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The Core Curriculum

Georg Hegel

1770 CE – 1831 CE

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).

Andreja Novakovic,  Department of Philosophy, Columbia University

Althaus, Hegel: An Intellectual Biography, p. 16
Foucault, “Discourse on Language” in The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 235

Works Consulted:
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

Historical Contexts

Introduction to the Philosophy of History

Several political and philosophical events significantly shaped Hegel’s milieu.  The most significant political event was the French Revolution, from 1789 onward.  During his days as a theology student in Tübingen, Hegel was a fervent advocate, but as the Revolution turned increasingly destructive, his enthusiasm diminished.  In the Phenomenology of Spirit he criticizes its conception of freedom in a chapter entitled “Absolute Freedom and Terror.” Not unlike Burke, Hegel grew increasingly suspicious of all efforts to invent a new world from scratch, whether in theory or in practice, without regard for the way the world already is. However much the world needs improvement, he came to argue, reform should take a more gradual course.  Hegel nevertheless harbored a great admiration for Napoleon and welcomed his invasion of Germany.   A legend tells that Hegel was in the midst of completing the final pages of the Phenomenology during the very hour that Napoleon and his troops marched into the city of Jena.  Hegel famously called Napoleon “world-spirit on horseback.”

The most significant philosophical event was the “Atheism Controversy,” also sometimes referred to as the “Pantheism Controversy.”  In 1780 the renowned literary author Gotthold Lessing (1729–1781) was lying on his deathbed with the philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819) at his bedside.  According to Jacobi’s subsequent report, Lessing confessed to him that the only philosopher he cared for was Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677).  Now, Spinoza had been a controversial figure even in his own lifetime, and his notoriety had not since waned.  Spinoza had argued that there existed only one self-enclosed, self-determined, and self-sufficient substance and nothing else.  This substance was identical with the world as we know it, but it was also identical with God.  Jacobi was so horrified by this confession that he proceeded to write several essays about Spinozism accusing it of being a form of atheism, and more importantly, of excluding any space for human freedom.  Soon people were accusing each other of Spinozism left and right.  This intellectual event left a mark on the next generation, which saw as its task to reconcile Spinoza with Kant, who was then regarded as a champion of freedom in the most robust possible sense.  Hegel understood his own project as the solutuion to this problem: he described it as an effort to unify “substance” and “subject”--and its freedom.



Works Consulted:
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
Pinkard, “Hegel: A Life,” in Cambridge Companion to Hegel and the Nineteenth Century, p. 22
Althaus, p. 267 


Andreja Novakovic,  Department of Philosophy, Columbia University