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Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (August 27, 1770 - November 14, 1831) was a German philosopher born in Stuttgart, Württemberg, in present-day southwest Germany. He received his education at the Tübinger Stift (seminary of the Protestant Church in Württemberg), where he was friends with the future philosophers Friedrich Schelling and Friedrich Hölderlin. He became fascinated by the works of Spinoza, Kant, and Rousseau, and by the French Revolution. Many consider Hegel's thought to represent the summit of 19th Century Germany's movement of philosophical idealism. It would come to have a profound impact on many future philosophical schools such as Existentialism, as well as the historical materialism of Karl Marx.

G.W.F. Hegel
G.W.F. Hegel

Life and Work

Hegel attended the seminary at Tübingen with the epic poet Friedrich Hölderlin and the objective idealist Schelling. The three watched the unfolding of the French Revolution and collaborated in a critique of the idealist philosophies of Immanuel Kant and his follower Fichte.

Hegel's first and most important major work is the Phenomenology of Spirit (or Phenomenology of Mind). During his life he also published the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, the Science of Logic and the (Elements of the) Philosophy of Right. A number of other works on the philosophy of history, religion, aesthetics, and the history of philosophy were compiled from the lecture notes of his students and published posthumously.

Hegel's works have a reputation for their difficulty, and for the breadth of the topics they attempt to cover. Hegel introduced a system for understanding the history of philosophy and the world itself, often called a progression in which each successive movement emerges as a solution to the contradictions inherent in the preceding movement. For example, the French Revolution for Hegel constitutes the introduction of real freedom into western societies for the first time in recorded history. But precisely because of its absolute novelty, it is also absolutely radical: on the one hand the upsurge of violence required to carry out the revolution cannot cease to be itself, while on the other, it has already consumed its opponent. The revolution therefore has nowhere to turn but on to its own result: the hard-won freedom is consumed by a brutal Reign of Terror. History, however, progresses by learning from its mistakes: only after and precisely because of this experience can one posit the existence of a constitutional state of free citizens, embodying both the benevolent organizing power of rational government and the revolutionary ideals of freedom and equality.

In the introduction to The Philosophy of History (translated by J. Sibree) Hegel says: "Philosophy shows that the Idea advances to an infinite antithesis; that, viz. between the Idea in its free, universal form - in which it exists for itself - and the contrasted form of abstract introversion, reflection on itself, which is formal existence-for-self, personality, formal freedom, such as belongs to Spirit only."

So, breaking it down, there are two forms of the universal idea and they are always and infinitely the antithesis of each other. One form is the general principle of it and the other form is its specific application to the actual events in history. He continues to say: "The universal Idea exists thus as the substantial totality of things on the one side, and as the abstract essence of free volition on the other side."

and: "This reflection of the mind on itself is individual self-consciousness - the polar opposite of the Idea in its general form, and therefore existing in absolute Limitation. This polar opposite is consequently limitation, particularization, for the universal absolute being; it is the side of its definite existence; the sphere of its formal reality, the sphere of the reverence paid to God. - To comprehend the absolute connection of this antithesis, is the profound task of metaphysics."

Therefore, Hegel is stating, albeit in difficult turns of phrase, that metaphysics should be concerned with grasping the mechanics of how the thesis and antithesis are connected in each individual case. To do so would involve comparing examples of events of history with their archetypal forms and trying to understand both the similarities and the differences between them.

Aside from Hegel's dense and difficult style his work is perplexing for modern audiences because he had an organic and teleological view of human society. This view is in direct opposition to the conceptions of individual rights and existentialism which most modern-day intellectuals take for granted.

Hegel's Legacy

Hegel's ultimate legacy will be debated for a very long time. He has been a formative influence on such a wide range of thinkers that one can give him credit or assign him blame for almost any position.

After Hegel's death, his followers divided into two major and opposing camps. The Right Hegelians , the direct disciples of Hegel at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (now known as the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), advocated evangelical orthodoxy and the political conservatism of the post-Napoleon Restoration period. The Left became known as the Young Hegelians and they interpreted Hegel in a revolutionary sense, leading to an advocation of atheism in religion and liberal democracy in politics. Left Hegelians included Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, David Friedrich Strauss, Max Stirner, and most famously, Karl Marx. The multiple schisms in this faction eventually led to Stirner's anarchistic variety of egoism and Marx's version of communism.

