George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born in 1770 in Stuttgart, Wurttemberg, which was then one of numerous autonomous German principalities that would become the German state in 1871. His eventual preoccupation with the link between human experience and history can be traced to the uncertainties of the time and place in which he lived. The German urban middle class, which made up his early social environment, expressed Enlightenment optimism and faith in human progress, but it was numerically and politically weaker than the middle class elsewhere in northwestern Europe.

Many young, cosmopolitan Germans viewed England and France with envy and resentment as their hopes for German progress and reform were consistently thwarted by an aristocracy that clung to old feudal privileges and institutions and suppressed criticism whenever it felt threatened. The old order was especially anxious after the French Revolution began in 1789, a war that would lead to the dissolution of aristocratic institutions and the execution of many aristocrats, including the French monarch. These events would have a profound impact on the worldviews of Hegel and other intellectuals of his generation.

In 1788, when he was eighteen, Hegel entered the Protestant theological seminary in Tuebingen, following in the footsteps of the several generations of Lutheran pastors from whom he had descended. However, he never really acclimated to seminary life. He learned more from his studies outside of official theology and, above all, from the friendships he made there with fellow students Friedrich Hoelderlin, who would become one of Germany’s great Romantic poets, and Friedrich Shelling, the future idealist philosopher. The three friends exchanged ideas, excitedly watched the events in France unfold, and participated in societies in which students discussed and promoted revolutionary ideals.

Following his graduation, Hegel did not become a pastor. Instead, he worked as a private tutor for wealthy families in Berne and Frankfurt, devoting his free time to the study of philosophy and theology. Much of his writing represents an attempt to come to grips with Christianity, to wrestle with the significance of Christ and his teachings, and to outline the historical legacy of the Christian Church and its cultural and social implications as an institution. Hegel’s lifelong claim that he was an orthodox Lutheran may be subject to question, as it could have easily been motivated by the religious intolerance of the Prussian state, but his philosophy is heavily influenced by theological language, and a theological outlook colors his vision of human experience.

Hegel received a modest inheritance when his father that, which allowed him to pursue his academic career. In 1801, he went to the city of Jena to work as a private professor. At the time, Jena was a center of intense intellectual and artistic creativity and one of the epicenters of German romanticism, a diverse movement that challenged the rationality and sober mindedness that characterized the Age of Enlightenment. Hegel consorted with philosophers and poets and began to envision his own unique philosophical approach. He sought to combine his diverse influences, including Kantian idealism, theology, romanticism, and contemporary political and social theory, which all contribute to his philosophical voice.

Early examples of this emerging voice include The Difference Between the Philosophical Systems of Fichte and Shelling (1801), in which he begins to critique some of the basic assumptions of Kantian idealism, and an 1802 essay on Natural Law, in which he formulates a philosophical approach to the analysis of culture, modernity, and modern institutions.

In 1807, the year after Napoleon marched into Prussia, Hegel published Phenomenology of Spirit, an ambitious and difficult philosophical treatise. In it, Hegel fully elaborates some of his most striking and innovative concepts, such as the idea of Spirit, or collective consciousness, and his view that consciousness and knowledge develop dialectically, in a repeating pattern.

After teaching in Bamberg and Nuremberg, where he met his wife, Hegel took up a professorship in Heidelberg and, later, took another at the new university in Berlin. Hegel’s output from this period includes the three-volume Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Science (1817), in which he systematizes his approach to philosophy, and Elements of a Philosophy of Right (1821), which combines his philosophical insights with analysis and critique of modern society and modern political institutions. Hegel’s students of this period include liberal civil servants in Prussian government, a fact that points to the widening and influential audience Hegel commanded in the years leading up to his death in 1831.

Although Hegel’s status in the field of philosophy has varied in the nearly two centuries since his death, his reflections have considerably influenced other disciplines as well, including literary and cultural theory, theology, sociology, and political science. His lifespan roughly coincides with the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), whose greatness rests partly in the way he took neoclassical musical conventions in new directions and incorporated diverse influences into his music in novel and idiosyncratic ways. Similarly, the originality of Hegel’s insights stems partly from his adaptation of the available philosophical language to describe aspects of human experience that were beyond the immediate concerns of his philosophical predecessors. Like them, Hegel would devote a great deal of intellectual effort wrestling with the nature and possibilities of human knowledge. However, he also sought to understand his rapidly changing world and to describe the social, institutional, and historical dimensions of human experience.

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