An Introduction to the philosophy of George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
These notes are intended as a brief outline of Hegel's philosophical works. My aim is to provide sufficient material to support fruitful discussions.
I found Spark Notes provided a helpful reference and I have in turn attached a more comprehensive analysis for those interested in further reading.
Both reference sources are provided after the conclusion.
I have also provided extracts from the November 2020 published article in ‘Philosophy Now’ entitled ‘Hegel and History’ by Jack Fox – Williams.
The approach taken, given the large volume of works, is to split this summary into an explanation of his major themes and then to talk briefly about his Phenomenology of Spirit.
I conclude with the article on history which I hope will provide further food for thought. This approach involves quite a bit of overlap and possibly some minor repetition but I feel it allows one to ease into the subject matter which Hegel often presented in an obscure manner, to more thoroughly support discussions.
The Form of my summary is as follows:
A brief sketch of his life, the context at that time in history and a summary of major publications.
An introduction to his major themes –
His idea of the Dialectic and what it means.
His Philosophical idea of spirit and self-awareness in the community.
Ethics as they relate to the expression of that Age and the philosophy of Right.
From the Phenomenology of Spirit.
Hegel and the Philosophy of History
Hegel and History’ by Jack Fox – Williams.
Conclusion indicating possible discussion points.
Hegel was a very important philosopher of the18th century, whose influence covered not only philosophy, but the fields of theology, logic, history and politics. He belongs in the German idealist’s camp and much of his work continued in the manner of Immanuel Kant except for important distinctions that I will cover in more detail later.
Following on from this summary there will be ample opportunities to debate these issues and talk about how history evolves and influences our thinking in general.
A brief sketch of his life and major works.
At that time the aristocracy was clinging to their privileges and suppressed criticism, as concern heightened after the French Revolution began in 1789. That led of course to the end of aristocratic institutions and the execution of many aristocrats, including the French monarch which would have had a profound impact on the worldview of Hegel. That raised issues which would be debated by Hegel and his contemporaries at the time.
Hegel was born in 1770 in Stuttgart, Wurttemberg, which became a German state in 1871. He became a student of philosophy and theology with fellow student’s outstanding figures of that time such as the poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) and Friedrich von Schelling (1775–1854).
Much of his earlier writing entailed him attempting to grasp the historical legacy of Christianity and its cultural and social implications, as an orthodox Lutheran. Hegel inherited a modest bequest from his Father after he died which allowed him to pursue his academic career.
In 1801 Hegel moved to Jena and joined Schelling, to publish ‘The Difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy’ to collaborate with Schelling to produce ‘The Critical Journal of Philosophy”
In 1807 he published his first major work, the Phenomenology of Spirit.
Later, as Jena became occupied by Napoleon’s troops, Hegel’s activities were curtailed so he worked as a successful editor of a newspaper in Bamberg. From 1808–1815 he became the headmaster and philosophy teacher at a high school in Nuremberg. Subsequently he married and began a family, publishing in 1816 the ‘Science of Logic’.
After several years he returned to university life and finally took up an appointment at the prestigious University of Berlin. There he published his political philosophy, Elements of the Philosophy of Right.
Following his death in 1831 Hegel’s lectures on philosophy, history, religion and aesthetics were published.
Theme – An Introduction to his idea of his Dialectic and what it means.
Hegel introduces the idea of the dialectic but in a different way to the philosophers that came before him.
To more clearly understand what the dialectic means for Hegel, we have to first understand that Hegel was an idealist, in the tradition of his predecessor, Kant.
Like Kant, Hegel believed that we all perceive the world and anything in it in our minds eye so to speak – not directly. That is our minds gain access to the ideas of the world—made up of images, perceptions, concepts. Both for Kant and Hegel, the only reality we can know therefore is a virtual reality. But the difference for Hegel was important in two ways. Hegel maintained our world view was a consequence of social interaction. In other words all of our ideas are shaped by the ideas of others. Hence our minds become influenced by the thoughts of other people through language, traditions, societal and cultural influences. To Hagel that interaction was real which prompted earlier philosophers to think of him as a rationalist philosopher. Later scholars however would regard him as an absolute idealist.
Theme - His Philosophical idea of spirit and self-awareness in the community.
This then is the collective consciousness to which Hegel referred to as the Spirit. In short Hegel’s idealism is realised through a dialectical process involving social interaction.
