Hegel, G. W. F.

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HEGEL, G. W. F. (17701831), was a German philosopher, the culminating figure in the philosophical movement known as German Idealism. Born in Stuttgart, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was given a thorough grounding in the humanities, with strong emphasis on literature and history. From his earliest years he was keenly aware of the cultural disintegration of western Europemoral and religious, sociopolitical, and intellectual. He felt strongly that he was called to be a scholar and educator who would contribute to the reintegration of German culture, initially through emphasis on religious renewal. Thus, in 1788 he was enrolled in the Lutheran seminary at Tübingen, where, from 1788 to 1790, he studied philosophy and, from 1790 to 1793, theology. From this he turned to political thinking, seeking to analyze the moral prerequisites of an authentic political society. Finally he became convinced that only as a philosopher could he secure the intellectual underpinnings necessary for religious and sociopolitical renewal. From 1793 to 1796 he served as private tutor in Bern, Switzerland, and from 1797 to 1801 he filled the same position in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. In 1801 he moved to Jena, where he defended his dissertation (De orbitis planetarum ) and began his professional career at the university.

In 1807 Hegel's first major work, Phenomenology of Spirit, was published, and he began a short-lived career as a newspaper editor in Bamberg. From 1808 to 1816 he held the post of director of a Gymnasium (secondary school) in Nuremberg, where he published his second major work, Science of Logic. In 1816 he was named professor of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, where, in 1817, he published his third major work, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (2d and 3d eds., Berlin, 1827 and 1830). In 1818 he was appointed professor in Berlin, where he remained until his death in 1831. The last work by Hegel to be published during his lifetime was Philosophy of Right, which appeared in 1821. The bulk of his writingson art, religion, history of philosophy, and philosophy of historywere published posthumously, based on a combination of his lecture notes and notes taken by his students.

Understanding Hegel

It can safely be said that no major figure in the whole of Western philosophy has been more difficult to understand than Hegel; indeed, to understand him is the task of a lifetime. The reasons for the difficulty are many, but they can be summed up, generally, as five: his encyclopedic vision, his enormous erudition, his language, his dialectical method, and his extraordinarily systematic thinking.


Encyclopedic vision. In a certain sense Hegel's intellectual quest is a continuous act of faith in reason. He seeks to articulate this faith in such a way that reason itself validates its claim that no truth is recalcitrant to itnot in the sense that human reason can, as merely finite activity, discover all truth, but in the sense that given truth, reason can comprehend the rationality of it, that is, the rational necessity underlying even existential contingency. As Hegel sees it, reason is truly reason only if it is ultimately absolute and infinite, that is, if it is absolute Spirit. This absolute Spirit, conceived as concretely real and not as some vague abstraction, will be seen to be God. Human reason is, it is true, finite, but it is reason at all only insofar as it is a sharing in infinite, divine Spirit, whose object is the infinite totality of reality.


Enormous erudition. Hegel's was a lifetime of intense and insatiable intellectual curiosity; he was not only an omnivorous student but also one who thoroughly enjoyed every intellectual challenge he met, one who did not, however, indulge in intellectual games. What he sought was a knowledge that is not only true but that truly makes a difference in lifenot truth simply for its own sake but for the sake of life. He was not a mere technician in the handling of concepts but a thinker who sought rational grounds for a way of life, not merely an intellectual life but a life that is moral, religious, social, and politicalin short, authentically human.


Language. Hegel uses a language that is both allusive and elusive; he uses language to say what only pure thought can think, and in so doing he stretches language, perhaps beyond its limits, refusing to let grammar be a straitjacket. One must be careful not to read Hegel in such a way as to take his meaning to be what the reader would mean if he or she said the same.


