georg hegelOverview

Hegel is probably more quoted than read today, but his dialectic is a forerunner of contemporary interest in metaphor, schemas and the mechanisms of abstract thought. His approach continues to be central to political thought, and in fact provides a useful contrast to science and the preoccupations of the analytical schools of philosophy.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born in 1770, studied at the Tübingen theological college, worked as a private tutor and high school headmaster, lectured at Jena and Heidelberg, and died as Professor of Philosophy at Berlin in 1831. A thorough academic, but also someone closely linked with the Romantic Movement, opposed to Kant's categories of thought, and concerned to heal divisions in the emotional and social fabric of his time.

Hegel's first major work, Phenomenology of Spirit, published in 1807, traces the development of thought and consciousness from historical glimmerings to "absolute knowledge". Civilizations progressively assess and find wanting each stage of their theoretical and practical viewpoints, synthesizing new on the ruins of the old. Such evolution comes not through some mystical law of history but from dissatisfaction with the contradictions, one-sidedness and shortcomings in current consciousness. Issues of individualism, ethics, political and religious philosophy need all to be resolved and transcended for the society or civilization to understand itself.

This outline Hegel proceeded to develop in his Science of Logic (1812-16) and the continuing Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. His Philosophy of Right, published separately in 1821, became and continues to be a central document in the history of political thought. Left wing theorists — Marx, Feuerbach and Engels — thought it supported their views of community and individual liberty. Right wind theorists thought it supported an absolute monarchy and the Prussian state. In fact it does neither: Hegel accepted modern civilian states, with market economies and possibly a constitutional monarchy, but disliked the irresponsibilities of individual freedoms as much as the dehumanizing effect of the capitalist market. {1}

Hegel's Mode of Reasoning

Hegel was a phenomenologist. {2} He thought that categories of being must be developed directly from what appears in our experience (i.e. rather than from supposed a priori structure of the human mind) and he dealt with the antinomies differently from Kant. The latter said these problems arise because we confuse categories of mind with things in themselves. But we can't conceive a finite body, for example, without at some time thinking of an infinite one which forms its boundary, said Hegel, and then we're stuck with an infinite body being limited to a location, which is a contradiction in terms. But it is the mind which conceives of an infinite body, said Kant, and which imposes on nature its own categories of thought. No, thought Hegel: there are many antinomies, which are real but capable of being resolved by combination in a higher category, in this case Being. But since Being is everywhere in one sense, but is by the same token absent everywhere as a distinguishing feature, we must also talk of Nothing. Combining Being and Nothing generates Becoming. So, whereas Kant allowed a rational faith in God who is the author of the world and phenomena as a transcendental hypothesis — hypothesis only, note, since we could never prove his existence — Hegel argued that the transcendental was known to be true.

Knowledge appears through our immersion in the world. We know when we see into, through and around, along with the act by which we know. Knowledge touches Being when it achieves full completion. What this Being achieved always involves others (the Other) so that for full existence (Being-for-Itself) we need both Being and Other, which is also called Ideality or Absolute Being. Finally, Being-for-Itself is reflexive, bends back into and realizes Absolute Being, thus becoming both the object seen and the seer — i.e. total self-recognition. How is this effected without infinite acts of self-recognition and recall? Through Freedom, which is what the world is aiming at. But this idea is both concept and clothing, which for Hegel is History, the merging of individual identity in National and finally Absolute Mind. Mind through history is the Absolute Mind's own march towards itself, towards self-realization of freedom.

Just as observation needs an object to be observed, Absolute Mind had to eternalize to know itself, to become itself, which turned empiricism inside out, making the truth or essences of objects but aspects of the Absolute Mind. But Mind had to include itself in the whole of its own activity of grasping the whole, i.e. become totally self-reflexive. Hegel's philosophy is therefore not a construction built on clearly-established truths, but a comprehensive view of everything. The world was to be understood as Mind endeavouring to know or recognize itself by first objectifying itself as nature or matter, and then returning into itself as consciousness comprehending itself.


Does this make sense? Many have doubted so. But Hegel's argument is very simple. Truly free, self-determining logic observes a rigorous, presuppositionless logic of its own. We begin by trying to think of something entirely indeterminate. We cannot do it: we always think of something. If we abstract from a thought all content we end up with nothing. Now this thinking of nothing is not the same as not thinking: we are actually thinking. But we cannot think of pure, indeterminate being without thinking of its opposite, nothing, from which it is indistinguishable. One merges with the other, is indeed the necessary part of the other. By similar means are other terms arrived at. {3}

How valid is this dialectic? Many were unconvinced, though it is fairer to see the resolution of thesis and antithesis, the synthesis, not so much as transcending the contradiction as carrying in suspension and preserving both, a view that anticipates schema. The German word commonly translated as transcending is emporheben. {4} Furthermore, which is easily forgotten, Hegel always stresses the concrete: spirit in German is a masculine noun, and suggests someone actually and creatively at work. Reason for Hegel is not a substance but a subject , i.e. reason conscious of itself or spirit. The revelation of the spirit is the world order and its highest stage is the representation of the divine or absolute as religion.

