DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC037-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 18, 2024, from

2. The Critique of Hegelian idealism 1840–70

Rosenkranz’s preface to his biography of Hegel, Hegels Leben (Hegel’s Life) (1844), reveals something of the fervent ideological climate of the early 1840s and reflects the various splits within the Hegelian school which had developed in the previous decade, not to mention the counter-reaction to Hegel’s influence in the later work of Schelling, Hegel’s former friend and collaborator (see Schelling, F.W.J. §4). For it was during the 1830s that the apparent solidity and impressive unity of Hegel’s achievement gradually began to fissure and the potentially centrifugal tendencies of the system revealed themselves under the pressure of significant new social and cultural developments.

These divisions first appeared in theology and the philosophy of religion as Hegel’s successors attempted to clarify the contemporary implications of Hegel’s famous philosophical appropriation of Christianity as the ‘consummate’ religion corresponding to the ‘absolute’ perspective of the speculative system. Nevertheless, it was far from clear how much of what many of Hegel’s contemporaries still took to be the essence of Christianity really was preserved and adequately reformulated in Hegel, especially traditional dogmatic beliefs concerning individual immortality and the afterlife, the personal and transcendent God of theism, the uniqueness of the incarnation and the entire eschatological dimension.

The figure who brought the interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy of religion to a head under all these aspects was David Friedrich Strauss, whose Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined) (1835–6) represents a watershed in nineteenth-century religious Protestant thought (see Strauss, D.F. §1). Hegel himself had spoken of religious language in terms of pictorial representation, symbolism and on occasion myth, but it was Strauss who fearlessly subjected the received Gospel accounts to a ‘demythologizing’ technique and attempted to reveal the intelligible ethical and spiritual truths misleadingly couched in archaic symbolic form in the original texts of the tradition. He not only expressed doubts about the historical verisimilitude of the stories and discounted the miraculous and supernatural elements, but also reinterpreted the idea of special revelation in terms of an unfolding historical revelation and rejected traditional accounts of Christ’s uniquely divine status. Thus Strauss brought latent tensions in Hegel’s legacy into the open and considerably sharpened the ensuing debate. It is in this theological context that Strauss himself first made the distinction in his Streitschriften zur Vertheidigung meiner Schrift (Polemical Writings in Defence of My Work) (1837) between ‘right’, ‘centre’ and ‘left’ positions in the spectrum of Hegelian philosophy: the right held to orthodox tradition in emphasizing divine transcendence, personal deity and the doctrine of immortality; the left dissolved the radical uniqueness and sometimes even the historicity of Christ and adopted a progressive humanistic domestication of Christianity as a social creed not so far removed from the ‘religion of humanity’ of Auguste Comte, (see §6); while the centre attempted the most difficult task of all, upholding the complexity of the original Hegelian ‘middle’ and avoiding alike the extremes of traditional theism, romantic pantheism or humanist reduction.

Some of those who attempted to negotiate this path in a sensitive and interesting way, apart from Rosenkranz, fell into neglect once the poles of the ensuing debate had ossified into fixed positions. Thus Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860), although he never considered himself a strict adherent of the ‘School’ in any of its forms, developed in his Die christliche Gnosis oder die christliche Religionsphilosophie in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung (Christian Gnosis, or the Christian Philosophy of Religion in its Historical Development) (1835) a kind of speculative hermeneutic of biblical texts and traditional dogmas that remained closer in certain important respects to Hegel’s spirit than the investigations of Baur’s pupil Strauss. And Strauss’ friend Wilhelm Vatke (1806–82) brought a Hegelian perspective to the study of Judaic thought, a neglected subject at the time, with Die Religion des alten Testaments (The Religion of the Old Testament) (1835), and produced detailed work on central religio-philosophical questions with Die menschliche Freiheit in ihrem Verhältniss zur Sünde und Gnade (Human Freedom in its Relation to Sin and Divine Forgiveness) (1841). Alois Emanuel Biedermann (1819–1885) was another thinker who engaged with the theological debates on the left and later continued to exploit Hegelian ideas in the quest for a responsible modern Christology which would avoid the pitfalls of anthropological reduction and antiquated supranaturalism in his Christliche Dogmatik (Christian Dogmatics) (1868).

