Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

The German philosopher and educator Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) took all of knowledge as his domain and made original contributions to the understanding of history, law, logic, art, religion, and philosophy.

Living in a time of geniuses and revolutions, G. W. F. Hegel claimed his own work to be not so much a revolution as the consummation of human development, and not so much the product of genius as the final expression of all philosophy up to that time. Among the great figures living then were the writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and Novalis; the philosophers Immanuel Kant, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and F. W. J. von Schelling; and the composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. When Hegel was 19 the French Revolution began, and for most of his lifetime all Europe was in foment.

Hegel was born in Stuttgart on Aug. 27, 1770, the son of an official serving the Duke of Württemberg. He received a classical education and was a precocious pupil. Urged by his Pietist father to enter the clergy, he registered in the Tübingen Lutheran seminary in 1788. A fair student, Hegel generally preferred the conviviality of cafés and country walks to scholarly asceticism. His love of wine and company, his passion for the secular writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and his interest in practical political matters prevailed over the stern demands of a religious calling. Nevertheless, he studied philosophy for 2 years and theology for 3, completing his theological examination in 1793.

At the seminary Hegel read deeply in German poetry and Greek literature, in the company of Friedrich Hölderlin, the poet, and Schelling, who was to reach early eminence as a philosopher of romanticism. The three friends professed ardent sympathy with the French Revolution and took for their motto "Freedom and Reason."


Employment as Tutor

For the next 3 1/2 years Hegel was engaged as a private tutor in Berne. Though his duties left him little time for study and writing, he acquainted himself with the Bernese political situation. His first published work, in 1798, consisted of notes accompanying his translation of letters by an exiled Bernese lawyer criticizing the city's oligarchy.

Thanks to Hölderlin's initiative, in 1797 Hegel was rescued from his cheerless situation through an appointment as a private tutor in Frankfurt. His employer owned a fine library and allowed him time to be with friends, especially Hölderlin. Most importantly, he had time to write. Among his many concerns were the "conditions of profit and property" in England, the history of Christianity, love, the Prussian penal code, and theology. Some of his Frankfurt writings were published posthumously by Hermann Nohl (1907) and were translated by T. M. Knox and R. Kroner in Early Theological Writings (1948).

Hegel's father died in January 1799, leaving a legacy that enabled him to leave tutoring and prepare seriously for an academic career. In 1801 he lived with Schelling, already a professor, at the great University of Jena. There he worked fervently; he wrote a detailed, critical study of the Constitution of the German Empire and completed his first published book, The Difference between Fichte's and Schelling's Systems of Philosophy (1801). Challenging the popular view that Fichte and Schelling were master and disciple, Hegel brought out their obscured but basic differences. Each, to be sure, had made significant discoveries; but both were ingenious at the expense of systematic thoroughness. Recognizing that their philosophies were irreconcilable on their own terms, Hegel resolved to work out a complete system that would account for the common aim and many differences of previous philosophies. Hegel's would have to be the system of all philosophy.

In 1801 Hegel also submitted a Latin dissertation on the orbits of the planets and consequently was granted the right to teach in any German university (the venia legendi). He began to give lectures at Jena and eventually became one of the better-known lecturers. A student wrote about him later: "Hegel succeeded in captivating his students with the intensity of his speculation. … [His eyes] were large but introverted, the refracted gaze filled with deep ideality, which at certain moments would exert a visible and poignant power. … The earnestness in his noble features at first had something that, although not intimidating, kept others at a distance; but the gentleness and amiability of his expression were winning and inviting." In addition to teaching and writing, Hegel worked with Schelling to found and edit the Kritisches Journal der Philosophie (1802-1803), to which he contributed several articles and reviews.


Phenomenology of Spirit

While at Jena the idea of a wholly reconciling philosophy was gestating in Hegel's mind. It came to fruition in 1806 as the dense but exciting tome called Phänomenologie des Geistes (Phenomenology of Spirit). It is the reflective study (logos) of the historical self-manifestation (phenomenon) of the Spirit, which all men have in common.

The stages in the development of the general Spirit, as shown in the conflicts and reconciliations of history, are also the stages of the individual's growth. Thus, the Phenomenology of Spirit can be read as a discipline of self-education, through which the individual absorbs and prepares to go beyond the present development of Spirit. The Phenomenology develops from the simplest level of experience, sense perception, to the richest, here called "absolute knowledge."

This movement of Spirit is "dialectical"; that is, Spirit develops in stages, undergoing successions of internal opposition and reconciliation. The stages must necessarily evolve in a continuous pattern, omitting none. There can be no short cuts to truth—a point Hegel stressed in criticizing romantic philosophers. The dialectical process of Spirit is always going on; it is what is "most real," though men are rarely conscious of it. Hegel's achievement was to cast the universal experience in the language appropriate to it, enabling consciousness to grasp it.

The entire book was written in haste and was completed on October 13, the very day Napoleon and his troops occupied Jena. Later, Hegel said of Napoleon, "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."

Since the university was in disarray and his own financial situation desperate, Hegel arranged through his friend F. I. Niethammer to become editor of a newspaper, the Bamberger Zeitung. He held this position for a year, and on Nov. 15, 1808, thanks once again to Niethammer, he was appointed headmaster of the gymnasium, or secondary school, at Nuremberg.

