Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel Introduction - Essay


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel 1770-1831

German philosopher.

The following entry presents criticism of Hegel from 1971 through 2002. For additional information on Hegel's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 46.

One of the foremost philosophers of the nineteenth century, Hegel is best known for his attempt to elaborate a systematic account of reality. Hegel called this reality the Absolute Spirit, and he explored it in his best-known works, Die Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807; The Phenomenology of Spirit), Wissenschaft der Logik (1812-16; The Science of Logic), and Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, oder Naturrecht und Staatswissenschaft im Grundrisse (1820; The Philosophy of Right). Hegel is also known for his thought on historical progress, which Karl Marx transformed into his materialist theory of history. Although Hegel's stature has declined significantly, his works continue to be read for their historical importance and the influence they had on some of the great thinkers and intellectual movements of the twentieth century, including Jean-Paul Sartre and the critical school of deconstructionism.

Biographical Information

Born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1770, Hegel was the eldest son of a revenue officer. As a child, he was taught at home by his mother, a pious Protestant who died when he was eleven. After her death Hegel attended the Stuttgart Gymnasium, a preparatory school where he became acquainted with the Greek and Roman classics as well as German literature and science. Upon graduation, he entered the Tübingen Stift, a Protestant seminary attached to the university in Württemberg, where he studied philosophy and theology. He befriended Friedrich Wilhelm Josef von Schelling, who later gained renown as a philosopher, and Friedrich Hölderlin, who would become one of the great poets of the German Romantic movement. Both men would have a profound effect on Hegel's intellectual development. While at Tübingen Hegel became interested in the works of the philosophers Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Inspired by Hölderlin, he also developed a deep interest in Greek literature and philosophy. He was profoundly affected by the French Revolution, which was occurring at the time, and he participated in a group formed at the seminary in support of it. After completing his course at Tübingen, Hegel decided not to enter the ministry, and in 1793 he began work as a private tutor in Berne, Switzerland, and then in Frankfurt. For four years, while tutoring for several families, he continued to read widely and develop his own ideas on religion, philosophy, politics, and education. In 1799, his father left him a modest income, and Hegel abandoned tutoring in order to pursue his own work—including a study of Kant and his pupil Johann Fichte—in the hope of securing a university position.

In 1801, Hegel moved to the University of Jena, where Schelling was teaching and had earned a reputation as the most innovative of the Kantian philosophers, especially for his reworking of the ideas of Fichte. In 1801, Hegel published Differenz des Fichte'schen und Schelling'schen Systems der Philosophie, in Beziehung auf Reinholds Beiträge zur leichteren Übersicht des Zustandes der Philosophie zu Anfang des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (The Difference between Fichte's and Schelling's System of Philosophy), earning himself a reputation as a disciple of Schelling. Hegel worked closely with Schelling, co-editing a philosophy journal with him until Schelling's departure from Jena in 1803. In 1807, Hegel was completing the manuscript of his first major work, The Phenomenology of Spirit, as Napoleon's troops began to burn down his house. After Napoleon's troops occupied Jena and the university was closed, Hegel left the city.

After the Phenomenology was published in 1807, Schelling took offense at some critical remarks in the work's preface, believing they were aimed at him, and he and Hegel broke off their long friendship. Hegel worked for a short time as an editor of a newspaper in Bamberg before accepting a job in 1808 as the headmaster and philosophy teacher at a preparatory school in Nuremberg. In 1810, at the age of forty, Hegel married twenty-year-old Marie von Tucher, with whom he had three children. He also had a son with the wife of his former landlord in Jena. In Nuremberg, Hegel continued his philosophical writing, publishing most of his Wissenschaft der Logik while teaching at the school. In 1816, on the basis of this work, he was appointed to a chair in philosophy at the University of Heidelberg. His reputation quickly grew, and he was soon regarded by many to be the most important philosopher in Germany. Two years later, he accepted the prestigious Chair of Philosophy at the University of Berlin, which he would hold until his death. Hegel continued to write prolifically and enjoyed considerable celebrity. He died during a cholera epidemic in Berlin on November 14, 1831.

Major Works

Hegel's first and most important major work is The Phenomenology of Spirit. It is an unprecedented work and regarded by many as one of the most difficult books of philosophy ever written. In the most general terms, it is a study of the history of the development of the human mind or consciousness at both the individual and collective level, tracing a path from individuals' basic states of mind to the vantage point of systematic, scientific thinking. Hegel's idealist position in the work is evident in his criticism of the traditional empiricist distinction used in earlier theories of knowledge between the objective and the subjective, offering a mind-centered model of the evolution of consciousness. The Phenomenology asks how consciousness can conceive of itself and of the world—that is, why humans encounter reality as they do. In the process, Hegel criticizes philosophies emphasizing experience and lays out an idealist system of metaphysics, ethics, and political philosophy. The Phenomenology also goes into a vast number of seemingly unrelated topics and uses its own invented terminology to explain the author's ideas about politics, religion, knowledge, psychology, logic, moral philosophy, and history.

