Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

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German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) was born in Stuttgart and educated at Tübingen seminary, alongside the epic poet Friedrich Hölderlin and fellow philosopher Friedrich Schelling. The three of them together watched the unfolding of the French Revolution and collaborated in a critique of the idealist philosophies of Kant and his follower Fichte.

This stern painting of Hegel, painted by Jakob Schlesinger in1831, is probably the most famous image of the German 'Idealist' .

With the exception of a brief period as a newspaper editor, Hegel devoted his life wholly to teaching, first at Jena, then Nuremberg, Heidelberg, and finally Berlin. The first two posts were in schools, only the latter ones from 1816, where as a university 'professor' as he is congenitally depicted, and many of his key works date from his grammar school rather than his university period.

Hegel rejected the metaphysical systems that went before his, as being too unconcerned with history. Hegel believed that a philosophy rooted in history was better able to grasp a complex, interconnected reality.

Hegel's first and most celebrated major work is the Phenomenology of Spirit (or 'Mind'). During his life he also published many other works including the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, the Science of Logic and the Philosophy of Right.

Many consider Hegel's thought to represent the summit of 19th Century Germany's movement of philosophical idealism; it certainly led to the 'historical materialism' of Karl Marx as well as to the development of the fascist ideology, via Giovanni Gentile, in Italy, Spain and Germany. [1]


Hegel was born in Stuttgart to a civil servant, and had a Protestant upbringing, his mother wanting him to enter the clergy. He studied philosophy at the Tübinger Stift seminary, meeting Friedrich Hölderlin and Friedrich Schelling, and read Kant, Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and many other philosophers of his own accord. He then went on to teach in the home of Friedrich von Stieger in Berne. Although well paid and with enough free time to read, he was subject to bouts of depression. This was relieved when he was offered a job teaching in the home of Johann Gogel in Frankfurt, spending time with Hölderlin and rethinking many of his philosophical positions. During these years, he mostly worked on religious and ethical themes, originally thinking of religion along the lines of the Enlightenment, then later having a more mystical appreciation of religion and defending religion from such Enlightenment critique.

He then moved to Jena in 1801, becoming a Privatdozent, an unsalaried professor who lives off student fees. At this time, he spent more time reading Kant, and published The Difference between Fichte's and Schelling's System of Philosophy. In 1806, he wrote the Phenomenology of Spirit, a major and systematic work of philosophy, and published it the next year. The Napoleonic army was occupying the city at the time, and closed the university down in 1807.

The Phenomenology of Spirit contained a criticism in the Preface which Friedrich Schelling took to be at his expense, and promptly ended their friendship.

From 1807 to 1808, he was the editor of the Bamberger Zeitung, a newspaper in Bamberg, which satisfied some of his political goals. After this, he spent eight years as a school teacher and rector at the Ägidien-Gymnasium in Nuremberg, where although a successful teacher, he tried and failed to extend the curriculum with philosophy. During this time, he got married, had children and published the Science of Logic.

Finally, in 1816, Hegel got an academic post a the University of Heidelberg as a professor of philosophy, where he gave lectures on aesthetics and political philosophy, the latter becoming the Philosophy of Right. During his time at Heidelberg, he also published the three-volume Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. In 1817, he was offered the position of chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin, a position that had belonged to Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Hegel died on November the 1th 1831, having been something of a celebrity in Berlin. Shortly thereafter, his students published collections of his lectures. The government then appointed Schelling as his replacement at the University of Berlin.


Hegel's most characteristic contribution to philosophising is the use of an ancient technique, that is now associated with him and called the dialectic. This is introduced by Hegel in various guises, but most famously as a system for understanding the history of philosophy and the world itself. His thesis is that history is a series of moments evolving successively out of the conflicts inherent in the previous one.

So it is that for Hegel, the origin of society is in the first conflict between two humans, a ‘bloody battle’ with each seeking to make the other recognise them as master, and accept the role of ‘slave’. (We may suppose that the apparently relevant conflict between male and female resulting in the subordination of the latter, is less significant. It is not part of Hegel’s analysis anyway.) In Hegelianism, it is the fear of death that forces part of mankind to submit to the other, and society is perpetually thereafter divided into the two classes: of slaves and masters. However, it is not material need that propels one class to oppress the other - it is a conflict borne solely out of the peculiarly human lust for power over one another. And the French Revolution was simply the slaves revolting. Hegel, unlike say, Thomas Hobbes, approves of the motivation, he calls it the ‘desire for recognition’. For many, this risks death, but that is the way towards ‘freedom’. During the French Revolution the ideal of freedom is accompanied (and then consumed) by brutal terror. Out of this conflict, however, emerged a new kind of state in which the power of rational government combines with the ideals of freedom and equality.

