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Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

1770 - 1831

The German Idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel has had a tremendous influence on European thought. Hegel's criticism of Enlightenment empiricism, influenced by the work of Emmanuel Kant, led him to propose that human history is the result of a dialectical process by which Spirit (Geist in German) struggles to attain self-consciousness.

Hegel presents the dialectic as a three-part structure consisting of a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis. In human history, when the status quo (the thesis) is challenged by a new historical development or force (the antithesis), a new form of life emerges out of the synthesis of the two prior stages. The synthesis involves another of Hegel's famous concepts--Aufhebung, which often gets translated as "sublation." In German, Aufhebung means both "to cancel out" and "to preserve." In Hegel's synthesis, the old orders of human existence are not destroyed, but neither are they continued in their prior forms. They are aufgehoben, sublated, transformed into something else. In Hegel's sense of history, the synthesis generally offers an improvement over the former situations.

Karl Marx was a follower of Hegel who eventually decided that what drives human history is not an ideal Spirit but the material struggles of human beings. Marx's inversion of the Hegelian model introduced dialectical materialism, a key concept in communist economics and Marxist social theory.