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Georg W. F. Hegel

Hegel, G(eorg) W(ilhelm) F(riedrich)


I – INTRODUCTION

Hegel, G(eorg) W(ilhelm) F(riedrich) (1770-1831), German idealist philosopher, who became one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century. Born in Stuttgart on August 27, 1770, the son of a revenue officer with the civil service, Hegel was brought up in an atmosphere of Protestant Pietism and became thoroughly acquainted with the Greek and Roman classics while studying at the Stuttgart Gymnasium (preparatory school). Encouraged by his father to become a clergyman, Hegel entered the seminary at the University of Tübingen in 1788 where he developed friendships with the poet Friedrich Hölderlin and the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. Having completed a course of study in philosophy and theology and having decided not to enter the ministry, Hegel became a private tutor in Berne, Switzerland, in 1793. In 1797 he assumed a similar position in Frankfurt. Two years later his father died, leaving a financial legacy that was sufficient to free him from tutoring.

In 1801 Hegel went to the University of Jena, where he studied, wrote, and eventually became a lecturer. In Jena he completed The Phenomenology of Spirit or Mind (1807; trans. 1910), now thought of as one of his most important works. He remained at Jena until October 1806, when the city was taken by the French and he was forced to flee. Having exhausted the legacy left him by his father, Hegel became editor of the Bamberger Zeitung in Bavaria. He disliked journalism, however, and moved to Nuremberg, where he served as headmaster of a gymnasium for eight years.

During the Nuremberg years Hegel met and married Marie von Tucher. Three children were born to the Hegels: a daughter, who died soon after birth, and two sons, Karl and Immanuel. Before his marriage, Hegel had fathered an illegitimate son, Ludwig, who eventually came to live with the Hegels. While at Nuremberg, Hegel published over a period of several years The Science of Logic (1812, 1813, 1816; trans. 1929). In 1816 he accepted a professorship in philosophy at the University of Heidelberg. Soon after, he published in summary form a systematic statement of his entire philosophy entitled Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline (1817 rev. ed. 1827, 1830; trans. 1959). In 1818 Hegel was invited to teach at the University of Berlin, where he was to remain. He died in Berlin on November 14, 1831, during a cholera epidemic.

The last full-length work published by Hegel was The Philosophy of Right (1821; trans. 1896), although several sets of his lecture notes, supplemented by students’ notes, were published after his death. Published lectures include The Philosophy of Fine Art (1835-1838; trans. 1920), Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1833-1836; trans. 1892-1896), Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (1832; trans. 1895), and Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1837; trans. 1858).

Strongly influenced by Greek ideas, Hegel also read the works of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, the French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the German philosophers Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Schelling. Although he often disagreed with these philosophers, their influence is evident in his writings. In particular, Hegel’s philosophy was deeply influenced by Kant’s. Although he dedicated himself to overcoming the various oppositions in Kant’s philosophy, especially that between the self and the unknowable “thing in itself”, he retained Kant’s approach of founding all knowledge in the nature of the self-conscious mind.

II PHILOSOPHICAL AIMS

Hegel’s aim was to set forth a philosophical system so comprehensive that it would encompass the ideas of his predecessors and create a conceptual framework in terms of which both the past and future could be understood philosophically. Such an aim would require nothing short of a full account of reality itself. Thus, Hegel conceived the subject matter of philosophy to be reality as a whole. This reality, or the total developmental process of everything that is, he referred to as the Absolute. According to Hegel, the task of philosophy is to chart the development of the Absolute. This involves first making clear the internal rational structure of the Absolute; second, demonstrating the manner in which the Absolute manifests itself in nature and human history; and, third, explicating the teleological nature of the Absolute, that is, showing the end or purpose towards which the Absolute is directed.

III DIALECTIC

Concerning the rational structure of the Absolute, Hegel, following the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, argued that “what is rational is real and what is real is rational”. This must be understood in terms of Hegel’s further claim that the Absolute must ultimately be regarded as pure Thought, or Spirit, or Mind, in the process of self-development. The logic that governs this developmental process is dialectic. The dialectical method involves the notion that movement, or process, or progress, is the result of the conflict of opposites. Traditionally, this dimension of Hegel’s thought has been analysed in terms of the categories of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Although Hegel almost never used these terms, they are helpful in understanding his concept of the dialectic. The thesis, then, might be a concept that is part of the structure of the Absolute, or else it might be a historical form of consciousness. Such a concept or form of consciousness contains within itself incompleteness that gives rise to opposition, or an antithesis, a conflicting concept or form of consciousness. As a result of the conflict a third concept or form of consciousness arises, a synthesis, which overcomes the conflict by reconciling at a higher level the truth contained in both the thesis and antithesis. This synthesis becomes a new thesis that generates another antithesis, giving rise to a new synthesis, and in such a fashion the process of metaphysical or historical development is continually generated. Hegel thought that the Absolute itself (that is to say, the sum total of reality) develops in this dialectical fashion towards an ultimate end or goal.

For Hegel, therefore, reality is understood as the Absolute unfolding dialectically in a process of self-development. As the Absolute undergoes this development, it manifests itself both in nature and in human history. Nature is the Absolute objectifying itself in material form. Finite minds and human history are the process of the Absolute manifesting itself in that which is most kin to itself, namely, spirit or consciousness. In The Phenomenology of Sprit Hegel traced the stages of this manifestation in the various forms of consciousness from the simplest consciousness of objects, through self-consciousness, rational consciousness, and the various forms of ethical and religious consciousness, to “absolute knowledge”, the form of consciousness in which the subject recognizes itself as fundamentally identical with the Absolute.

