation with the world as a “human” need; for Hegel, “it defines what it is to be human”:

“Hegel claims that the need to be-at-home in the world is ‘absolute’ in that it is not relative to any other set of possible human purposes.  We humans want to satisfy this need for its own sake, i.e. just because we are human and it defines what it is to be human.” (Geuss p.81)

So on Geuss’s reading of Hegel what defines us is a need to be reconciled with the world.  Now, what form does this reconciliation take?  Well, as we just saw, it is a reconciliation with the natural and the social, or political, world.  I’m going to focus on the social and political aspect in this paper.

To be reconciled with the social, or political, world, we need the world to be more or less as we think it ought to be. Hence:

“This absolute need gives rise to an associated set of expectations about how the world ‘ought’ to be, a set of expectations that aren’t automatically satisfied in human life as we know it.  Especially in more complex human societies humans will easily fail to find their social world comprehensible or will feel alienated from it.  Oddly enough, then, being ‘at home’ in our world, although part of what we absolutely need, is not, at least for inhabitants of the ‘modern world’, our ‘natural’ state, i.e. it isn’t the state we would find ourselves in if we, as it were, failed to exert ourselves.  Philosophy, art, and religion are for Hegel all forms of what Hegel calls ‘absolute spirit’; they are, he thinks, just various ways of trying to satisfy our absolute need.” (Geuss p.81)

The point is that the need to be “at home” becomes something ethical; what I mean is that this human need we have amounts to a need to make the world live up to our ethical ideals.

Theodicy is something that teaches us that our absolute human need will be met.  Philosophy, art and religion serve as theodicy if they teach us that our good actions will lead to good results.

Geuss tells us that there are: “Two conditions that must be satisfied for there to be a fully satisfactory theodicy, namely that

“a) in a world that is basically rational, good, and commensurate to us,

“b) the ‘theodicy’ shows us that (a) is the case”. (Geuss p.83)

So, it is not enough for a theodicy to make it seem that the world is good and rational; it must also be the case that this is in fact so.

Geuss does distinguish between “true” and “false” theodicy: a false theodicy convinces us that we live in a rational and good world where this is not the case; whereas a true theodicy describes an actual rational and good state of affairs.  For example, ancient Greek art dealt in false theodicy, because it made the world appear good even though slavery existed, and for Hegel no society can really be good where slavery exists.  But true theodicy is possible in the modern state:

“Because post-revolutionary society is fundamentally rational and good – the right principles are publicly recognised and are in the process of being fully implemented – condition (a) above is satisfied and ‘true’ theodicy is possible; because the process of construction of the fully free and rational society is not yet complete and because people still cling to old-fashioned abstract conceptions, philosophy is needed and has an important social role to play both in guiding the constructive activity and in ‘reconciling’ people to that task and the world that is coming into being through it. ” (Geuss p.84)

So, Geuss’s Hegel tells us that we live today in a state that is rational and good (here in the West at least, Hegel would probably say); though there are improvements that could be made, nevertheless we have in our political constitutions and bills of human rights all the principles we need to make things match up more closely with our ideals.  In other words, we have the right ideals, but we don’t always, or yet, live up to them.  Making the world a better place is a matter of “exerting ourselves”, rather than a matter of inventing new and revolutionary ideals.  For example, we recognise homelessness and unemployment as problems because we believe people have a right to a home and meaningful work; solving these problems is a practical question, since we all agree at least that they are indeed problems that need to be solved.  That is the Hegelian view as someone like Geuss sees it, I think.

If we take this view, then we can see the Philosophy of Right as setting out the political ideals that we still strive toward today; Hegel teaches us what the ideal state looks like – no slaves; everyone has a right to property; the state is sovereign; and so on – and the task of a theodicy, as we might find in philosophy, art or religion, would be to reconcile people to their duty to try to maintain these ideals, or bring them about, as the case may be.  The point is that we can recognise in the state our own ideals and so be reconciled to whatever work we have to do within the state; some of this work will maintain the state as it is, some of it will make things even better.  Philosophy, art and religion show me that if I and others like me get on with our work within the state, we will collectively make the state a better place and so will find satisfaction in our work.

Now, Geuss describes three theses of theodicy:

“a) weakest thesis: the world isn’t (metaphysically) set up so that it will systematically thwart our deepest interests.

“b) strong thesis: the world is actually set up so as (on the whole) to foster the realisation of at least most of our deepest (rational?) interests most of the time.

“c) strongest thesis: the world is metaphysically constituted so that the realisation of our deepest human interests (eventually) is virtually ensured.” (Geuss p.88)

Hegel takes the third position, ‘c’, according to which the world is “metaphysically constituted” so that in the end we will find satisfaction of our “deepest human interests”.  All this means is that whatever ideals we have which are not satisfied right now will eventually be met.  In other words, we work not just for ourselves and our contemporaries, but also for our children or future children, grandchildren, and so on.  We can say the world is “metaphysically constituted” in this way because it is really the case that we live in a state of affairs where things will (almost certainly) get better if we exert ourselves.  Any philosophy that shows this to be true is a theodicy in the “strongest” sense.  So:

“The final result of a theodicy is to show us that life as we know it in our world is inherently worth living; this satisfaction of our absolute need should generate in us an affectively positive optimism.” (Geuss p.89)

And the function of this optimism is that it encourages us in our activity in the state (our work, civic duties, and so on).  Good things come to us if collectively we work to make the world a better place: this is what a theodicy shows us.

