Hegel: An Overview

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

Restored April 9, 2008

Advice to the reader: These are lecture notes based on a great deal of personal study and reading most of which was done some time ago. They do not pretend to take into account the latest scholarship on Hegel.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Heinrich Heine, a German poet who had once been a student of Hegel, wrote sometime early in the 19th century:

The land is held by the Russians and French,
The sea's by the British invested,
But in the airy realm of dreams
Our sway is uncontested.

This is a commentary not only on German romantic literature at that time but also German idealist philosophy. Hegel is the most influential of the three major German idealists after Kant. (The others are Johann Fichte and Friedrich Schelling.)

From Kant to Hegel

Post Kantian German philosophy makes sense only as an outgrowth and critique of Kant's philosophy.

Recall Kant's view: (1) We know only those things for which we have both a priori concepts and perceptions; (2) We know that A caused B only if we have perceptions of A and B; (3) An unknowable thing in itself, outside our perceptions, is the cause of our sense-perceptions.

The German idealists asked, what right does Kant have to speak of something which at his own admission we can never perceive or know, as causing those perceptions. The very consistency of the system seems to demand the abandonment of the unknowable thing in itself.

What is left? The contributions the mind makes to knowing. The German idealists went farther than Kant in explaining knowledge as the result of the mind's active work. Now, every knowable aspect of reality is the product of mind. The idealists do not deny that we need experience: but experience is the way we become aware of what Geist contributes.

While Kant said that every human mind contributes to experience two a priori forms of intuition and twelve a priori concepts of understanding, Hegel said that

(1) there are many more a priori concepts
(2) these concepts or categories are independent of any particular individual's thoughts. (Individual thoughts are more or less accurate expressions of the a priori concepts.)
(3) the total set of a prior concepts form a unity, which Hegel calls the Absolute Idea.
Hegel's Logic is the study of the Absolute Idea.

Hegelian Logic

Hegel was one of the first modern philosophers to stress that our ideas, especially those expressed in philosophies and sciences, are not just loosely connected, but rather they form an interconnected system, each member of which is implicated in, or required by, the others. Another way of putting this is that, at the deepest level, philosophies and sciences are like organic wholes. Hegel might say that, in Kant's philosophy, cause-effect and substance-accident, though verbally distinct, require each other in the way that the heart and lungs in a human body require each other. Each organ in the body, and each important idea in a system of ideas, plays a role or makes a contribution to the operation of the whole philosophy.

The point is, you cannot just alter one concept. When Einstein in the 20th century challenged the prevailing Newtonian concepts of space and time, every other concept in physics, concepts like mass and velocity, concepts of measurement too, was affected as well.

The proposition treated by Hegel as central to his philosophy is Truth is the Totality. He directs our attention away from particular propositions to whole theories and systems of thought. "Idea is thought in its totality, implicitly and explicitly determined . . . . The Idea, and it alone, is truth," he says in the Introduction to his lectures on the History of Philosophy.

Aristotelian logic, the logic of syllogisms (for example, All B are C, A are B, ergo All A are C), fits well with a view of the universe according to which all important species or types of things are eternally fixed (Animals consist of Vertebrates and Invertebrates; Vertebrates consist of Mammals, Reptiles . . . Fish; Mammals consist of Equines, Felines; Equines consist of Horses, Donkeys; Horses consist of individuals such as Dobbin, Sea Biscuit, etc.)

Aristotle thought natural kinds (genera and species) eternally fixed, as did most biologists before Darwin revolutionized biology. Hegel, who died about thirty years before Darwin published Origin of Species, also thinks species fixed. But he distinguishes the realm of nature, where things follow fixed, repetitive patterns, from what happens in the realm of Geist, spirit or mind or, when it is used in a collective sense, what we might call national culture. In the realm of Geist, time makes a difference; one can speak of history and development. Matters are not fixed but constantly passing over into something else: this passing over is a kind of progress, toward greater internal richness and self-sufficiency.

A Logic of Progress

Sometimes the process is portrayed as two-fold: from implicit to explicit; less articulated to more articulated. More often, it is taken as three-stage:

in itself: positivity (thesis)
for itself: negation (antithesis)
in and for itself: negation of the negation (synthesis)
Hegel claimed to discover this three stage progress virtually everywhere (See W. Kaufman chart):
1) in the relation of ideas within the Absolute Idea (discussed in Hegel's Logic)
2) in the development of human political institutions in history (Lectures on the Philosophy of History)
3) in the history of art
4) in the history of religion
5) in historical development of philosophical systems from ancient Greeks up to his own philosophy (Lectures on the History of Philosophy)
Opposition as a Motor for Progress

In Hegel's hands, opposition becomes a motor for progress.

