Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2004
Retrieved May 18, 2022, from

8. The system: philosophy of spirit

Hegel’s philosophy of spirit is divided into a theory of subjective, objective and absolute spirit. The philosophy of subjective spirit contains Hegel’s philosophical psychology; his philosophy of objective spirit is devoted to his theory of law and politics and his conception of world history; and his philosophy of absolute spirit presents his theory of art, religion and philosophy. Hegel presented his philosophy of subjective spirit and in particular his philosophy of absolute spirit to a wider public only in outline in a few paragraphs of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. He presented his philosophy of objective spirit not only in the Encyclopedia, but also in detail in a work which was already highly regarded during his lifetime, Natural Law and Politics in Outline: The Principles of the Philosophy of Right (1821). In this part of his system Hegel again relies on the principle developed in his logical theory that something - here the entity called ‘spirit’ - must experience a process of realization in order to be able to recognize its truth, or what it is.

The philosophy of subjective spirit contains an anthropology, a phenomenology of spirit and a psychology. In these sections Hegel describes and analyses all the phenomena that influence the somatic, psychophysical and mental characteristics, conditions, processes and activities of the individual. The gamut of subjects he covers runs from the natural qualities of the individual, expressed in temperament, character and physiognomy, via sensibility, feeling, awareness and desire, to self-awareness, intuition, representation, thinking and wanting. Here one finds Hegel’s theory of language acquisition, of practical feeling, of the achievements and function of imagination, his defence of the life-preserving power of habit, his solution of the mind-body problem, his understanding of the origin and treatment of mental illnesses and many other subjects. In these analyses Hegel’s aim is to replace the ‘ordinary approach’ of empirical psychology with a ‘philosophical perspective’ towards psychological phenomena. The dominant characteristic of this philosophical attitude, it is claimed, is that it permits an interpretation of the subject of psychic processes as the product of psychic activity and not as an object to be thought of as a substance possessing certain powers and capacities which are its characteristics.

While the philosophy of subjective spirit really only attracted attention up to the middle of the nineteenth century, Hegel’s philosophy of objective spirit, in other words his theory of law and politics, received a great deal of attention during the nineteenth and especially the twentieth century. This was not only because of the theory’s great importance for the Marxist and other anti-liberalistic social theories (see Marx, K.; Western Marxism). It has also repeatedly been the object of violent controversy, especially because of its political implications. In all its versions, Hegel’s political philosophy rests on three main convictions which he cherished from his early years and held for the rest of his life. The first is that every modern philosophy of law and politics must incorporate the conception of freedom which was central to the European Enlightenment, and in particular to that of Germany (see Enlightenment, Continental). The second is that, especially in the case of modern political philosophy, the insight that the whole takes priority over its separate parts, an insight formulated by Aristotle in his Politics, must be maintained and brought up to date. Finally, the third conviction consists in an application of the principle which shapes Hegel’s whole philosophical enterprise, namely, that political philosophy must play its part in the confirmation of the thesis that only reason is real. Hegel attempts to do justice to these three convictions within the framework of his theory of objective spirit by (1) introducing an extravagant conception of freedom, (2) identifying the whole of Aristotle with the phenomenon which he calls ‘ethical life’ and (3) declaring this phenomenon called ‘ethical life’ to be the ‘reality of reason’.

Hegel fulfils his self-imposed demand for the integration of freedom by making the conception of free will the fundamental concept of his philosophy of the objective spirit; this is where his characteristic conception of freedom comes into play. According to Hegel, a will is free not because it can choose its ends from a virtually limitless number of objective alternatives; the truly free will is the will which only determines itself. For Hegel, self-determination means to refer willingly to oneself, that is, to will oneself. Thus he thinks of freedom as a case of self-reference and in this way assimilates it into his concept of cognition, which is also based on the idea of self-reference (see §5 above). This assimilation is utterly intentional on Hegel’s part, because it gives him the opportunity to interpret the process of the systematic unfolding of the various determinations of the will not only as different ways of the realization of free will but also as a process of cognition (see Freedom and liberty; Free will).

Against this background, Hegel first develops his theories of law and morality, which derive all legal relationships and the obligatory character of moral acts from the concept of free will. In his theory of law, Hegel makes his contribution to the discussion of the philosophical foundations of civil and criminal law. His basic thesis is that property, the acquisition and use of which is a presupposition for being able to act freely, is the necessary condition of law in all its different variations. In his theory of morality, Hegel discusses the moral behaviour of autonomous subjects under the aspect of the gaining of moral standpoints for the purpose of judging actions and of the conversion of moral goals into actions. According to Hegel, however, legal relationships and moral standards are founded in social institutions. He thinks of these institutions as forms of what he calls ‘ethical life’ (Sittlichkeit). In Hegel’s language, ethical life as the basis for the possibility of law and morality is the truth of free will, that which free will really is. Since it is a characteristic of the truth of free will to be real, it follows that, for Hegel, ethical life is also the reality of free will. This reality is thus the ‘presupposed whole’, without reference to which the discussion of law and morality makes no sense at all. This thesis of the function of real ethical life as the basis for law and morality is intended to account for the Aristotelian maxim of the primacy of the whole in political philosophy (see Legal idealism §§1–2).