The traditional division between ‘right’ and ‘left’, with the ‘centre’ being largely ignored, is an extremely inadequate intellectual shorthand that threatens to obscure rather than illuminate the complexity of the central issues, especially in the 1830s. For it is really only with the development of a radically secular and increasingly naturalistic worldview in the next couple of decades that the earlier Hegelian positions could globally be labelled as ‘right-Hegelian’, and it is historically anachronistic to regard thinkers such as Gans and most of Hegel’s earlier students as politically ‘conservative’. In fact many representatives of the ‘School’ supported liberal-progressive causes and were not initially disappointed by the revolutionary events of 1848.

From the end of the 1830s and throughout the 1840s the ideological fronts sharpened radically in the context of social and political thought. Thus the continuing concern with ‘saving’ historical Christianity through philosophy on the part of nearly all the original Hegelians came increasingly to seem an antiquated and regressive debate with the growing importance of radical humanistic political thought as the primary site of opposition to entrenched and anti-liberal state social policies in the period up to 1848. It was symptomatic of this trend when the Polish Count August von Cieszkowski reinterpreted Hegel’s philosophy of religion in terms of a secularized eschatological philosophy of history with practical intent in his Prolegomena zur Historiosophie(Prolegomena to the Wisdom of History) of 1838. He had concluded that the ultimate logic of Hegel’s thought demanded not a contemplative or predominantly theoretical relation to reality but rather a ‘philosophy of action’ (‘praxis’). If, as Hegel had claimed, the future could not be predicted, it could nevertheless be shaped with will and consciousness: the task therefore was no longer to recognize the supposed actuality of reason, but actively to procure a place for the emerging rationality of the future. In emphasizing the open and dynamic element of Hegel’s thought, stressing the immanent negativity of the dialectical ‘method’ at the expense of the apparently static ‘system’, and in elevating the active will over purely retrospective thought, Cieszkowski epitomized the Young Hegelian approach to Hegel’s philosophical legacy. A similar position was adopted by Moses Hess who also preached the transformation of traditional religious ideas into an ethical programme for the future with Die heilige Geschichte der Menschheit (The Sacred History of Humanity) (1837).

The remarkable intellectual career of Bruno Bauer vividly illustrates these developments since he began as a protagonist of the theological Hegelian right and subsequently progressed through the centre towards a radically atheistic stance: in his Die Posaune des jüngsten Gerichts über Hegel den Atheisten und Antichristen (The Trumpet of the Last Judgement upon Hegel the Atheist and Antichrist) (1841), Bauer ventriloquized strategically from an apparently orthodox theological perspective precisely in order to reveal the ultimately heterodox and destructive implications of Hegelian philosophy for traditional Christian belief. These radical developments within the Hegelian school were most clearly registered in the journal founded by Arnold Ruge and T. Echtermeyer in 1838, the Hallische Jahrbücher für deutsche Wissenschaft und Kunst (Halle Yearbook for German Science and Art). Although initially representatives of the whole spectrum of the school published articles in the journal, the general tenor of the contributions soon began to reflect the most advanced position of the left. In this respect the article ‘Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Philosophie’ (Towards a Critique of Hegelian Philosophy) (1839) by Ludwig proved symptomatic. Indeed it was Feuerbach’s influential book Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity) (1841) which seemed in the eyes of many to draw the ultimate conclusions from Hegel’s philosophy of religion and Strauss’s development of it by ‘unmasking’ all theological discourse as an alienated and ‘inverted’ projection of human imagination and desire. He proposed to reveal through his ‘transformational method’ that the ultimate truth of theology is anthropology (in the sense that chemistry is the truth of alchemy). This interpretation of religion generally as a compensating ‘ideology’ has proved enormously influential in modern thought (see Feuerbach, L.A. §2).

Feuerbach also turned his critique of religion against Hegel’s philosophy itself, and in particular against his idealism, accusing speculative philosophy of making the same mistake as theology: it prioritizes the infinite over the finite, thought over sense, the abstract over the concrete, and so ends up as a panlogistic idealism which sets essence above existence. This nominalistic attack on Hegel exerted a great influence, and marks the beginning of a turn away from idealism towards a new materialist metaphysics, as the dominant philosophical outlook ceased to be speculative and became anthropological and naturalistic.

Citing this article:
Stern, Robert and Nicholas Walker. The Critique of Hegelian idealism 1840–70. Hegelianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC037-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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