The term Hegelianism is applied to a range of philosophical doctrines and traditions influenced by the nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). Hegel's influence is as broad and diverse as his writings; moreover his legacy, like his philosophy, is characterized by tensions between dialectical opposites.
A central part of Hegel's philosophical reputation has always been in metaphysics, where he is seen as the leading proponent of absolute idealism: the thesis that reality as a whole—nature, humanity, history, and so on—is informed and shaped by (and indeed ultimately is a manifestation of) what Hegel famously called Geist : mind or spirit. For Hegel, Geist is both rational and rationally comprehensible, whether in logical structure, natural science, or historical progress. Hegel also held that Geist itself exhibits a distinctive self-consciousness or self-articulation, and that the manifestations of this self-consciousness can be found in psychology, history, religion, drama, art, and philosophy.
The earliest Hegelian movement comprised a core of adherents working to vindicate these claims in a diverse range of intellectual projects seeking to identify and exhibit the promised rational structure. Characteristic of the Hegelian position is the claim that rational structure is historical and dialectical: The rational structure of the real is not a static and self-consistent body of facts, but a dynamic process unfolding through the systematic resolution of dialectical contradictions. The earliest Hegelians sought to identify this structure in the areas of law, history, politics, and natural science. Among the first Hegelians were the members of the Society for Scientific Criticism, formed in July 1826 in Hegel's own home, and closely associated with the Jarhbücher für wissenschaftliche Kritik, a journal devoted to the dissemination and application of Hegelian ideas.
Prominent members of this old Hegelian movement included Leopold von Henning (Prinzipien der Ethik in historischer Entwicklung, 1824), who applied Hegelian ideas in ethics; and Eduard Gans (Das Erbrecht in weltgeschichtlicher Entwicklung, 1924–35), who was primarily concerned with issues in law and jurisprudence. The hallmark of this early Hegelianism was the emphasis placed on historical approaches to traditional philosophical issues, together with the attempt to provide a critical justification of cultural configurations as the outcome of rational dialectical progressions. Hegelianism thus played an important role in the emergence of history as the central category and discipline of the developing human sciences of the nineteenth century.
Many of these early contributions were soon lost to memory as Hegel's influence waned in Germany after his death in 1831. In the case of theology and religious studies, however, self-professed Hegelians achieved a lasting prominence. Early Hegelian theologians also provided the first example of a pattern that was repeated later: the emergence of two traditions, each drawing explicitly on Hegelian teachings, yet developing those ideas in sharply opposed directions and soon coming into noisy confrontations, which themselves became points of reference in subsequent philosophical developments. Hegel's own theological position was that orthodox Judeo-Christian religious teachings were true yet ultimately inadequate articulations of ideas expressed more fully and exactly in the language of metaphysics. Hence in the Christian doctrines of the creation, divine incarnation, the Trinity, and human immortality, for instance, Hegel finds vivid thought-images (Vorstellungen ) of rational concepts (Begriffe ) fully graspable only in his idealistic metaphysics. On this model theism becomes a penultimate articulation of absolute idealism; the hope for immortality is satisfied in an individual's identification with a trans-individual cultural whole that survives the death of its constituents; and the doctrine of the Trinity is seen as a vivid representation of a metaphysical truth graspable only by a dialectical logic. The central Hegelian notion of Aufhebung (variously and inadequately translated as sublation, supercession, and so on) finds its exemplar in the Christian claim to complete the Hebraic law by negating it.
The tension in this position is manifest. The orthodox articles of faith are true and yet not true: true insofar as they articulate a thought that merits our assent, yet not true because cast in a language incapable of adequate articulation of the insights they express. The earliest conflicts in the Hegelian school emerged among theologians exploring the two opposed sides of this Hegelian contradiction. Philip Marheinecke (Die Grundlehren der christlichen Dogmatik als Wissenshchaft, 1827) and Karl Daub (Die dogmatische Theologie jetziger Zeit, 1833) defended and elaborated a Hegelian orthodoxy, and advanced the claim of Hegelianism to provide a middle way between an extra-rational fideism and the extreme atheism that had long been feared as the final outcome of Enlightenment rationalism. But their work was soon eclipsed by the more radical approach inaugurated by David Friedrich Strauss, whose influential and controversial Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (1835–36) proposed a radically revisionist and explicitly critical reading of religious texts (particularly the Gospels) and proved to be a watershed in the secularization of religious studies.
