Ideas, Physical Reality, and Altering Our World

By Matthew Geleta

A common debate is whether the chicken or the egg came first: Did o ne cause the other? Does one matter more? Philosophers and common people alike have conversed about this topic for centuries. A similar political question is whether ideas or physical reality matter more. Political theorists like Georg Hegel argue that ideas are important, as they develop society and advance concurrently with humanity. Karl Marx, on the other hand, thinks that ideas in themselves are meaningless, and what matters most is the material condition in which they are formed. Overall, both pose convincing arguments. However, it is clear that ideas are more significant, due to their ability to radically alter the world in which we live in. 

Hegel believed strongly that ideas matter. This stems from his religious convictions. Ideas are central to his belief in Geist, a God that evolves simultaneously with humanity; as humanity progresses, so does Geist. For this progression to occur, ideas have to be produced. Hegel’s theory is rooted in humanity’s teleology. He believed that everything in life, including all ideas, help advance the world toward its end goal: realizing Geist. 

In Philosophy of History, Hegel explains that “The History of the World is nothing but the development of the Idea of Freedom … and the realization of spirit.”1 To foster this advancement, individual civilizations contribute one idea to society. Once an idea is generated, it exists forever in the world. There is a predetermined telos that humanity works toward, and that blueprint can’t be changed. Thus, Hegel viewed human history as an evolutionary process by which Geist is generated.

Hegel thought that when looking at all of human history, every event has an end to which humanity is developing. Even though human history is progressive, all of the ideas which we generate are confined to their specific time. As a result, we must consider ideas in their specific context. Ideas, according to Hegel, matter, but it is important to note that they are the creations of particular human beings at certain times and places. They are not transcendental, and thus do not last throughout time. These are all statements which Marx would agree with, as will be discussed later. 

It is important to distinguish the theory of Hegel from other prominent political thinkers. Hegel rejected John Locke’s idea of Natural Rights, as he viewed it as a problematic way of looking at the relationship between ideas and history. Philosophy, according to Hegel, explains what has already happened. It is always a retrospective explanation, not an idea which can be applied to all of time — past, present, and future. Hegel’s philosophy is tied to his view of Geist. Philosophy allows people to see what has transpired in history, and can then be used to explain how specific events worked toward an end purpose in humanity. 

In contrast, Edmund Burke did not think that humanity has any sort of end goal or ultimate purpose. Ibn Khaldun also sided with Burke on this issue, stemming from his belief that human history is cyclical. Both Khaldun and Hegel suggested that civilizations constantly rise and fall, continuing on and on, but Khaldun argued that they never contribute to some higher goal as Hegel believed. Hegel concluded that there is an ultimate end to history, while Khaldun thought that there is only a cyclical process. 

Hegel believed that each civilization can leave behind one thing to society. The Greeks gave us freedom, the Jews gave us an understanding of God’s absoluteness, and the Romans gave us the idea of the individualized self. Everything from a society is eventually left behind, from culture to language, except for one single idea. 

This one idea, however, is critical because it helps advance Geist. Therefore, from Hegel’s perspective, ideas absolutely do matter. They build Geist, advance humanity toward its teleology, have prominence in history, and define civilizations. History works toward the revelation and unfolding of Geist, and ideas are what propel that forward movement. Once an idea is birthed into history, it stays and becomes a part of Geist. 

On the other hand, Marx believed that physical reality is much more important than ideas, as he argues in The German Ideology. Ideas are “[brought] out empirically,” or, in other words, they are based on the facts and reality of present conditions.2 They can be traced back to individuals with an ultimate purpose of maintaining power. Ideas arise out of an attempt to justify one’s material setting. For instance, this was seen in the Middle Ages, where those in power attempted to justify their rule through the idea of divine right. Divine right has not always been present in humanity; there was no divine right when human beings were savages. Rather, divine right is an idea, or a product, of its specific time. It is critical to point out Marx’s conviction that ideas are simply the product of human creation. We are the ones who invent ideas; this is unlike Hegel’s beliefs in that ideas are not God-inspired, not metaphysical, and not given to us. 

Marx explains in Manifesto of the Communist Party that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”3 At any given point in time, there is a clear divide between the ruling class and the working class. This divide continues to exist because those in power, the ruling class, use ideas to maintain their influence. Ideas are weaponized as tools to maintain control. They are just man-made concepts that can be abstracted to exploit the working class. In the case of divine right, an idea was created by specific individuals to exert their status as the ruling class. 

Marx thought that alienation and abstraction is what leads to ideas gaining power. For instance, take the division of labor. It is a product of human innovation, and while it has improved the overall quality of life, people forget that there was once a time when there was no division of labor. What initially started off as a simple idea has become so normal, so rationalized, that people completely forget that it was simply the product of an individual’s thinking. People create things like democracy, freedom, and rights, and then they become naturalized over time. Through alienation, concepts created by human society become universal without anyone questioning their origin. 

