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Hegel is a difficult thinker. The complexity of the arguments of his major works—the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), the Science of Logic (1812–1816), the Philosophy of Right (1821), and the lectures on aesthetics and world history, which are, perhaps, the least inaccessible—defies capsule summarization. Yet a characterization of the major concerns that connect Hegel’s writings can be essayed readily enough.
The recent florescence of interest in Hegel among English-language philosophers is a development no one predicted forty years ago. Yet there are good reasons why it has taken place. First and foremost, Hegel (unlike his contemporary Immanuel Kant) emphasized the historically located character of our thinking. Nothing exists out of history; once nature and religion wane as validations, only history is left. The Philosophy of Right characterizes philosophy as “its own time apprehended in thought.” The facts of history, which add up to a process, are the raw material to which the philosopher gives form and meaning. Reason is dynamic, kinetic; its content unfolds over time. History, which Hegel painted in broad strokes, is a rational process of development; progress in freedom and progress in thought are linked.
Although Hegel, secondly, is a precursor of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Marxism, he believed that philosophy has no business “giving instruction to what the world ought to be”; over and above the still-vexed issue of Marx’s “materialism” versus Hegel’s “idealism,” Hegel, for his part, emphasized philosophy’s retrospective dimension, not its prospective implications. Philosophy is Nachdenken (“thinking after the fact to be thought about”). It interprets the present in light of the past. “The owl of Minerva,” as Hegel famously put it in the Philosophy of Right, “spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” We may advance views only when the time is ripe. It makes sense to see Hegel not only as a postEnlightenment and post-Kantian thinker, but also as a post–(French) Revolutionary one. He at first welcomed the Revolution, only to recoil from the Terror—deficient principle run riot and eventuating in disaster. Hegel had had no love for the ancien régime, but he was infuriated by the revolutionaries’ failure to replace it with anything more substantial or enduring.
But what makes Hegel post-Kantian? After all, his idée maîtresse—that we are free only when we act in accordance with our reason—is eminently Kantian. What separates Hegel from Kant is what he does with this conviction. Kant’s notions of freedom and morality derive from a categorical imperative figurable by pure reason. This to Hegel—who did not believe in “pure” reason— was formal and skeletal. It lacked the substance that “ethical life” (the customs and mores that situate us in a particular time and place) alone can provide. “Ethical life” is an historical category, not an abstractly rational one; “abstract,” meaning partial, unsubstantiated, fragmentary—the part standing for the whole as in a synecdoche—is always used pejoratively by Hegel. The battle lines are arrayed from book to book: Particularity, subjectivism, and disruption are on the negative side of the ledger, whereas substance, connectedness, coherence, and unity rest on the positive side. Hegel was relentlessly opposed to every source of disconnection he could identify. Then as now, there was no shortage of contenders: The atomistic individualism that threatened in the early nineteenth century to dominate the German as it had the British economy was but one of them.
Hegel’s ledger (with these two sides counterposed) has a political, not to say utopian implication that was not to be lost, either immediately on the Young (left) Hegelians or later among twentieth-century critical theorists. This is that if history, rationality, and “ethical life” could be harmonized, the result would be an ethical community in which we could fulfill our own potentialities as we contribute to the well-being of the whole to which it is ours to belong. This ideal, not Kant’s arbitrary distinction between noumena and phenomena, is the true legacy of the Enlightenment. Kant had mapped out a no-man’sland by declaring certain issues unknowable. Hegel, by contrast, held that nothing is beyond the scope of human thought—despite (or because of) the false starts, falterings, stumblings, and blind alleys almost gleefully detailed, serially, throughout the Phenomenology of Spirit.
Hegel’s notion of Geist, renderable either as “spirit” or “mind,” has seemed amorphous, threatening, or both to English-language commentators, some of whom suppose that Geist (along with its corollary, “the cunning of reason”) signifies a superhuman demiurgos pulling the strings of “its” human puppets. This is not what Hegel meant. Geist is both how a community understands itself, gives itself form and content, and the way the individual knows him- or herself through the community of which he or she is a constitutive part. Either way, it forms identity. Hegel distinguishes “objective” from “absolute” spirit. The former, the subject matter of the Philosophy of Right, is the institutional framework for the latter, which finds expression in our “spiritual” pursuits: art, religion, and (most importantly) philosophy. “Objective spirit” is anything but its own justification; there is nothing ultimate about it. “Absolute spirit” in its ultimate form, philosophy, can account for “objective spirit,” its precondition. “Objective” cannot account for “absolute” spirit in anything like the same way.
Hegelianism, as John Toews makes clear, enjoyed some philosophical and even some institutional purchase in Germany, though the latter in particular petered out during the 1840s. Hegelianism remained strong enough to provoke Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) through several important books: In Britain, however, where it was introduced (after a fashion) by James Hutchison Stirling’s The Secret of Hegel (1865), its adoption by Idealists (T. H. Green, F. H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet, J. T. E. McTaggart) served mainly to buttress the Idealists’ positions déjà prises (preconceptions); Hegel influenced Pragmatism in the United States via Josiah Royce and John Dewey; in Italy he influenced Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. Hegelianism was particularly influential in France: On Hippolyte Taine and Ernest Renan in the nineteenth century, and on Alexandre Kojève (whose lectures in the 1930s attracted the interest of Jean Hyppolite and Jean-Paul Sartre, among many others) in the twentieth.
- Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.  1977. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. [1812–1816] 1969. Science of Logic. Trans. A. V. Miller. London: Allen and Unwin.
- Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.  1967. Philosophy of Right. Trans. T. M. Knox. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.  1956. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. Trans. J. Sibree. New York: Dover.
- Avineri, Shlomo. 1973. Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Harris, H. S. 1972. Hegel’s Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Inwood, Michael. 1992. A Hegel Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Inwood, Michael, ed. 1985. Hegel Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Marcuse, Herbert. 1963. Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. New York: Humanities Press.
- Shklar, Judith N. 1976. Freedom and Independence: A Study of the Political Ideas of Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Mind.” Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Stirling, James Hutchison.  1971. The Secret of Hegel: Being the Hegelian System in Origin, Principle, Form, and Matter. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown.
- Taylor, Charles. 1979. Hegel. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Toews, John Edward. 1985. Hegelianism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Thomas, Paul. 1985. Hegelian Roots. In Karl Marx and the Anarchists, 212–255. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Thomas, Paul. 2004. Property’s Properties: From Hegel to Locke. Representations 84: 30–43.
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