It was this split among the Hegelians that first gave rise to the language of left and right Hegelians—a description Strauss himself introduced in 1837 (Streitschriften zur Vertidigung meiner Schrift ). The left Hegelian treatment of theological issues reached its culmination in the work of Ludwig Feuerbach. His Thoughts on Death and Immortality (1830) argued explicitly against the idea of personal immortality; his Essence of Christianity (1841) was directed forthrightly against religion, and inaugurated the influential nineteenth century movement that reinterpreted religious teachings in psychological and political terms. An 1853 English translation by George Eliot played a focal role in the nineteenth century reassessment of religion in British intellectual circles.
The terms left and right derived from the political rhetoric of the day (the division between the two sides of the French Chamber of Deputies) and it was quickly to be applied once again in the struggle over Hegel's legacy in political philosophy. This is an area where, once again, we find important tensions in Hegel's own position. Hegel's political theory was essentially an application of his social theory: He saw in human society an unfolding attempt to develop institutions that were rational and just, and capable of sustaining an unfettered critical self-examination. For Hegel, society provides not only the material fruits of social cooperation (self-defense and the power of cooperative labor), but also what Hegel called Anerkennung or acknowledgement: the mutual recognition by citizens as free and rational self-determining agents.
Hegel held that the basic demands of the just state were met adequately only in the modern era, in particular with the emergence of the modern sociopolitical institutions of the modern family, the free market, the republic, and private property, themselves resting on a guarantee of civil liberty. In political history Hegelians thus set out to trace the emergence of these modern rational institutions; in politics Hegelians defended a monarchist liberalism, and some (notably Karl Rosenkranz) even served in parliamentary assemblies. But the Hegelian framework was once again put to very different uses when it came to its application to concrete issues in politics and political economy.
Rosenkranz and others sought to use Hegelian ideas to justify and reform the major institutions of modern political life, particularly in mid-nineteenth century Prussia. In explicit rivalry to these old or right Hegelians there emerged what have come to be known as the young or left Hegelians, chief among them Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, and the young Karl Marx, who sought to use Hegelian criticism as a device for advancing radical social change. The tension between these two movements brought out the opposed tendencies in Hegel's position, which on the one side was interpreted as a philosophy of reconciliation, and specifically as a justification of status quo Prussian institutions, whereas on the other inspiring what the influential Polish Hegelian, August von Cieszkowski, called a philosophy of action (Prolegomena zur historiosophie ). The left Hegelians abandoned the claim that Hegelianism could vindicate orthodox religion and politics and instead turned to apply Hegelian social theory to provide orientation in the struggle for social change.
In the context of this dispute between left and right appropriations of Hegel, many features of Hegelian philosophy were appropriated and applied in abstraction from Hegel's own distinctive metaphysical commitments. The most dramatic example of this came with Marx, who sharply rejected Hegel's idealistic metaphysics and theory of sociohistorical development. Where Hegel placed primary emphasis and found the root of historical change in what he called simply the concept or the notion (der Begriff ) that advanced toward self-completion in human history, Marx advanced a materialism that found the prime mover of history in the material conditions of human existence and the satisfaction of material economic needs.
But through this metaphysical reversal, important elements of the Hegelian position remained, notably Hegel's treatment of history as the overcoming of dialectical contradictions (tensions between opposed principles in historical configurations), in the ideal of a final resolution of these tensions and thus a certain kind of end of history, and in his appropriation and development of the Hegelian notion of alienation. In his early contributions to the Deutsch-französischen Jahrbücher, the young Marx argued that the social, economic, and political structures of human history have become alien powers that tyrannize human beings. Hence it was not enough to call, as Bauer and Feuerbach had, for the end of religion because religion is not the cause but the expression of self-alienated man. One must rather attack the real material conditions that create and sustain this condition.
The tension between left and right Hegelianism proved to be one of the most enduring aspects of Hegel's legacy, and it is a debate that has played out in a diverse range of historical, political, and theoretical contexts, of which the nineteenth century socialist movement is only the best known example. In Russia the appeal to Hegelian social theory figured prominently in the mid-nineteenth century debate over feudal institutions and Russian national identity, particularly in the works of Nikolai Stankevich, Vissarion Belinskii, and in the activism of Mikhail Bakunin, whose later fame as the leading figure in European anarchism followed an earlier period of intense engagement with Hegelian ideas. In more recent times Hegelian philosophy of history was invoked in the attempt to find new political orientation after the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war at the end of the twentieth century (Fukuyama 1992).