As I’ll explain, I like a great deal of what Geuss has to say about Hegel and theodicy.  Hegelian theodicy is indeed about reconciling ourselves to meaningful activity; and Hegelian theodicy does, I think, consist in the “strongest thesis” that the world is really constituted so that our deepest interests will almost certainly be met (in the long run) if we exert ourselves.

However, by identifying our deepest interests with the post-Revolutionary ideals described in the Philosophy of Right, Geuss’s Hegel takes too fixed a view of the ideals that we strive towards.  Geuss’s Hegel – and I should add here that I’m fairly sure Geuss’s Hegel is not Geuss himself – Geuss’s Hegel seems naive, since the picture is of a modern society in which we are all agreed in our ideals, and we just have to work towards achieving them.  Geuss’s Hegel is a conservative, in the broad sense of the term, since everything we take to be ideal in politics is found in the nation state.

I think this conservative and naive version of Hegel neglects his own law of contradiction, which Redding describes:

“The law that Hegel calls ‘the law of contradiction’ states that ‘everything is inherently contradictory’.  It is a law, Hegel says, that expresses the ‘truth and the essential nature of things’.” (Redding p.200)

If everything is essentially contradictory, the picture seems to become more complicated than the one Geuss has described.  Remember that if everything is essentially contradictory, then, for Hegel, everything is changing, or at least susceptible to change, since contradictions have a tendency to resolve themselves.  So any ideal state of affairs would not be an end state toward which we strive, but only the beginning of a new state of affairs which in turn would eventually be sublated.

There is no doubt more than one way to account for contradiction in Hegel’s theory of history and politics, but I’m going to suggest one that takes us in a slightly different direction from Geuss.  During questions, perhaps we can discuss how we might square the law of contradiction with Geuss’s view, or a view like it, a view according to which the Philosophy of Right describes the ideals towards which we strive in order to fulfil our needs.  (I don’t think it’s very useful for modern philosophers to read the Philosophy of Right in this way, which is why I don’t wholeheartedly subscribe to Geuss’s reading of Hegel; I think the Philosophy of Right can only turn out to be out of date if we try to use it as a guide to the way political life should be.)

In his Hegel’s Systematic Contingency, John Burbidge describes what he takes to be Hegel’s view of history:

“Here is no purposive development, organising events to produce an order that matches what reason tells us it ought to be.  Reason works with universals, not simply the abstract universals of moral laws, but also the concrete universals where many components are fitted into a coherent whole.” (Burbidge, p.3)

If history has no purposive development, then it does not move towards an ideal.  So Burbidge seems to be taking a very different line to Geuss’s.  Whereas Geuss suggested that we can be sure that our purposeful activity will help us move towards our ideal, Burbidge emphasises the fact that, for Hegel, we cannot know where our actions will lead:

“Indeed there is no way of knowing what will happen once we introduce these radically new events into the turbulent cauldron of human affairs.” (Burbidge, p.3)

As you’d expect, Burbidge looks at Hegel’s Lectures on World History for Hegel’s view of history.  In this work he finds an important concept that is central to his understanding of Hegel’s view:

“What is interesting about these key passages from the Lectures on World History and from the two Logics is the recurrence of another phrase.  This similarity is lost in translation, however, for our translators have adopted different conventions.  Let me remind you what they wrote.  In Nisbet we have: ‘The particular interests of the passions fight and wear themselves out.’  In Miller, reason ‘exposes the means to attrition,’ while from Geraets and his colleagues we have: ‘mutual friction.’  All these English expressions translate either the German verb, sich abreiben, or its cognate, die Aufreibung.  The English terms that most closely capture its sense would be ‘abrade’ or ‘abrasion,’ perhaps even ‘chafe.’  While the Lectures on the Logic of 1831 omit this phrase, it does talk of objects coming into conflict with each other.  The image that comes into mind in all four passages is that of stones on a wind-beaten shore grating against each other until all awkward edges are rubbed away and smooth circles emerge.” (Burbidge, p.5)

“Because we are passionately committed to our causes, we do not surrender, but wage war with each other, struggling for a dominance that is never achieved.  In the process we are worn down until, together with our opponents, we find a modus vivendi, a  way in which all of us can find satisfaction, even if our primary purposes have been frustrated.” (Burbidge, p.5)

“The universal structures of social intercourse, then, are not the products of social planning, says Hegel.  They emerge from the struggles of the participants: between the landed gentry and the agents of commerce; between the workers and management; between Francophone and Anglophone; between parents and teenagers; between analytic and continental; between suburb and inner city; between fundamentalism and secularism.  Out of these struggles emerge the conventions and customs by which humans create great societies.” (Burbidge, p.6)