Dialectical method. Hegel claims that he has not arbitrarily chosen to think and speak dialectically, but that the dynamic character of reality itself demands just this method of dynamic thinking. At the very beginning of his Science of Logic, he affirms that to think at all is to think being, but that to think being necessarily entails thinking its opposite, nonbeing, and that to think the relationship between being and nonbeing entails thinking becoming. If is added to this the basic Hegelian contention that what truly rational thought cannot but think to be true cannot but be true, one comes to the conclusion that reality is necessarily dynamic and can be thought truly only in a thinking that is dynamic. Incidentally, the oft-repeated description of the Hegelian dialectic in terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is not Hegel's own description, and in fact is not part of Hegel's mature vocabulary at all.


Extraordinarily systematic thinking. The comprehensive grasp of any truth implies, for Hegel, the whole of truth; similarly, an adequate grasp of anything Hegel says demands a comprehensive grasp of all he says, which makes for enormous difficulty of comprehension. Strictly speaking, no work by Hegel can be comprehended simply by itself. To understand Phenomenology of Spirit, one must see it as an application of the dynamic methodology elaborated in Science of Logic, and the latter must be read in light of the progressive development of rational thinking traced in the former. When he writes of morality, of law, of social-political structures, of art, religion, or philosophy, all must be situated in the framework of the systematic structure articulated in Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. Whatever is to be understood must be understood in the dynamic matrix of historical development.

Hegel and Religion

With the difficulty acknowledged of coming to grips with the complexities of Hegel's highly intricate thought patterns, it remains true that no modern thinker has had more influence than Hegeland that influence is on the increaseon moral, legal, social-political, aesthetic, religious, and philosophical thought. This article confines itself here, however, to Hegel's influence on subsequent religious and theological thinkingboth Catholic and Protestant. It is important to note in this connection that, for Hegel, religious consciousness, a uniquely human phenomenon, has characterized human society as far back as any records will take us, and that it has borne eloquent testimony to the progressive sophistication of human consciousness of the divine, known in Hegel's writings as the Absolute.

Historically speaking, that consciousness has manifested itself, initially in its most primitive form, in the deification of the cosmic forces of nature, with mounting refinement through efforts on the part of humankind to portray the divine in plastic, mythic, and poetic form, culminating in what it sees as "absolute religion," or "religion of revelation," in which God, the absolute Spirit, reveals himself to the human spirit by taking on human form. Clearly Hegel has in mind here the Christian religion, which he calls, in fact, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, "absolute religion." It should be noted, however, that, for Hegel, in every form of religion, even the most primitive, religious consciousness is more than a projection on the part of humanity of human ideals; in every form it is a self-manifestationa self-revelationof the Absolute, which is spirit and only spirit.

For Hegel, then, religion and revelation are inseparable, but revelation can take progressively more adequate formsremembering, of course, that in all its forms it is revelation to humankind as thinking spirit. Thus God reveals himself to humankind in nature, but only if humans think of nature in such a way as to receive the revelation. By the same token God reveals himself not only to but also in finite spirit, provided that humans see in finite spirit the necessity of infinite Spirit. God, moreover, speaks to humanity in the words of scripture, not so much, however, in the words themselves as in the story the words tell.

Thus, when Hegel speaks, as he does in Phenomenology of Spirit, of a "spiritual interpretation" of Christian teachingsan interpretation sometimes confused with "demythologization"he is saying that if what revelation says of God is true, grasped as true through the mediation of the inner light of the Spirit, then what it affirms to be true is necessarily true, and this truth can be articulated in reason. Then God speaks to humankind not only in words but in person, in the person who is the Word. Finally, God speaks to humankind in the person of the Spirit who dwells in humansin the community of believers and in the individual believer. To find where Hegel says all this one must turn chiefly to his Phenomenology, chapter 7, "Religion"; to his Encyclopedia, part 3, section 3, "Philosophy of Absolute Spirit" (with "additions"); to his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion; to his Lectures on Aesthetics; and to his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History.

