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German Idealism: Hegel (1770-1831)


Life and Works
The Problem
The System
Ciccarelli Creation: The Flight of Reason

Life and Works

Click here to see a picture of Hegel. There are also pictures of Hegel lecturing, the Young Hegelians, and Hegel's signature.

1770: Born Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

1788: Studied theology at Tübingen (in the Stift with Hölderlin and Schelling)

1801: Began to lecture in philosophy at Jena; lost position in 1806 due to Napoleonic wars

1807: Die Phänomenologie des Geistes; ET of 2nd German ed., J. B. Baillie, The Phenomenology of Mind (1931)

1808: Head of Gymnasium at Nuremberg (after being at Bamberg briefly)

1812-1816: Wissenschaft der Logik; ET W. H. Johnston and L. G. Struthers, Science of Logic, 2 vols. (1829); this is known as the "Greater Logic"

1816: Began lecturing in philosophy at Heidelberg

1817: Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaft in Grundriss (later eds. in 1827 and 1830); ET by W. Wallace of selections in The Logic of Hegel (1892)—this is known as the "Lesser Logic"—and Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind (1894)

1818: Accepted post in Berlin, teaching there for the rest of his life

1830-31: Hegel’s lectures on Philosophy of History

1831: Died in Berlin

1832: Hegel’s lectures on Philosophy of Religion first published from student notes; there is a long history of both German versions and English translations of these lectures

The Problem

There are a number of pieces that, together, constitute the motivation and context for Hegel’s philosophical system.

  • A dangerous, unstable world: Napoleon is spreading the political principles of the French Revolution through much of Europe
  • Sturm und Drang: a vision of history as Storm and Stress
  • A clash between Enlightenment rationality (represented by Kant) and Romanticism (expressed in poetry, in a return to nature, and in a quest for apprehension of an aesthetic unity beneath the craziness of life)

Hegel, being a philosopher, had a particularly philosophical way of seeing these various challenges.

  • Hegel believed the task of philosophy was to articulate rationally the purpose of humanity and the meaning of history.
  • Hegel wanted to find the grand unity of everything, to cut the Gordian knot, to turn the key in the cosmic lock—but he believed only a rational conception of this unity would count. That is, it was not enough to secure an aesthetic vision of this ultimate unity and purpose of things; this unified purpose must be articulated with systematic precision in philosophical concepts.
  • Hegel believed that history was a purposeful outworking of rational concepts, and so he believed that a properly developed logic (a description of the way concepts relate to each other) would be the key to understanding history (in which ideas actually relate to each other).
  • Hegel believed that people and institutions had a special character, because they embodied a distinctive idea which expressed their nature. Reaching a precise philosophical exposition of such ideas will give knowledge of the purpose of people and institutions.
  • Most grandly, if history has a unity at all, then it must have (from Hegel’s point of view) its own special character with its own special Idea. If Hegel can give a precise philosophical exposition of this IDEA, then Hegel will have knowledge of the purpose of humanity and the meaning of history-as-a-whole, which is the grand philosophic goal.
  • From all this we can draw a connection to Kant: Hegel believed that the reality of things was completely present in the thinking of them; the Kant’s phenomena are the real, precisely because and in so far as they are clear concepts.
  • Critique of Kant’s subjective idealism: (1) it is unstable because is presupposes a subject (unity of apperception) that itself can only be a regulative idea; and (2) it is inconsistent because it is impossible to stipulate definitively the limits of human knowledge without presupposing a position beyond those limits from which they are evident.

The System

Hegel’s dialectical logic builds the idea of becoming into logic itself (contra Aristotle). This is expressed in the formula: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Hegel’s logic describes:

  • the way ideas logically relate to each other;
  • the method for discerning the nature and purpose of institutions, for they are characterized by ideas that drive their development, and those ideas can be articulated; and
  • the secret for figuring out the big Idea that discloses the purpose and meaning of history-as-a-whole.

So: what is the BIG IDEA? It is Geist, which can be translated as Mind or Spirit. There are a couple of points of view on this. First:

  • Geist is best approached in terms of its presence in humans, but not just in one human; rather in all humans, in the entire species. It is, in the first instance, what they have and are that makes them different from rocks and plants and animals. It is rationality.
  • According to Hegel’s logic, a concept of this sort has a power to drive toward its realization through the historical process in a dialectical process that, in sum, is a logically necessary outworking of the idea. Thus the purpose of humanity is to be understood from the history of Geist.

Purpose of humanity: to be that in which Geist moves from (1) unselfconscious immediacy; through (2) a recognition of difference; to (3) a culmination in self-conscious unity in which all differences are transcended through being rationally incorporated into a higher unity.

But if this is what Geist is, approached from the human perspective, it also seems that Geist can be presented in grander, cosmic dimensions. So we must also ask what are History and God in Hegel’s vision.

  • History as a whole is the life of Geist, as it struggles towards a self-conscious unity of expression.
  • That means, incidentally, that the one who figures out the true nature of history and Geist, and writes it down, is not just the biographer, but the autobiographer, of Geist. (That’s Hegel.)
  • God, in Hegel’s picture, is the one with whom our sorry, warring selves are to be reconciled. But Hegel has built this religious idea of reconciliation right into his logic. Thus reconciliation occurs through the rational outworking of ideas within the historical process. What, then, is God? From one point of view, God is the process of reconciliation itself, God is Geist itself working out its salvation in history.
  • Jesus Christ, for Hegel, is crucial. Geist, to achieve complete reconciliation with God (might might as well call it Geist's self-reconciliation) must overcome the chasm between the Mind and its most profound opposite: that it the significance of the incarnation. The next really significant event after the incarnation is Hegel’s figuring out what the entire process of history really means.


Hegel’s influence is, like Kant’s, enormous. It can be understood as having two wings.

