Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel and the Secret of his Philosophy

Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel
(1770-1831)

On August 27, 1770, German theological philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel was born, who is counted as the creator of German idealism. For many historians, Hegel is “perhaps the greatest of the German idealist philosophers.” In 1847 the London Communist League including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used Hegel’s theory of the dialectic to back up their economic theory of communism. Now, in the 21st century, Hegelian-Marxist thinking affects our entire social and political structure.

Hegel’s father, Georg Ludwig, was Rentkammersekretär (secretary to the revenue office) at the court of Karl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg. His mother, Maria Magdalena Louisa (née Fromm), was the daughter of a lawyer at the High Court of Justice at the Württemberg court. When Hegel was eleven his mother died of a “bilious fever” (Gallenfieber) while he and his father who also caught the disease  narrowly survived. At the age of three Hegel went to the “German School”. When he entered the “Latin School” aged five, he already knew the first declension, having been taught it by his mother. In 1776 Hegel entered Stuttgart’s Gymnasium Illustre. During his adolescence Hegel read voraciously, copying lengthy extracts in his diary. Authors he read include the poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and writers associated with the Enlightenment such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

1788 Hegel entered the Tübinger Stift (a Protestant seminary attached to the University of Tübingen), where two fellow students were to become vital to his development – the poet Friedrich Hölderlin and the younger philosopher-to-be Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. Sharing a dislike for what they regarded as the restrictive environment of the Seminary, the three became close friends and mutually influenced each other’s ideas. They watched the unfolding of the French Revolution with shared enthusiasm. Schelling and Hölderlin immersed themselves in theoretical debates on Kantian philosophy, from which Hegel remained aloof.

During his career as a philosopher, Hegel published only four books: the Phenomenology of Spirit, his account of the evolution of consciousness from sense-perception to absolute knowledge, published in 1807; the Science of Logic, the logical and metaphysical core of his philosophy, published between 1811 and 1816; Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, a summary of his entire philosophical system, published in 1816; and the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, his political philosophy, published in 1822.

The French Revolution for Hegel constituted the introduction of real individual political freedom into European societies for the first time in recorded history. But precisely because of its absolute novelty, it is also unlimited with regard to everything that preceded it: on the one hand the upsurge of violence required to carry out the revolution cannot cease to be itself, while on the other, it has already consumed its opponent. The revolution therefore has nowhere to turn but onto its own result: the hard-won freedom is consumed by a brutal Reign of Terror. History, however, progresses by learning from its mistakes: only after and precisely because of this experience can one posit the existence of a constitutional state of free citizens, embodying both the benevolent organizing power of rational government and the revolutionary ideals of freedom and equality.

Actually, Hegel’s philosophy in short was summarized by James Hutchinson Stirling in his 1865 published book ‘The Secret of Hegel: Being the Hegelian System in Origin Principle, Form and Matter:

“The secret of Hegel may be indicated at shortest thus: As Aristotle – with considerable assistance from Plato—made explicit the abstract Universal that was implicit in Socrates, so Hegel – with less considerable assistance from Fichte and Schelling—made explicit the concrete Universal that was implicit in Kant.”

At yovisto you might learn more about the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel. As being a major focus of Prof. Robert Brandom’s work, he makes Hegel’s thought accessible to analytic philosophy by developing a semantic interpretation of the “Phenomenology of Spiritin his Munich lectures.

References and further Reading:

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