Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Hegel developed many theories of great philosophical importance that over the past century have influenced the social sciences, anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, and political theory. He believed that the mind is the ultimate reality and that philosophy can restore humanity to a state of harmony.

Early Life

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born into a Protestant middle-class family in Stuttgart, the eldest of three children. His father was a minor civil servant for the Duchy of Württemberg, and his family had roots in Austria. To escape persecution by the Austrian Catholics in the sixteenth century, his ancestors settled among the Lutheran Protestants of the German territories, which consisted of more than three hundred free cities, duchies, and states loosely united under the rule of Francis I of Austria. Though little is known about his mother, all accounts describe her as having been highly intelligent and unusually educated for a woman of that time. Hegel had the conventional schooling for his social class, entering German primary school in 1773, Latin school in 1775, and the Stuttgart Gymnasium illustre in 1780. Upon graduating from the Gymnasium (equivalent to high school) in 1788, he entered the famous seminary at the University of Tübingen to study philosophy and theology in preparation for the Protestant ministry. As a student, Hegel became friends with Friedrich Hölderlin, a Romantic poet, and Friedrich Schelling. He shared the top floor of the dormitory with Schelling, who became famous before Hegel as an Idealist philosopher. In 1790, Hegel received a master’s degree in philosophy.

After passing his theological examinations at Tübingen in 1793, Hegel began many years of struggle to earn his living and establish himself as a philosopher. Instead of entering the ministry, he began working as a house tutor for a wealthy family in Bern, Switzerland. In 1797, he became a tutor in Frankfurt, continuing throughout this time to read, think, and write about philosophical questions, usually along radical lines. For example, he considered Jesus inferior to Socrates as a teacher of ethics, and he considered orthodox religion, because of its reliance on external authority, an obstacle in restoring mankind to a life of harmony. Although Hegel always retained some of his skepticism toward orthodox religion, he later in life considered himself a Lutheran Christian. In 1798, he began to write on the philosophy of history and on the spirit of Christianity, major themes in his philosophical system. Upon his father’s death in 1799, Hegel received a modest inheritance and was able to stop tutoring and join his friend Schelling at the University of Jena, in the state of Weimar.

Life’s Work

Hegel’s life’s work as a teacher and philosopher began at Jena. From 1801 to 1807, Hegel taught as an unsalaried lecturer at the University of Jena, his first university position as a philosopher, for which he was paid by the students who attended class. While in Jena, Hegel cooperated with Schelling in editing the Kritisches Journal der Philosophie. He also published the Differenz des Fichte’schen und Schelling’schen Systems der Philosophie (1801; The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s Philosophy, 1977). During this time, Hegel began to lecture on metaphysics, logic, and natural law. In 1805, he was promoted to Ausserordentlicher Professor (Distinguished Professor) on the recommendation of the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Hegel was very prolific, yet beginning in 1802 he announced each year a significant forthcoming book to his publisher without producing it.

These were momentous times. In 1789, just after Hegel’s nineteenth birthday, the fall of the Bastille announced the French Revolution across Europe; in 1806, after putting an end to the thousand-year Austrian Empire, Napoleon I crushed the Prussian armies at the Battle of Jena. On October 13, 1806, Napoleon victoriously entered the walled city of Jena, an event that Hegel described to a friend as follows: “I saw the Emperor—that world-soul—riding out to reconnoiter the city; it is truly a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, concentrated here on a single point, astride a single horse, yet reaching across the world and ruling it. . . .”

October 13, 1806, was also the day that Hegel finished his book, long promised to his publisher, and sent the manuscript amid the confusion of war. The book was his early masterpiece, Die Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807; The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1868, also known as The Phenomenology of Mind). On October 20, the French army plundered Hegel’s house, and his teaching position at the University of Jena came to an end. Hegel left for Bamberg in Bavaria, where he spent a year working as a newspaper editor. He then became headmaster and philosophy teacher at the Gymnasium in Nuremberg, where he worked successfully from 1808 until 1816.

The Phenomenology of Spirit, which exemplifies the young Hegel, was strongly influenced by German Romanticism. This movement provided a new and more complete way of perceiving the world and was developed by German philosophers and artists, such as Schelling and Hölderlin. German Romanticism stood in opposition to French rationalism and British empiricism, the two major philosophies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries dominated by reason and immediate sensory experience, respectively. German Romanticism had been influenced by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose theory of knowledge synthesized rational and empirical elements. Kant argued that the laws of science, rather than being the source of rationality, were dependent on the human mind and its pure concepts, or categories, such as cause and...

(The entire section is 2415 words.)