In contemporary accounts of Hegelianism — to undergraduate classes, for example — Hegel's dialectic often appears broken up for convenience into three moments called "thesis" (in the French historical example, the revolution), "antithesis" (the terror which followed), and "synthesis" (the constitutional state of free citizens). Hegel did not use this classification at all himself, though: it was developed earlier by Fichte in his loosely analogous account of the relation between the individual subject and the world. Serious Hegel scholarship does not recognize the usefulness of this triadic classification for shedding light on Hegel's thought. Although Hegel refers to "the two elemental considerations: first, the idea of freedom as the absolute and final aim; secondly, the means for realising it, i.e. the subjective side of knowledge and will, with its life, movement, and activity" (thesis and antithesis) he doesn't use "synthesis" but instead speaks of the "Whole": "We then recognised the State as the moral Whole and the Reality of Freedom, and consequently as the objective unity of these two elements."

Hegel used this system of dialectics to explain the whole of the history of philosophy, science, art, politics and religion, but many modern critics point out that Hegel often seems to gloss over the realities of history in order to fit it into his dialectical mold. Karl Popper, a critic of Hegel in The Open Society and Its Enemies, suggests that the Hegel's system forms a thinly veiled justification for the rule of Frederick William III, and that Hegel's idea of the ultimate goal of history is to reach a state approximating that of 1830s Prussia. This view of Hegel as an apologist of state power and precursor of 20th century totalitarianism was criticized thoroughly by Herbert Marcuse in his Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, on the grounds that Hegel was not an apologist for any state or form of authority simply because it existed: for Hegel the state must always be rational. Arthur Schopenhauer despised Hegel on account of the latter's historicism (among other reasons), and decried Hegel's work as obscurantist "pseudo-philosophy". Many other newer philosophers who prefer to follow the tradition of British Philosophy and Kantianism have made similar statements.

In the 20th century, Hegel's philosophy underwent a major renaissance. This was due partly to the rediscovery and reevaluation of him as the philosophical progenitor of Marxism by philosophically oriented Marxists, partly through a resurgence of the historical perspective that Hegel brought to everything, and partly through increasing recognition of the importance of his dialectical method. The book that did the most to reintroduce Hegel into the Marxist canon was perhaps Georg Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness . This sparked a renewed interest in Hegel reflected in the work of Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Ernst Bloch, Alexandre Kojève and Gotthard Günther among others. The Hegel renaissance also highlighted the significance of Hegel's early works, i.e. those published prior to the Phenomenology of Spirit. More recently two prominent American philosophers, John McDowell and Robert Brandom (sometimes, half-seriously, referred to as the Pittsburgh Hegelians), have exhibited a marked Hegelian influence. U.S. conservative Francis Fukuyama's controversial book End of History and the Last Man was heavily influenced by the Hegelian scholar Alexandre Kojève.

Major works

Secondary literature

  • Frederick C. Beiser, The Cambridge Companion to Hegel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. ISBN 0521387116 (The Cambridge Companions are always a good way to start learning about a particular philosopher, and this Companion is no exception.)
  • R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946. ISBN 0192853066 (includes a powerful statement of the case that Hegel authorized an over-powering state, i.e. that his philosophy is a dangerous opponent of individual liberty).
  • Laurence Dickey, Hegel: Religion, Economics, and the Politics of Spirit, 1770-1807. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. ISBN 0-521-33035-1 (Provides a fascinating account of how "Hegel became Hegel", using the guiding hypothesis that Hegel "was basically a theologian manqué".)
  • Michael Forster Hegel and Skepticism. Harvard University Press, 1989. ISBN 0674387074
  • Michael Forster Hegel's Idea of a Phenomenology of Spirit. University of Chicago Press, 1998. ISBN 0226257428
  • Justus Hartnack, An Introduction to Hegel's Logic. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998. ISBN 0-87220-424-3
  • Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. London, 1941 (An introduction to the philosophy of Hegel, devoted to debunking the myth that Hegel's work included in nuce the Fascist totalitarianism of National Socialism; the negation of philosophy through historical materialism)
  • Kenneth R. Westphal, Hegel's Epistemology: A Philosophical Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003. ISBN 0-87220-645-9
  • Terry P. Pinkard, "Hegel: a biography". Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0521496799 (Lucid biography by a leading American Hegalian philosopher. It debunks popular misconceptions about Hegel's thought.)

External links

  • - resources available under the GNU FDL
  • Links on Hegel's life
  • Commented link list
  • Hegel mailing lists in the internet
  • Explanation of Hegel, mostly in German
  • Discussion of the Hegelian tradition, including the Left and Right schism.
  • An extensive bibliography
  • The Hegel Society of America
  • Hegel in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Hegel page in 'The History Guide'

Hegel Texts Online

  • Philosophy of History

Last updated: 02-16-2005 08:53:30
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12