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Hegel and Memetics

How Memetics supports Hegel’s concept of History as a dialectical progression toward absolute reason.


In this essay, I have purposefully limited discussion of Hegel’s ideas to his concept of dialectical History. Because of Hegel’s complex nature and the word limit, I have chosen to primarily use clear secondary texts in my analysis. I have attempted to summarise as succinctly as possible in order to give as broad and reflective analysis as possible, writing in a philosophical as opposed to historical style, as is demanded by such a topic.


When Hegel wrote The Phenomenology of Spirit in 1807, Europe had undergone cataclysmic change politically, socially and philosophically. Hegel had just witnessed the triumph of Napoleons army over the Prussian forces at the Battle of Jena (where Hegel was employed as Professor of Philosophy) en-route toward the ill-fated Russian Campaign. As post-revolutionary France marched across Europe, from Portugal in the West to Russia in the East, Intellectuals debated and argued the historical significance of 1789 and its consequences both to France and to the wider world. Philosophy and History tried to make sense of the tumultuous out-casting of the Feudal social structure and absolute monarchism. Gone was the Ancien Regime and with it many of the chains that, though strained and taught, still fought to impede the wave of enlightenment empowering new generations. Many thinkers grappled with the immensity of this bloody and fearful time using Philosophy which was itself undergoing some radical transformations. This was largely due to the work of Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason was to prove so influential to all future Western Philosophers.

Hegel took up the challenge of trying to bring order from the seeming chaos of Man1 by stepping back and viewing History not through a magnifying glass but from afar, using what he considered a universal trait shared by everyone featured in the annuls of Historical time: their humanity. Not humanity in the altruistic sense, humanity as in what it is to be human, the desire to structure ourselves as societies and the processes there-in. Much has been made of Hegel’s claims at success, about the extent of his utopianism or the almost tragic aspect of his apparent euro-centric conclusions contradicting his own warnings about Man’s tendency to do just that. Despite this, it cannot be said that it was not hugely fundamental to 19th century philosophical discourse: Hegelian thinking was not only a dominant force amongst European Universities, it also contributed to the ideas of Karl Marx. Two World Wars and a Holocaust of industrial scope was for many, including Bertrand Russell2, the final nail in the coffin for Hegel’s concept of History as marching to the teleological tune of Reason. In this Essay I intend to succinctly outline Hegel’s concept of History, presenting it as a thesis in need of synthesis. Much of what Hegel says has merit (he is after all considered one of the greatest, as well as one of the hardest to understand, of all the Philosophers) and, as you shall see, has even more to offer when, having factored in Russell’s anti-thesis, I synthesise Hegel’s concept with help from contemporary evolutionary thought and cognitive science.

Hegel’s Concept of History

Hegel followed Kant in that he too believed that the world we see is mediated by the senses and filtered through a myriad of conceptual categories pre-conditioned within human thought. Where Hegel split from Kant was in asserting that this in itself did not rule out obtaining knowledge of the world; instead insisting that it was precisely because of this capacity for conceptual categories that mankind is able to perceive truth about the world3. Rather than see this as a fixed constant over time, Hegel proposed that all concepts are conceived and understood by different ages and civilisations in different ways4, largely according to how self-conscious they were to their own self-determination. Every aspect of civilisation, particularly those which dominate people’s lives such as religion and the state, contributes to creating the geist, or spirit, of the age which, in turn, provides the conceptual framework through which a people interpret the world. Religion, ritual, tradition, laws etc all combine to mould peoples apparently autonomous subjectivity into an ‘imagined community5’ of shared values and desires. The universal that unites them is mans capacity to reason. Since History is the ongoing narrative of man’s actions, it too must be progressing according to reason, creating a teleological dimension to the course of History as we become fully conscious of the fact that all human beings have the potential to be free, self-determining agents6, the logical conclusion of rational thought. In this way Hegel attempted to unify an empirical, original History devoid of philosophical insight and a reflective History which ignored empirical fact as the essential raw material that it is.

