Prior to Hegel’s work, the word dialectic was used to describe the process of arguing and refuting in order to determine the first principles (like the dialogues made famous by Socrates). Hegel, however, used the word dialectic in a very different way.
Like Kant, Hegel was an idealist. Hegel believed the mind only has access to ideas of what the world is like, and that we can never fully perceive what the world is. However, unlike Kant, Hegel believed these ideas were social, meaning they are completely shaped by other people’s ideas. Through the use of a common language, traditions of one’s society, and the religious and cultural institutions that one belongs to, an individual’s mind is shaped. This collective consciousness of a society, which Hegel refers to as “Spirit,” is responsible for shaping one’s consciousness and ideas.
Hegel, unlike Kant, believed that this Spirit is constantly evolving. According to Hegel, the spirit evolves by the same kind of pattern as an idea would during an argument, the dialectic. First, there is an idea about the world (much like a thesis), which has an inherent flaw, giving rise to the antithesis. The thesis and antithesis eventually reconcile by creating a synthesis, and a new idea arises comprised of elements of both the thesis and the antithesis.
To Hegel, society and culture follow this pattern, and one could understand all of human history, without the use of logic or empirical data, simply by using logic.