Hence, the second difference to Kant is Hegel sees our collective ideas as evolving in a similar way as they do in an argument. First, we have the thesis, as an idea or proposition about the world and how we relate to it. Of course every thesis, or idea about the world contains an inherent contradiction or flaw, which then will give way to an antithesis, a proposition that contradicts the thesis. Finally, the thesis and antithesis are reconciled into a synthesis, which then becomes the new idea combining elements of both as or when the conflict is finally resolved.
Hegel sees human societies evolving in the same manner as arguments might evolve. An entire society or culture begins with one idea about the world, which naturally evolves into a succession of different ideas through a dialectical pattern over time. Hegel uses the German word Geist in his work which is translated as “spirit” in English versions that can mean both “spirit” and “mind,” depending on the context. Hegel talks generally about the spirit of the age, which one would conclude uses the term in a religious sense, which however he never fully defines.
It must be noted at that time religion and philosophy were not separated as they are now and Hegel devoted a considerable narrative on the subject as distinct to his philosophy. For those interested the spark notes reference here expand on the topic. But from consensus views I think one can reliably conclude he was talking about a collective consciousness (that he refers to often and is explained in his dialectic) as a kind of divine spirit. That spirit eventually ensures a resultant logical synthesis ending after many inevitable conflicts. It must be noted Hegel’s dialectic is talking about as an ongoing process. Although the ultimate Synthesis resolves the ‘pro’s and con’s’ the process continues throughout history to slowly become more refined according to his Logic.
Theme - Ethical Life as the Expression of an Age
Hegel’s philosophy can be thus summed up as an expression of an Age, representing the given cultural expression of the Spirit of that age. Spirit is the collective communal entity that transcends individuals, but determines their beliefs and actions regardless of whether they are individually aware of it or not.
Philosophy of the Right
But Hegel did recognise in the age of enlightenment that it gave rise to economic individualism who must have individual rights. Later on in his writings in the Philosophy of Right, he explains the state as a modern institution will self-correct as individualism increasingly plays a more positive evolved role.
Hegel proposes such institutions must affirm the communal societal spiritual bond, but at the same time to also preserve individual freedom.
He went on to propose a regulatory regime for the state and institutional ties that might be regarded as similar in nature to unions for those private activities that lay outside their state.
From the Phemenology of the Spirit- evolving human consciousness.
Given the prior thematic notes on the Dialectic and what it means in the communal spirit of Age through social interaction we can now turn to Hegel’s explanation about how this sophistication arose.
Hegel asserts human consciousness naturally evolved to become more sophisticated in the way it relates to the world, over and above sensory inputs of objects. Hence, an understanding is reached as to our relationship with other individuals, as part of the whole, to be bound in turn by a single communal consciousness.
Spirit in this philosophical sense, then represents the community. In other words the amalgam of individuals who form part of the whole, but whose values and actions continue to evolve in line with the consciousness of the evolving spirit of that age. The apparent glue that holds this all together has previously been covered under the prior thematic where Hegel uses the German word ‘Geist’ in his work which is translated as “spirit” in English as in the spirit of the age.
From the Phenomenology of the Spirit- Knowledge
Hegel is mostly in sync with Kant in that attributes knowledge is not knowledge of “things-in-themselves,” or of the inputs from the senses. He was in agreement with the rationalists such as Descartes who said we are only able to trust the truths of the mind's comprehension on its own. This differed to the Empiricists, who argued that all knowledge arises from perceptions of actual objects, through our senses.
Hegel talks about different modes of consciousness involving m,
Hegel believed all of the different categories were real as uncertainty gives rise to new perceptions that then become certainties.
To reiterate, individuals are immersed in the world and are constantly mediating between the subjective and the collective moments of understanding. .
Lordship and Bondage as the Basis of Social Relations
Hegel agreed with the idealism of Kant, but takes the matter a step forward to suggest self-consciousness is as a consequence of the interactions through the eyes of another in society. Hence, this self-consciousness involves a social interaction and identification with another’s consciousness.
Where inequality exists in relation to a subordinate partner or in the case of a bondsman, the Lord is conscious of the others lesser position. The Lord enjoys his status as in his freedom over his subordinate other, who remains unessential to him. However, in doing so, the lord may become uneasy or feel guilty in negating a consciousness with which he has identified in order to assure himself of his independence and free status. Hegel contends all life is founded on this social interaction. In other words there are dynamic and competing moments of mutual identification where one identifies or distances oneself from the other. It was within this master slave narrative that Carl Marx drew his inspiration to formulate his manifesto.
