Continental Philosophy’s Search for Balance

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) "claimed to provide a unitary solution to all of the problems of philosophy." Hegel "held that the speculative point of view, which transcends all particular and separate perspectives, must grasp the one truth, bringing back to its proper centre all of the problems of logic, of metaphysics (or the nature of Being), and of the philosophies of nature, law, history, and culture (artistic, religious, and philosophical)" (Rossi). Hegel's dialectical philosophy was the ultimate expression of German Idealism, which was prevalent throughout his lifetime and was connected both to Romanticism and political revolution. Arguably the most politically and economically impacting philosopher to follow after Hegel, Karl Marx in the 1840s "reproached Hegel for having absolutized into an ideal state the Prussian state" of his era. "Such absolutizing, he charged, lent itself to generalizations of broad critical scope with respect to the idealistic procedure of hypostatizing the Idea and brought about (as allegorical derivatives from it) certain concrete political and social determinations, such as family, classes, and the state powers...In Marx's view," Hegel's dialectic "was mystifying and alienated inasmuch as Hegel did nothing but sanction, by a method inverted with respect to real relationships, the alienation of all the concrete historical and human determinations" (Rossi).

In sympathetic and perhaps synchronistic accord with the sociological and historical world view expressed in the writings of Marx emerged the roots of

Existentialism with “Soren Kierkegaard in the first half of the 19th century. He was critical of Hegel’s philosophical system which analyzed Being (or existence) in an abstract and impersonal way. Kierkegaard was concerned with the individual’s subjective experience of what it is to exist as a human being. For Kierkegaard the individual constantly has to choose what s/he is to become without recourse to the findings of science and philosophy” (Jones).

Existentialism would eventually come to its most potent expression in the writings of the Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre. Born in 1905, “his experiences as a resistance fighter shaped his philosophy…Politically Sartre claimed he was a Marxist and thought that freedom had both political and individual dimensions.” Sartre, who in contrast to Kierkegaard was an atheist, coined the Existentialist credo, “Existence precedes essence”.   “What Sartre meant by the phrase ‘existence precedes essence’ is this: If there is no cosmic designer, then there is no design or essence of human nature. Human existence or being differs from the being of objects in that human being is self-conscious. This self-consciousness also gives the human subject the opportunity to define itself. The individual creates [oneself] by making self-directed choices” (Jones).

There remained echoes of Hegel to be heard within Sartre. “The first Sartrean thought which has been derived from Hegel is the view that if there is to be any Truth in man’s understanding of himself, it must be a Truth which becomes. Truth is thus something which emerges.” With this assertion we hear “an obvious trace both of Hegelian dialectics and the Marxist tenet of the knowability of man. The second thing in Sartre which can be traced back to Hegel is the claim that what Truth must become is a totalization. We find in Hegelian dialectics that the synthesis is a totalization of the truth found in both the thesis and the antithesis. In the same manner, we find in Sartre asserting that the Truth in man is a Truth not just about his existence but also about the situations surrounding his existence” (Decino).

Twenty-first Century Continental philosophy has come to be “preoccupied with two alternative formulations” that seem to transmute the Hegelian dialectic: desire given kinetic energy as jouissance and desire given kinetic energy as power. “These two views oppose and complement each other. They form a frame within which the question of desire takes shape…Jouissance is charged with directionality, excess, and…is affective [and] often out of control.”  Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit descants on the question of the drive for power within desire.  “The slave desires the position of the master…The master could not be master, could not exert power, if the slave does not desire the master’s position.” In contrast to erotic relationships, “the power relation uses desire to constitute domination and control,” and this engenders self-awareness. “For Hegel, we can be aware of ourselves only when others are conscious of us – the master is a master only when the slave desires to be master” (Silverman). There are some qualities of Sartre’s thought that hold particular relevance for present day Continental philosophers.  These include “his concept of the human agent as not a self but a ‘presence to self’” and “the recent revival of the understanding of philosophy as a ‘way of life’.” Like today’s philosophical thought, Sartre was “focused on concrete, lived experience” (Flynn).


Decino, Denchu Jose. “The Notion of Collective Authenticity in the Problem of Method”. Sartre Online. Oct. 1, 2005.

Flynn, Thomas. “Jean-Paul Sartre”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Oct. 1, 2005. < >.

Jones, Roger. “Existentialism”. Philosopher/Org/Uk. October 1, 2005.

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Rossi, Mario. “Hegelianism”. Oct. 1, 2005.

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Silverman, Hugh J. “Twentieth Century Desire and the Histories of Philosophy”. Oct. 1, 2005.

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