W F Hegel (1770-1831)
Georg Hegel was a German "idealist"  philosopher who
became one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century. At the same
time, there can be little doubt that he was one of the most obtuse thinkers of
his time - in Bertrand Russell's words "�the hardest to understand of all the
great philosophers". His thought was adopted by many Protestant theologians and,
with unfortunate consequences for many million victims, one of his disciples was
Born in Stuttgart in 1770, the son of a civil servant, Hegel was brought up
in an atmosphere of Protestant Pietism and became thoroughly acquainted with the
Greek and Roman classics from an early age.
Encouraged by his father to be ordained in the Lutheran Church, Hegel
entered the seminary at the University of T�bingen in 1788. He became a private
tutor until his father died in 1799. Hegel's future was temporarily assured by a
financial legacy that was sufficient to free him from tutoring for the time
Having exhausted the legacy, Hegel eventually became a professor at the
University of Berlin. He died in Berlin on November 14, 1831, during a cholera
Hegel�s aim was to set forth a philosophical system so comprehensive that it
would encompass the ideas of his predecessors and create a conceptual framework
in terms of which both past and future could be understood philosophically. Such
an aim would require nothing short of a full account of reality itself.
Thus, Hegel conceived the subject matter of his philosophy to be reality as a
whole. This reality, or the total developmental process of "everything", he
referred to as the "Absolute". According to Hegel, the task of philosophy is to chart
the development of the Absolute.
This involves  making clear the internal rational structure of the
Absolute;  demonstrating how the Absolute shows itself in nature and human
history; and  showing the end or purpose towards which the Absolute is
directed. This emphasis was, quite naturally, attractive to a number of
Christian thinkers of the time, hard-pressed as they were to make sense of a
growing gap between traditional theology and contemporary view of reality.
While Hegel's thinking does indeed encompass wide stretches of human
experience, his critics probably have a good point when they say that his
personal knowledge - of history and the philosophy of history for example - was
in many respects woefully incomplete, resulting in highly dubious conclusions.
But his style has been regarded as persuasive and his arguments perceived as
strong, so his impact has nevertheless been great.
Concerning the rational structure of the Absolute, and following the ancient
Greek philosopher Parmenides, Hegel argued that "what is rational is real and
what is real is rational". If one steps back a little from this, it seems an
obviously circular statement and a dubious one at that. Another way of putting
it might be to say something like, "If we want to know what is real, then we
have to think our way through to any conclusions. It's no good making
assumptions and we shouldn't just pluck answers out of thin air."
The prevailing Christian doctrine at the time (as it is today) was that
there are such things as final or absolute truths "out there" which have been
revealed by God to humanity. In this context, Hegel's assertion and his general
methodology can be seen as an assertion of the contemporary stress on reason and
the scientific method to work out knowledge about the world.
Hegel made a further claim that the Absolute must ultimately be regarded as
pure Mind (Geist in German) which is in the process of self-development.
Only Mind (i.e. rationality) is real. The so-called "facts" of empirical
knowledge are "irrational" as long as they stand alone. They become "rational"
only when they are perceived as aspects of the whole - the complex whole which
is the "Absolute".
Idealism in relation to Hegel is the proposition that mind and "spiritual"
values are fundamental in the world as a whole. That is, nothing is real except
as a whole, which is itself a complex system. No true statement can be made
about any one part of the universe (the Absolute) except insofar as it has a
place in the whole.
In assigning a place to one part of the whole, one automatically assigns a
place to everything else, because knowing the place of one part of the whole
implies knowing the place of all the other parts. That is, the only truth is the
The logical method that governs this developmental process from the part to
the whole is "dialectic" (or "give and take"). This
dialectical method involves the notion that progress is the result of the
conflict of opposites which, though false when standing alone, become more true
when they are part of the whole. Dialectic, therefore, is the critical
investigation of the process of change in which an entity merges with, and is
made complete by, its opposite.
It seems to me that Hegel was attempting to counter the tendency of his time
to break every whole into its constituent parts. Only when all these parts are
analysed, it was thought, is it possible to understand the whole. A problem was
that the analytical process was sometimes not reversed and the components of the
whole labelled "the truth".
Traditionally, the dialectical dimension of Hegel�s thought has been
analysed in terms of three categories: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
Although Hegel almost never used these terms, they are helpful in understanding
his concept of the dialectic.
