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Hegel: Philosophy in an Hour

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      Hegel: Philosophy in an Hour
Paul Strathern

Philosophy for busy people. Read a succinct account of the philosophy of Hegel in just one hour.With Hegel philosophy became very difficult indeed – even the great man himself conceded that ‘only one man understands me, and even he does not.’ His dialectical method produced the most grandiose metaphysical system known to humanity, and included absolutely everything, its most vital element being the dialectic of the thesis, antithesis and synthesis. This method arose from Hegel’s ambition to overcome the deficiencies of logic and ascend towards Mind as the ultimate reality. His view of history as a process of humanity’s self-realisation ultimately inspired Marx to synthesise his philosophy of dialectical materialism.Here is a concise, expert account of Hegel’s life and philosophical ideas – entertainingly written and easy to understand. Also included are selections from Hegel’s work, suggested further reading, and chronologies that place Hegel in the context of the broader scheme of philosophy.



Paul Strathern

Copyright (#ulink_79c3b300-62d4-5190-bbe2-21d54888a5e0)

HarperPress An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF

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Copyright © 1997 by Paul Strathern

Paul Strathern asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

IN AN HOUR is a registered trademark of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd.

Cover image © Universal Images Group / Getty Images

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Ebook Edition © JUNE 2012 ISBN: 9780007466214

Version: 2016-09-12


Cover (#u9530f77f-c04b-50da-88ba-778d7914af08)

Title Page (#ua4eba5e8-79d8-58b2-856b-f33ddde16316)

Copyright (#ulink_d7353f08-05c7-5ead-b0de-79e613ea81af)

Introduction (#ulink_41413ebe-656c-5448-a1f8-a8da08180337)

Hegel’s Life and Works (#ulink_63367866-d6dc-5238-ad02-094243c4a7aa)

Afterword (#litres_trial_promo)

Keep Reading (#litres_trial_promo)

Further Information (#litres_trial_promo)

From Hegel’s Writings

Chronology of Significant Philosophical Dates (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Hegel’s Life (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Hegel’s Era (#litres_trial_promo)

Recommended Reading (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

Introduction (#ulink_08ddc181-5b3a-5747-8af4-f463fea36d97)

In 1770, the year of Hegel’s birth, Kant delivered his inaugural dissertation at the University of Königsberg. In the same year the poets Hölderlin and Wordsworth were born. The seeds of ecstatic lyricism and profoundly sober systemization were sown: the extremes of subjectivity and objectivity. Europe stood on the brink of its greatest transformation since the Renaissance. The French Revolution was the political manifestation of this change; the Romantic Movement was its cultural expression.

Meanwhile the Industrial Revolution was to change the face of the entire continent. And within years of Hegel’s death, Marx was preparing a further transformation which was to change the face of the twentieth century.

Hegel was to be profoundly involved in both these transformations. In a U-turn such as could only have been encompassed by his celebrated dialectical method, the student Hegel welcomed the French Revolution, and the aged Hegel sang the praises of the arch-conservative Prussian state.

In the hands of Hegel, the dialectical method produced the most elephantine philosophical system known to man, a monolith in praise of the monolithic state. Yet in the hands of his avid follower Marx, Hegel’s method was to produce the greatest revolution since the French Revolution, which in its turn produced the most elephantine political system known to man (which in many aspects bore an uncanny resemblance to the Prussian state). This was much how Hegel’s dialectical system was meant to work, though he probably wouldn’t have seen it this way.

Hegel’s Life and Works (#ulink_1eb4c01a-8367-583a-8c26-44ebf8d63495)

‘The height of audacity in serving up pure nonsense, in stringing together senseless and extravagant mazes of words, such as had previously only been known in madhouses, was finally reached in Hegel, and became the instrument of the most barefaced general mystification that has ever taken place, with a result which will appear fabulous to posterity, and will remain as a monument to German stupidity’. So wrote Schopenhauer, who was Hegel’s colleague at the University of Berlin. This remark is not intended to prejudice but merely to warn. With Hegel, philosophy becomes a matter of extreme seriousness, so we’d best get any jokes out of the way right at the start. As an earnest English hellfire preacher of the period commented while delivering a sermon to an amused fashionable audience in Bath, ‘There’s no hope for them that laughs’.