Here it is important to come to grips with the Hegelian concept of the "objectively rational." When the human spirit affirms what God has revealed, it affirms what is not only true but also necessarily true, even though the affirmation has not been arrived at as the result of a strictly rational (or logical) process of thinking. Thus, what is affirmed is objectively rational. Hegel's further contention is, howeverand this is where he meets the greatest oppositionthat given the truth of what is revealed, human reason can see the rational necessity of it. Whatever is true of God is necessarily true, and thus there can be no contradiction between what reason sees and what religion believes, even though it may well be that reason will not see it until faith presents it. Thus, God's being and God's activity are identical, the latter as necessary as the former, without prejudice to God's freedom, that is, his absolute self-determination.

It can be seen from what has been said thus far that Hegel is far more interested in the object of religious affirmation than he is in the subjective character of the affirmation. Nor is he concerned with the affirmation simply as an intellectual act: Much more his concern is with the response of the whole human person to God, who is truth. Nevertheless, he contends that the response is adequately human only if it proceeds from what is most characteristically human in humankind, that is, reason, but not reason conceived in narrowly "rationalistic" terms. Here it is that Hegel has frequently been accused of making the religious relationship far too rational, of being panlogistic, if not pantheistic, of allowing religion to be swallowed up in philosophy. It is true, of course, that he does say that art presents the Absolute in the form of the sensibly perceptible, that religion represents the Absolute in the form of imaginative thinking, and that philosophy renders the Absolute present in its most proper form, that of pure thought, but it remains to be seen whether this, in fact, either dilutes the religious response or renders it no longer religious.

Whether or not Hegel succeeded in what he set out to do is a question that has elicited a variety of answersdepending for the most part on the predispositions of those who seek to answer the question. It scarcely seems open to question, however, that what Hegel intended was not to cancel out either the revelation in which absolute truth is presented, or the faith in which it is received, or the religious life that is consequent on both. When "speculative philosophy" thinks out the content of religious consciousness, philosophy does not supplant religion; it completes religion by thinking its content in the form most proper both to its exalted object and to the human subject, who is essentially rational. As Hegel sees it, it is absolute Spirit that bears witness in the human spirit to absolute truth, whether that be the truth of religion, of morality, of law, or of philosophy. Not only need not every believer become a philosopher, but the philosopher need notmust notabrogate the faith that is at once the necessary precondition to and the constant underpinning of philosophical reflection.

Although it is true that in the final chapter of his Phenomenology Hegel sees "absolute knowing" as the culmination of human spiritual development, this affirmation must be seen against the backdrop of his contention that all human knowledge of truth is the work of absolute Spirit bearing witness in finite form to infinite truth. What philosophy can do, then, is to recognize that the presence of trutheven particular, finite truthbespeaks the witness of absolute Spirit in human thinking. Both religion and philosophy are finite human activities, but they are more than that; because these finite activities ascend (are elevated) to the infinite object who is God, they are infinitized in the communion of the human and the divine.

Here it is important to emphasize the moral dimensions of Hegel's thought. Whether the ascent of the human spirit to God be religious or philosophical or both, neither mere intellectual interest nor fascination with the wonders of nature, nor awe before the extraordinary capacity of the human mind to think, will trigger that ascent; the orientation of the human spirit to God, the Absolute, will be effectively realized only if that orientation coincides with the striving toward moral goodness, in which alone the self-realization of the human spirit can be accomplished. For Hegel thought is not thought in the fullest sense if it is not oriented to the good, not merely in the sense of good thinking but, more importantly, in the sense of good living: It is, he contends, irrational to be immoral. God, then, is the ultimate goal of moral striving, not, it is true, as some vague, indeterminate "moral order" of the universe, but as the concrete, personal foundation for all moral order. Thus, there will be no religion in any significant sense where there is no longing for moral goodness that leads to religious consciousness of God as fulfillment of that longing. This, in turn, ultimately demands that the orientation be not merely emotional, even though knowing God is inseparable from an emotional response to the God who is known, the one God of both religion and philosophy.