The idealist system set out in the Phenomenology is developed in The Science of Logic, a three-volume work that attempts to systematize all the categories and patterns of human reasoning by the means of self-reflecting thought. The work attributes the unfolding of concepts of reality in terms of the model of dialectical reasoning. According to this system, a thesis is put forward that is subsequently opposed by a contradictory antithesis, and out of their opposition comes a synthesis that embraces both positions. Although Hegel never used the terms “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” to summarize his view of dialectics, they have become standard tools in the resulting critical dialogue to illustrate the essence of his method. Hegel argued in The Science of Logic that this system of reasoning was the only method of progress in human thought. Hegel's three-part Encyclopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse (1817-30; Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences) is an outline of his entire philosophy and describes the application of his dialectic to all areas of human knowledge. The collection is made up of Vorlesungen über die Naturphilosophie (Philosophy of Nature), Die Logik (Logic), and Die Philosophie des Geistes (The Philosophy of Spirit).

The last full-length work Hegel saw published in his lifetime was the Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, oder Naturrecht und Staatswissenschaft im Grundrisse (The Philosophy of Right), a work that attempts to account for human life in all its political and social dimensions. Hegel wrote in the introduction that “the history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom,” and the rest of the work serves to illustrate this point. He presents an outline of world history from ancient China, India, and Persia to nineteenth-century Europe in order to show how history displays a rational process of development that can help humans understand their nature and place in the world.

After Hegel's death, a number of other works were compiled from his students' lecture notes and published posthumously. These are Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion (1832; Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion), Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie (1833-36; Lectures on the History of Philosophy), Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik (1835-38; Lectures on Aesthetics), and Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte (1837; Lectures on the Philosophy of History). These volumes elaborate on the basic ideas pervading all of Hegel's philosophy. Hegel believed that only by interacting with other individuals, objects in the concrete world, or ideas in the world of the spirit could the individual reach a higher order of existence and achieve true freedom. Hegel's philosophy tries to make sense of the whole realm of human experience by understanding it as the manifestation of what he calls the Absolute Spirit, which is the ultimate reality. Hegel's lectures on the philosophy of religion make the point that the philosopher can study religion and see that it is the highest non-rational manifestation of the Absolute Spirit. In his lectures on philosophy and the philosophy of history, he argues that the history of philosophy reveals the development of the Absolute Spirit.

Critical Reception

By the end of his life, Hegel was the most important philosopher in Germany. His reputation far eclipsed that of his friend Schelling, and throughout the nineteenth century he was regarded as the greatest and most original thinker since Kant. His view that history was guided by the Absolute Spirit, which revealed itself through the dialectic process, had an immense influence on nineteenth-century continental philosophers. After his death, his followers divided into two camps. The Right Hegelians advocated evangelical orthodoxy and political conservatism, and the Left Hegelians, or Young Hegelians, advocated atheism and liberal democracy. The most famous Young Hegelian was Marx, who adopted Hegel's ideas about dialectic as the basis of his philosophy of dialectical materialism, which in turn became the philosophical underpinning of communism. Hegel also influenced other philosophical schools such as post-Hegelian idealism, existentialism, and philosophical instrumentalism. One of England's most famous moral philosophers, F. W. Bradley, was a Hegelian, and the American philosopher John Dewey was also inspired by him.

In the twentieth century, interest in Hegel among philosophers waned, most notably in the English-speaking world. The enormous influence of the British empiricists Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore from the 1930s to the 1960s and the subsequent establishment of their brand of analytic philosophy served to discredit the basic Hegelian metaphysical claims of the interconnection between all particulars into one ideal substance. Hegel still had some champions, and thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and other members of the Frankfurt School found his ideas about the dialectical tension between individuals and society relevant to their own social theory. Since then, commentators have traced Hegel's influence on the critical school of deconstructionism, attempted to understand his views on history, explored his aesthetic principles, and discussed his ideas on language and writing. They have also likened his philosophical principles with those of Friedrich Nietzsche and pointed out his influence on other existentialist thinkers such as Sartre. Scholars have also compared Hegel's philosophy of history with concepts advanced by the modern French philosopher and historian of thought Michel Foucault. While Hegel is no longer considered a philosopher of towering importance, his work continues to interest scholars for its parallels to later developments in philosophy and other areas of critical thought.