The thesis, then, might be that a concept is part of the structure of the
Absolute (therefore part of "truth"). Such a concept contains within itself
incompleteness that gives rise to opposition (antithesis), an apparently
conflicting concept which is needed if the whole is to be restored. As a result
of the conflict a third concept or form of consciousness arises (synthesis),
which overcomes the conflict by reconciling at a higher level the truth
contained in both the thesis and antithesis.
This synthesis in turn may become a new thesis that generates another
antithesis, giving rise to a new synthesis - and in such a fashion the process
of metaphysical or historical development is continually generated. Hegel
thought that our understanding of the Absolute itself (that is to say, the sum
total of reality) is continually developing in this dialectical fashion towards
an ultimate end or goal. One author puts it like this:
... each time an event occurs in the material world (Hegel calls it a
"thesis"), spirit generates an opposed event (an "antithesis"), which tries to
correct it. The tension between these two is then resolved by yet a third event
(the "synthesis") , which serves to blend elements of both, only to serve as the
new thesis for yet another sequence or opposition and resolution.
For Hegel, therefore, reality is understood as the Absolute unfolding
dialectically in a process of self-development. As the Absolute undergoes this
development, it manifests itself both in nature and in human history. Nature is
the Absolute objectifying itself in material form.
Our finite minds and the human history we generate are the process of the
Absolute manifesting itself in that which is most like itself, namely, mind or
In The Phenomenology of Mind (1807) Hegel traced the stages of this
manifestation in its various forms from the simplest consciousness of objects,
through self-consciousness, rational consciousness, and the various forms of
ethical and religious consciousness, to "absolute knowledge" - that form of
consciousness in which the subject recognizes itself as fundamentally identical
with the Absolute.
So, for example, the thesis might be that which is "pure being" -
which just is, without any qualities. But the antithesis
would be that anything pure has no qualities; and that which has no
qualities can't be described; therefore pure being is in reality "not being".
But when we put thesis and antithesis together into synthesis, we find
that the union of "being" and "not-being" is "becoming". Therefore the "Absolute
Thus the thesis and antithesis are not superseded but completed by the
synthesis. It's therefore possible to build thesis, antithesis and synthesis in
layers towards a final truth.
This often seems to me a stilted, mechanical way of drawing conclusions.
But it should be remembered that today's capacity to recognise the relativity of
all knowledge was derived in part initially from Hegel's dialectic.
The goal of the dialectical process can be most clearly understood at the
level of reason. As finite reason progresses in understanding, the Absolute
progresses towards full self-knowledge. Indeed, the Absolute comes to know
itself through the human mind�s increased understanding of reality (the
Absolute). Hegel analysed this human progression in terms of three levels: art,
religion, and philosophy.
Art grasps the Absolute in material forms, interpreting the rational through
the sensible forms of beauty.
It is conceptually superseded by religion, which grasps the Absolute by means
of images and symbols. The highest religion for Hegel is
Christianity, for in Christianity the truth that the Absolute manifests
itself in the finite is symbolically reflected in the Incarnation of Jesus
Philosophy, however, is conceptually supreme, because it grasps the Absolute
in terms of the concepts that structure it. Once this has been achieved, the
Absolute has arrived at full self-consciousness - in Hegel�s terms, at "Absolute
Mind" - and the cosmic drama reaches its end and goal. Only at this point did
Hegel identify the Absolute with God. "God is God," Hegel argued, "only in so
far as he knows himself."
In the process of analysing the nature of the Absolute, Hegel made
significant contributions in a variety of philosophical fields, including the
philosophy of history, ethics, and political philosophy.
With respect to history, his two key explanatory categories are reason and
freedom. As a rational process, history is the "progress of the consciousness of
freedom". That is, it is the progressive realization on the part of the human
spirit (or "finite mind") that its own essential nature is freedom, and thereby
the realization of that freedom.
For Hegel, every historical civilization expresses a certain underlying
conception of the human mind through the customs, ethical practices, and social
and political institutions it establishes. It is only once these practices and
institutions have been established and become familiar, that the people of that
civilization can go on to make this underlying conception explicit through its
art, religion, and philosophy.
However, by so making this underlying conception explicit, the people come to
experience it as contradictory, and as inadequate to its sense of what the human
spirit really is. As a result, people gradually lose their loyalty to the
established practices and institutions, and the civilization begins to decay.