With Hegel, philosophy became very difficult indeed, requiring the utmost concentration. So it looks as if Schopenhauer, despite his razor-sharp intellect, just wasn’t trying hard enough. On the other hand, even Hegel conceded that ‘only one man understands me, and even he does not’. Some critics consider that here Hegel was exaggerating. Did this man ever really exist?

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born on August 27, in Stuttgart. His family had for generations been civil servants, and his father worked in the Württemberg tax office. Hegel’s upbringing gave him a heavy Swabian accent which he retained to the end of his days, as well as the belief that self-effacement is one of the cardinal virtues of true culture.

He was a sickly child and was to suffer from several bouts of serious illness before he reached manhood. At the age of six he caught such a bad case of smallpox that he nearly died. For more than a week he was blinded, and his complexion remained badly pockmarked. At the age of eleven he survived the fever that struck his entire family and carried off his mother. And during his student years he was laid low for several months by a malarial infection.

As Hegel grew up he read omnivorously – through literature, newspapers, and treatises on almost any subject he could find. Yet even at an early age he already believed in a strictly systematic approach, meticulously copying out in his journal excerpts from all he read. This thorough training in pedantry (his ‘excerpt mill’, as he called it) contained quotations on everything, from physiognomy to philosophy, from hyperboreans to hypochondria. Personal matters were included in this journal only when they illuminated an abstract principle. And on days when he found nothing serious enough to record, Hegel took this seriously enough to record why such a lamentable state of affairs had occurred. Avid scholarly readers of this junk shop of the mind may come across side by side a report of a local fire and a criticism of a concert he has attended, followed by a description and analysis of the cold weather, a brief treatise on the homily ‘Love of money is the root of all evil’, and a list of the merits he has discerned in the Latin dictionary he has just received as a present. One scholarly reader notes: ‘He composes a Latin oration, he argues against dictating a theme in German for transcription into Latin, he puts down his school timetable in the margin, he says that he and his friends watched pretty girls, he makes notes on Virgil and Demosthenes, he is curious about a musical clock and a star atlas, and on Sunday he works on trigonometry’.

It is difficult to overemphasise the importance of this ‘excerpt mill’ – as an illustration both of exceptional learning and of premature desiccation. In later life Hegel’s mammoth tomes were to contain references to an almost superhuman breadth of learning. The fact that these references often contained minor errors only confirms the encyclopedic volume of Hegel’s mind. They were invariably quoted from memory – Hegel was averse to interrupting his train of thought by looking up sources or checking quotations.

Hegel’s father was ‘a man of orderly habits and the conservative instincts natural to his place’, according to Hegel’s early biographer Caird. This archetypical employee of the provincial tax office appears to have been a somewhat distant father. Hegel’s closest human contact during this period was his sister Christiane, who was three years his junior. The motherless pair developed a strong affection for each other. The abstract principle that Hegel elicited from this rare personal emotion was that a sister’s love for her brother is the highest form of love. In his later philosophy he was to illustrate this by citing Sophocles’ Antigone, in which the dutiful Antigone is willing to face death in order to bury her brother’s corpse, and then commits suicide, an act that results in further suicides and desolation. As we shall see, the charged atmosphere of this Greek tragedy mirrored the underlying psychological truth of the relationship between Hegel and his sister. The impressionable Christiane was overwhelmed by her all-knowing brother, and her love for him developed into an unnaturally strong bond which was to have tragic consequences.

At the age of eighteen Hegel enrolled in the theological seminary at Tübingen University. Although he exhibited all the characteristics of a first-class civil servant, his parents wanted him to enter the church. Hegel’s interests already extended far beyond theology, but it wasn’t until he entered the university that he first became seriously interested in philosophy. It was this interest that brought him into contact with two exceptional contemporaries at Tübingen. One was Hölderlin, an ardent Hellenophile, who was to become one of the outstanding lyric poets in the German language; the other was Schelling, whose intensely romantic philosophy of nature was a forerunner of the nineteenth-century reaction against the shallow constrictions of rationalism. In such heady company, Hegel soon became a romantic revolutionary. When the French Revolution exploded, he and Schelling rose at dawn to plant a ‘Tree of Liberty’ in the marketplace.

Hegel became deeply interested in ancient Greek culture and the new philosophy of Kant. The publication of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, just seven years earlier in 1781, was hailed by Hegel as the ‘greatest event in the entire history of German philosophy’.

