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A Neo-Hegelian View of Human Societies

back to: Nature of Civilizations

Life can be simple as it flows from generation to generation through certain channels. The simple life would move forward in a straight line to handle its functions in the most efficient way. Why, then, do some people bring trouble upon themselves in departing from the beaten path and wandering off through difficult terrain? It may be that a person found the direct path blocked by an accidental circumstance or he succumbed to temptations dangled by others. Maybe he himself took the detour on a whim or out of a perverse curiosity. In any event, once he has left the straight and simple path, he must find his own way back from the wilderness.

If a person consistently follows reason, life’s processes could indeed be direct. Within the parameters of necessity, this person would act to handle problems in a straightforward way. But self-consciousness intrudes. A person becomes aware not only of immediate situations needing to be handled but of the ways that such purposes have previously been handled. The activity no longer stands by itself in singleness of purpose but in the complication of its own past history.


Imagine a world without self-consciousness. This would be a world consisting of the most basic patterns. Certain functions are required to carry on life. People must eat, drink, sleep, breathe, evacuate wastes, reproduce, avoid sickness and pain, and so on. They must, of course, carry on activities that are related to those purposes. In addition, one may suppose that human beings have a certain curiosity or restless energy which pushes them to explore their surroundings. So we might add educational and recreational activities to the list of functions. Even so, if people simply did those things that are required by their nature or environment, society would be different from what it actually is. There would be no pretentious behavior or selfish conflict. Everyone would act rationally to do whatever needed to be done. Life would be simple and perfect.

Let us call this hypothetical world “the urweg”, which is a pseudo-German word meaning the original or primordial way. It is more a logical construction than something which exists. It is related to the condition to which Locke referred when he supposed that human societies had developed from a “state of nature”. The urweg represents society at the beginning of its history, which is a logical history rather than an actual one. In the beginning, one might say, life was simple. People were uncorrupted by the kinds of vices that we have today. They lived unselfconsciously. They did only what needed to be done or what they wanted to do for the most basic reasons. But somehow humanity left the primordial path, the urweg, and began wandering along a path that led ultimately to the society that we have today.

The urweg exists logically inside of every situation found in modern society. Every thought that we have about our world somehow takes it into account. For, the urweg is what life would be like if people simply followed their conscious thoughts and did not let self-consciousness take them in other directions. Contemporary society takes care of the basic needs but it has room for more than that. Seldom are people found asking questions like “What shall I do today?” or “Where will I find food?” - or, if they are, it is an abnormal situation. We let custom and institutional practice look after such needs. Occasionally, as during wars or natural disasters, people again come face to face with life’s fundamental conditions. They either rise to the occasion or slink miserably away and sometimes perish. Most of the time, however, our lives are spent in mundane pursuits, the primordial ways having long since vanished.

By and large, society operates on the principle of doing what has been done before; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Yet, gradually the patterns of life that develop within organized society follow a more complicated course. Under various influences, the simpler practices are crowded out by more complex, devious ones. There is a tendency for the original channels to become clogged as society develops new ways. Congested, those previous ways fall into disuse.

One might compare this process with gullies carved in the soil after a heavy rain: The clouds dump their load upon the land and the water must be carried away through existing ruts. Water naturally travels down hill in a straight line, following the path of least resistance. Sometimes, however, that course is blocked by a pebble, or it becomes congested by the sheer torrent of water passing through. In that case, the channel overflows. The water spills out in secondary channels that follow a less direct course. Likewise, in human society there are channels to handle life’s functions. Life starts out simple, and the natural tendency would be for it to remain so. But when unresolved problems arise, they become obstacles forcing a person off the urweg. Life then follows a more devious course to its end.


Many of our adult attitudes are shaped by experiences in childhood when our understandings were, of course, comparatively simple. These simpler conceptions provide a basis for more complicated ones to arise later in life. In childhood, there is pressure to depart from the urweg. The child, in becoming more sophisticated, learns that the apparent route to an end may not be the best way to go. There are forces to ambush him along the well-trodden path. There is generally a “catch” to what seems easy. Children like to trick each other. A common sport among them is to set a trap for their playmates, some lure that draws them in; and, then when the bait is taken, they laugh and shout triumphantly at their victim. Of course this was a sport, but it has a serious side. It teaches children to be wary of simple solutions. The child learns to act more deviously and not jump at the obvious. The child also learns that there is safety in ambiguity. If someone attacks you in one place, you can escape to another.

