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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC037-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 21, 2018, from

Article Summary

As an intellectual tradition, the history of Hegelianism is the history of the reception and influence of the thought of G.W.F. Hegel. This tradition is notoriously complex and many-sided, because while some Hegelians have seen themselves as merely defending and developing his ideas along what they took to be orthodox lines, others have sought to ‘reform’ his system, or to appropriate individual aspects and overturn others, or to offer consciously revisionary readings of his work. This makes it very hard to identify any body of doctrine common to members of this tradition, and a wide range of divergent philosophical views can be found among those who (despite this) can none the less claim to be Hegelians.

There are both ‘internal’ and ‘external’ reasons for this: on one hand, Hegel’s position itself brings together many different tendencies (idealism and objectivism, historicism and absolutism, rationalism and empiricism, Christianity and humanism, classicism and modernism, a liberal view of civil society with an organicist view of the state); any balance between them is hermeneutically very unstable, enabling existing readings to be challenged and old orthodoxies to be overturned. On the other hand, the critical response to Hegel’s thought and the many attempts to undermine it have meant that Hegelians have continually needed to reconstruct his ideas and even to turn Hegel against himself, while each new intellectual development, such as Marxism, pragmatism, phenomenology or existential philosophy, has brought about some reassessment of his position. This feature of the Hegelian tradition has been heightened by the fact that Hegel’s work has had an impact at different times over a long period and in a wide range of countries, so that divergent intellectual, social and historical pressures have influenced its distinct appropriations. At the hermeneutic level, these appropriations have contributed greatly to keeping the philosophical understanding of Hegel alive and open-ended, so that our present-day conception of his thought cannot properly be separated from them. Moreover, because questions of Hegel interpretation have so often revolved around the main philosophical, political and religious issues of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hegelianism has also had a significant impact on the development of modern Western thought in its own right.

As a result of its complex evolution, Hegelianism is best understood historically, by showing how the changing representation of Hegel’s ideas have come about, shaped by the different critical concerns, sociopolitical conditions and intellectual movements that dominated his reception in different countries at different times. Initially, Hegel’s influence was naturally most strongly felt in Germany as a comprehensive, integrative philosophy that seemed to do justice to all realms of experience and promised to preserve the Christian heritage in a modern and progressive form within a speculative framework. However, this position was quickly challenged, both from other philosophical standpoints (such as F.W.J. Schelling’s ‘positive philosophy’ and F.A. Trendelenburg’s neo-Aristotelian empiricism), and by the celebrated generation of younger thinkers (the so-called ‘Young’ or ‘Left’ Hegelians, such as Ludwig Feuerbach, David Strauss, Bruno Bauer, Arnold Ruge and the early Karl Marx), who insisted that to discover what made Hegel a truly significant thinker (his dialectical method, his view of alienation, his ‘sublation’ of Christianity), this orthodoxy must be overturned. None the less, both among these radicals and in academic circles, Hegel’s influence was considerably weakened in Germany by the 1860s and 1870s, while by this time developments in Hegelian thought had begun to take place elsewhere.

Hegel’s work was known outside Germany from the 1820s onwards, and Hegelian schools developed in northern Europe, Italy, France, Eastern Europe, America and (somewhat later) Britain, each with their own distinctive line of interpretation, but all fairly uncritical in their attempts to assimilate his ideas. However, in each of these countries challenges to the Hegelian position were quick to arise, partly because the influence of Hegel’s German critics soon spread abroad, and partly because of the growing impact of other philosophical positions (such as Neo-Kantianism, materialism and pragmatism). Nevertheless, Hegelianism outside Germany proved more durable in the face of these attacks, as new readings and approaches emerged to counter them, and ways were found to reinterpret Hegel’s work to show that it could accommodate these other positions, once the earlier accounts of Hegel’s metaphysics, political philosophy and philosophy of religion (in particular) were rejected as too crude.

This pattern has continued into the twentieth century, as many of the movements that began by defining themselves against Hegel (such as Neo-Kantianism, Marxism, existentialism, pragmatism, post-structuralism and even ‘analytic’ philosophy) have then come to find unexpected common ground, giving a new impetus and depth to Hegelianism as it began to be assimilated within and influenced by these diverse approaches. Such efforts at rapprochement began in the early part of the century with Wilhelm Dilthey’s attempt to link Hegel with his own historicism, and although they were more ambivalent, this connection was reinforced in Italy by Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. The realignment continued in France in the 1930s, as Jean Wahl brought out the more existentialist themes in Hegel’s thought, followed in the 1940s by Alexander Kojève’s influential Marxist readings. Hegelianism has also had an impact on Western Marxism through the writings of the Hungarian Georg Lukács, and this influence has continued in the critical reinterpretations offered by members of the Frankfurt School, particularly Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas and others. More recently, most of the major schools of philosophical thought (from French post-structuralism to Anglo-American ‘analytic’ philosophy) have emphasized the need to take account of Hegel, and as a result Hegelian thought (both exegetical and constructive) is continually finding new directions.

Citing this article:
Stern, Robert and Nicholas Walker. Hegelianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC037-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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