DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC037-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

6. Hegelian influence in the twentieth century: Germany, Italy

While towards the end of the nineteenth century it may have appeared that Hegel’s philosophy was destined to have only a marginal significance in twentieth-century thought, in fact its impact has been remarkable. This renewed interest in Hegel’s position was made possible by a broader understanding of his project, which made many of the standard nineteenth-century criticisms (of panlogism, quietism, anti-individualism and theistic romanticism) appear crude and simplistic, reflecting a misconception of his work.

Germany. During a period in which various forms of positivist naturalism or Neo-Kantian schools dominated the German philosophical scene the Hegelian and idealist legacy generally had found some refuge within the traditional humanistic disciplines which escaped subjection to the methodological canons of the natural sciences. A broadly Hegelian approach thus survived in a largely non-systematic and non-metaphysical hermeneutic form which seemed to offer significant elements at least for the construction of an alternative methodology for the newly developing social and human sciences, the ‘Geisteswissenschaften’. Wilhelm Dilthey was particularly influential in reawakening interest in the world of early German Idealism with his path-breaking study of Hegel’s early development, Die Jugendgeschichte Hegels (The Young Hegel) (1905). It was also under Dilthey’s direct encouragement that his student Hermann Nohl first thoroughly edited and published most of Hegel’s surviving early manuscripts of 1790–1800 as Hegels theologische Jugendschriften (Hegel’s Early Theological Writings) in 1907, an event which inaugurated that German resurgence of interest in Hegel’s philosophy during the first couple of decades of this century which culminated in the broad movement known as ‘Neuhegelianismus’. Hegel’s early writings challenged the image of the systematic rationalist metaphysician of tradition and seemed rather to reveal a thinker passionately concerned with restoring a concrete sense of cultural wholeness and identification with the natural and historical world of lived experience.

The interest in Hegel and the tradition of German Idealism in general did not simply displace the still vigorous forms of Neo-Kantianism but rather entered initially into a complex symbiotic relationship with certain trends within that movement, especially the so-called Southwest School associated principally with Heinrich Rickert (1863–1936) and Wilhelm Windelband (1848–1915) (see Neo-Kantianism §4). Like Dilthey, these thinkers were attempting to develop an appropriate philosophical approach to the entire sphere of cultural and spiritual life as an autonomous domain alongside the sphere of the natural and the exact formal sciences. Many of them believed that the Kantian tradition required significant extension and supplementation to do justice to this dimension of experience and looked to Hegel in particular for intellectual resources adequate to the task. A symptomatic document for the period was Windelband’s influential address of 1910, ‘Die Erneuerung des Hegelianismus’ (The Renewal of Hegelianism). Eventually a fully-fledged neo-Hegelian school began to form as part of a broader cultural project of German intellectual renewal, a process that was actually encouraged rather than weakened by the catastrophic experience of the First World War and the ensuing social and political instability.

An important figure in this development was Georg Lasson (1862–1932) who tirelessly promoted a strongly religious interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy as the appropriate antidote to the disintegrative and sceptical tendencies and sense of cultural alienation of the time. The intrinsic philosophical significance of Lasson’s work is negligible and often represents little but nationalistic edification, as in Was heisst Hegelianismus? (What is Hegelianism?) (1916), but he performed an extremely important role as an indefatigable editor of Hegel’s works.

Other principal figures associated with or broadly sympathetic with Neuhegelianismus were Hermann Glockner (1896–1978), also important as an editor of Hegel, with his synoptic monograph Hegel (1929–40); Nicolai Hartmann (1882–1950), who drew strongly on Hegel in his own work and provided a classical ontological interpretation of the philosopher in his Die Philosophie des deutschen Idealismus (The Philosophy of German Idealism) (1923–9); Richard Kroner (1884–1974) perhaps the purest and most dedicated representative of the movement, who wrote a standard neo-Hegelian history of German Idealism Von Kant bis Hegel (From Kant to Hegel) (1921–4) but reverted in his later writings to a more Kantian position influenced by Kierkegaard; Theodor Litt (1880–1962) who remained strongly influenced by Dilthey’s philosophy of culture and Heidelberg Neo-Kantianism and later attempted to synthesize contemporary trends in a quasi-Hegelian fashion in Denken und Sein (Thought and Being) (1948), Mensch und Welt (Man and World) (1948) and Hegel (1953). Kroner helped to establish the journal Logos which functioned as the organ of the German neo-Hegelians and sympathetic Neo-Kantians during the 1920s. There were also a number of more important and original thinkers on the fringes of the movement who were profoundly influenced by the resurgence of interest in German Idealism and Hegel in particular. These included Georg Simmel, Ernst Cassirer and Franz Rosenzweig, who all engaged with central Hegelian problems in their work and occupied something of an ambiguous and contested space between Kant and Hegel.