Hegel and "Hegelianism"

It would be misleading here not to acknowledge that there has been and continues to be considerable dispute among scholars as to whether Hegel quite literally intended that absolute Spirit, which he sees as the concrete unified source of all thought and of all spiritual activity, and absolute Idea, the unified concrete object of all thought, should be identified with the God of religion. In addition, there has been and continues to be dispute as to whether, no matter what Hegel intended, the God of whom he speaks can legitimately be identified with the God of Christianity. All disputes aside, however, if one is to take Hegel at his word, he quite clearly says that because there is only one God, then the God of philosophy and the God of (Christian) religion are one and the sameif not, then the God of philosophy would be but an abstract God, that is, no God at all.

As late as 1830 (shortly before his death), in the preface to the third edition of his Encyclopedia, he indulges in one of his few emotional outbursts against those who take it upon themselves to say that he is not Christian. He also says quite clearly in more than one place that if philosophy is to be true to its vocation, it cannot fail to be theology. Thus, for Hegel, there is no area of philosophical thought that does not have as the goal of its striving the Absolute, or Godnot so much, however, as simply an object of contemplation but, more significantly, as an ideal for will, where the ideal is conceived as concrete, personal Spirit. Thus, because philosophical thinking is the activity of the human spirit, the subject matter of philosophy is not, properly speaking, God as transcendent object; rather it is the human spirit in its intimate relation to divine Spirit, without which the former cannot realize in itself all that it is to be human.

It thus becomes impossible to speak in any precise way of the concept of "Hegelianism." There is a Hegelian content, call it "absolute idealism" (an idealism oriented to and rooted in the Absolute); and there is a Hegelian method, call it "systematic dialectic." Those who came after Hegel and were influenced by him can be classified in three groups: Hegelians of the right, of the left, and of the center. To be "Hegelian" at all was to employ to a greater or lesser extent Hegel's method. The divisions concern the content of Hegel's thinking and focus primarily on the interpretation of his religious thinking: The "left," rejecting all that he has to say about God and, above all, about the person of Jesus, makes do with the method, more or less loosely employed; the "right" employs the method to articulate Christian belief; the "center" does the same as the "right" but interprets Hegel's language in more or less metaphorical ways. The lasting (and growing) influence of Hegel, however, cannot be encapsulated in facile catchphrases.


All the titles of works by Hegel pertinent to his philosophy of religion have been translated into English and are readily available. The most detailed presentation in English of the whole body of Hegel's thought is Charles Taylor's Hegel (New York, 1975). An extended treatment of the philosophy of religion is contained in Raymond K. Williamson's An Introduction to Hegel's Philosophy of Religion (Albany, N.Y., 1984). A comprehensive overview of Hegel's system, emphasizing his focus on God as absolute Spirit, can be found in my book Hegel's Concept of God (Albany, N.Y., 1982). See also Emil L. Fackenheim's The Religious Dimension in Hegel's Thought (Bloomington, Ind., 1967), an extraordinarily sympathetic account of Hegel's religious thought by one who shares neither his religious convictions nor his theology. For a convincing portrayal of Hegel's early thinking, foreshadowing the developed themes of his more mature thought, see Henry H. Harris's Hegel's Development: Toward the Sunlight, 17701801 (Oxford, 1972). A landmark work portraying the nearly mystical in Hegel's thinking is Ivan A. Ilʾin's Die Philosophie Hegels als kontemplative Gotteslehre (Bern, 1946). For a theologian's estimate of Hegel's influence on contemporary theological thinking, see Wolfhart Pannenberg's The Idea of God and Human Freedom (Philadelphia, 1973). A more specifically Christological approach is taken by James Yerkes in The Christology of Hegel (Albany, N.Y., 1983). The most extended commentary on Hegel's Phenomenology is contained in Jean Hyppolite's Genesis and Structure of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (Evanston, Ill., 1974).

Quentin Lauer (1987)

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