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According to his final university report, G. W. F. Hegel was “not without competence in philology,” but not “very promising in philosophy.” Although he was a late bloomer, Hegel nevertheless turned out to be one of the most ambitious philosophers of his generation and came to exert an unparalleled impact on nineteenth and twentieth-century thought. As Michel Foucault (1927–1984) put it, "truly to escape Hegel involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him. It assumes that we are aware of the extent to which Hegel, insidiously perhaps, is close to us; it implies a knowledge, in that which permits us to think against Hegel, of that which remains Hegelian. We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.”
Hegel was born in the city of Stuttgart in 1770. In accordance with his deceased mother’s wishes, he enrolled in the Protestant Seminary in Tübingen to be trained as a pastor, though he quickly proved utterly talentless at delivering sermons. During his time in Tübingen, Hegel roomed with the future Romantic poet Hölderlin (1770–1843), as well as the philosophical prodigy Schelling (1775–1854), and the three of them came to share a fascination with Ancient Greece as well with the French Revolution raging during this time. Although Hegel was the least enthusiastic Kantian of the three, they would invoke Kant’s “invisible church” as a code word among themselves to refer to their common commitment to a revolutionary new world, modeled along the lines of the Greek polis.
After completing his degree in 1793, Hegel left Southern Germany to become a private tutor to a wealthy family in Berne. While he did not get along with his employer, Captain von Steiger, staunchly anti-revolutionary in outlook, Hegel was fond of the family's extensive library and spent many hours reading Adam Smith and reflecting on the emergence of new social institutions like the bourgeois economy. Hegel also began to take Kant more seriously and he sought the philosophical guidance of his former classmate Schelling, who was already a rising star in Germany. In 1801 Hegel moved to Jena, where Schelling held a university position and wrote his first lengthy treatise in defense of Schelling's philosophy.
Not until did 1806 Hegel did developed his distinct vision, first articulated in the Phenomenology of Spirit. chelling read its notoriously obscure preface as an unambiguous attack on him, so its publication the following year brought an abrupt end to their friendship. And while Schelling’s reputation was beginning to wane, Hegel’s own was only on the rise. In 1818 Hegel was offered the chair of philosophy at the Humboldt University in Berlin and assumed the official position of “State Philosopher,” which he retained until his death in 1831. During his Berlin years he lived in relative poverty, but enjoyed considerable academic fame and lectured on a wide range of subjects, all components of his philosophical “system.”
Shortly before his death, Hegel coincidentally crossed paths with Schelling while recuperating at a spa in Karlsbad. One day Schelling heard a familiar voice asking after him and announcing itself as that of “Hegel from Berlin.” In letters to their wives, they gave strikingly different accounts of this reunion. While Schelling described it as “uncommonly cordial, as if there were nothing between [them] at all,” Hegel claimed that they were “both pleased to see each other and felt like good friends together.” When Hegel died of cholera two years later, the academic tide had turned once again, and in an anti-Hegelian backlash Schelling was invited to assume his chair in Berlin. By then it was too late. Hegel’s legacy had already been cemented and continued even through critics as vehement as Karl Marx (1818–1883).
Written by Andreja Novakovic, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University
Althaus, Horst. Hegel: An Intellectual Biography. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.
Beiser, Frederick (ed). Cambridge Companion to Hegel and Nineteenth-Century Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2008
Neuhouser, Frederick. Foundations of Hegel’s Social Theory: Actualizing Freedom. Harvard University Press, 2000
Pinkard, Terry. Hegel: A Biography. Cambridge University Press, 2000
Plant, Raymond. Hegel: An Introduction. Blackwell, 1983