Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) developed and brought together new and exciting ideas that flowed through the Romantic period. In Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaardner describes this outstanding, systematic thinker as a “legitimate child of Romanticism.” However, Georg Hegel was not everybody’s favourite person – far from it.
Hegel first studied theology, and later, he turned to philosophy and studied at the University of Jena; as a result of which he wrote his first great work, Phenomenology of Spirit. When Napoleon’s army captured Jena, he returned to editing and teaching. Hegel eventually became a professor at Heidelberg; and then, as Germany became the centre-point of Europe in a deeply spiritual sense, he became a professor at the University of Berlin.
The Deepest Meaning of Life is World Spirit
By the term, “World Spirit,” Hegel means the sum total of human thought, its speech and its culture. His stance is entirely subjective, and he believes in no external truth or ultimate reason. According to Hegel, truth may be correct from where you stand at a certain position in time, but it may change from generation to generation. His philosophy is a method of understanding and thinking in a productive way about the progress of history.
Therefore, according to Hegel, world spirit is identical to reality.
In Hegel’s terms, “Absolute” equates with “pure thought,” and “Geist” with “the essence of being.” He believes that history is the search for absolute knowledge, in other words, the Geist. This is never static; nor can humans control it, because they are, themselves, enveloped within the Zeitgeist – which is a term for the spirit of the time. Inevitably, history must always move forward.
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The dialectic, or method of working through a disagreement or contradiction, operates through thesis and anti-thesis, which, in turn produce synthesis. Jostein Gaardner explains:
“Anyone studying history in depth will observe that a thought is usually proposed on the basis of other, previously proposed thoughts. But as soon as one thought is proposed, it will be contradicted by another. A tension arises between these two opposite ways of thinking. But the tension is resolved by the proposal of a third thought which accommodates the best of both points of view. Hegel calls this a dialectic process.”
Gaardner gives, as an example, the thesis of Descartes’ rationalism, which is contradicted by the anti-thesis of Hume’s empiricism. Immanuel Kant brought about synthesis by agreeing with the rationalists in certain things, and with the empiricists in other things.
However, a synthesis may then become a starting-off point for another chain of reflections.
Distortions Relating to Hegel’s Philosophical Position
Jeremy Harwood, in Philosophy – 100 Great Thinkers, quotes Hegel’s celebrated maxim: “Man owes his entire existence to the state.” This, according to Harwood, “…marked him out as the intellectual Grandfather of Fascism.” Harwood claims that Karl Marx, too, “stood Hegel’s teaching on its head to help him to devise his own pseudo-scientific, philosophical, political and economic theories.”
In Memories, Dream, Reflections, Carl Jung has this to say about Hegel:
“Of the nineteenth century philosophers, Hegel put me off by his language, as arrogant as it was laborious; I regarded him with downright distrust. He seemed like a man who was caged in the edifice of his own work and was pompously gesticulating in his prison.”
Jung’s accusation of arrogance towards Hegel was not entirely unfounded, when we consider the philosopher’s attitude toward women.
Hegel’s Error: Inferiority of Women
According to Jostein Gaardner, Hegel begins by comparing men and women to animals and plants, respectively – with plants being more placid in their development. “When women hold the helm of government, the state is at once in jeopardy, because women regulate their actions not by the demands of universality but by arbitrary inclinations and opinions.”
Hegel continues by proclaiming how women only acquire knowledge through living and not by thoughtful and technical exertion. He does not ever mention how the denial of education to most women at that time might have made it difficult for them to acquire that knowledge.
Gaardner does, however, make the point that “gross broadsides like that one on the inferiority of women hastened the development of feminism.” However grossly men like Hegel derided women, the resulting strength of their resistance became the “negation” or “anti-thesis.”
The World Spirit in Three Stages
The world spirit, according to Hegel, becomes conscious of itself in three stages:
- As an individual, it is the subjective spirit that motivates us.
- As part of the family, civil society and the state, world spirit achieves a higher consciousness. This is the objective spirit.
- The highest form of self-realization in absolute spirit is our connection with art, religion and philosophy, with philosophy being the highest form of knowledge, “…because in philosophy, the world spirit reflects on its own impact on history. So the world spirit first meets itself in philosophy,” says Jostein Gaardner.
Hegel Advocates a Conflict-Free Society, Dominated By Men
Hegel’s other works were The Science of Logic, Elements of the Philosophy of Right and Lectures on the Philosophy of History. For Hegel, the ultimate goal of human life is self-recognition. Jeremy Harwood says that Hegel applies his dialectic to society and to the state, believing that the process would come to an end only with the achievement of the ideal of a conflict-free society.
Sadly, when referring to society, Hegel means male-dominated society. Modern writers make light of his inconsistencies with regard to women, saying he is a product of his time. Nevertheless, in spite of his arrogance, his obscurity, and his derision of the female sex, Hegel earned consideration as one of the most important philosophers and most accomplished systematic thinkers of the past.