G.W.F. Hegel

[The author has been made aware of certain errors in this entry on Hegel's philosophy. The text will soon be updated to make the corrections.]

“Only one man ever understood me, and he didn't understand me,” said the German philosopher Hegel, and the statement might certainly be true because Hegel is one of the most difficult and obscure philosophers of the West. He was virtually the dictator of the German philosophy and ruled the thought of the nineteenth century. This influence is amazing, given the puzzling and cryptic nature of his ideas. He is, perhaps, the hardest of all the great philosophers to understand[1]. It is not in my ability to explain Hegel in detail, so I will only present a general and simple overview of his philosophy.

Before studying Hegel, it would not do harm to say a word or two about his idealistic predecessors. Fichte (1762-1814) was an important philosopher of the idealist school. Fichte distinguishes between the Self, the ego, and the rest of the world, the non-ego. He maintained that the ground of all experience was the pure, spontaneous activity of the ego. Consciousness is the encounter between the ego and the non-ego, in which both are defined and realized. Schelling (1775-1854) was another idealist philosopher. He developed a philosophy, which was essentially pantheistic in nature, holding that the God was the same as the laws and the nature of the universe. He held that there was a perfect parallel between the world of nature and our awareness of it i.e. ‘Nature reflects Consciousness.’ Since using an individual ego is this case leads to invalid results, Schelling overcame this difficulty by using the idea of Absolute consciousness, which is the sum of the thought of every individual ego.

Hegel aimed to create such a comprehensive system of philosophy, which would encompass the works of his predecessors, and in which past and future could be philosophically understood. Hegel was initially interested in mysticism and from there he took the belief in the unity of the reality, believing all separateness to be unreal. Hegel calls the whole, or the total developmental process of everything, in all its complexity the Absolute or Absolute Spirit. Hegel believed that the task of philosophy is to chart the development of the Absolute Spirit. Unlike Spinoza, who considered both thought and extension to be attributes of the whole, Hegel considers the Absolute as pure Thought, or Spirit, or Mind, in the process of self-development.

A distinguishing feature of Hegel’s philosophy is the triadic movement called Dialectic. The Dialectic begins with a simple idea called Thesis, which owing to its imperfection (only the Absolute is perfect) gives rises to its opposite, contrasting idea, called Antithesis. Thesis and Antithesis merge to form a Synthesis. This synthesis becomes another Thesis and the process continues until the truth arrives; the final conclusion is known as the Absolute Idea.

For example, consider the assumption ‘The Absolute is Pure Being’. But a pure being devoid of any relations is nothing. (Every idea is a group of relations; an idea without relations is simply empty.) Hence, from this thesis, we are led to its antithesis ‘The Absolute is Nothing’ These two merge to form the synthesis ‘The Absolute is Becoming.’

The idea of the Absolute Spirit itself is a product of the dialectic: All thought is comprised by the thesis Idea. Its antithesis is Nature and the grand synthesis of the two is Spirit, the self-knowing, self-actualizing totality — the Absolute itself.

For Hegel, therefore, reality is understood as the Absolute unfolding dialectically in a process of self-development. This development manifests itself both in nature and in human history. Nature is the Absolute Spirit objectifying itself in material form. Human minds and human history are the process of the Absolute manifesting itself in spirit or consciousness. In fact, the Absolute comes to know itself through the human understanding of the reality. History is the story of the world spirit (Weltgeist) gradually coming to consciousness of itself. The highest kind of the knowledge can be the Absolute itself, because as the Absolute is the whole, there is nothing outside itself for it to know.

Since history follows the pattern of logical necessity through the dialectical movement from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, the present age represents the higher stage of development as compared to the previous ages. Seen in this context, there are no ‘eternal truths’ apart from the Absolute Idea. No particular thought is correct for eternity, but it can be correct for the particular age in which one lives. (For example, in ancient Greece slavery was ‘correct’ but it is ‘wrong’ in our age.) Hegel is an ardent believer of the view that “what is rational is real and what is real is rational.” This leads to the natural conclusion that whatever survives is right, or that which is right survives. “World history is a court of judgment.”[2]

Hegel studied the human progression in understanding the Absolute in three levels: art, religion, and philosophy. Art grasps the Absolute in material forms, interpreting the rational through the sensible forms of beauty. Religion understands the Absolute through images and symbols. Philosophy is the highest level as it grasps the Absolute rationally. Though philosophy, the Absolute has arrived at full self-consciousness, and the grand cosmic drama arrives at its logical conclusion. Only at this point does Hegel identify the Absolute with God.

Hegel has a different conception of freedom. Since there can be no concept of freedom without the concept of law, Hegel derives the odd conclusion that wherever there is law, there is freedom. Hence, ‘freedom’ in his political philosophy means little more than the right to obey the law. Duty can truly exist only in a social context. Individual’s highest duty is the duty to the state, as the state is manifestation of the general will[3], which is the self-conscioius ethical will of the people.


[1] With the exception of our postmodern philosophers, who have surpassed all others before them in obscurity.
[2] Hegel, The Philosophy of Right
[3] Hegel praised Rousseau for the distinction between general will and the will of all.