  • The left wing (Strauss, Bruno Baur, Feuerbach, and Marx—with Nietzsche related to the last these people) loved Hegel’s immanental reduction of God to the world of history, but despised his retrieval of Christian theology, especially in his view of Jesus Christ, but also in his affirmation that Christianity is the highest development and expression of the religious idea. They thought he wasn’t radical enough.
  • The right wing (the theologians adopting Hegel, especially Alois Biedermann in Germany and John and Edward Caird in Britain) had the opposite reaction to Hegel. They thought he had gone too far and had reduced Christian theism to something indistinguishable from pantheism. On the other hand, they loved the secure foundation for Christology that Hegel’s system offered.

Hegel is the last really important philosopher to try to say it all, to use philosophy to figure out the secret of the universe. In trying to say it all, of course, he was also trying to envision himself at the end of history, from which "the all" logically would be apparent. It was an attempt, in a symbolic sense, not just to describe history, but to end it. After all, what is Geist supposed to do after it has penned its own autobiography? But this attempt to end history can be seen as a form of defiance, a last ditch effort to try and make sense of it all before the weight of historical consciousness and its awareness of historical details made utterly impossible the envisagement of grand macro-historical schemes. In fact, Hegel’s project is testimony to the rise of historical consciousness itself, for only the historically sensitized would feel the sharpness of the problem of the unity of history the way that Hegel did, and only the philosopher sensing the specter of an historical consciousness that produces a mass of indigestible, unintelligible details would so energetically and boldly attempt to end history. Hegel, therefore, was trying to save history from itself, and the failure of his last stand is also our problem: how are we supposed to live in a world in which history can no longer be read as a single grand narrative, a post-Babel world trying to make sense of itself after the failure of Hegel’s grand aspirations? How indeed? Whenever we grapple with this question, we are laboring in the shadow, and with the legacy, of Hegel.

Ciccarelli Creation: The Flight of Reason

Howland sat before his desk in the gathering obscurity of dusk. He was not yet aware of the changing light, of how he was straining to read the print. He had spent the past hour reading and thinking, trying to prepare for his weekly commentary. But his thoughts lacked clarity and precision, weighed down as they were by his sense of gloom. Often, after contemplating current events, he felt depressed. Yet he knew, if he could only step back, gain a wider perspective, gather his thoughts, the feeling would pass, and his mind would be carried forward, once again, by the dynamic of the wider vision. Yes, Howland was a visionary. Unrecognized, but persistent in his pursuit of a rational response to all of the terrible problems of the world. It was just a question of method, and devotion to the progress of rationality, which is to say, reality.

It was not the deadline that drove Howland, but rather his awareness of the urgency of his work. Most commentators he knew strove to be pertinent, perhaps challenging, or witty. Howland wanted to be right. He also tried to give his readers a glimpse of the bigger picture, as he saw it. To that end he almost always included historical detail in his column, and composed his essays to reflect the importance of coming to grips with the past. There was never any doubt in his mind that his reflections on the important issues of the day made a difference. Howland sincerely believed that an accurate analysis of events was of immense benefit to human understanding, and thus to the progressive development of the rationality of the world. And it was only a rational world that was ultimately a good world.

Currently Howland was considering two seemingly disparate situations that nonetheless revealed to Howland a commonality. The first, divorce, was a topic that had distressingly wide applicability in society as far as Howland was concerned. Recently a well-known couple had divorced. Both parties had expressed their need for freedom to pursue self-fulfillment. The man talked about a personal "quest," although he had been vague about the goal of his search. But, Howland wondered, what about their union? What about the family? It is true, he admitted to himself, marriage-as-union can overwhelm the identity of those who enter into it, especially if there is not adequate communication and understanding between the couple. Nevertheless, need the bond be so easily sacrificed to individual needs? Had self-fulfillment nothing at all to do with responsibility to another, to an idea larger than oneself?

The room was smudged with grey, as if an artist’s impatient hand had taken a charcoal to the scene. Howland flipped on a light and glanced at his watch. Startled, he forced his mind to move on. The second situation that had piqued his interest was a series of disputes in a neighboring town over school districts. The town officials had to redistrict in order to shift a certain number of children to a newly built junior high school. Collectively, the citizens recognized the need for the new building, and were pleased that class sizes would decrease. But every neighborhood put forth a cogent argument why its children should not be forced to move to the new building, why another neighborhood was so much better suited for redistricting. Not one neighborhood spoke in consideration of the good of the town as a whole. They spoke as "individuals", pitted against the school board who dared to infringe on their particular rights. And they spoke that way because they felt only partially committed to the town. Ironically, in this case, the commitment was to their own families and those of their immediate neighbors. A decision would soon be made, of course, and people eventually would get used to it. The children would make new friends. But would there be any increase of real awareness of the social problem?

It takes something more. Howland sighed and stretched his neck, rotating his head slowly with a birdlike motion. The answer lay in a creative solution, an idea that was born of both situations. Was there a union of persons that neither swallowed up the individual, nor encouraged selfish excess, that allowed for diversity without exalting particular desires? A whole that promoted the self-fulfillment of its members by the very fact of their being members. This, Howland reflected, is the nature of the ideal state. A universal ideal. And that ideal state is itself only an intermediate goal, a fertile ground in which to foster the true fruits of the human spirit. Here Howland stopped his flow of thoughts to consider. Where does humanity discover in itself the movement of the absolute? In great works of art, certainly. And through the insights of the world religions. But most of all … through the work of reason itself. Reflection on the history of humankind, on the meaningful course of reality. As he whispered these words to himself, Howland was vaguely aware of their flight, well beyond the capacity or taste of most of his readers... But he had no inclination to moderate his speculations. Night had fallen, and he had work to do.

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