For Hegel, ethical life appears in three institutional forms: family, bourgeois society and the state. The theory of the family contains his thoughts on the ethical function of marriage, his justification of monogamy, his views on family property and the laws of inheritance and his maxims for bringing up children. The theory of bourgeois society became well-known and influential, above all because of Hegel’s diagnosis of the difficulties which will arise within a society based solely on economic interests and elementary needs of its individual members. This diagnosis is grounded in Hegel‘sanalyses of a society founded solely on economic relationships. They owe much to the works on political economy by Adam Smith, J.P. Say and David Ricardo, to whom Hegel often explicitly refers. According to Hegel, a bourgeois society considered as an economic community is defined by the fact that in it people can satisfy their needs through labour. The manifold nature of these needs means that they can only be satisfied by division of labour within the society. This leads economic subjects to join together into estates (Stände) and corporations whose members each undertake specific tasks with regard to the socially organized satisfaction of their needs. Hegel recognizes three estates: the peasant estate, which he calls the ‘substantial estate’; the tradesmen’s estate, among which he includes craftsmen, manufacturers and traders; and what he calls the ‘general estate’, whose members fulfil judicial and policing functions. Corporations are formed mainly in the tradesmen’s estate. Although this entire realm of bourgeois society organized along these lines does involve legal restrictions, and is regulated by a civil and criminal legal code, it none the less cannot remain indefinitely stable. For it is not possible to prevent the polarization of the poor majority and the rich minority which leads to overpopulation, so that eventually the entire social wealth will not suffice to satisfy even the most elementary needs of all. The consequences are colonization and the formation of the ‘proletariat’. Both will tend to destroy this bourgeois society.

If one follows Hegel’s arguments, bourgeois society can only avoid this fate if its members act not according to their own particular interests and needs, but recognize the state as their ‘general purpose’, and direct all their activities to maintaining it (see Civil society §1; State). Hegel thinks of the state as a constitutional monarchy with division of power. For Hegel, the constitution of a state is in no sense the product of some constitution-creating institution or the work of individual persons. It is ‘absolutely essential that the constitution, although the product of past history, should not be seen as a finished entity‘. A constitution is rather the manifestation of the spirit of a people, created during the course of history through their customs and traditions. This view permits Hegel to maintain on the one hand that each people has the constitution ‘which is appropriate to it and fits it’, and on the other to insist that there is not much leeway for the modification of constitutions. The constitutional form of a reasonably organized state must be a monarchy because its characteristic individuality can only be appropriately represented by a concrete individual to whom as a person the sovereign acts of the state can be attributed. Hegel also favours a hereditary monarchy, since he sees the process of determining a person as monarch by virtue of its origin as the method which is least dependent upon arbitrary decisions. Hegel‘stheory of the powers of the state (Staatsgewalten) recognizes, in addition to the princely power (fürstliche Gewalt) which represents the instance of ultimate decision-making within the constitutional framework, the governmental power (Regierungsgewalt) and the legislative power (gesetzgebende Gewalt). It is the task of the governmental power, which for Hegel also includes the judicial power, to pursue the general interests of the state, ensure the maintenance of right and enforce the laws. The legislative power is responsible for the ‘further determination’ of the constitution and laws. It is executed by an assembly of the estates which is divided into two chambers. The first chamber consists of a certain group of powerful landowners chosen by virtue of their birth; the second chamber comprises representatives of the corporate associations of the bourgeois society, who are sent to the assembly by their various corporations. Thus in Hegel’s model state, both chambers are constituted without the direct political involvement of the population. Hegel’s theory of the state provoked considerable controversy, particularly during his own time, because of its resolute defence of the hereditary monarchy and its strongly anti-democratic characteristics in all questions concerning the political representation of the citizens of the state. It was this section of his political philosophy in particular which, as early as the mid-nineteenth century, gave rise to the statement that Hegel was the philosopher of the Prussian state.

