Georg Hegel (1770-1831)

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Hegel, G(eorg) W(ilhelm) F(riedrich) (1770-1831), German idealist philosopher, who became one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century. Hegel was born in Stuttgart on August 27, 1770, the son of a revenue officer with the civil service. He was brought up in an atmosphere of Protestant Pietism and became thoroughly acquainted with the Greek and Roman classics while studying at the Stuttgart gymnasium (preparatory school). Encouraged by his father to become a clergyman, Hegel entered the seminary at the University of Tübingen in 1788. There he developed friendships with the poet Friedrich Hölderlin and the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. Having completed a course of study in philosophy and theology and having decided not to enter the ministry, Hegel became (1793) a private tutor in Berne, Switzerland. In 1797 he assumed a similar position in Frankfurt. Two years later his father died, leaving a financial legacy that was sufficient to free him from tutoring.

In 1801 Hegel went to the University of Jena, where he studied, wrote, and eventually became a lecturer. At Jena he completed The Phenomenology of Mind (1807; trans. 1910), one of his most important works. He remained at Jena until October 1806, when the city was taken by the French and he was forced to flee. Having exhausted the legacy left him by his father, Hegel became editor of the Bamberger Zeitung in Bavaria. He disliked journalism, however, and moved to Nuremberg, where he served for eight years as headmaster of a Gymnasium. During the Nuremberg years Hegel met and married Marie von Tucher. Three children were born to the Hegels, a daughter, who died soon after birth, and two sons, Karl and Immanuel. Before his marriage, Hegel had fathered an illegitimate son, Ludwig, who eventually came to live with the Hegels. While at Nuremberg, Hegel published over a period of several years The Science of Logic (1812, 1813, 1816; trans. 1929). In 1816 Hegel accepted a professorship in philosophy at the University of Heidelberg. Soon after, he published in summary form a systematic statement of his entire philosophy entitled Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline (1817; trans. 1959). In 1818 Hegel was invited to teach at the University of Berlin, where he was to remain. He died in Berlin on November 14, 1831, during a cholera epidemic.

The last full-length work published by Hegel was The Philosophy of Right (1821; trans. 1896), although several sets of his lecture notes, supplemented by students' notes, were published after his death. Published lectures include The Philosophy of Fine Art (1835-38; trans. 1920), Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1833-36; trans. 1892-96), Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (1832; trans. 1895), and Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1837; trans. 1858). Strongly influenced by Greek ideas, Hegel also read the works of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, the French writer Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the German philosophers Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Schelling. Although he often disagreed with these philosophers, their influence is evident in his writings.

Philosophical Aims

Hegel's aim was to set forth a philosophical system so comprehensive that it would encompass the ideas of his predecessors and create a conceptual framework in terms of which both the past and future could be philosophically understood. Such an aim would require nothing short of a full account of reality itself. Thus, Hegel conceived the subject matter of philosophy to be reality as a whole. This reality, or the total developmental process of everything that is, he referred to as the Absolute, or Absolute Spirit. According to Hegel, the task of philosophy is to chart the development of Absolute Spirit. This involves (1) making clear the internal rational structure of the Absolute; (2) demonstrating the manner in which the Absolute manifests itself in nature and human history; and (3) explicating the teleological nature of the Absolute, that is, showing the end or purpose toward which the Absolute is directed.


Concerning the rational structure of the Absolute, Hegel, following the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, argued that “what is rational is real and what is real is rational.” This must be understood in terms of Hegel's further claim that the Absolute must ultimately be regarded as pure Thought, or Spirit, or Mind, in the process of self-development (see IDEALISM). The logic that governs this developmental process is dialectic. The dialectical method involves the notion that movement, or process, or progress, is the result of the conflict of opposites. Traditionally, this dimension of Hegel's thought has been analyzed in terms of the categories of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Although Hegel tended to avoid these terms, they are helpful in understanding his concept of the dialectic. The thesis, then, might be an idea or a historical movement. Such an idea or movement contains within itself incompleteness that gives rise to opposition, or an antithesis, a conflicting idea or movement. As a result of the conflict a third point of view arises, a synthesis, which overcomes the conflict by reconciling at a higher level the truth contained in both the thesis and antithesis. This synthesis becomes a new thesis that generates another antithesis, giving rise to a new synthesis, and in such a fashion the process of intellectual or historical development is continually generated. Hegel thought that Absolute Spirit itself (which is to say, the sum total of reality) develops in this dialectical fashion toward an ultimate end or goal. For Hegel, therefore, reality is understood as the Absolute unfolding dialectically in a process of self-development. As the Absolute undergoes this development, it manifests itself both in nature and in human history. Nature is Absolute Thought or Being objectifying itself in material form. Finite minds and human history are the process of the Absolute manifesting itself in that which is most kin to itself, namely, spirit or consciousness. In The Phenomenology of Mind Hegel traced the stages of this manifestation from the simplest level of consciousness, through self-consciousness, to the advent of reason.

