Last reviewed: June 2018
August 27, 1770
Stuttgart, Württemberg (now in Germany)
November 14, 1831
Berlin, Prussia (now in Germany)
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, one of the leading philosophers of modern Europe, did not develop a distinctive philosophy of his own; rather, he integrated the contributions of previous philosophers, added his own concepts, and thereby produced a historical philosophical system. In this regard, Hegel can be compared to Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. He believed that historical sequence in the development of philosophy is extremely important in understanding the changing human mind. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Hegel is perhaps as important for the stimulation he provided his students as for his own writing. Inspired by Hegel, they produced significant work in the history of ideas, art, and religion. They also published many of their notes from Hegel’s classes.
Hegel was the son of a Stuttgart revenue officer. Before he entered the Stuttgart grammar school, his mother had taught him the rudiments of Latin, which was still a vital part of the European academic curriculum. As a student, Hegel kept a file of extracts on morals, mathematics, and other topics from newspapers and major literary works of the day.
At the age of eighteen, Hegel began his university studies at Tübingen. Although he studied theology, he devoted much more time to the study of philosophy. A contributing factor to this change of direction may have been a lifelong deficiency in oral exposition.
Leaving Tübingen in 1793 with no desire to enter the ministry, Hegel became a private tutor in Berne, Switzerland. During three years there, he spent his free time reading Greek and Roman classics as well as more recent writers such as the historian Edward Gibbon and the philosophers Baron Montesquieu and Immanuel Kant. Stimulated especially by Kant, Hegel wrote essays in which he tried to interpret Christianity according to Kant’s ideas. These essays were published more than a century later as part of Early Theological Writings.
In late 1796, Hegel moved to Frankfurt, where his personal study concentrated on Greek philosophy, modern history, and politics. The years there are marked by his break from the influence of Kant and by his attempts to interpret Christianity in a more historical and rationalistic way, although he never could accept the orthodoxy of the time.
For years, Hegel had desired and sought an academic career, which began in January, 1801, when he became a lecturer at the university in Jena. He was appointed a professor there in 1805. It was at Jena that Hegel published The Phenomenology of Spirit, in which he presented his theories concerning the evolution of the human mind from mere consciousness to absolute knowledge.
From 1808 to 1816, Hegel served as rector of a Gymnasium, or high school, in Nuremberg. While there, he published Science of Logic. This work, covering both objective and subjective logic, was the first time his system was presented in what was essentially its final shape; it earned for Hegel offers of three prestigious professorships. He accepted a position at Heidelberg, where his philosophical system was used to explain the entire universe as a systematic whole. In 1817, to enhance his lectures, Hegel published his Encyclopedia of Philosophy, an exposition of his complete system. His method of exposition is dialectical; he begins with a thesis, which then evokes an antithesis. These diametrically opposed positions are softened by debate and eventually combined into a synthesis. Since Hegel believed that all thinking follows this pattern, he used it to explain his own system, which he divided into three phases: logic, nature, and mind.
In 1818, Hegel moved to Berlin, where he accepted a professorship of philosophy. It was there that his influences over his students reached its peak. It was also in Berlin that Hegel published The Philosophy of Right. In this last major work, he presents the modern dilemma of producing a social and political order that satisfies both the need for obedience to necessary laws without a centralization that makes people slaves, and the need for individual freedom of conviction without an antinomianism that would make social and political order impossible.
Hegel’s later years were devoted primarily to his lectures at Berlin, especially his lectures on the philosophies of aesthetics, of religion, and of history. His lectures on aesthetics were enhanced by visits to theaters, concert rooms, art galleries, and other public exhibits. In his philosophy of religion, he offered proofs for the existence of God, but he also took a middle position (synthesis) between the rationalism of Kant and the emotionalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher.
Hegel based his philosophy of history on the thesis that all history has a plot and that the philosopher’s task is to discern and explain that plot. His concern for historical fact kept him from accepting Kant’s idealistic view that war and other human tragedies could be eliminated.
In 1831, one of those tragedies struck Berlin in the form of cholera. On November 14, after being sick for only one day, Hegel died of that much-feared disease.