IV SELF-KNOWLEDGE OF THE ABSOLUTE

The goal of the dialectical cosmic process can be most clearly understood at the level of reason. As finite reason progresses in understanding, the Absolute progresses towards full self-knowledge. Indeed, the Absolute comes to know itself through the human mind’s increased understanding of reality, or the Absolute. Hegel analysed this human progression in understanding in terms of three levels: art, religion, and philosophy. Art grasps the Absolute in material forms, interpreting the rational through the sensible forms of beauty. Art is conceptually superseded by religion, which grasps the Absolute by means of images and symbols. The highest religion for Hegel is Christianity, for in Christianity the truth that the Absolute manifests itself in the finite is symbolically reflected in the incarnation. Philosophy, however, is conceptually supreme, because it grasps the Absolute in terms of the concepts that in fact structure it. Once this has been achieved, the Absolute has arrived at full self-consciousness—in Hegel’s terms, at “Absolute Spirit”—and the cosmic drama reaches its end and goal. Only at this point did Hegel identify the Absolute with God. “God is God,” Hegel argued, “only in so far as he knows himself.”

V PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY

In the process of analysing the nature of the Absolute, Hegel made significant contributions in a variety of philosophical fields, including the philosophy of history, ethics, and political philosophy. With respect to history, his two key explanatory categories are reason and freedom. As a rational process, history is the “progress of the consciousness of freedom”. That is, it is the progressive realization on the part of the human spirit (or “finite spirit”) that its own essential nature is freedom, and thereby the realization of that freedom.

For Hegel, every historical civilization expresses a certain underlying conception of the human spirit through the customs, ethical practices, and social and political institutions that it establishes. It is only once these practices and institutions have been established and become familiar that the people of that civilization can go on to make this underlying conception explicit to itself through its art, religion, and philosophy. As Hegel put it, “the Owl of Minerva” (that is, the wisdom of philosophy) “spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”. However, by so making this underlying conception explicit to itself, the people come to experience it as contradictory, and as inadequate to its sense of what the human spirit really is. As a result, people gradually lose their loyalty to the established practices and institutions, and the civilization begins to decay. Eventually a figure appears who leads the way in overthrowing the old instruments and replacing them with a new set that more adequately expresses the real nature of the human spirit as free. Hegel calls such figures “world historical individuals” and gives Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon I as examples. The whole historical process of the rise and fall of civilizations is then a process through which the human spirit gradually comes to self-knowledge and freedom.

VI ETHICS AND POLITICS

Hegel saw the ethical practices and the social and political institutions of modern society (such as the nuclear family and the market economy) and of the modern state (for example, an impartial system of law, a system of representation, and a constitutional monarch) as effectively the final stage in this evolution of social and political institutions. With their consolidation in Europe in the wake of the French Revolution it appeared that the “end of history” had been reached. Accordingly, Hegel thought of these institutions as fully expressing the freedom that is the defining character of the human spirit. In The Philosophy of Right he attempted to show how these institutions embodied freedom in all its aspects, and so to justify them. In particular, he tried to show how they unite two different kinds of ethical outlook, which he called “morality” (Moralität) and “ethical life” (Sittlichkeit). At the level of morality, right and wrong are matters of individual reason and individual conscience. At the level of ethical life, duty is a matter of allegiance to the social wholes of which one is a member: one’s family, one’s social class or “estate”, and one’s country. Since individuals are only complete through their social relationships, morality alone is inadequate and one must move beyond it to the level of ethical life. The state is the expression of the most inclusive social whole to which one can belong, one’s own country, and so when there is a conflict of duties, one’s duties to the state override all others. Obedience to the general will, which is manifested in the properly constituted state, is the act of a fully free and rational individual. Hegel emerges as a political conservative, in that he supported the basic institutions of the modern state, but he should not be interpreted as sanctioning totalitarianism, for he argued that the state when properly constituted must allow spheres of private property, freedom of conscience, domestic privacy, and choice of economic activity.

VII INFLUENCE

At the time of Hegel’s death, he was the most prominent philosopher in Germany. His views were widely taught, and his students were highly regarded. His followers soon divided into right-wing and left-wing Hegelians. Theologically and politically the right-wing Hegelians offered a conservative interpretation of his work. They emphasized the compatibility between Hegel’s philosophy and Christianity. Politically, they were orthodox. The left-wing Hegelians eventually moved to an atheistic position. In politics, many of them became revolutionaries. This historically important left-wing group included Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx. Engels and Marx were particularly influenced by Hegel’s idea that history moves dialectically, but they replaced Hegel’s philosophical idealism with materialism.

Hegel’s metaphysical idealism had a strong impact on 19th- and early 20th-century British philosophy, notably that of Francis Herbert Bradley; on such American philosophers as Josiah Royce; and on Italian philosophy through Benedetto Croce. Hegel also influenced the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Phenomenology has been influenced by Hegel’s ideas on consciousness.

For most of the 20th century, however, Hegel’s metaphysical ambitions, his obscure language, and the apparently closed nature of his system have been anathema to most philosophers, especially those in the Anglo-American analytic tradition. However, many post-war European thinkers—from Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and the postmodernists—have been deeply influenced by aspects of his thought, despite rejecting his overall system. Hegel’s analysis in The Phenomenology of Spirit of the most primitive relationship between human beings as one of “mastery and servitude”, a relationship in which the servant recognizes the master as embodying his own essence as free while the master fails to reciprocate that recognition, has influenced thinkers and writers as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Franz Fanon, and Samuel Beckett. Meanwhile, ideas drawn from his philosophy of history and political philosophy have played a major role in the development of “communitarianism” in political philosophy, a standpoint that places the community at the heart of analysis, developed in the 1980s by philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Michael Walzer. The extensive and diverse impact of Hegel’s ideas on subsequent philosophy is evidence of the remarkable range and the extraordinary depth of his thought.

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