According to Hegel, in the realm of natural things, opposites cannot be reconciled. Life will always be distinct from death, one species will always be distinct from another. But in the realm of Geist, opposites can be reconciled. The reason for this is that in the realm of spirit there is what we call reflection: concepts can be reconciled and brought into unity because the mind can think them both simultaneously and limit their scope of application, i.e., define them more precisely.

Dialectical Necessity

Hegel says that the transition from thesis to antithesis and from the opposition of these opposites to synthesis is necessary.

This is not the logical necessity of valid deductive arguments or good demonstrations. In such arguments, if the premises are true then, necessarily, the conclusion is true.

Nor is it the causal necessity talked about in physical science: A heavy object, unimpeded, necessarily falls toward the center of the earth.

It's a kind of necessity all of its own, dialectical necessity.

The antithesis necessarily arises given the one-sidedness of the thesis. Parmenides might be seen as the opposite of Heraclitus; the empiricists starting from Locke may thus be seen as a reaction to the rationalists starting from Descartes.

(To me this seems to be shorthand for the dissatisfaction that a one-sided position, out of touch with the richness of experience, usually provokes in experienced, careful thinkers. But this is a pragmatist observation that is more concrete than we usually get from Hegel; so perhaps it distorts Hegel a bit.)

The synthesis necessarily arises from thesis and antithesis because the opposition of the latter has become unbearable for spirit and it seeks reconciliation. Plato could be seen as the synthesis of Parmenides on the one hand and Heraclitus on the other; Kant's position is the synthesis of Leibniz and Hume. (Pragmatists would say that the cognitive dissonance of contrary positions both of which seem partly right generates an attempt to reach a higher truth including but superior to the opposed views.)

If we stick to the main lines of development from one age to the next, the overall direction is one of progress. In philosophy, Hegel's philosophy; in politics, the Prussian state or perhaps the British constitutional monarchy; in religion, Christianity (interpreted rather liberally); and in art, romantic art, were the highest development so far in these realms.


Hegel calls the transition by which the third member of the triad (the synthesis) replaces the opposition of the first and second "Aufhebung". There's no one-word translation for this German term, which means three things. Hegel wants it to suggest all three: (1) annulling or abolishing; (2) preservation; (3) elevation. The Aufhebung abolishes the independence of the opposites, preserves the "truth" of the opposites, and creates a higher unity.

In the main lines of philosophical development from Thales to Hegel, when one philosophical system replaces another, the later one is truer and richer. It is internally articulated in a more complete manner than the stage supplanted. The earliest philosophies are more abstract, the later philosophies are more concrete. An abstract set of ideas is less articulated than a concrete one.

Let us pause a moment over this notion of increasing articulation. The transition from a simple calculating machine, say, an abacus, to a complex one, say a computer, involves an increase in articulation. There are more interrelated parts in the computer than in the abacus. As a result, you can do a lot more with the computer than with the abacus. Likewise, in the development of biological individuals (we are not talking about evolution but about individual physical development from conception to adulthood), growth involves a steady increase in the number, distinctness, and complexity of the parts, with a corresponding gradual increase in powers. This is roughly the way in which Hegel sees the history of philosophy.

Hegelian Preparationism

This is an optimistic view of philosophical progress; it could be seen as a secularized version of a theological doctrine known as preparationism. According to Christian preparationism, the ancient Hebrews and the more philosophical thinkers among the Greeks prepared the way for Christianity; what was valuable about them were preserved and included in Christianity.

Hegel believes that his system is the most correct so far because (1) it contains whatever is true in earlier philosophies and (2) it is based on the conscious recognition that philosophical progress can be made only by the dialectical preservation of the truths of earlier systems. His approach radically contrasts with Descartes apparent view that philosophy should essentially start from scratch and that the philosopher can find in himself all the clear and distinct ideas he needs.

It is worth noting that after Hegel the deliberate study of the history of philosophy becomes an important part of philosophical education. Hegel himself gave a series of lectures, reasonably thorough for his time and place, on the history of European philosophy.

In some ways Hegel's emphasis on philosophical and more generally spiritual progress was very "convenient" for Europe in the 19th century. Many in Western Europe saw Europe or the Western European nations as the pinnacle of historical development, poised to carry their mission civilisatrice to Asia, Africa, Oceania. Yes, they could say, ancient civilizations had contributed to the eventual emergence of modern European civilization, but Europe had integrated what was valuable in those ancient insights into a higher form and it could now turn around and offer this higher form of culture to the rest of humanity who had remained "backward" and "underdeveloped."

While Hegel was sometimes able to see that cultural change brings with it loss as well as gain, his view seems to be that, on the whole, there is more gain than loss. (He seems to think that the passing of the artistic culture of classical Greece involved loss.)