The picture of world history in which “abrasion” plays a key role is a picture quite different to the one Geuss presented.  Geuss’s Hegel seemed to be talking about a state in which everyone works together in order to get to a set of shared ideals.  Since being “at home” in the state means making the state a place where one’s ethics can be realised, and this ethics is found embodied in the principles of the state, every person must work towards the ideals of the state if they are to be happy.  That seems to be Geuss’s Hegel’s view.  But if Hegel’s view, as Burbidge suggests, is that we not only don’t know what the consequences of our actions will be, but furthermore, will inevitably be frustrated in our desires, then it seems more difficult to view Hegel’s philosophy as a theodicy.  Burbidge’s Hegel might seem to be offering the very opposite to a theodicy, since he seems to be saying that it is guaranteed that our desires will be frustrated.  However, Burbidge insists that his Hegel has us move towards happiness:

“And so we move toward happiness, toward the end of history.  But … passion is not so easily disposed of.  We continue to be individuals with our particular interests.  The resolutions of past conflict oppress and confine us.  We become restless.” (Burbidge, p.6)

So Burbidge’s Hegel seems to present us with a limited form of theodicy: philosophy can assure us that we will move towards happiness, but this happiness will not last forever, and eventually, sooner rather than later, we will arrive at a new conflict which will require a new resolution before we can be happy and arrive at the end of history again (only to, sooner or later, have to begin the process once again).

Burbidge’s view does seem to be compatible with the law of contradiction.  I should point out that not every conflict is a contradiction, since a contradiction, for Hegel, is a self-contradiction, and so, for example, if you disagree with me then we might have a conflict but not a contradiction; whereas you might say there is a contradiction in my argument if you can show that I disagree with myself.  Or to take another example: two politicians disagreeing over an issue might be a conflict; but it might become a contradiction if both these politicians are in power and so the state is simultaneously pursuing two conflicting policies.  But the point is that the fact that everything is contradictory fits with Burbidge’s view that anything can descend into conflict and require a new resolution.

In his book, Burbidge’s point is to demonstrate the role that contingency plays in Hegel’s thinking.  What is new is truly new, and was not made necessary by what came before.  Contingency is necessary:

“Not only is there no precedent that anticipates any particular event, but any reflection on its significance starts by taking note of the way it differs from what has gone on before.  Before it happened, the novelty was not even entertained as a possibility.  Although the connections and similarities between the action and its prior setting may be noticed once it has taken place, prior to its emergence there was nothing in the preceding conditions that would enable thought to predict that things would happen in just this peculiar way.  Any process of anticipating such a result would need to appeal to some general principle or rule; yet the uniqueness of the historical action rules out the presence of any such principle.” (Burbidge, p.10)

The post-revolutionary ideals described in the Philosophy of Right are not therefore principles that determine which actions are ethical, and therefore take us towards our ideals, and which do not.  Ideals such as those described by Hegel must change, and we are perhaps seeing this as our attitudes towards the nation state change.  For Burbidge it is essential that we do not see Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, or any of his other books for that matter, as a “template” to be followed by future philosophers:

“It is not surprising that, given the presuppositions we have identified, his [Hegel’s] conclusions can never become a template to be followed by later philosophers.  It is rather a launching pad for initiating new explorations of the way the contingencies of history interact with the traditions we carry forward from the past.” (Burbidge, p.15)

I suggested just now that Burbidge had a “limited theodicy”; but now I want to suggest that it is this notion of tradition as a “launching pad” that I think constitutes the real theodicy in Burbidge’s work.  Since everything is open to change in unprecedented ways – and I think Hegel’s “law of contradiction” means this must be so – there can be no theodicy conceived as progress towards a prescribed set of ideals.  Let’s look again at Geuss’s conditions for a “strongest” theodicy.  These are: the world must be good and commensurate to our aims and philosophy must show this to be the case; also, the world must be constituted so that our deepest interests are almost certainly going to be realised.  What Burbidge shows us is that our deepest interests are not met by setting up a world that fits with an ethical ideal, as Geuss’s Hegel thinks; instead, our deepest interests are served by whatever makes us most happy, even if this means the defeat of our ideals.  Burbidge’s Hegel offers a theodicy because he shows that our deepest interests are met not by the realisation of our ideals, but by the destruction of both ideals and traditions, where such destruction helps us to overcome an obstacle to our happiness; and he shows us that both traditions and ideals have a tendency to give way when we need them to.  Since we can trust traditions to disappear when we need them to, we can feel safe and “at home” in them.  Burbidge’s Hegel offers us the contradictory notion that happiness consists in not (necessarily) getting one’s own way, and offers us a theodicy by showing why it is that our ideals must always be frustrated.


Raymond Geuss, Morality, Culture, and History (Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford University Press, 1967)

G.W.F Hegel, Grunlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (Suhrkamp, 1970)

Paul Redding, Analytic Philosophy and the Return of Hegelian Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Hegel’s Science of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller (Humanity Books, 1969)

G.W.F. Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik II (Suhrkamp, 1969)

John W. Burbidge, Hegel’s Systematic Contingency (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

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