For 8 years Hegel taught philosophy and occasionally Greek literature and calculus. His administration was conservative and effective, but the position was ill-suited to his genius. In 1811 Hegel married Marie von Tucher, only 20 years old, after a tender courtship. Soon a daughter was born to them, but she died only a few months later. Then, in 1813, a son, Karl, was born, and a year later a second son, Immanuel. Hegel had had another son, Ludwig, born in 1807 to his landlord's wife; in 1816 Hegel invited him to join his household.


Science of Logic

While at Nuremberg, Hegel completed his second major work, Wissenschaft der Logik (Science of Logic), publishing part I of the first volume in 1811. Part II appeared in 1813, and the second volume in 1816. This difficult book presents the science of thought, purified of all reference to experience, to acts, or to facts of nature. In fact, the Logic consists of a closed series of "thought determinations"—for example, quantity and quality, form and matter—and displays both the differences between them and the way each meshes with every other. This pure science "contains thought insofar as it is just as much the thing in itself, or the thing in itself insofar as it is just as much pure thought." In other words, the Logic deals with reality, not solely with man's instruments for knowing or discussing it. "Logic [is] … the system of pure reason … the kingdom of pure thought. This kingdom is the truth as it is, without covering, in and for itself." But this kingdom of pure thought, for Hegel, presupposes man's rootedness in the complex, developing world of experience. The Phenomenology and the Logic, then, are interdependent portions of a single system. The study of logic, Hegel says, "is the absolute education and discipline of consciousness."


Heidelberg and the Encyclopedia

In 1816 Hegel was called to the University of Heidelberg. In his opening lecture he remarked that the peace following on Napoleon's exile might revive "the courage of truth, a faith in the power of the spirit," which is the "prime requirement of philosophy." "Man, being spirit, may and should consider himself worthy of the highest … if he retains this faith, nothing will be so hard and unyielding that it will not open up to him." Feeling the need for a restatement and improvement of his earlier work, he published The Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline (1817). This summary of his system was later revised considerably, in 1827 and again in 1830. The book began with a section on logic, followed by "the philosophy of nature" and "the philosophy of spirit," and concluded with the self-knowledge vouchsafed only to philosophy. Another name for this self-knowledge is freedom. Since philosophy includes every kind of knowledge, true freedom is not separation but the most complete relatedness. The free man is actively at home in and with both nature and history.


Berlin and Fame

In 1817 Hegel was granted a professorship at Berlin. There he quickly found himself the center of a following, though he was hardly a seeker of followers. On the contrary, he took pains to discourage what he called "tutelage." It is reported, moreover, that he preferred the company of affable and urbane folk to that of earnest intellectuals.

By this time Hegel's enthusiasm for the French Revolution had waned, and to some it appeared that he was an apologist for Prussian reaction. However, his major political work—the only book he published while at Berlin— confounds such a simple interpretation. Here he insists, "Whatever happens, every individual is a child of his time; so philosophy too is its own time apprehended in thought." It is for statesmen, not philosophers, to prescribe for tomorrow. Published in 1821, the book has a double title: Naturrecht und Staatswissenschaft im Grundrisse and Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (translated by T. M. Knox as Hegel's Philosophy of Right, 1952).

The sphere of reality examined in political philosophy is "objective Spirit." But the highest sphere, in which the accidents of nationality, economics, geography, and climate are transcended, is "absolute Spirit," which develops through three kinds of activity: art, religion, and philosophy. Although Hegel lectured on these subjects regularly, he did not write a book on them. However, some former students, after his death, compiled and published their notes from the lectures. A portion of these notes has been published as On Art, Religion, and Philosophy, edited by J. Glenn Gray (1970). Hegel's attempt to ferret out the truth of Spirit is a study of history, but a special kind of study since history is comprehended as the development of human freedom, rather than as a series of events and stories.

Hegel became rector of the university in 1830. The next year he wrote a critical study of the situation in England, On the English Reform Bill, parts of which were published in a Prussian journal. The remainder was censored by state authorities to avoid antagonizing the English. For the fall semester of 1831, he announced two lecture courses: philosophy of law and the history of philosophy. He gave his first lectures on November 10; on November 14 Hegel succumbed to cholera, then epidemic in Europe.

Hegel's influence on subsequent generations is incalculable. It has been said that the history of European thought since Hegel has been a series of revolts against his ideas. No thinker since has combined such ambition with such rigor and insight, and many who are sympathetic to his achievement regard his legacy as the "crisis of philosophy" which so preoccupies philosophers a century later.

Further Reading on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

An easily accessible biography of Hegel in English is Franz Wiedmann's admiring Hegel: An Illustrated Biography (trans. 1968). Hegel's political thought is discussed in Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (1941; 2d ed. 1954), and in an introductory essay by Z. A. Pelczynski in Hegel's Political Writings, translated by T. M. Knox (1964). A wealth of material is presented in Walter Kaufmann, Hegel: Reinterpretation, Texts, and Commentary (1965). Two good introductions to Hegel's work are J. Glenn Gray, Hegel's Hellenic Ideal (1941), and John N. Findlay, Hegel: A Re-examination (1958). The place of Hegel's work in 19th-century German thought is lucidly examined by Karl Löwith in From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Thought (trans. 1964).