Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
First published Thu Feb 13, 1997; substantive revision Mon Jun 26, 2006
Hegel's own pithy account of the nature of philosophy given in the “Preface” to his Elements of the Philosophy
of Right captures a characteristic tension in his philosophical approach and, in particular, in his approach to the nature
and limits of human cognition. “Philosophy,” he says there, “is its own time raised to the level of thought.”
On the one hand we can clearly see in the phrase “its own time” the suggestion of an historical or cultural
conditionedness and variability which applies even to the highest form of human cognition, philosophy itself. The contents
of philosophical knowledge, we might suspect, will come from the historically changing contents of contemporary culture. On
the other, there is the hint of such contents being “raised” to some higher level, presumably higher than other
levels of cognitive functioning — those based in everyday perceptual experience, for example, or those characteristic
of other areas of culture such as art and religion. This higher level takes the form of “thought,” a type of cognition
commonly taken as capable of having “eternal” contents (think of Plato and Frege, for example).
This antithetical combination within human cognition of the temporally-conditioned and the eternal, a combination which
reflects a broader conception of the human being as what Hegel describes elsewhere as a “finite-infinite,” has
led to Hegel being regarded in different ways by different types of philosophical readers. For example, an historically-minded
pragmatist like Richard Rorty, distrustful of all claims or aspirations to the “God's-eye view,” could praise
Hegel as a philosopher who had introduced this historically reflective dimension into philosophy (and setting it on the characteristically
“hermeneutic” path which has predominated in modern continental philosophy) but who had unfortunately still remained
bogged down in the remnants of the Platonistic idea of the search for ahistorical truths. Those adopting such an approach
to Hegel tend to have in mind the (relatively) young author of the Phenomenology of Spirit and have tended to dismiss
as “metaphysical” later and more systematic works like the Science of Logic. In contrast, the British
Hegelian movement at the end of the nineteenth century, for example, tended to ignore the Phenomenology and the more
historicist dimensions of his thought, and found in Hegel a systematic metaphysician whose Logic provided a systematic
and definitive philosophical ontology of an idealist type. This latter traditional “metaphysical” view of Hegel
dominated Hegel reception for most of the twentieth century, but has over the last few decades been contested by many Hegel
scholars who have offered an alternative “post-Kantian” view of Hegel.
The peculiarity of Hegel's form of idealism, on this account, lies in his idea that the mind of God becomes actual only
via its particularization in the minds of “his” finite creatures. Thus, in our consciousness of God, we somehow
serve to realize his own self-consciousness, and, thereby, his own perfection. With its dark mystical roots, and
its overtly religious content, it is hardly surprising that the philosophy of Hegel so understood is regarded as being very
distant to the largely secular and “scientific” conceptions of philosophy that have been dominant in the twentieth
An important consequence of Hegel's metaphysics, so understood, concerns history and the idea of historical development
or progress, and it is as an advocate of an idea concerning the logically-necessitated teleological course of history that
Hegel is most often derided. To many critics, Hegel had not only advocated a disastrous political conception of the state
and the relation of its citizens to it, a conception prefiguring twentieth-century totalitarianism, but he had also tried
to underpin such advocacy with dubious logico-metaphysical speculations. With his idea of the development of “spirit”
in history, Hegel is seen as literalising a way of talking about different cultures in terms of their “spirits,”
of constructing a developmental sequence of epochs typical of nineteenth-century ideas of linear historical progress, and
then enveloping this story of human progress in terms of one about the developing self-conscious of the cosmos-God itself.
Hegel's Philosophy of Right
Perhaps one of the most influential parts of Hegel's Philosophy of Right concerns his analysis of the contradictions
of the unfettered capitalist economy. On the one hand, Hegel agreed with Adam Smith that the interlinking of productive activities
allowed by the modern market meant that “subjective selfishness” turned into a “contribution towards the
satisfaction of the needs of everyone else.” But this did not mean that he accepted Smith's idea that this “general
plenty” produced thereby diffused (or “trickled down” ) though the rest of society. From within
the type of consciousness generated within civil society, in which individuals are grasped as “bearers of rights”
abstracted from the particular concrete relationships to which they belong, Smithean optimism may seem justified. But this
simply attests to the one-sidedness of this type of abstract thought, and the need for it to be mediated by the type of consciousness
based in the family in which individuals are grasped in terms of the way they belong to the social body. In fact,
the unfettered operations of the market produces a class caught in a spiral of poverty. Starting from this analysis,
Marx later used it as evidence of the need to abolish the individual proprietorial rights at the heart of Hegel's “civil
society” and socialise the means of production. Hegel, however, did not draw this conclusion. His conception of the
exchange contract as a form of recognition that played an essential role within the state's capacity to provide the conditions
for the existence of rational and free-willing subjects would certainly prevent such a move. Rather, the economy was to be
contained within an over-arching institutional framework of the state, and its social effects offset by welfarist state intervention.
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