Self-Knowledge of the Absolute

The goal of the dialectical cosmic process can be most clearly understood at the level of reason. As finite reason progresses in understanding, the Absolute progresses toward full self-knowledge. Indeed, the Absolute comes to know itself through the human mind's increased understanding of reality, or the Absolute. Hegel analyzed this human progression in understanding in terms of three levels: art, religion, and philosophy. Art grasps the Absolute in material forms, interpreting the rational through the sensible forms of beauty. Art is conceptually superseded by religion, which grasps the Absolute by means of images and symbols. The highest religion for Hegel is Christianity, for in Christianity the truth that the Absolute manifests itself in the finite is symbolically reflected in the incarnation. Philosophy, however, is conceptually supreme, because it grasps the Absolute rationally. Once this has been achieved, the Absolute has arrived at full self-consciousness, and the cosmic drama reaches its end and goal. Only at this point did Hegel identify the Absolute with God. “God is God,” Hegel argued, “only in so far as he knows himself.”

Philosophy of History

In the process of analyzing the nature of Absolute Spirit, Hegel made significant contributions in a variety of philosophical fields, including the philosophy of history and social ethics. With respect to history, his two key explanatory categories are reason and freedom. “The only Thought,” maintained Hegel, “which Philosophy brings … to the contemplation of History, is the simple conception of Reason; that Reason is the Sovereign of the world, that the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process.” As a rational process, history is a record of the development of human freedom, for human history is a progression from less freedom to greater freedom.

Ethics and Politics

Hegel's social and political views emerge most clearly in his discussion of morality (Moralität) and social ethics (Sittlichkei ). At the level of morality, right and wrong is a matter of individual conscience. One must, however, move beyond this to the level of social ethics, for duty, according to Hegel, is not essentially the product of individual judgment. Individuals are complete only in the midst of social relationships; thus, the only context in which duty can truly exist is a social one. Hegel considered membership in the state one of the individual's highest duties. Ideally, the state is the manifestation of the general will, which is the highest expression of the ethical spirit. Obedience to this general will is the act of a free and rational individual. Hegel emerges as a conservative, but he should not be interpreted as sanctioning totalitarianism, for he also argued that the abridgment of freedom by any actual state is morally unacceptable.


At the time of Hegel's death, he was the most prominent philosopher in Germany. His views were widely taught, and his students were highly regarded. His followers soon divided into right-wing and left-wing Hegelians. Theologically and politically the right-wing Hegelians offered a conservative interpretation of his work. They emphasized the compatibility between Hegel's philosophy and Christianity. Politically, they were orthodox. The left-wing Hegelians eventually moved to an atheistic position. In politics, many of them became revolutionaries. This historically important left-wing group included Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx. Engels and Marx were particularly influenced by Hegel's idea that history moves dialectically, but they replaced Hegel's philosophical idealism with materialism. Hegel's metaphysical idealism had a strong impact on 19th-century and early 20th-century British philosophy, notably that of Francis Herbert Bradley, and on such American philosophers as Josiah Royce, and on Italian philosophy through Benedetto Croce. Hegel also influenced existentialism through the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Phenomenology has been influenced by Hegel's ideas on consciousness. The extensive and diverse impact of Hegel's ideas on subsequent philosophy is evidence of the remarkable range and the extraordinary depth of his thought.

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