DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC037-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

3. The critique of Hegelian idealism 1840–70 (cont.)

Under the influence of this critique of Hegel’s idealism, those who succeeded Feuerbach among the so-called ‘Young Hegelians’ (such as Ruge, Friedrich Engels, Hess and the early Marx) extended it to include Hegel’s political thought, while at the same time this turn towards naturalism was treated as a key to the reinterpretation and radicalization of some of Hegel’s fundamental doctrines. Thus, in the first place, Ruge objected that Hegel’s ‘metaphysics of politics’ lacks a proper critical standpoint because it ‘would offer us the passing realities of history as eternal figures’, and is thereby rendered ‘impotent’: ‘Hegel undertook to present the hereditary monarch, the majority, the bicameral system, etc, as logical necessities, whereas it had to be a matter of establishing all these as products of history and of explaining and criticizing them as historical existences’ (Ruge (1842: 763) 1983: 228). In a similar vein, Marx accused Hegel of ‘logical, pantheistic mysticism’, of attempting ‘to provide the political constitution with a relationship to the abstract Idea, and to establish it as a link in the life-history of the Idea – an obvious mystification’ (Marx 1975: 69–70). It is evident, therefore, how the turn against Hegel’s idealism decisively influenced the Young Hegelians in their attitude to his Philosophy of Right and its place in the speculative system.

In the second place, the Young Hegelians saw the need (in Marx’s famous phrase) to locate properly the ‘rational kernel within the mystical shell’ of Hegel’s philosophy: to rescue what is valuable in Hegel from his idealistic metaphysics. So, for example, Engels argued that Hegel’s dialectical procedure, while apparently based on an abstract logic of concepts, is (as Marx’s work showed) nothing more than a historical method, ‘which ultimately amounts to the discovery of the general laws of motion which assert themselves as the ruling ones in the history of human society’ (Engels (1886) 1968: 612). Likewise, Marx himself took Hegel’s analysis of the estrangement between man and nature, based on his conception of nature as the ‘otherness of the idea’, and interpreted this in anthropological terms, as the separation of man from the human process of productive activity. By approaching Hegel in this heterodox manner, the Young Hegelians hoped to recover the radical historicism, humanism and social critique that lay obscured in the empty abstractions of his metaphysical idealism.

If most of the Young Hegelians of radical political persuasion tended to substitute the idea of a new collective humanity or an appropriately transformed ‘species being’ for the spiritual teleology of Hegel’s thought, it was left to Max Stirner (pseudonym of Johann Kaspar Schmidt) to develop the other individualistic extreme of the Hegelian mediation with Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (The Ego and Its Own) (1845), exalting the sovereign negativity of the singular ego in an almost proto-Nietzschean sense to create and recreate its own value systems and emancipate itself from all heteronomous givenness through tradition and previous history. In drawing the ultimate conclusions from the modern liberal emphasis upon subjective freedom Stirner’s philosophy of the liberated ‘self’ represents the extreme counter-position to Feuerbach’s and Marx’s conception of the ‘social individual’.

Alongside this revolt against idealism brought about by the turn towards naturalism and materialism by the Young Hegelians, Hegel’s alleged panlogicism also came under attack from F.W.J. Schelling and his ‘positive philosophy’, which he adopted from around 1827 until his death in 1854. This position was explicitly conceived in contrast to the ‘negative philosophy’ Schelling claimed to find in Hegel, which is confined to concepts and essences, but neglects being or existence; as a result, it overlooks the fact that it cannot answer the fundamental question ‘Why does anything exist at all? Why is there not nothing?’, and so cannot make the transition from the Idea to nature. Schelling therefore insists that Hegel fails to surmount the ‘nasty broad ditch’ between the first and second parts of the Encyclopedia, because concepts are mere abstractions from the empirical world, and so cannot be treated as ideal forms from which the latter can be deduced; on the contrary, the limits of Hegel’s rationalistic metaphysics are shown by the fact that existence must be taken (by us) to be an inexplicable prius. In attacking Hegel’s idealism in this way, Schelling began an antirationalistic revolt against his panlogicism which has become one of the fundamental critical reactions to his thought.

Another significant strand in this broadly existentialist critique of Hegel’s idealism which emerged in the 1840s lies in the assertion that Hegel is unable to grasp the reality of becoming, finitude and temporality, despite his talk of movement in his dialectical treatment of the categories. The claim (made, for example, by F.A. Trendelenburg (1802–72) and echoed by Kierkegaard) is that like all idealists, Hegel posits a world of abstract essences behind the world of time and transience, and so fails to give due weight to the reality of finite existence; where Hegel is deceptive, however, is in the way in which he attributes a dynamic interrelation to the categories, and talks in terms of ‘transition’, ‘development’ and ‘movement’. Hegel’s critics insisted, however, that this talk of movement can only be figurative, and that in fact it is senseless to talk of real change and development in connection with Hegel’s Logic. Hegel’s followers tried to respond to this wave of anti-idealist criticism: Rosenkranz, for example, insisted in vain that Hegel was not a Platonist, to be ‘reproached with offering up the world of blooming life to the idea as to a desolate Hades’ (Rosenkranz (1870: 125) 1993 I: 283–4); on the contrary, he argued, Hegel saw universals as more like souls that must be embodied in concrete particulars.

None the less, the effect of this materialist and existentialist critique meant that from around 1860 only the more moderate epistemological idealism of the Neo-Kantians was taken seriously as a systematic philosophy; among those self-confessed Hegelians who remained academically active, the scope of their operations was considerably narrowed, so that Johann Erdmann (1805–92), Eduard Zeller (1814–1908) and Kuno Fischer (1824–1907) are principally known as historians of philosophy. Another figure whose considerable output reflects something of the vicissitudes of the Hegelian tradition in Germany throughout this period is the prolific writer and critic Friedrich Theodor Vischer (1807–87). His earlier works, such as Über das Erhabene und Komische (On the Sublime and the Comic) (1837) and the monumental Ästhetik oder Wissenschaft des Schönen (Aesthetics or the Science of Beauty) (1845–57), express more or less total commitment to Hegel’s philosophy as a whole; but his later contributions represent a progressive abandonment of all ambitious metaphysical claims for art and religion in the modern world in favour of an increasingly sceptical and critical relationship to social reality and to the classical Hegelian project of reconciliation as he had earlier understood it.

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

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