Eventually a figure appears who leads the way in overthrowing the old
instruments and replacing them with a new set that more adequately expresses the
real nature of the human spirit as free. Hegel calls such figures "world
historical individuals" and gives Alexander the Great,
Julius Caesar, and Napoleon
as examples. One wonders what he would have made of Adolf Hitler or Josef
The whole historical process of the rise and fall of civilizations is thus a
process through which the human spirit gradually comes to self-knowledge and
freedom. Hegel assigns the highest role in the historical process to the
Germans. "The German mind is the mind of the new world. Its aim is the
realisation of absolute truth �" His argument is quite plainly without
foundation, especially with hindsight.
He offers no explanation or evidence why later history should embody
categories "higher" or "better" than any earlier categories - unless, in
Bertrand Russell's words, "� one were to adopt the blasphemous supposition that
the universe was gradually learning Hegel's philosophy".
Russell's comment, I think, puts a finger on an important weakness of
Hegel's thought. It is that any philosophical system can be created from a
priori axioms - statements which make internal sense when carried through
properly to completion.
But that doesn't guarantee that the entire philosophical system itself has
any relationship to the physical world.
An analogy might be the elaborate psychological schema invented by
Sigmund Freud. His system depended almost entirely upon the concept of the
Ego. But it has proved impossible to demonstrate that any human behaviours
are the result of either a "thing" in human brains which might be called the
Ego, or even how the bio-chemical human system might be linked with human
The concept of the State which Hegel developed is plainly what was later to
be known as fascist - that is, the doctrine that the State exists for itself,
not for the individual. Hegel justified tyranny and war as means of preserving
"� the moral health of peoples".
This idea proved to be an exceedingly poisonous plant in the fertile soil of
European upheavals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Hegel saw the ethical practices and the social and political institutions of
modern society (such as the nuclear family and the market economy) and of the
modern state (for example, an impartial system of law, a system of
representation, and a constitutional monarch) as effectively the final stage in
the evolution of social and political institutions. It's tragic that Hegel did
not have available the insights of psychology. If he had, he might have placed
the individual rather than the State at the centre of his social system.
In supposing that humanity was discovering itself in the Absolute, Hegel was
in harmony with other European thinkers who supposed that the human race was in
a process of becoming better - a supposition to be rudely destroyed by the
excesses of the First World War.
In Europe, in the wake of the French Revolution, it appeared to some that the
"end of history" had been reached. Accordingly, Hegel thought of these social
and political institutions as fully expressing the freedom that is the defining
character of the human mind. In The Philosophy of Right (1821) he
attempted to show how these institutions embodied freedom in all its aspects,
and so to justify them.
In particular, he tried to show how they unite two different kinds of ethical
outlook, which he called "morality" and "ethical life".
At the level of morality, right and wrong are matters of individual reason
and individual conscience. At the level of ethical life, duty is a matter of
allegiance to the social wholes of which one is a member - one�s family, one�s
social class or "estate", and one�s country. Since individuals are only complete
through their social relationships within the whole, morality alone is
inadequate and one must move beyond it to the level of ethical life.
Thus the State is the expression of the most inclusive social whole to which
one can belong - one�s own country - so when there is a conflict of duties,
one�s duties to the State override all others. Obedience to the general will,
which is manifested in a properly constituted state, is the proper act of a
fully free and rational individual.
Hegel could not perhaps have foreseen the terrifying social expression of
his approach in the militaristic doctrines of the political movements which
arose in Europe some decades later. The German fascist Adolf Eichmann perhaps
epitomised the idea that it is moral to commit even genocide if ordered to by a
duly constituted authority.
In terms of the human reasoning process, if all phenomena can't be "true"
until they are perceived as part of the whole, then Hegel must say how he
knows this. For he can't know any truth, not even this, unless he first
knows the entire whole - in this case the physical universe. But Hegel can't
know the entire universe. This difficulty is enough to indicate that a truly
fundamental mistake lurks somewhere in his thinking.
Hegel's assertions about the Absolute clearly land us in absurdities We end
up in a situation in which not only can't we know anything, but in which
language itself - the only vehicle we have to express knowledge - becomes
For example, the word "truth" means, according to Hegel, "all truth" or the
"whole truth". But this is a circular proposition, since the word "truth" is
included in the defining phrase "all truth". In this way, language ceases to be
a way of expressing truth since we need to know the entire meaning of all words
in order to know the meaning of only one.