Even in Europe, however, the reaction to this self-congratulatory message of Hegel's philosophy was not long in coming. (See Marx, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, and Heidegger in the 20th.)

The Truth of the Epoch

Hegel says that each historical period has its own truth. This "truth" refers, roughly, to the totality of propositions held true by the leading thinkers of the period. That raises the following problem: the beliefs of one era may not be logically compatible with those of another. Thirteenth century medieval physics is not compatible with seventeenth century Newtonian physics. And neither of these are compatible with twentieth century Einsteinian physics. How could Hegel say that they are all true?

Probably what he means is that (1) they were the most persuasive in their own time, given other beliefs and cultural assumptions that prevailed at that time, and (2) they are all partially true, but the later system is usually truer, a more adequate approximation to Absolute Knowledge.

The Meaning of History

According to Hegel, the events whose story is told by political and legal history can be given a philosophical interpretation that will bring out its philosophical meaning. He does this himself in his lectures on the Philosophy of History. History is for Hegel the development of Freedom, or rather, of the consciousness of Freedom. History is the process by which Spirit becomes conscious of itself. Individual thinkers, artists, and historical actors are primarily the means or instruments by which the collective spirit (God in the world) becomes conscious of truth.

Hegel once described Napoleon, whom he observed in the flesh just before or after one of Napoleon's major victories, as "the world spirit on horseback." Napoleon at that time was a major expression of the dynamic process which was transforming Europe in a certain direction. When Napoleon had served his purpose, he was discarded by the World Spirit, which then adopted other political leaders as its means.

Philosophy of Spirit

Hegel studies spirit under three headings: Subjective Spirit, Objective Spirit, and Absolute Spirit. Objective Spirit is produced by Subjective. Objective is an outgrowth, negation, or externalization of Subjective, much as Nature is a negation or externalization of the Absolute Idea.

I. Subjective Spirit refers to those aspect of human life that roughly fall under psychology, the individual soul as a feeling being; sense-experience, desire, reason; intention, recollection, imagination, memory. These are the sorts of things which Rousseau describes in his autobiographical Confessions. Subjective spirit is common to each of us insofar as we are embodied individuals.

II. Objective spirit is the domain in which our inner selves burst into a public world, the domain of action, morality, and politics. The three "moments" or aspects of Objective Spirit are law, morality, and social ethics.

A. In the stage of law (Recht), law stands over against the individual, constraining and limiting what the individual can do. Hegel is probably thinking of divine command moralities, according to which God is the author of the laws that we rebellious spirits must obey.

B. The second moment of Objective Spirit is "morality." Under this heading Hegel includes the major political and moral philosophies of the period from Hobbes through Kant, but especially Kant. The standpoint of morality is one which reconciles duty with the individual will. (Kant's Categorical Imperative tells us to "act only on those maxims that we could will to be a universal law.") What these perspectives have in common is that they derive what we ought to do from what each of us individually, as abstractly rational beings (Kant) or as isolated beings in a state of nature (Hobbes, Locke) would choose to do.

C. The third moment of Objective Spirit is "social ethics" (Sittlichkeit), which itself has three moments. Objective Spirit refers to socially shared and transmitted ties, beginning with the mini-society of the family.

(1) The family is always more than a biological unit of reproduction since it is the context in which children acquire shared language and basic beliefs. Children then grow up and start their own families, producing a multitude of families whose interaction is the stage of civil society.

(2) Civil society is the totality of households whose major interaction is economic-buying and selling, contracting, etc. Civil society for Hegel is the antithesis to the family; for Hegel as for Aristotle, human nature is not fulfilled either in the family or in civil society. It requires the state.

(3) By "state" Hegel means the concrete structure of a national culture, especially its political constitution-the political aspect of a society rooted in its customs, not simply a formal document. ("Constitution" is to be understood in the British rather than in the American sense.) Cf. Hegel's preferred form of government.

III. Absolute Spirit is the "reconciliation" of Subjective and Objective Spirit. It too has three "moments": Art, Religion, and Philosophy.


1. Heine: having memorized this little verse, cited some years back in an article in the New York Review of Books, I do not recall who translated it or in which of Heine's works it is to be found.

2. "invest" has among its various meanings "lay siege to, or surround by troops or ships."

3. Hegel's preferred form of government is one in which inner freedom and social harmony are given proper balance, where individuals do not see the state as something which oppresses them. Hegel would have said that today's libertarians (in some ways intellectual heirs of Locke) are wrong to think that government is something we must barely tolerate and carefully limit. For Hegel, government is more than that: it is the positive condition for the personal development of each person.