I am confused about the following sentence:

Hegel was a german philosopher who Marx 'stood on his head'

I can't seem to find a proper definition for this phrase. What does "stood on his head" mean in this context?


I am not too familiar with Hegel or Marx, but the usual meaning in a context like this, is that Marx took Hegel's ideas and used them to reach a completely opposite conclusion. In this sense, Hegel's ideas were overturned, just as if he were literally standing on his head.

  • Good answer, but could you elaborate with examples of how to use the idiomatic expression? – Andrew Mar 22 '19 at 22:31

To stand on one's head is to be upside down - doing a handstand or a headstand.

To stand something on its head is to turn it upside down.

We use the expression metaphorically, as stand X on its head or turn X on its head, to metaphorically turn it upside down - take the same elements and put them in a different order to produce a very different, possibly even a contradictory meaning.

Sometimes it's more literal, as we might "turn a dessert on its head" by arranging its components in a different order - though not necessarily literally reversed. By saying Mark stood Hegel on his head, we mean that Marx took the components of Hegel's philosophy and rearranged them to reach a very different conclusion.

This review of a reinterpreted ballet gives an interesting example with pretty good exploration and explanation.

Your example sentence isn't quite idiomatic, though. We wouldn't usually put a metaphor like that in quote marks.

  • 1
    It's a quote often attributed to Marx himself. Another version has Marx saying that he "found Hegel standing on his head and stood him back on his feet." – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 23 '19 at 0:29
  • Ah. Either the non-native-English-speaking of Marx, or the age and thus slight differences in language, would contribute to it not being quite how I would expect it to be said, and the fact it's a quotation explains the quotation marks. Not obvious without the background knowledge or more context, though ;) – SamBC Mar 23 '19 at 0:43
  • I've been unable to find the source of this anecdote, and can't say whether Marx said it in English or German or French. But the use of stand where we'd most likely say set today isn't entirely obsolete yet. – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 23 '19 at 13:01
  • No, not entirely by any means, just distinctly less in my experience. – SamBC Mar 23 '19 at 13:18

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