Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

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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...

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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 effect. Kant believed that it is the mind which gives its laws to nature, and not the reverse.

Hegel’s philosophical system expands upon this philosophy, which has reality depend on the rational mind for its perception. Hegel’s absolute Idealism unites the totality of all concepts in the absolute mind or spirit, which he also referred to as the ultimate reality, or God. Hegel’s metaphysics thus takes from German Romanticism the “inward path” to truth; the notion of nature as spirit, or the immanence of God within the universe; the quest for the totality of experience, both empirical and rational; and the desire for infinity.

Hegel argued that reality belongs to an absolute mind or a totality of conceptual truth, and that it consists of a rational structure characterized by a unity-amid-diversity. The purpose of metaphysics is to reveal the truth of this unified diversity. To this end, Hegel developed his highly influential theory of dialectic, a process involving three concepts: the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis. This dialectical process provides a way of transcending oppositions to a higher level of truth. Hegel argued that the dialectical triad, as the rhythm of reality, underlies all human knowledge and experience. Moreover, he defined the absolute mind as being the totality of concepts in a dialectical process. Yet Hegel believed that contradictions are never entirely overcome. Rather, the dialectic is both the essence of reality and the method for comprehending reality, which is always a unity-amid-diversity. Hegel’s notion of conceptual truth, being immanent within the world, is time-bound rather than transcendental, despite his ambiguous reference to the absolute mind as God. Hegel’s dialectic thus differs from that of Plato, which gives rise to timeless forms.

On the basis of his dialectic, Hegel begins The Phenomenology of Spirit by introducing his theory that the history of philosophy is a biography of the human spirit in its development over the course of centuries. The relationship between successive philosophies is one not of conflict but of organic growth and development. Hegel describes philosophy as a living and growing organism like the world itself. Each philosophy corresponds to the stage of a plant: the bud, the blossom, and the fruit. In addition to organicism, Hegel developed the metaphor of historicism, which holds that the understanding of any aspect of life is derived through its history, its evolution, and not through its static condition in the present. Hegel ends The Phenomenology of Spirit by arguing that the age of reason and philosophy must supersede the age of religious consciousness. He also argued that history evolves toward a specific goal, a state of freedom, and that the purpose of history is the unfolding of the truth of reason. Hegel’s arguments on this topic are collected in his Sämtliche Werke (1927; translated in Lectures on the Philosophy of History, 1956).

During the time Hegel taught in Nuremberg, he published Wissenschaft der Logik (1812-1816; Science of Logic, 1929) and Encyklopädie der philosophischen im Wissenschaften Grundrisse (1817; Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1959). Hegel regarded the latter as having a dialectical structure, with the opposites of thought and nature united in mind and society, and ultimately in the self-referential act of philosophical self-consciousness. In 1811, Hegel married Maria von Tucher of Nuremberg, and in 1816 his nine-year-old illegitimate son, Ludwig, joined the household. Also in 1816, Hegel became a professor at the University of Heidelberg and in 1817 for the first time taught aesthetics. By this time, his reputation was so well established that the Prussian minister of education invited him to accept the prestigious chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin, where Hegel taught from 1818 until his death during a cholera epidemic in 1831.

During this final period, the climax of his career, Hegel lectured for the first time on the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of history. He published one of the great works of genius of Western culture, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (1821; Philosophy of Right, 1855), which exemplifies the mature or late Hegel in contrast to the early Hegel seen in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel argued in his moral philosophy that ethics, like the individual, has its source, course, and ultimate fulfillment in the nation-state, particularly the state of Germany. The nation-state is a manifestation of God, which Hegel defines not as a personal God but rather as the Absolute. This totality of truth manifests itself in stages to each of the key nations of history, culminating in Germany.

