Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born in Stuttgart, Germany, the son of a government official. He studied theology at the University of Tubingen. After serving as a tutor at Bern and Frankfurt, he was a lecturer and then a professor at the University of Jena (1801-06), headmaster of a school in Nuremberg (1808-16), and professor at Heidelberg (1816-18) and Berlin (1818-31).

He died in Berlin, during a cholera epidemic, on Nov. 14, 1831. He was an idealist philosopher who has influenced many areas of modern philosophy; his strongest influence was on Karl Marx, and he had a negative influence on S?ren Kierkegaard, whose rebellion against his objective systematizing began the school of existentialism.

Hegel wrote books on philosophy, religion, and history. His most important works include the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), the Science of Logic (1816), the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1817), the Philosophy of Right (1821), and the Philosophy of History (from lectures in 1822), all of which have been translated into English.

According to Hegel, reality is Absolute Mind, Reason, or Spirit, which manifests itself in history. Whether the Spirit is human spirit or an alias of God he doesn’t make clear. This Mind is universal, the World Mind (Weltgeist), which cannot be identified with any particular person, indeed all rational activity of each person is merely a phase of the Absolute. The Mind is dialectical in that one concept, the thesis, is followed by its opposite, the antithesis, which conflict and produce a higher concept, the synthesis. Hegel claimed that “the real is rational and the rational real,” which can be understood as an expression of the identity of reality and the rational process. Because reality is rational, it acts in accordance with the laws of reasoning. To understand the nature of thought is to understand the nature of reality. Nature itself can be studied rationally because it manifests the dialectical activity of Mind.

The Mind also manifests itself in human affairs. Art is the sensuous expression of creative Spirit and is a rational process, and the philosopher can study art for the representation of reality that it really is. The philosopher can study religion and see that it is the highest nonrational manifestation of the Mind. In Christianity, the highest evolution of religious expression, the incarnation symbolically reflects the truth that the infinite is manifest in the finite and not distinct from it. In philosophy, Reason is revealed as the rational process. Through the concepts of philosophy the philosopher may know Reason as it has been and as it is in itself. The history of philosophy thus reveals the development of Mind itself in its quest for its own unification and actualization. The greater the historical perspective accorded the philosopher, the greater and richer the vision of the system and of Reason’s own self-comprehension in the system.

Absolute Mind also manifests itself in the individual, who develops from a subjectivistic state to an objective rational consciousness through developmental phases of family, society, and state. To Hegel human history is the progression from bondage to freedom. Freedom is achieved as the desires of the individual are integrated into the unified system of the state, in which the will of one is replaced by the will of all. This theory is shown in his division of history into three stages, the first of which is in the ancient orient where only the ruler was free, the second in Greece and Rome where some were free, and modern world where all are considered free.

This view of history divided Hegel’s followers into left- and right-wing camps, with leftists like Marx turning the dialectic of Spirit into the dialectic of economic conditions and rightists stressing the unity of the state and breathing new life into Protestantism.