To appreciate why Kant was so important, it is necessary to outline the previous history of philosophy. In the mid-eighteenth century the Scottish philosopher Hume had reduced philosophic certainty to its lowest ebb. Experience, he declared, was our only source of true knowledge. Hume’s empirical philosophy had demonstrated the impossibility of creating any further philosophical systems. To build any system one needed such elements as causality (that is, cause and effect), but Hume had shown that this was a mere supposition. No one had ever experienced a cause and its ensuing effect; all they had actually experienced was one thing following another. It looked as if this was the end of philosophy.

Kant, however, managed to circumvent this catastrophe. He suggested that causality was merely one of the ways in which we apprehend the world – like space and time, color, and so forth. Hume had been right: the world didn’t contain such a thing as causality, instead it was in us, our way of perceiving the world.

Building on this foundation, Kant managed to construct by means of reason an all-embracing philosophical system that explained everything. In a series of all but impenetrable works, Kant proceeded to explain his system to the world. The great era of German metaphysics was launched in all its high-mindedness and prolixity. Hegel was enraptured: here was a mind as encyclopedic (and prosaic) as his own.

Hegel plowed assiduously through Kant, complementing this with forays into ancient Greek culture, and in between times harvesting far and wide for the ‘excerpt mill’. Even in these early years he was known by his fellow students as ‘the old man’, apparently as much for his drab personality as his obsessive propensity for study. By the time Hegel came to leave the university in 1793, he had no intention of entering the church. What he really wanted was an academic post, teaching in a university, but surprisingly he managed to achieve only a mediocre degree. His final certificate from the university authorities perceptively noted that he was not much good at philosophy.

In fact Hegel’s reading, in philosophy and other subjects, had been almost exclusively outside his course – the mark of many a brilliant mind and countless mediocrities. Hegel was intent on continuing with these whimsical studies, and in order to support himself he became a private tutor. This took him to Berne in Switzerland for three years. Here he read widely in the library and was quite lonely. He found solace by communing with nature.

His response to the spectacular local Alpine scenery provides a curious psychological picture. ‘I seek to be reconciled with myself, and with other men, in the arms of Nature’, he wrote. ‘For this reason I often fly to this true mother, to isolate myself from other men in her company. She enables me to protect myself from them, and prevent any covenant with them’. Yet for him the sublime Alpine peaks were ‘eternally dead’ while he saw a waterfall as the very image of freedom and play, eternally moving forward. The psychologist Scharfstein has suggested that the bleak mountain peaks evoked for Hegel ‘the painful immobility of depression’ and that the waterfall represented ‘the pleasure of release from it’. Whether or not this represents psychological insight or interpretive overkill, Hegel certainly suffered from severe bouts of depression during this period, an affliction that probably lasted throughout his life. (Both his prose and his portraits would seem to confirm this.)

Under the influence of his hero Kant, Hegel now wrote a number of religious treatises critical of Christian authoritarianism, and a Life of Christ which treated Jesus as an almost wholly secular figure. In this work Jesus’ explanations of Christian doctrine often bear an uncanny resemblance to the words of Hegel’s hero – the Galilean’s profound simplicities undergoing a painful transformation into the serpentine ponderousness of Prussian philosophising. Kant had based his moral philosophy upon his so-called categorical imperative: ‘One should act only in accordance with such a maxim as one would simultaneously will should become a universal law’. This plainly derives from Jesus’ ‘Do unto others, as unto yourself’. Hegel’s game attempt to emulate Kant ended up with Christ saying, ‘What you can will to be a universal law among men, and also hold as a law for yourself, according to that maxim you should act’. Hegel’s version of Jesus was down to earth in both style and content, a spiritless transmogrification which he came to regret. (This book was never published in his lifetime, and in later years he attempted to destroy all copies of it.)

In 1796 his friend Hölderlin secured him a tutoring job in Frankfurt, where the poet was living at the time. But when Hegel arrived he found that Hölderlin was deliriously in love with a banker’s wife whom he believed to be the incarnation of ancient Greece, and once again Hegel found himself on his own. In order to distract himself from his increasing melancholia, Hegel studied even harder. During the little free time he allowed himself, he began composing excruciatingly depressive poems in ill-constructed meter:

‘A wise law forbad poorer spirits from making known

what he in holy night has seen, heard, and felt

so that his higher self be not disturbed in contemplation by their noisy nonsense,

so that their twaddle not provoke his anger towards Holiness itself,
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