The Science of Logic (Wissenschaft der Logik,1812-1816) and Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (Die Encyclopädie der philosophischen, Wissenschaften im Grundrisse,1817) attempt to apply this approach to all areas of human knowledge. Hegel's Nature and Statecraft (Naturrecht und Staatswissenschaf) develops the political ramifications stressing the desirability of the individual being subservient to the State, which alone has moral worth and encapsulates 'the Spirit'. In the 'Philosophy of Right' (1820), Hegel explains in excellent headmasterly style that the state doesn’t exist for the individual, but rather the individual exists for the state.

Hegel’s new society aims to combine both individual desires, for wealth, for power, for justice; with the social values of the community - a kind of early ‘third way’ politics. But Hegel’s solution also involves reclassifying all desires that are not compatible with the requirements of the social whole as ‘irrational’, hence not what the individual really wants. Instead, the collective will, the Geist , is given complete power and authority. This is what makes Hegel the founding father of the two totalitarian doctrines: fascism and communism. Hegel writes:

"The history of the world is the discipline of the uncontrolled natural will, bringing it into obedience to a universal principle and conferring subjective freedom... The German Spirit is the spirit of the new world. Its aim is the realisation of absolute truth as the unlimited self determination of freedom - that freedom which has its own absolute form as its purpose."

Lying behind this totalitarian concept of society is a view of the universe not as a collection of fundamental particles, whether atoms or souls, but as a whole, an organic unity. ‘The True is the Whole’, Hegel explains in The Phenomenology of Spirit. It is an illusion to think of anything as separate from anything else, and, in as much as we do so, our thinking is flawed. Actually, even ‘the whole’, which replaces all these imagined separate objects, is not essentially one substance, but many, just as an organism, such as the human body, is made up of different parts with their own characteristics and functions. Even that most basic distinction - between space and time - results in us misguidedly splitting up the world and thereby losing touch with reality. Hegel calls reality - this ‘whole’ - ‘The Absolute’, and it is his contention that all that is true of the world can be formally deduced from consideration of the Absolute using logic. The Absolute is also rather like God, (a rather austere kind of God, like Aristotle’s). A quote, from Hegel’s lectures on the Philosophy of History, gives the flavour:

"That this Idea or Reason is the True, the Eternal, the absolutely powerful essence; that it reveals itself in the world, and that in that world nothing else is revealed but this and its honour and glory - is the thesis which, as we have said, has been proved in philosophy, and is here regarded as demonstrated."

Perhaps paradoxically, Hegel opposes all forms of world government explaining in the Philosophy of Right, (which contains the Hegelian version of the march of World History, as it progresses from the "Oriental" via the "Greek" and the "Roman" to arrive ultimately at the "Germanic") that war is crucial: “Just as the blowing of the winds preserves the sea from the foulness which would be the result of a prolonged calm, so also corruption in nations would be the product of prolonged, let alone ‘perpetual’ peace.”

Hegel, out of all the Western philosophers, is one of the most clear about the educational foundations of his system. He wrote voluminously on the methods for teaching and learning, both in the form of manuscripts and as letters, and reflected on numerous 'pedagogical matters'. These included the conflict between the need to achieve discipline, and the advantages of 'student centred' learning, the bad practice of ‘spoon feeding’ on the one hand, and the desirability of obliging children to imbibe from the deep well of the classics. Here in its earliest form is the Hegelian play of the dialectical reasoning. [2]


A large part of an early version of this article was taken from the entry on Hegel in 'Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics', edited by Martin Cohen, (Hodder Arnold 2006) and donated to the Citizendium by the author.


  1. Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics, Hodder Arnold 2006, ed. Cohen M. p. 117
  2. Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics, Hodder Arnold 2006, ed. Cohen M. pp. 117-118