Throughout History, man’s capability to perform as a self-determining being has slowly been grasped through the cumulative collection of knowledge created and recorded throughout civilisation. Although a new civilisation does not directly inherit to geist of the old, neither does it start afresh as a tabula rasa. Knowledge is passed down in objective manifestations of former geists (such as books, art and philosophies) which educate and inspire future ages. Along the way, multitudes of incompatible ideas come into contact, picking each other apart before reaching a state of either compromise or conflict. This constant evolution of ideas is the bedrock of Hegel’s dialectical History, a process commonly known as ‘thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis’ (terminology developed by Fichte which Hegel attributes originally to Kant7). Synthesis of ideas results in either a new level of self-awareness as a historical being or, at the very least, the explicit expression of the desire to fight for such an idea (thereby influencing others in its attempt at being realised). Since reason would guide the synthesis of ideas toward greater freedom, Hegel used the term absolute to describe the telos of dialectical history.

The state, as the formal, legitimate manifestation of the will of the people, is reflective of the geist of the age. When man consistently submits to being a member of a society, it shows the form of government to which they submit to be reflective of the ‘general will’ of the people. When, in Hegel’s view, the Sophists and Socrates provided the principle of ‘critical, individual reflection’, developed not through dogma but through social participation, this changed the mind-set of the Greeks, undermining faith in institutions and resulting in Socrates death for subversion8. Here is a Thesis (critical, individual thought) clashing with an Antithesis (maintaining power by suppressing subversion) which then drives on historical changes. The result was that Greek democracy was incompatible with this new sense of individual freedom and so the age of the Greeks passed over to the age of the Roman Empire.

In this way, Hegel identifies three main stages in History, each advancing upon the other in the levels of self-determination demanded from the people. In the first age Hegel sees the dictatorial rule of the Orient with one man being free and the rest subjugated. Personal desire and historical accident will result in continuous states of rebellion as others all contend for that one spot of freedom until the majority desire greater freedom and alter the status-quo. This then is a measure of how far that civilisation has come to realise the goal of individual self-determination. Beyond this Hegel points to the democracies of Greece and Rome, who had progressed further in advancing concepts of rights of personal possession9. In the arrival of the modern European Christian states, Hegel saw the most advanced age of self-realisation yet and in constitutional monarchism saw the pinnacle of state organisation: a legitimate constitution safe-guarding the rights of freedom combined with the limited power of an objectified head of state to whom keep could identify in non-abstract ways. As we shall see later, this opened Hegel up to much criticism for not recognising his own euro-centric category of interpretation within his own philosophy. It was a danger he warned about, stressing that though modern European states had enshrined personal liberty in law and judicial systems (agreeing with Rousseau’s definition of forcing people to be free), the freedom they espouse can be one sided, viewed as it is through the eyes of a specific culture both in time and place.

Antithesis provided by Bertrand Russell

In 1946 much of Europe was but rubble, the concentration camps decommissioned and the complete annihilation of an entire people narrowly averted. The mental and physical scars would stretch out into the future in the minds of the survivors and the textbooks in children’s classrooms. This was the world in which Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy was published and it is no surprise to find that he was highly critical of Hegel’s glorification of the state, particularly since the state Hegel chose to fete more than any was the pre-curser to one of the most horrific and brutal regimes to ever come to power.

Hegel certainly places a lot of emphasis on the importance and role of the state, in a similar vein to Rousseau. People choose to abide by the law for the good of the general will and the state enforces this law. Hegel seems to underestimate the power of the state to influence and guide the entire geist of the age, as happened in Nazi Germany. A whole new generation of Hitler Youth were indoctrinated, every media propagated anti-Jewish sentiment into every German household and slowly, after less than a decade, the stage had been set for the genocide of some 6 million people. As Russell puts it, “This is a very superfine brand of freedom. It does not mean that you will be able to keep out of a concentration camp10”. The seeming lack of responsibility the state holds to the individual for Hegel does seem somewhat heartless on face value, though Russell points to his view of history as being partly the effect and partly the cause of the teaching of world history in German schools11. Hegel was writing at a time when many were attempting to unite the confederation of Germanic states, something not achieved until 187112. For Russell, the question we should be asking is whether the state is good per se, as an end.