Similar to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marx thought that it is possible to radically reimagine what human life is like. However, Marx believed that humans are the catalysts behind change. It is our actual behavior in the world, not our ideas, that impact society. He thought that it is crucial to examine what people actually do, as opposed to what they say or write that they will do. In other words, actions supersede ideas. And actions are physical reality, the result of material conditions. 

Marx has a cyclical view of ideas. He thinks that ideas alone are simply empty vessels. They are human concepts, and on their own are meaningless. As he explains in The German Ideology, ideas “have in themselves no value whatsoever.”4 Take a marker, for instance. On its own, it is an object that does nothing. However, once an individual picks it up and writes on a board, it is akin to a human taking an idea and using it to enact change. 

Ideas are tools to be used for specific purposes. Societal change occurs in a certain way, though. Material conditions birth ideas, which are then used to form ideologies, which in turn can alter the initial material conditions. This is why Marx believed in the preeminence of physical reality over ideas. Physical reality is the start of the loop which creates ideas. Without material conditions, ideas would not be possible. 

This contrasts with Hegel, who believed that societies birth ideas and then mature them. Hegel had confidence in ideas, as he thought that they are tied to the world’s development. Ideas foster world development, and world development fosters ideas. The world is essentially a mind, and is intertwined with ideas. Ideas themselves have always existed, because the world has a predetermined telos. Consider an acorn. The acorn itself is small, but it already has all the prerequisite ingredients necessary to create a tree. The telos of an acorn is the tree, but it does not know that. Similarly, societies birth ideas without knowing their ultimate purpose. However, they still add missing puzzle pieces to the end development of the world: the consciousness of Geist. 

Overall, both thinkers agreed that ideas and physical reality are important. Marx and Hegel concurred that ideas hold power, and similarly both acknowledged that ideas are the product of specific material conditions, rooted in their time. However, it is clear that Hegel valued ideas more, as they contribute to the larger purpose of humanity and Geist. Marx, in his view that ideas are empty vessels, believes that ideas can’t even be formed without the material conditions they were created in. 

His views are best summarized when he states in The German Ideology that “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men.”5 In other words, ideas are not possible without physical reality. However, to characterize Marx as saying ideas are meaningless is simply false. He and Hegel both thought that ideas can be used and have a purpose. For Marx, ideas are formed solely from physical reality, while for Hegel, ideas have more of a metaphysical feel because they play into a spiritual process. 

My view has overlap in the theories of Marx and Hegel. Both ideas and physical reality matter, but ideas are much more significant in the grand scale. Physical reality constantly changes. Ideas, on the other hand, have the power to persist through time. I agree that material conditions play a large role in the formation of ideas. However, where I differ from the theorists is that I believe that an idea can be applied to all of time. While physical reality does create ideas, and ideas are often a product of those conditions, they are not always rooted in that particular time. For example, there are basic human ideas which cannot be traced back to a certain age. 

Concepts like the “golden rule,” or to treat others the way you want to be treated, is a term that has been coined in the modern era but has been in use throughout all of time. Humans are unique in our ability not only to empathize, but also to reach out to those in need of help — even if we have no direct connection to them. This natural empathy has been present since we were savage beings, and thus the idea of the golden rule is transcendental. No one individual created it, as Marx would argue, but rather it is a concept that has always been with us: in the past, present, and future. 

Ideas in themselves are powerful. In my view, one idea can radically change the world. 

This differs from Marx, who dismissed the importance of ideas by attributing societal change to changing physical reality. However, it is also in contrast to Hegel, who did not think that the basic human blueprint can be altered. Humanity has an end goal, and ideas help reach it. I do not think that humanity is headed toward one end goal in particular, which likely inspires my contrast with Hegel. Because I do not see society moving in a specific direction, I disagree with the notion that there is any sort of blueprint or predetermined path we must follow. I do not think that an individual person like Hegel has the capability to assert a concept like Geist, or anything religious for that matter. Because I think there is no set journey humanity follows, one idea can be incredibly transformative because it can advance society toward one of many purposes. Unlike Hegel, I do not think that we have one, solely spiritual purpose. 

The importance of the issue of the chicken over the egg, or vice versa, will continue to be debated in the coming centuries. Similarly, there will never be a conclusive decision on whether ideas or physical reality matter more. The best thing we can do is to consider the views of both Marx and Hegel when developing our own theories. 

Matthew Geleta is a first-year undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University studying political science. Contact him at matthew.r.geleta@vanderbilt.edu.

Endnotes

  1. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and John trl. Sibree. Philosophy of History. Colonial Press, 1900. pp. 456-457
  2. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology. Lawrence & Wishart, 1965. p.154
  3. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Martino Publishing, 2012. p. 473
  4. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology. Lawrence & Wishart, 1965. p.155

5. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology. Lawrence & Wishart, 1965. p.154

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