Hegel forges the link to his theory of the spirit, which contains his political philosophy, by interpreting what he calls ‘ethical life’ as the ‘spirit of a people’. This allows him to elaborate his conception of history on the one hand and on the other to introduce his theory of the absolute spirit. The philosophy of history is introduced by the idea that ethical life as the reality of free will takes on different forms for different peoples. These forms differ from each other in the degree to which the different institutions of ethical life are actually developed. Now, Hegel believes that this development has taken place during the course of a historical process which he calls ‘world history’ (see History, philosophy of). This process of world history, which he sees as ‘progress in the consciousness of freedom’, can be divided into four distinct epochs, which correspond to four ‘empires of world history’. Hegel describes this process of world history as beginning with the ‘Oriental Empire’, which is followed by the ‘Greek’ and then by the ‘Roman’ empires. The process is brought to a conclusion by the ‘Germanic Empire’. This empire is not to be identified with Germany alone. It includes all central European Christian nations, even Great Britain. According to Hegel, the ‘Germanic peoples are given the task of accomplishing the principle of the unity of divine and human nature, of reconciling…objective truth and freedom’. Hegel now interprets this reconciliation as the conclusion of the process of the self-recognition of reason. The result of this process consists of the insight that reason knows itself to be the whole of reality. Thus Hegel links the theory of the objective spirit with his metaphysics of reason and can now concentrate on the various aspects of this self-knowledge of reason as a theory of absolute spirit.

Hegel’s philosophy of absolute spirit contains his philosophy of art, his philosophy of religion and his theory of philosophy. Although from his very beginnings all these subjects had a fixed place in Hegel’s attempts at a system, and although his philosophies of art and religion were to become very influential (the one in the history of art and the theory of aesthetics and the other in theology), none the less these sections of Hegel‘sphilosophy are relatively little elaborated in the works published by Hegel himself. Apart from a few sketch-like hints in his first work, Difference between the Systems of Fichte and Schelling (see §3 above), and the two final chapters of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel devoted only a few paragraphs to these themes at the end of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences. We can gather from these paragraphs that there are three different ways or modes in which reason, cognizing itself, relates to itself, relates to itself; these are manifested in art, religion and philosophy. They differ from each other in the way in which in each of these ways reason cognizes itself. In art, reason relates to itself intuitively or, as Hegel says, cognizes itself immediately, while in religion this cognizing relationship with itself realizes itself in the form of representation, which is linked with the sublation of the immediacy of knowledge. In philosophy, the self-reference of reason is accounted for in the mode of cognition. The theory of epistemic modes which underpins this functional analysis of art, religion and philosophy, though obviously relying on the results of the Hegelian theory of the subjective spirit, none the less contains a number of difficulties which are hard to unravel.

Against this background of different forms of cognition, Hegel first reveals his theory of art in the form of a theory of styles of art (Kunstformen) and of individual arts (Kunstarten). He recognizes three different styles of art, which he calls symbolic, classical and romantic. They differ from each other in their various means of expressing the distinguishing characteristics of the spiritual, which belong to the sensible and therefore to the intuitive manifestations which reason gives itself. These styles themselves are characterized by the ways in which a spiritual content presents itself as the meaning of a sensible object. The symbolic style of art is thus the one in which the relationship between meaning and sensible appearance is relatively contingent, since it only arises through a randomly chosen attribute. By way of example Hegel takes the lion, which symbolizes strength. In the classical style of art the sensible appearance expresses adequately what it is intended to signify. For Hegel, the human figure serves as a paradigm for this adequate representation of the spiritual, especially in the way in which it is represented in sculpture and painting. Finally, the romantic style of art takes as its subject the representation of the ‘self-conscious inwardness’ of the spirit. In it, the emotional world of the subject is expressed by reference to sensible characteristics. Hegel interprets the various individual arts as realizations of styles of art in various materials. Although each individual art can present itself in each style of art, there is for each individual art an ideal style, which he calls its basic type. The first individual art which Hegel discusses is architecture. Its task is to deal with non-organic nature in an artistic manner. Its basic type is the symbolic style of art. The second individual art is sculpture, the basic type of which is the classical style. Sculpture aims to transform non-organic nature into the physical form of the human body. The remaining individual arts are painting, music and poetry, whose basic type is represented by the romantic style of art. Painting marks the beginning of the separation of the direct processing of natural materials and thus a certain intellectualization of matter, which makes it capable of representing feelings, emotions, etc. Music is the romantic style of art par excellence. Its material is sound, which is matter only in a figurative sense and is therefore particularly suitable for the representation of even the most fleeting affects. Finally poetry, the last of the romantic arts, has as its material only signs, which here play no part as material entities, but as bearers of meaning. These meanings refer to the realm of imagination and other spiritual content, so that in poetry a spiritual content can be presented in a manner appropriate to its spirituality. Hegel could not resist the temptation to use his theory of individual arts and styles of art as a model for the interpretation of the history of the development of art. His historicizing of individual arts and styles of art played a significant role in making the concept of an epoch an important tool in the history of art.

