Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2004
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Hegel was the last of the main representatives of a philosophical movement known as German Idealism, which developed towards the end of the eighteenth century primarily as a reaction against the philosophy of Kant, and whose main proponents, aside from Hegel, include Fichte and Schelling. The movement played an important role in the philosophical life of Germany until the fourth decade of the nineteenth century. Like the other German Idealists, Hegel was convinced that the philosophy of Kant did not represent the final word in philosophical matters, because it was not possible to conceive a unified theory of reality by means of Kantian principles alone. For Hegel and his two idealistic predecessors, a unified theory of reality is one which can systematically explain all forms of reality, starting from a single principle or a single subject. For Hegel, these forms of reality included not only solar systems, physical bodies and the various guises assumed by organic life, for example, plants, animals and human beings, but also psychic phenomena, social and political forms of organization as well as artistic creations and cultural achievements such as religion and philosophy. Hegel believed that one of the essential tasks of philosophy was the systematic explanation of all these various forms starting from one single principle, in other words, in the establishment of a unified theory of reality. He believed this because only a theory of this nature could permit knowledge to take the place of faith. Hegel’s goal here, namely the conquest of faith, places his philosophical programme, like that of the other German Idealists, within the wider context of the philosophy of the German Enlightenment.

For Hegel, the fundamental principle which explains all reality is reason. Reason, as Hegel understands it, is not some quality which is attributed to some human subject; it is, by contrast, the sum of all reality. In accordance with this belief, Hegel claims that reason and reality are strictly identical: only reason is real and only reality is reasonable. The considerations which moved Hegel to identify reason with reality are various. On the one hand, certain motives rooted in Hegel’s theological convictions play a role. According to these convictions, one must be able to give a philosophical interpretation of the whole of reality which can simultaneously act as a justification of the basic assumptions of Christianity. On the other hand, epistemological convictions also have to be identified to support Hegel’s claim that reason and reality are one and the same. Among these convictions belong the assumptions (1) that knowledge of reality is only possible if reality is reasonable, because it would not otherwise be accessible to cognition, and (2) that we can only know that which is real.

According to Hegel, although reason is regarded as the sum total of reality, it must not be interpreted along the lines of Spinoza’s model of substance. Reason is rather to be thought of as a process which has as its goal the recognition of reason through itself. Since reason is the whole of reality, this goal will be achieved when reason recognizes itself as total reality. It is the task of philosophy to give a coherent account of this process which leads to self-knowledge of reason. Hegel conceived this process by analogy with the model of organic development which takes place on various levels. The basic presupposition governing the conception of this process is that reason has to be interpreted in accordance with the paradigm of a living organism. Hegel thought of a living organism as an entity which represents the successful realization of a plan in which all individual characteristics of this entity are contained. He called this plan the concept of an entity, and conceived its successful realization as a developmental process, in the course of which each of the individual characteristics acquires reality. In accordance with these assumptions, Hegel distinguished the concept of reason from the process of the realization of this concept. He undertook the exposition of the concept of reason in that section of his philosophical system which he calls the Wissenschaft der Logik (Science of Logic). In this first part of his system, the various elements of the concept of reason are discussed and placed into a systematic context. He presented the process of the realization of this concept in the other two parts of his system, the Philosophie der Natur (Philosophy of Nature) and the Philosophie des Geistes (Philosophy of Spirit). Apart from their systematic function, which consists in demonstrating reason in the Hegelian sense as total reality, both parts have a specifically material function in each case. In the Philosophy of Nature, Hegel aims to describe comprehensively all aspects of natural phenomena as a system of increasingly complex facts. This system begins with the simple concepts of space, time and matter and ends with the theory of the animal organism. The Philosophy of Spirit treats of various psychological, social and cultural forms of reality. It is characterized by the assumption of the existence of something like genuine, spiritual facts, which cannot be described as subjective states of individual persons possessing consciousness, but which have an independent, objective existence. For Hegel,examples of such facts are the state, art, religion and history.

In spite of the relatively abstract metaphysical background of his philosophy, which is difficult to reconcile with common sense, Hegel’s insights in his analysis of concrete facts have guaranteed him a permanent place in the history of philosophy. None the less, for contemporary readers these insights are interesting hypotheses, rather than commonly accepted truths. Of lesser importance among these insights should be counted Hegel’s results in the realm of natural philosophy, which soon suffered considerable criticism from practising natural scientists. The important insights apply more specifically to the spheres of the theory of knowledge as well as the philosophy of right, and social and cultural philosophy. Hegel is thus regarded as an astute and original representative of the thesis that our conception of objectivity is largely determined by social factors which also play a significant role in constituting the subject of cognition and knowledge. His criticisms of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century concepts of natural law and his thoughts on the genesis and significance of right in the modern world have had a demonstrable influence on the theory of right in juridical contexts. Hegel’s analysis of the relationship and interplay between social and political institutions became a constituent element in very influential social theories, in particular that of Marx. The same applies to his central theses on the theory of art and the philosophy of religion and history. Hegel’s thoughts on the history of philosophy made that topic a philosophical discipline in its own right. Thus Hegel was a very influential philosopher. That his philosophy has none the less remained deeply contentious is due in part to the fact that his uncompromising struggle against traditional habits of thought and his attempt to establish a conceptual perspective on reality in contrast with the philosophical tradition of the time remains characterized by a large measure of obscurity and vagueness. Unfortunately these characteristics also infect every summary of his philosophy.

    Citing this article:
    Horstmann, Rolf-peter. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831), 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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