Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2004
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

2. The development of the system: the early writings

The early years of Hegel’s intellectual career were characterized less by philosophical ambitions than by interests in public enlightenment and public education. In contrast to his student friends Hölderlin and Schelling, whose activities were directly based on internal philosophical discussions, Hegel aimed in his early works to find ways ‘to influence men’s lives’ (as he wrote to Schelling). He regarded as an appropriate starting point for these attempts the analysis of the role and consequences which must be attributed to religion, especially Christianity, for the individual and for the social context of a nation. In this early approach two different interests are at work. On the one hand, Hegel aims to show how religion had developed into a power hostile to life, which produces its effect through fear and demands submission. On the other hand, however, he would like to understand the conditions under which it can prosper as a productive element in the life of the individual and society. Hegel’s investigations of religion under these two aspects were strongly influenced during the early years (1793–1800) by the cultural criticism and social theories of Rousseau as well as the religious philosophy of Kant (§§11, 13), and by his critical assessment of the theological positions of his academic theology teachers in Tübingen (G.C. Storr and J.F. Flatt). The most important works during this period are represented by the texts which have been preserved as fragments, and which have become known under the titles Die Positivität der christlichen Religion (The Positivity of the Christian Religion) (1795–6) and Der Geist des Christentums und sein Schicksal (The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate), (1798–9).

Hegel’s religious criticism centres on the concept of ‘positive religion’. For Hegel, a positive religion is one whose fundamental content and principles cannot be made comprehensible to human reason. They thus appear unnatural and supernatural, and are seen to be based on authority and to demand obedience. For Hegel, the Jewish religion represents the paradigm of a positive religion. Hegel also considers that the Christian religion has been transformed into a positive religion during the course of its history, in other words into a religion which alienates human beings from themselves and from their fellow creatures (see Alienation §1). He tries to identify cultural and social developments as an explanation for this transformation. In direct opposition to positive religion, Hegel conceives what he calls ‘natural religion’, which he defines as one whose doctrines correspond with human nature: one which permits or even encourages people to live not only in harmony with their own needs, inclinations and well-considered convictions, but also without being alienated from other people. Hegel’s belief in the value for mankind of harmony with oneself (and others), which is strongly influenced by the Stoic ethic (which also via Rousseau had an impact on Kant’s practical philosophy), is grounded in a quasi-metaphysical conception of love and life. It owes a considerable debt to the philosophical approach of Hölderlin, with whom Hegel again associated closely during his Frankfurt period. According to this conception, there is a sort of moral emotion of love, which rises above all separations and conflicts, in which persons might be involved in relation to themselves and to others. It is this emotion of love which makes people aware of their unity with others and with themselves. It cannot be adequately thematized by philosophy, which is based on reflection and (conceptual) distinction. It demonstrates vividly, however - and here metaphysics enters - the true constitution of reality, which consists of a state of unity forming the basis for all separations and conflicts and making these possible. This reality, which has to be thought of as unity, Hegel calls ‘Life’ (Leben) and also ‘Being’ (Sein). Hegel’s efforts at the end of his Frankfurt period are directed towards thinking of reality in these terms in a sufficiently differentiated manner. In doing so he pursues above all the goal of conceiving of life as a process which generates as well as reconciles oppositions, a dynamic unity of generation and reconciliation. To explain this complex structure, which he conceives what he calls ‘life’ to be, Hegel devised in the so-called Systemfragment von 1800 the formula ‘Life is the connection of connection and non-connection’. This formula and the concept of life on which it is based already point clearly towards Hegel’s later organicist metaphysics.

Citing this article:
Horstmann, Rolf-peter. The development of the system: the early writings. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831), 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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