To a small child, no insult is worse than being called a “baby”. To a five-year-old, being left to play with the two-year-olds is humiliating. Children are naturally driven to want to become more like adults: a little bigger, stronger, and smarter each year. No self-respecting teenager wants to think of himself as being sheltered or naive. The simple person may be considered a “simpleton”, someone who is intellectually less capable and therefore can be safely abused. On the other hand, society honors and elevates sophistication because it suggests capability. One does not want to antagonize this type of person.

Jealousy may also be a factor. The one who succeeds without having endured personally trying experiences is widely resented. We want to teach that person a lesson. We want to bring him down a few notches. The one who makes life seem easy is disliked and is therefore more prone to attack than one who had a hard life. Therefore, one has an incentive to exaggerate one’s hard background and shed the image of innocence as fast as a molting snake. The simple person has the air of vulnerability; and there is something in human nature like the shark’s instinct to attack when it smells blood. One does not want to be seen as easy prey.

In electrical engineering, it is known that an electrical current which passes through a wire generates “back EMF” which tends to restrict the flow of electricity. The stronger the current, the more internal resistance is created. There is a similar situation in society. Patterns which have developed to a certain point generate their own self-limiting condition. As thieves used to wait alongside well-traveled highways to attack and rob unarmed carriages, so any practice that becomes widely followed will attract opportunistic attention. Secondary activities may then arise in anticipation of the continued traffic. That, in turn, may force changes in the original practice to protect it from harm. And again, self-consciously, this new pattern may attract attention and generate a new set of reactive activities, which may then require a new response. So it is in any society with persons or groups having different interests as each tries to advance and protect its own interest. Society is filled up with increasingly complicated patterns of behavior. The immediate, apparent way is rejected.

For example, a young man sees a beautiful woman on the street and is attracted to her sexually. Why does he not go up to her and ask her to have sex with him? Given his desire, would that not be the simplest thing to do? It might be but, in some ways, it would also be the most difficult. Most people would suppose that such an approach might fail. Therefore, they would not even try. For, even if she was similarly attracted to the man, the woman would not want to seem too “easy”. The man, in return, would be inhibited by the fear of rejection. Both might be influenced by moral or religious teachings against casual sex. Sex is for marriage, and marriage is based on love. The man might try to overcome that objection by telling the woman that he “loves” her. However, the woman would be aware that many a man has told a woman this and then dropped her after a “one-night stand”. There does not seem to be any alternative to a long, torturous series of events by which a man and a woman become slowly more accepting of each other.


The tendency to become bureaucratic

As society develops in the direction of greater complexity, its institutions become more bureaucratic. Bureaucracy has its own style of written language: self-conscious and opaque. Bureaucrats as a rule do not produce anything yet have an uncanny knack for survival in the occupational jungle. Their secret weapon is secrecy itself. They know how to render the simple complex, and to use jargon with mystifying effect. This confuses anyone who tries to find out exactly what kind of work they do. Such a posture has definite advantages in a world where people rise to the top by judging others. Targeting lower-level positions, the managers and efficiency experts are always trying to “improve work performance.” In their drive for greater productivity, they make life miserable for productive workers. If you can understand a job, you can improve it; maybe, even abolish it. Therefore, the bureaucrat’s job is safe. No one wants to examine this since its function defies description. No one wants to become involved in such a confusing situation, offering no apparent solution. Really, no one wants to risk exposing his own ignorance. And so, like the prickly-pear fish which is too painful for predators to swallow, the bureaucrat survives.

Bureaucracy plagues the communications media. Fifteen years ago, the cable-television channel, VH-1, played rock videos ... Now, on the same channel, one finds mostly stories about rock stars or interviews with the stars and their friends. The rock videos, when they appear, include “pop-ups”, or short messages which writers for the show have produced. There may be a “top ten” countdown narrated by the host. It seems, in other words, that a bureaucratic process has set into productions seen on this channel. Viewers see and hear less of what the musicians themselves have produced and more of what others say about the musicians. These editors and producers have inserted themselves increasingly into the show even though the rock videos which were its original fare are exquisite works of art.

A similar process has beset newspapers and commercial television. In the mid 19th century, newspapers frequently quoted entire speeches, letters, or telegraph dispatches. For example, the New York Times once printed the text of a letter which Abraham Lincoln wrote to the Governor of New York airing their differences over the military draft. Today, the news is so heavily digested by editors and reporters that one hardly hears from the news makers any more. As journalists hog the show, statements made by government leaders are reduced to short sound bites. We may no longer have famous orators among our politicians because the media would never present their speeches at a length sufficient for the public to know them in that role. Likewise, the television networks used to cover live events at the Olympic games. Now Olympic coverage more often consists of edited footage from these events. Increasingly, the shows tell stories about spotlighted athletes trying to build “human interest”. The network commentators are, of course, much in evidence.