By the end of the 1920s, in the context of the German crisis of democracy and the rise of fascism, the vague romantic and undifferentiated aspiration to living ‘wholeness’ as a supposed alternative to social atomism readily lent itself to ideological mystification and exploitation. Some neo-Hegelians made uncritical appeal to the idea of ‘Sittlichkeit’ or concrete ethical life as a model of organic community, but increasingly detached from its original context in Hegel’s elaborate conception of the rational modern constitutional state as the climax of the philosophy of history and the evolution of the consciousness of freedom. The Hegelian notion of the ‘Volksgeist’ or ‘spirit of the people’ was also interpreted more in the spirit of Savigny and the ‘Historical School’ than in that of Montesquieu or even Herder, and the resulting simplification was urged in support of an illiberal communitarian ideology. Certain tendencies in this direction are clearly discernible in the works of Lasson, Glockner and in the monumental study by Theodor Haering (1884–1964) of Hegel’s development, Hegel. Sein Wollen und sein Werk (Hegel: His Project and his Work) (1929–38). In all these authors romantic over-interpretation and a celebration of the supposedly ‘irrational’ character of the dialectic almost completely effaces the universalist and rationalist dimension of Hegel’s thought and minimizes the significance of his relationship to Kant and eighteenth-century thought. None the less, except for similar interpretations by fascistically inclined legal theorists such as Julius Binder and Karl Larenz the official ideology showed little interest in reclaiming Hegel for the cause of National Socialism.

The significant alternative to the repristination of Hegel under the sign of cultural philosophies of life and value during this entire period was provided by the intellectual renewal of Marxist thought and the emergence of what later became known generically as ‘Western Marxism’ and ‘Critical Theory’. The early work of Karl Korsch (1886–1961), especially his Marxismus und Philosophie (Marxism and Philosophy) (1930) and of Georg Lukács, with Geschichte und Klaßenbewusstsein (History and Class Consciousness) (1923), proved to be the initial stimulus for this development. Both rejected the positivist interpretation of Marxism as a scientific worldview supposedly in secure possession of the ‘laws’ of social and historical development and regarded the ‘dialectics of nature’ as a theoretical illusion and a practical irrelevance. Lukács extrapolated from Marx’s mature work to his Hegelian origins and outlined a non-deterministic philosophy of praxis and potential self-liberation which owed much to Hegel’s Phenomenology. Although Lukács later repudiated his earlier work in certain respects as ‘idealist revisionism’, he continued to emphasize the enduring significance of the Hegelian legacy in Marx against the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy with Der junge Hegel (The Young Hegel) (1948), and drew equally heavily on Hegel in his own later works, like the massive study on aesthetics (Die Eigenart des Asthetischen (The Specificity of the Aesthetic)) (1963) and the unfinished treatise Zur Ontologie des gesellschaftlichen Seins (The Ontology of Social Being) (1971–2). The contemporary need to reinvestigate the entire relationship of Hegelian and Marxist thought was also stimulated during this period by the continual publication of previously unknown texts by both Hegel (especially the Jena writings then issued as his Realphilosophie in 1933) and Marx (particularly the Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts in 1932), writings which did much to confirm the insights of Lukács’ contested interpretation of Marx’s debt to Hegel.