In the philosophy of religion Hegel holds that only in Christianity are the conditions fulfilled which are characteristic of the representational self-cognition of reason. Philosophy of religion has as its subject not only God, but also religion itself, and for Hegel that means the way in which God is present in the religious consciousness. By this characterization he aims to distinguish philosophy of religion from the traditional theologia naturalis. On the basis of the two components which make up its nature, the philosophy of religion attempts in the first instance to characterize more closely the concept of God and the various kinds of religious consciousness which Hegel takes to be feeling, intuition and representation. This will be found in the first part of the philosophy of religion, which thematizes the ‘concept of religion’. The second part of the philosophy of religion discusses what Hegel calls ‘determinate religion’. Here, he is concerned with something resembling a phenomenology of religions, the exposition of their various forms of appearance and objectivizations. This exposition starts with so-called natural religion, which according to Hegel assumes three forms: the religion of magic, the religion of substantiality and the religion of abstract subjectivity. The specific characteristic of natural religion is that it thinks of God in direct unity with nature. Natural religion finds its historical concept in the Oriental religions. Hegel regards the ‘religions of spiritual individuality’ as a second stage; these assume the forms of the religion of sublimity, the religion of beauty and the religion of teleology. At this stage, God is regarded as the primary spiritual being, which is not only nature but which also rules over and determines nature. Hegel puts the Jewish, Greek and Roman religions in this category. Finally, the third stage represents the ‘perfect religion’, to the discussion of which he devotes the third section of his philosophy of religion. In it, God is presented as He in reality is, namely the ‘infinite, absolute end in itself’. To the religious consciousness, the God of the perfect religion appears in the trinitarian form as the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. According to Hegel, this idea of religion was first realized adequately in Christianity. Hegel’s philosophy of religion greatly influenced theological discussions and points of view. None the less, it was not without its critics, for whom it represented a theory which, as, for example, R. Haym claimed in the last century, contributed to the dissolution of the Godly in reason and of Piety in knowledge.

As far as philosophy is concerned, Hegel maintains that its distinguishing mode of knowledge, namely cognition, is present when something is seen to be necessary. Since reason within the sphere of the absolute spirit relates only to itself, the achievement of the cognitive reference of reason to itself lies in the fact that it understands the progress of its realization in logic, nature and spirit as a necessary process. Philosophy is the representation of this process in its necessity. This philosophical process also has its appearance in time in the form of the history of philosophy. For Hegel, the history of philosophy presents itself as a historical succession of philosophical positions in which in each case one of the essential characteristics of (Hegelian) reason is made the principle of a philosophical interpretation of the world in a one-sided and distorted way that is characteristic of its time. He sees the existence of political freedom as a necessary precondition for a philosophical interpretation of the world. Only in societies in which free constitutions exist can philosophical thought develop. Since, he claims, the concepts of freedom and constitution only arose as the products of Greek (that is, occidental) thought, philosophical discourse is really a specifically Western achievement. He therefore absolutely refuses to ascribe any philosophically relevant intellectual achievements to the Oriental world, the principle proponents of which are in his view China and India. All the doctrines of wisdom of the Orient can at most be accepted as codifications of religious ideas. If, for a Westerner, some of these doctrines none the less seem to express a philosophical thought, this is because they confuse the abstract generality of Oriental religious ideas with the generality which is applicable to the thoughts of reason engaged in thinking itself. Hegel divides Western philosophy into two main periods: Greek and Germanic philosophy. Up to a certain point, Greek philosophy also includes Roman, and Germanic philosophy includes not only German philosophy but that of other European peoples as well, since these peoples have ‘in their totality a Germanic culture’. The difference between Greek and Germanic philosophy lies in the fact that Greek philosophy was not yet in a position to comprehend the conception of spirit in all its profundity. This only became possible through Christianity and its acceptance throughout the Germanic world. For only in this historical context was it possible for the insight to establish itself that the essence of spirit is subjectivity and hence cognition of itself. Hegel regards it as a great merit of his philosophy that it adequately explains this, and thus reconciles reason with reality in thought. In the last analysis, his message consists of a single proposition: Reason is and knows itself to be the ultimate reality. His system is brought to a conclusion in what is, in his view, a successful justification of that proposition. Even during the nineteenth century, the optimism of reason underlying Hegel’s system aroused criticism, for example, from Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and the representatives of Neo-Kantianism. It seems doubtful whether, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Hegel’s indomitable faith in reason can continue to convince.

Citing this article:
Horstmann, Rolf-peter. The system: philosophy of spirit. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831), 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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