Hegel's error was indeed fundamental, and his impressive philosophical
edifice accordingly impressively wrong as is demonstrated, with hindsight, by
the almost absurd errors he made in relating his philosophy to real life and in
particular to corporate life embodied in the modern nation-state..
The fundamental error was therefore that if what is known about one thing is
so complete that it can be absolutely marked off from all others, then all its
properties are known - a conclusion which Hegel himself fails to demonstrate in
relation to anything.
However watertight this argument may seem, it is plainly impossible to know
everything about even a few things, never mind about everything. Hegel's poor
logic can't be excused by the interesting consequences to which it gives rise.
Despite his enormous influence, it is difficult to avoid concluding that
Hegel's efforts are a failure. This failure is most trenchantly laid out by Karl
Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies . He
points out that Hegel would probably not have become so influential if he had
not had the weight of the Prussian State behind him. Moreover, it can be argued
that Hegel's obtuse and internally contradictory style fits the popular idea of
philosophy as necessarily strange and complicated. Popper concludes:
Hegelianism fits these views admirably; it is exactly what this kind of
popular superstition supposes philosophy to be. It knows all about everything.
It has a ready answer to every question. And indeed, who can be sure that the
answer is not true?
In particular, Hegel is hardly original. His worship of the State is firmly
based upon Plato's views. Like Plato, Hegel is implacably fascist and it is not
unreasonable to argue that in the modern age he gave birth to the fascist
movements which plagued the twentieth century. It was from Hegel that Marx
derived his determinist economic theories which, like Hegel's so-called
sociology, have little or no grounding in real-life facts. All-in-all, Popper
regards Hegel as a masterful "twister of words", whose verbosity is
pathological. None of us, says Popper, should take Hegel's mystifying cant too
For example, what is one to make of his views about the relation of sound to
heat as set forth in Hegel's Philosophy of Nature?
Sound is the change in the specific condition of segregation of the
material parts, and the negation of this condition - merely an abstract or an
ideal ideality, as it were, of that specification. But this change,
accordingly, is itself immediately the negation of the specific material
subsistence; which is, therefore, real ideality of specific gravity and
cohesion i.e. heat. The heating up of sounding bodies, just as of beaten or
rubbed ones, is the appearance of heat, originating conceptually together with
Many people have spent much time and effort trying to sort out this and
similar gibberish in Hegel's writings. Bertrand Russell is even more cutting
about Hegel. Discussing Hegel's concept of the dialectic, Russell points
out that Hegel appears to know nothing about other ideas of Pure Being or The
Absolute. He continues:
I cannot see any justification, on the basis of his own metaphysic, for the
view that world history repeats the transitions of the dialectic, yet that is
the thesis he developed ... Like other historical theories, it required, if it
was to be made plausible, some distortion of the facts and considerable
ignorance. Hegel, like Marx and Spengler, possessed both these qualifications.
The vision of the world Hegel comes up with when all the apparent nonsense
has been discarded is neither pretty nor particularly healthy - as its many
ghastly outcomes witness. Hegel's doctrine of the State, writes Russell,
justifies every internal tyranny and every external aggression that can possibly
be imagined. He goes on:
A man may be pardoned if logic compels him regretfully to reach conclusions
which he deplores, but not for departing from logic in order to be free to
 Idealism - To understand this term, it's helpful to very briefly consider
some associated terms:
Naturalism - The proposition that
what we call "mind" or "spirit" are intangible phenomena which nevertheless
ultimately emerge from, and are reducible to, material things or processes.
Realism - The conclusion that
material things exist independently of our perception. When we cease to
perceive something, it does not cease to exist (though what is perceived is
not necessarily uniform for all perceivers).
Metaphysical idealism - Idealism
which is not realist.
Objective idealism - Realism
which is not naturalist.
Theism - In this context, the
idealist perception that God is a perfect, uncreated spirit or mind.
Pantheism - Nothing exists except
God (Absolute Being) and his modes or attributes. Therefore the material world
is an aspect of God the Spirit.
See also Idealism.
 Eight Theories of Religion, Daniel L Pals, OUP,
 Vol II, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1945
 History of Western Philosophy, Allen & Unwin, 1946