Contra Kant

Kant allowed God as a hypothesis, to reconcile the categorical imperative (treat men as ends rather than means) with the goal of happiness (complete satisfaction of all our inclinations.) An all-powerful and all-knowing God will cause happiness to come to the morally worthy — in time of course, making a soul and/or immortality clearly necessary. Immortality becomes a practical postulate. Soul is the ground of our active and phenomenal life, though we cannot prove its existence. From this we must go on to make the whole of nature purposive. Man alone can act on the conceptions of principles, i.e. direct his behaviour to his own ends, by rules of his own devising. As a moral being man might be the final end of nature, thus acquiring dignity and self-respect which protected him from mere materialism. It was a hypothesis only, but one that captured the imagination of Romantic artists and writers.

Hegel disagreed. He claimed to have shown that the world was teleologically ordered, not as hypothesis but necessarily, logically. How else could the marvellous complexity of the world have originated? But then came evolution, natural selection of the fittest. Hegel had foreseen this, arguing that nature is conditioned by outward circumstances, contingency losing itself in vagueness. But the damage was done: evolution was a much simpler way of looking at things, and idealism gradually faded from the Anglo-Saxon scene, disappearing in England around the time of WWI.

Hegel and Contemporary Philosophy

In Europe, however, Hegel continues provides the starting point for many of the twentieth century schools of thought. Before Nietzsche, and perhaps more broadly, Hegel understood the fragmentation and alienation of modern societies. He sympathized with Hölderlin and the classical revival, but also saw that the aesthetic harmony of the Greek city state was not to be recaptured. Like Kant, Hegel based freedom on human reasoning and self-restraint, but felt that Kant's categories of thought were a new Cartesianism, which separated man from his emotional nature. Thought in Hegel is rather abstract, and in reaction to this developed the ideas of Kierkegarde, Heidegger and the French Existentialists. But man's outlook is also a product of his society, and the means by which it supports itself: an outlook Marx was to develop. And in thinking we need to examine our individual consciousness, striving to overcome its ingrained prejudices — a phenomenological line of thought that passes through Husserl to Heidegger and Gadamer. {5}

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. Peter Singer's Hegel entry in Ted Honderich's The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995). Also Charles Taylor's Hegel and Modern Society (1978).
2. H. Prosch's The Genesis of Twentieth Century Philosophy (1966).
3. Stephen Houlgate's Freedom, Truth and History (1991).
4. C.J. Friedrich's The Philosophy of Hegel (1954).
5. Robert Stern's G.F.W. Hegel in Jenny Teichman and Graham White's An Introduction to Modern European Philosophy (1995).

Internet Resources

1. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Garth Kemerling. Aug. 2002. Short Philosophy Pages article, but good bibliography and listings.
2. G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) Social and Political Thought. David A. Duquette. 2001. Extended article and bibliography.
3. Hegel and the Elephant. George J. Marshall. Short article on Hegel's dialectic.
4. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Jan. 2004. Wikipedia article with good list of links. NNA
5. Sketch of Hegel's System. Eiichi Shimomisse. 1997. Incomplete but fairly detailed lecture notes.
6. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831): Biographies. Peter Landry. Dec. 1997.
. Brief article on Hegel and the excesses of Idealism.
7. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Paul Redding. May 2002. Usual excellent article in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, though limited Internet references.
8. Hegel Net. Kai Froeb. 2002. Large and attractive site, with abundant material on all aspects of Hegel.
9. The Hegel Society of America. Has selected links.
10. G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831). Kelley L. Ross. 2001. Short account critical of Hegel and his influence.
11. Selections from Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art. Generous number of excerpts from this and other areas of Hegel's writings. NNA
12. G.W.F. Hegel 1770 - 1831. J. Carl Mickelsen. Another very full selection of Hegel's work, plus secondary and miscellaneous material.NNA
13. Hegel by HyperText. Andy Blunden.
. Excellent resources on this Marxist-orientated site.
14. Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Karl Marx. 1844. Composite translation of Marx's famous essay.
15. Hegel's influence on American education. Unattributed article. NNA
16. The Feminist Critique of Hegel on Women and the Family. Antoinette M. Stafford. Detailed if somewhat academic article. NNA
17. Hegel and the Greeks. Martin Heidegger. Jul. 1958. Some observations made at the Heidelberg conference.
18. Hegel, Well-Regulated Police States, and Empire. Joseph R. Stromberg. Jul. 2001. Hegelian attitudes in American society.