Herbert Marcuse was influenced in his early period by Diltheyan philosophy of life, Heidegger’s existential phenomenology, and the rediscovery of Hegel’s early work. After his study Hegels Ontologie (Hegel’s Ontology) (1932), Marcuse turned explicitly to Marx whose thought he interpreted in a humanist manner in the light of the early Hegelian manuscripts, stressing like Lukács the key concept of alienation and the ineliminable moment of social subjectivity against more standard mechanistic interpretations. Marcuse also defended the Hegelian tradition directly against the charge of totalitarianism and articulated the deep continuity between the thought of Hegel and Marx in Reason and Revolution (1941). In his later work Marcuse focused on the question of the aesthetic dimension and its emancipatory potential as a prefiguring of a non-repressive relation to inner and outer nature, attempting to mediate the heritage of classical German philosophy with elements of Freudian thought.

Although Theodor-Wiesengrund Adorno repeatedly made Hegel an object of privileged critique, as in the Drei studien zu Hegel (Three Studies on Hegel) (1963), he could also be regarded as the most profoundly Hegelian of modern thinkers in terms of the fundamental themes of his philosophy and its elaborate dialectical conceptuality. His major works, Negative Dialektik (Negative Dialectics) (1966) and Ästhetische Theorie (Aesthetic Theory) (1970) are a sustained critical engagement in a Marxist spirit with the tradition of Hegel and German Idealist thought and are unintelligible without constant reference to the concepts of totality and dialectic subject–object identity. Adorno sought to reclaim the concept of reconciliation (of social antagonism, spirit and nature, universal and particular) from its apologetic use in speculative philosophy and employ it as a critical measure of existing contradiction and unfreedom. He drew strongly on Hegelian patterns of argument to criticize other thinkers, such as Kierkegaard, Husserl and Heidegger.

Italy. At the turn of the century the tradition of neo-Hegelian thought in Italy was principally represented by Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. Croce’s reception of Hegelian thought was selective and highly reconstructive, in some respects paralleling the initial German renewal of Hegelian studies in Dilthey’s wake. Again it was not the metaphysical dimension of Hegel’s thought, but rather the doctrine of concrete spiritual agency and its self-objectification in social and cultural life which attracted Croce, as can be seen from his Ciò che è vivo e ciò che è morto nella filosofia di Hegel (What is Living and What is Dead of the Philosophy of Hegel) (1907). However, Croce’s aesthetics owes at least as much to Kant in its emphasis upon the priority of intuition and the total autonomy of the art work; he also rejected the concept of aesthetic genre which was central to Hegel’s historical construction of art. He also repudiated the supposed ‘death of art’ thesis which he influentially took to be implied in Hegel’s subordination of art to religion and philosophy. However, Croce entertained no qualms about the apparent supercession of the religious dimension in speculative philosophy and his appropriation of Hegel was thoroughly immanent and humanistic.

If Croce stressed the autonomy of the different domains of spiritual activity, his erstwhile friend and collaborator Gentile followed Hegel more directly in grasping all human activities as interrelated manifestations of creative spirit. Similarly in his philosophy of art Gentile defended a less formalist position than Croce. Gentile’s philosophy generally is also marked by a strong voluntarist emphasis and an ardent educational idealism that has affinities with Fichte. Croce finally broke with Gentile when the latter attempted to provide a Hegelian justification of the new, fascist ‘Corporate State’ as the concrete realization of ethical life. In spite of his political affiliations Gentile’s thought continued to exercise a significant influence on Italian thought at both ends of the political spectrum. Hegel’s influence was also strongly registered by the Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci through the contemporary example of Croce and Gentile. Gramsci developed a philosophy of praxis that closely paralleled Lukács’ interpretation of Marx and rejected the quasi-naturalistic conception of dialectical materialism, seeking rather to transcend and preserve the heritage of bourgeois culture and philosophy and endow the Marxist perspective with the potential for cultural hegemony. As with the Western Marxists generally, Gramsci distrusted the mechanical application of any simple basis/superstructure distinction and attempted to grasp the complex mediation between social determinants and the collective self-consciousness of human agents in more dialectical fashion.

Citing this article:
Stern, Robert and Nicholas Walker. Hegelian influence in the twentieth century: Germany, Italy. Hegelianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC037-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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