Key thinker: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831)

G. W. F. Hegel was born in Stuttgart (then in the Duchy of Württemberg, south Germany), son to a minor official in the Duke's revenue office. His mother was the daughter of a lawyer and died when Hegel was thirteen. Although he was a brilliant student, Hegel's academic career was at first unremarkable; between 1793 and 1801, he served as a private tutor to two wealthy families. Hegel began teaching at the University of Jena in 1801. This appointment meant that he was close at hand when Napoleon defeated the Prussian army at the Battle of Jena in 1806. At the time, Hegel was a fervent admirer of the French Emperor; but the city was badly damaged during the campaign, and the university suffered badly. In 1807 Hegel was forced to accept a job as a newspaper editor. A year later, Hegel became headmaster of a school in Nuremberg.

Hegel's prospects were transformed in 1816, when he was offered posts by several universities. He worked for two years at Heidelberg, before moving in 1818 to become Professor of Philosophy at the University of Berlin. Before long he had established an international reputation, and some of his posthumous publications are based on lecture notes taken by his admiring students. Hegel also became a pillar of the university's establishment, being made Rector in 1830, the year before his death.

Hegel's work has been influential in many fields, including religion, science and art. His chief contribution to political theory was Elements of the Philosophy of Right, published in 1821. This book (like most of Hegel's published work) is written in a style which is deliberately obscure, and its message is difficult to simplify without distorting it. One basic point for Hegel is that history has seen the progressive development of human freedom, by which he meant self-realization. Yet Hegel is far from being an individualist. Even 'world-historic' people like Napoleon are servants of an underlying rationality which governs human affairs. Fortunately for Hegel, he discovered the ultimate embodiment of 'rationality' in the constitution of his employer, the Prussian state (see Chapter 2). At times, indeed, he seems to be saying that true 'freedom' lies in obedience to the Prussian government.

Thus, the former admirer of Napoleon had become an admirer of the status quo in Prussia—a state which in reality was repressive by the standards of today's liberal democracies. Some commentators have even identified Hegel as an intellectual ancestor of Hitler's Nazi regime. However, this line of argument is based on a caricature of Hegel's true message, which (like that of Rousseau) was an attempt to reconcile individual freedom with the need for social order. Thus, for example, Hegel sees a constructive role for the state in removing some of the injustices generated by the operations of the free market. In this respect Hegel looks like an advocate for the kind of 'mixed economy' experienced in countries like the UK after World War II, rather than an apologist for totalitarianism.

The idea that Hegel was a pure 'reactionary' is difficult to reconcile with his profound influence over Karl Marx, whose ideas were based on a critical (but admiring) reading of Hegel. Marx turns Hegel's philosophy on its head by arguing, firstly, that human history can be explained by the developing of material forces rather than, as Hegel had argued, by the development of the mind or the realm of ideas. Secondly, Marx argued that the point of philosophy was to change the world, rather than merely explain it, as (allegedly) Hegel had done. In other words, Marx argued that in order to achieve the goal Hegel had set—a unified and inclusive polity—revolutionary change was needed to abolish the existing system of class exploitation.

Although his brand of philosophy was neglected for many years, Hegel's reputation has tended to rise in the 1990s, coinciding with a reaction against Marx. One of his most influential followers is Francis Fukuyama (see Chapter 7 and the Conclusion – Chapter 23), who tried to apply Hegel's method to an understanding of global developments. In Fukuyama's view, the true 'end of history' was heralded by the arrival of the liberal democratic state, not the authoritarian Prussia of Hegel's day.

Further reading
Terry Pinkard, Hegel: A Biography, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Raymond Plant, Hegel: An Introduction, Blackwell, 1983.

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