An introduction to the life, thought, and influence of the German philosopher Georg Hegel.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century and his importance has continued into the early years of the twenty-first century. Yet few if any people, philosophers or otherwise, actively connect with Hegel’s thought or would be considered as Hegelians – instead, his influence has become mediated through the work of others or has stimulated the production of thought in others, notably in the case of Karl Marx.
Hegel was born in Stuttgart and lived in Germany as a philosopher for most of his life. On entering university, his parents expected him to enter the ministry but he found himself dissatisfied with the theology teaching he received and instead preferred to devote himself to philosophy, particularly to the thought of Immanuel Kant. He occasionally suffered from “melancholia,” presumably a form of depression, which he sought to combat with ever greater efforts of working. He married in 1811 to a young woman 22 years his junior and the subsequent marriage is widely reported as perfectly happy. His wife bore him two sons and there was a third son from a previous relationship who joined the household. Considerations of Hegel’s life concentrate almost entirely on his intellectual development, which passed through a variety of distinct phases.
The importance of Hegel to philosophy is contained not so much in his individual works as to his means of systematizing thought. This approach is considered to be the ultimate development of idealism, which found its most advanced form in Germany. All problems of thought, according to the Hegelian system, must be encompassed within the development of the Absolute, the totality of reality. This seems to have mattered less to the various Hegelians who have followed so much as the related concept that history has a teleological nature insofar as it progresses from one state to another state according to various criteria which drive change. This was of considerable importance to the thought of Marx and his development of the laws of capital and their impact on the progress of history according to ineluctable laws.
Slavoj Zizek writes of Hegelianism as the desire to negate the negation (which he previously accused Mao of failing to achieve, hence leading to the permanent revolution). As he writes, “for Hegel, the dialectical reversal consists in the change of perspective whereby failure as such appears as victory – the symbolic act, the act precisely as symbolic, succeeds in its very failure.” Consider, in this light, the death of Christ, crucified between two thieves, which is converted through the influence of St Paul to become the symbol of the redemption, the happy Fall. The betrayal by Judas Iscariot might be seen in the same way.