During the 1820’s, Hegel toured Belgium and the Netherlands and also traveled to Vienna and Prague. In 1824, he interceded with the Prussian government to free his friend Victor Cousin, a French liberal philosopher. Hegel was not an eloquent lecturer, but after his death, a group of his students collated their lecture notes and published an edition of his works in eighteen volumes (1832-1840). Hegel’s writing is notoriously difficult, both stylistically and conceptually.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Idealist philosophy has been criticized for elevating the reality of concepts over the material aspects of reality, such as economics, environment, technology, and natural resources. Moreover, there seems to be a contradiction in Hegel’s notion of the Absolute, in his definition of God as being externalized or existing in human consciousness. Finally, Hegel’s philosophy of history has been criticized for masking a hidden defense for German nationalism, an aversion for democracy and individualism, and a fear of revolutionary change.

Nevertheless, Hegel has contributed many profound concepts to Western philosophy: the dialectical nature of thought, organicism and historicism, the concept of culture, the theory of ethics, and the theory of humanity’s need for wholeness, in terms of both consciousness and social unification. Hegel believed that there are three important dialectical stages in ethical life responsible for social unity: the family, its antithesis in civil society, and their synthesis in the developed national state. As the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty says, “All the great philosophical ideas of the past century, the philosophies of Marx, Nietzsche, existentialism and psycho-analysis had their beginning in Hegel.”

Although he supported Christianity, Hegel placed philosophy above religion. He believed that religion and art are different ways of understanding the absolute idea, but that philosophy is a better way because it allows one to comprehend the absolute conceptually, not in religious symbols, and thereby subsumes both religion and art. For Hegel, ethical ideals, such as the ideals of freedom, originate in the spiritual life of a society.


Butler, Clark. G. W. F. Hegel. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A comprehensive study of Hegel that aims not to be merely about Hegel but to communicate the essence of Hegelian philosophy to a wider public. Presenting Hegelianism in an abstract philosophical context, Butler strives to be accessible but not oversimplistic. Approaches Hegel from the cultural standpoint of the present. Contains a selected annotated bibliography and a chronology of Hegel’s life.

Christensen, Darrel E., ed. Hegel and the Philosophy of Religion: The Wofford Symposium. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970. Collection from the proceedings of the first conference of the Hegel Society of America. These excellent essays analyze many aspects of Hegel’s philosophy of religion in relation to his historical context, his philosophical system, and the philosophies of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and Karl Marx. More appropriate for the advanced student.

Findlay, J. N. Hegel: A Re-examination. New York: Humanities Press, 1958. Findlay is the one most responsible for reviving Hegel scholarship in the English-speaking world. Provides a close exposition of Hegel’s system, paragraph-by-paragraph, and is especially good in its treatment of his logic and philosophy of nature.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Hegel: The Essential Writings. Edited by F. G. Weiss. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Contains an excellent introduction to Hegel’s philosophy and also concise introductions to the different selections, which include Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline, The Phenomenology of Spirit, and Philosophy of Right. Weiss also provides a useful annotated bibliography of primary and secondary texts. A popular text for introductory college philosophy.

Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology. Edited by A. Bloom. Translated by J. H. Nichols. New York: Basic Books, 1969. Although he describes Hegel’s thought as historicist and atheistic, Kojève has been instrumental in reviving Hegel’s philosophy. Appropriate for beginning students; makes lucid Hegel’s influential theories in The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Lavine, T. Z. From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest. New York: Bantam Books, 1984. A survey of six major Western philosophers, Hegel being the fourth and receiving a sixty-page condensed review. Lavine lucidly presents for the general public Hegel’s life and work in relation to his intellectual and historical context, highlighting Hegel’s influence on the theories of Marx. The book was aired as a Public Broadcasting Service television series.

Singer, Peter. Hegel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A clearly written, ninety-page book in the Past Masters series intended for readers with no background in philosophy. Singer provides a broad overview of Hegel’s ideas and a summary of his major works. He also discusses Hegel’s influence on Marx and the Young Hegelians. Contains a useful index.