Do the citizens exist for the benefit of the state, or the state for the benefit of the citizens? Hegel holds the former view; the liberal philosophy that comes from Locke the latter13

Hegel would say that if the people are not attempting revolution in the face of repression, then their sense of self-realisation as a self-determining agent are not yet heightened enough to make the current system of government untenable. This concept seems to downplay the effect that an all-encompassing state can have on a people, suppressing their spirit from developing, nurturing and promoting ideas of individual freedom and justice. This seems odd given Hegel’s emphasis on the environment creating the people; one can only assume he did not envisage just how fully a state could saturate the zeitgeist with maligned propaganda. Another anomaly in Hegel’s argument is that the same logic that led Hegel to prefer a state to a collection of anarchic individuals should also have led him to conclude that a world state would be better than a collection of anarchic states14.

Russell also takes issue with Hegel’s theory of dialectics, saying “I cannot see any justification... for the view that world history repeats the transitions of the dialectic. It required... some distortion of the facts and considerable ignorance.”15 This obviously led Russell to ridicule the notion that such a process is working toward an absolute, something which Nietzsche also rebutted16.

In concluding this essay, I wish to draw parallels between Hegel’s philosophy of History and another, more contemporary theory of historical evolution from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and show how it can provide the synthesis Hegel’s ideas clearly demand.


In 1971, Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene. Towards the end of the book, he introduced a new term, meme17, which has undergone much criticism and debate since its inception. A meme is a unit of cultural transmission such a book, song, story, painting etc. Essentially it is something which is created by one mind and transmitted to another through speech, writing, art etc, replicating to various degrees of accuracy depending on the meme. For instance, the tune ‘Happy Birthday’ has become known to more people than any other song and, due to its simplicity, is replicated accurately each time and remains true to its original form. An artistic or musical style on the other hand may take influence from other memes and slowly change over time according to its popularity and accessibility. This change over time has come to be known as Memetics.

The idea is compatible with Hegel’s view of humans viewing everything through presuppositions of culturally created categories. The categories are determined by the type of memes the individual has previously been exposed to. A culture dominated by rigid, dogmatic religious memes is much more likely to believe in demons and witches than a culture whose meme-pool is saturated by memes of critical thinking and the scientific method. Memes enter a mind (thesis), get judged and interpreted according to the mind-state of the time (anti-thesis) and the resulting synthesis becomes a new thesis for others. In this way, what Susan Blackmore calls ‘meme-machines’, Hegel would recognise as self-contained, individual thesis/antithesis/synthesis machines. Dawkins knowledge of evolutionary biology makes him far more authoritative than Hegel or even Russell when it comes to explaining man as a rational being. Dawkins emphasises mans newly developed capacity for conscious foresight and its application as a reasoning device, saying,

We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, If necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination18.

Defying the selfish memes of our indoctrination is exactly what Hegel is suggesting when encouraging us to think without pre-supposition. In objectifying our intent to defy selfishness within the laws and culture of a state, we provide greater numbers of good authoritative memes which show our capacity to work together toward a more rational and fair society. So how did this capacity to reason lead to the Nazi’s?

The unfortunate fact is that unless someone is actually insane, even ‘evil’ people are rational. In all probability Hitler fervently believed that Jews were indeed a threat and reached his conclusions through rational thought. Hitler’s own internal conflicts are a microcosm of Germany as a whole. His mind was poisoned by narrowly focusing on and assimilating the anti-Semitic propaganda of the past, biasing his internal rationale toward greater fundamentalism. This may seem to be absolving some of the responsibility from Hitler’s shoulders; in truth, it is no more than saying that the son of a overt racist is more likely to assimilate those views and values. By this token, Hegel was far ahead of his time in assuming that a nations zeitgeist, or meme-pool as Dawkins would describe it, actually creates the people who live there-in. The whole of which Hegel says we as individuals are all part of should not then be emphasised in the state but in all forms of a nation’s culture, of which the state is merely a formal administrative part. It is almost Buddhist in its concept of each individual being both self-contained and at the same time a part of a whole. It is also the bedrock of Benedict Anderson’s imagined community.