Bureaucracies illustrate how self-consciousness transforms an institution from an instrument to serve a constructive purpose into something else. Originally, let’s say, there was an idea which a visionary had; he wanted to make it a reality. This person worked on the idea and built an organization. The organization prospered, gaining power and wealth. At this point, persons who worked within the organization became ambitious in terms of their own rank. The more powerful the organization, the more attractive its positions seemed to these individuals. Eventually, the top managers of the organization came to make decisions on the basis of what would strengthen their internal position (or increase their pay) rather than what served the interests of the organization. And so this organization turned away from its original purposes related to the founder’s idea and instead catered to the interests of its managers and employees. The bureaucratic purposes were a new consciousness built on the structure of an old consciousness whose ideas had materialized.

When a purpose is pursued with visible success, its institution often becomes involved in a new set of purposes having to do with its own material embodiment. We call this process of changing from one consciousness to another “dialectics”. The first consciousness works itself out into an organization with a worldly presence. It then becomes the object of new conscious perceptions and new purposes, at variance with the first.

In other words, self-consciousness is involved. The original thrust of purpose creates a visible object. People can see and appreciate the founder’s idea where, at the beginning, many could not. Worldly size is easy to spot. So people begin to focus on the material trappings of an organization and forget the ideas that made it grow. The fact that an institution is large and successful becomes its salient feature. Once its managers and employees (now bureaucrats) become self-conscious with respect to their own power and importance, the institution enters a new phase in its life cycle. Its accumulated material is eyed as food for other interests. As the original constructive vision is lost, the possibility of corruption increases. The organization goes into decline.

Self-conscious causality

The German philosopher Hegel taught that the world was created through a dialectical progression of ideas. The first idea, the “thesis”, moved to generate its opposite, the “antithesis”; and the two ideas then combined to create the “synthesis”, a third and more complex idea. Hegel was a philosopher in the idealist tradition of Plato, except that he brought history into its scheme. According to Hegel, “being” was the original thesis. Its negation was “nothing”. These two concepts together produced “becoming”, which was a being that came out of nothing. This philosophy involved the notion that conscious developments move toward their opposite over a period of time. There is then a resolution of the two ideas whose perspective transcends the previous ones. General ideas spawn more specific ideas so that society as a whole progresses toward greater specialization. Hegel applied his philosophical system to particular institutions found in early 19th Century German society to show their essential spirit. Of greater historical importance, perhaps, was Karl Marx’s adaptation of Hegel’s ideas to the study of economics and class relations. Marx’s “dialectical materialism” explained how societies advanced to higher forms when changes took place in economic relationships. As capitalism ripened, it would create its own “contradictions” - “antithesis” in Hegel’s terms - and this would create a need for socialism to resolve the conflicts.

In practical terms, Hegelian dialectics represents the philosophy of self-conscious causality. Its mechanism depends on creative interaction between two different levels of thought. During conscious experience, worldly events give rise to certain thoughts which control the activities. So long as worldly experience is unchanged, the conscious activity will stay the same. However, when an action is repeated several times, it becomes a factor in the situation along with the elements originally experienced. A new consciousness will emerge, self-consciousness, which takes into consideration all elements of the situation. This second consciousness will differ from the first one in that the previous thoughts, or their visible effects, are among the elements observed at a higher level of thought. These new thoughts do not focus on the same elements as before but are a more abstract and complex type of thinking. Their thoughts may pull in a different direction. The extent to which thought shifts from the conscious to self-conscious levels will depend upon the extent to which the original consciousness has developed. The more its purposes have materialized, the more likely that the direction of thought will change.

The causality of self-consciousness helps to understand certain behavioral phenomena. Like biological organisms, conscious purposes change through a dynamic of their own. They have a life cycle governed by an internal clock. Therefore, observed patterns are valid only at certain points in time. Those who would be knowledgeable in this mode must determine, besides the pattern, the stage of development that it has reached. To be a successful actor in this environment, a person must know when the situation is ready for his move, which, in turn, would depend on what others on the scene are thinking. No one knows that for sure since the others’ thoughts are opaque. Their thinking can only be sensed. The background of preceding conscious events will determine to what extent a purpose has materialized and has therefore become ripe for reversal in the next wave of consciousness. To stand on this platform of shifting events and keep one’s balance is an acquired art. Anyone whose livelihood depends on an ability to interpret the public mood must be in tune with dialectical forces governing his area. Such proficiency requires more than a textbook grasp of technique.”

Rhythm and Self-Consciousness: New Ideals for an Electronic Civilization by William McGaughey (Thistlerose Publications, 2001) Chapter Ten: “From Simplicity to Complexity”

back to: Nature of Civilizations

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