The question arises however that a collective consciousness at some point in time may relish in the idea of what later is regarded as evil- as in slavery. Hegel gave considerable attention to the idea of slavery which is outside the scope of this paper.
However, one might want to question his model of self-consciousness.
Hegel and the Philosophy of History
Hegel’s philosophy of history is perhaps the most fully developed philosophical theory of history that attempts to discover meaning or direction in history (1824a, 1824b, 1857). Hegel regards history as an intelligible process moving towards a specific condition—the realization of human freedom. “The question at issue is therefore the ultimate end of mankind, the end which the spirit sets itself in the world” (1857: 63). Hegel incorporates a deeper historicism into his philosophical theories than his predecessors or successors. He regards the relationship between “objective” history and the subjective development of the individual consciousness (“spirit”) as an intimate one; this is a central thesis in his Phenomenology of Spirit -1807.
Little, Daniel, "Philosophy of History", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/history/>.
In summary, Hegel, in line with modern philosophers, suggests one questions the meaning of history and talks about early primitive versions to become more reflective and untimely to ideally be governed by reason.
Hegel and History’ by Jack Fox – Williams.
In this respect Jack fox Williams article ' Hegel's understanding of History' which appeared in the November 2020 edition of ‘Philosophy Now’ sheds some further light on the matter.
Hegel’s third way of doing history, philosophical history, prioritises thought above event-commentary, synthesising philosophical concepts and ideas with historical information. Hegel himself is doing this kind of activity when he famously argues that the process of human history is a process of self-recognition guided by ‘the principle of reason’.
For Hegel, nature is the embodiment of reason. In the same way that nature strives towards increasing complexity and harmony, so does the world spirit through the historical process. The Pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras (c.500-428 BC) was the first person to argue that nous (meaning reason, or maybe understanding in general) ultimately governs the world – not as an intelligence, but like a fundamental essence of being. Hegel stresses the importance of this distinction, using the solar system as an example. He writes:
“The motion of the solar system proceeds according to immutable laws; these laws are its reason. But neither the sun nor the planets which according to these laws rotate around it, have any consciousness of it. Thus, the thought that there is reason in nature, that nature is ruled by universal, unchangeable laws, does not surprise us; we are used to it and make very little of it…” (Reason in History).
Moreover, Hegel argues that evidence of reason is revealed through religious truth, which demonstrates that the world is governed not by chance but by Providence. During profound moments of spiritual epiphany, we come to the realisation that a divine order presides over the world. Providence is wisdom endowed with an infinite power, which realises its own purpose, that is, the absolute, rational, final purpose of the world; reason is “thought determining itself in absolute freedom.” Hegel suggests that many stages of human history appear irrational and regressive because society is made up of individuals guided by passions, impulses and external forces. However, behind the seeming irregularity of human history lies a divine plan that is hidden from view and yet actualises itself through the historical process. As a result of the many conflicts, revolutions and revolts that society endures, humanity attains a greater glimpse of reason.
Hegel goes even further in the development of his argument and suggests that the realisation of reason in history also serves as a justification for belief in God. He acknowledges that history reveals the cruelty and sadism of human nature, but urges “recognition of the positive elements in which the negative element disappears as something subordinate and vanquished.” Through the consciousness of reason, we recognise that the ultimate purpose of the world is incrementally actualised through those occasional historical events which bring about positive transformation and change. In this sense, Hegel presents a highly progressive view of history, perceiving the development of human society as a dynamic process by which our rational faculties become ever more refined and cultivated. Although, there is evil in the world, reason ultimately triumphs.
Finally he sums up Hegel’s rather optimistic conclusion.
The Greeks were aware of freedom, and rejected tyranny for democracy, which is political freedom for the voting set. Their freedom was maintained under conditions of slavery – a fact that made “liberty on the one hand only an accidental, transient and limited growth; on the other hand, it constituted a rigorous thraldom of our common nature of the Human.” So according to Hegel, the German nations, under the influence of Christianity, were the first to come to the realisation that man possesses free will. And even while slavery still occurred under Christianity and subsequent political systems, the notion of individual freedom has become central to states, governments, and constitutions, first in the West, then elsewhere.
What can we say about Hegel’s dialectic as it applies to modernity? Did it help in providing the synthesis for European nations to adopt a liberal democratic system in the European style, which has avoided war, after the atrocities of successive world wars?
What do we think about Hegel’s idea of world spirit? What do we think of the idea that reason always ultimately triumphs? What do we think of his model and so on?
Has Hegel contributed to a more rational view to peaceful governance?