In light of the Nazi campaign of Genocide and the well documented geist which made it possible, it is clearly unfair that the state should be seen as a physical manifestation of the people’s sense of self-determination. That it took a World War, and all the historical accidents and variables there-in, to stop the Genocide is a concern and certainly justifies Russell’s criticism. In reply, Hegel would point to the first line of the resulting Universal Declaration of Human Rights as vindication that History is progressing in a teleological dialectic:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood19


What Hegel didn’t recognise was that people in power and civil society rarely share the same presuppositions and categories of interpretation (quite the opposite in fact). Government is largely closed off from civil society, a singular, powerful geist prone to the kind of one-sided interpretation of freedom that Hegel warns about. According to the social contract, a state protects its citizens and in return the citizens abide by a common law, thereby restricting some of their liberties. When the printing press encouraged national vernaculars to become adopted, states became the self-contained imagined communities Anderson describes. This shared geist grew as the title ‘German’ or ‘French’ became synonymous with feats, personages and concepts of those geo-graphical areas. This shared identity creates a shared interest which states can utilize to their own ends. Since states have a duty to their own people first and foremost, this leads states to interact in a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ (something Nationalism only encourages to devastating effect). This only works so long as a state can keep its people self-contained. The more people experience categories of interpretation and memes from other cultures directly, rather than through the filter of state censorship, then people come to understand others better for themselves.

Whilst states still function according to the social contract, global trade, cheap flights, telephones and the internet have all contributed to expanding the meme-pool, or geist, beyond the boundaries of the state, in the spirit of the UN Charter. People are now less inclined to be fervently nationalist because nationalism no longer has a monopoly on the geist of a state. Freedom of expression, freedom of speech and greater exposure to other cultures, broadening the sense of shared identity to the point where people are risking jail protesting for people on the other side of the planet. Globalisation has allowed everyone in the Western World to experience first hand the effect of politics, religion and capitalism on the world’s population. Perhaps the next stage in mankind’s quest for self-determination is for gloablisation to show that pragmatic capitalist state policies, whilst both necessary and justified according to the social-contract, comes at a great cost to people the world over and is the result of the state trailing behind its own rhetoric and retaining the biased, one-sided view of freedom both practiced and preached by Hegel.

Could globalisation be the absolute of which Hegel speaks? Hegel said that we could never know the truth without being able to think free from presupposition, or indoctrination. In order to do this, one must be as free-thinking as possible, recognizing your own categories of interpretation as well as those who attempt to influence you. If we truly embrace the spirit of the UN charter, see everyone as equal and immerse our self in as many different viewpoints as possible, we give our minds the most encompassing conceptual categories available with which to interpret new memes (against which harmful or discriminative memes cannot take root). The world is getting smaller whilst the sphere of influence, the zeitgeist through which people are created, is becoming global. When we finally experience humankind for ourselves, instead of through the eyes of an enforced imagined minority, then perhaps we shall see that ‘This unity is consequently the absolute and all truth, the idea which thinks itself’20

1 Used in the original, neutral sense.

2 Russell, B: History of Western Philosophy

3 Houlgate, Stephen. Freedom, Truth and History P8

4 Houlgate, Stephen. Freedom, Truth and History P9

5 Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. First published 1983.

6 Houlgate, Stephen. Freedom, Truth and History P12

7 Lecture by Dr Matthew Altman, available on Itunes.

8 Houlgate, Stephen. Freedom, Truth and History P23

9 Houlgate, Stephen. Freedom, Truth and History P25

10 Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy. P707

11 Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy. P708

12 Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society Seventh Edition P639

13 Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy. P712

14 ibid

15 Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy. P704

16 Freedom, Truth and Beauty, P34

17 Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. P.192.

18 Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. P200/201

19, accessed 1/5/2008

20 Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, P705


Altman, Dr Matthew: Hegel Lectures I & II, Available on iTunes from Central Washington University

Anderson, Benedict: Imagined Communities. Verso, 2006, first published 1983

Dawkins, Richard: The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1976

Houlgate, Stephen. Freedom, Truth and History, Routledge, 1991

Perry, Chase & Jacob: Western Civilisation 7th Edition, Houghton Mifflin 2003

Russell, Bertrand: History of Western Philosophy, Routledge, 1946