Key Concepts of the Philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel

Updated on October 16, 2016

G. W. F. Hegel was a 19th century German philosopher whose work inspired German Idealism and reactions from existentialist philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, as well as from analytic philosophers like Bertrand Russell. Coming after Kant’s objective philosophy, many consider Hegel to have taken a step backward to a more religiously inspired philosophy and idealism of early rationalists. However, a closer study of Hegel shows a complex and unique worldview that has been able to equally influence a staunchly materialist philosopher like Karl Marx and an existentialist like Jean-Paul Sartre.

Hegel's Legacy

Throughout the 19th century, Hegel was the dominant philosophical voice in Europe, and nearly every significant philosopher was either using him as a template or reacting to him in some way. In the 20th century, however, the rise of analytic philosophy led to Hegel becoming much less prominent, and many consider his philosophy to be of merely a historical importance, while others still think that he has much to contribute to the dialogue that has arisen in Continental philosophy.

Hegel and History

Hegel placed a strong emphasis on an idealized version of human history in his philosophy. Hegel’s idealism is debated, as is much of his philosophy, but the one part that is certain is that he regarded human history as being motivated forward by ideas. The development of human history, to Hegel, was about progress, and it resulted in an upward spiral in which humankind would eventually reach “the great idea.”

Hegel gives an analogy that dictates his ideas of human struggle. He tells a myth of two people who meet and are threatened in their conscious existence by the presence of the other. They struggle in a battle to the death, but if one eventually kills the other they will find that they have not gained control over the world. Control comes from the communication of, and the making of, deals with the other—and it is inevitable that they will enter in a master and slave bond where the one that fears death the least will gain some control over the other. There are many interpretations of this story that have been presented by different followers of Hegel, and others have suggested it was an influence of the moral theories of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Hegel insisted on an absolute, which many commentators have seen as a substitute for God, and others as a substitute for the laws of the material world. What Hegel argues is that in order to for one to have a sense of the world, they must have an identity and self-consciousness to perceive an outside object. Hegel saw all reality as being composed of “spirit,” and what he means is the realization of ideas that have come from a necessity of being.

Hegel is similar to Kant in that he attempts to try to give us a glimpse of an ultimate reality through the subjective consciousness of human experience, but he deviates greatly from Kant by insisting that this is a reflection of an absolute reality. Kant claimed that an absolute reality did exist, but it would ultimately be unknowable to human beings due to the limitations of the human mind to conceive and the senses to process data. Hegel attempts to use a complex logical system, similar to those of the pre-Kantian rationalists, to establish Absolute Idealism.

Political Philosophy

Hegel begins his political philosophy by addressing the idea of free will. Much like Rousseau and Kant, Hegel does not see free will as something that is somehow negated by participation in a society. Like these previous thinkers, Hegel believes that a person who exists within a civil society is actually freer than a solitary individual. Hegel goes even further on this point and extends the concept to say that free will, like self-consciousness, can only be obtained through interactions and struggles with other individuals.

Hegel considers different concepts of “right,” the first being non-interference, an essentially libertarian viewpoint, that he considers to be a woefully inadequate concept of justice. He also considers the idea of morality, which he bases on religious and cultural precepts, and he dismisses this as merely a subjective concept of right. He considers that in order for any ethical concept to be useful, it must be a universal concept that applies to everyone and in all situations. This aligns him again with Kant and would be the main concept that Kierkegaard would try to refute in his moral theory.

Hegel’s concept of right involves the ever-increasing freedom that is accomplished through the development of the state apparatus. He portrays a history in which new states arise and fall, resulting in inevitable power struggles. He argues that the history of man has been a correction of the mistakes of the previous civilization, as the maximizing of freedom of the individual becomes more and more refined within each state as it arises.

The basic concept of this would both be the inspiration for—and encounter some criticism from—Karl Marx. Marx would see his ideas about the eventually collapse of capitalism and the rise of communism as being the inevitable path of Hegel’s political theory, but he also found the basic idea of Hegel’s politics to be too abstract and filled them in with his own specific concepts. While Hegel’s viewpoint toward politics was basically a historical one, Marx thought that his philosophy was an attempt to not only observe history but to change it.

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