Hegel's influence was also strong in the emergence and development of the existentialist tradition. A number of the themes central to existentialism had been explored in Hegel's writings: the themes of death and immortality, alienation, nihilism, and so on. Already in the writings of S.A. Kierkegaard (Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, for example), existentialist thinkers had defined themselves in relation to Hegel, albeit in that case in the form of an insistent negation. Kierkegaard was relentlessly critical of Hegelian rationalism, and ridiculed Hegel's claim to provide a rational reconstruction of religion that could eliminate the absurdity that Kierkegaard himself found both in religious consciousness and in the human condition. But later French existentialists, notably Alexandre Kojéve, Jean Hyppolite, and Jean-Paul Sartre, developed much more sympathetic appropriations, shifting the focus from Hegel's mature writings (The Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences and The Philosophy of Right ) to the much earlier The Phenomenology of Spirit.
For Hegel, phenomenology was to be a study of structures of self-consciously lived experience as manifestations of Geist. Hegel's Phenomenology comprised a series of case studies that exercised great influence on the existentialists, most importantly in connection with the account of the confrontation with death in the dialectic of master and slave, which Kojéve (1934) in particular made central to his reading of Hegel. Kojéve followed Hegel in arguing that the encounter with an other was both an essential moment in the structure of autonomous self-consciousness and yet, at the same time, an essentially destabilizing confrontation with which human beings and human institutions must ultimately come to terms. Thus while the existentialists sharply diverged from the orthodox Hegelian metaphysical position and sharply rejected Hegelian rationalism, their philosophical practice—focusing in particular on the unfolding, essentially narrative structures of self-conscious experience and its intrinsic tensions—followed no thinker more closely than Hegel. Sartre's Being and Nothingness (1943) provides the fullest development of this strand of existentialism, and in many passages closely imitates its Hegelian model.
In nineteenth century Britain and America, by contrast, it was metaphysics that was preeminent in Hegel's legacy. Hegel's influence in the English speaking world began with J.H. Stirling's influential study, The Secret of Hegel (1865). Stirling's work itself mainly took the form of a sympathetic but somewhat superficial synopsis of Hegelian texts and doctrines, but it nonetheless proved influential in forging a generation of British idealists. As the British idealist movement matured, it grew increasingly independent of its German models, and its leading figures—T.H. Green and F.H. Bradley—developed independent philosophical systems of considerable originality. Nonetheless, important traces of the Hegelian origins persist, particularly in Bradley's strategy of arguing for his monistic idealism by exhibiting the systematic contradictions hidden in the common sense assumptions of reality as plural (comprised of ontologically distinct individuals), empirically knowable and mind-independent.
Later figures in the British idealist movement included Bernard Bosanquet, who contributed greatly to the propagation and interpretation of Hegel's own philosophical writings, and John McTaggart, whose most influential legacy derived from his antirealism about time. When the tradition of logical analysis emerged in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century, it began with a systematic critique of this dominant idealist orthodoxy, most notably in the early writings of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell (see Peter Hylton's Russell, Idealism, and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy ).
Hegelianism was also influential in the emerging philosophical traditions in America. Particularly in areas with strong German immigrant traditions, Hegelian schools thrived, notably in Cincinnati (John Bernard Stallo, August Willich, Moncure Conway), and in St Louis, where Henry Brokmeyer and William Harris formed The Philosophical Society, which was explicitly Hegelian in its orientation and sponsored the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, an influential journal on the late nineteenth century American philosophical scene. These early American Hegelians included not only academic philosophers but influential significant civic leaders who sought to apply Hegelian ideas in social and educational reforms, and appealed to Hegelian philosophy of history in coming to terms with the upheaval of the American Civil War. Indeed prior to the emergence of the pragmatist tradition, Hegelianism was arguably the most well-defined school of American philosophy.
Among the most influential American Hegelians was California native and Harvard philosopher, Josiah Royce, who had visited Germany as a student and returned to Harvard as a key conduit of Hegelian ideas. In The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (1885) Royce argued for a version of absolute idealism, proposing and defending a Hegelian theism, with the existence of God understood in Hegelian terms as a super-individual subject in which finite subjects figure as moments of an overarching organic totality. Religious and proto-existentialist themes dominated Royce's appropriation of Hegel, and his Lectures on Modern Idealism (1919) remained an influential introduction to idealistic philosophy well into the twentieth century. Although Royce's idealism was soon eclipsed in the American academy by the budding pragmatist movement, he set an important precedent for a number of later North American Hegelians (recent examples include Charles Taylor  and Robert Pippin ) who have looked to Hegelian philosophy to answer the charge that modern cultural forms lead inexorably toward a crisis of faith and nihilistic despair. In this respect these more recent North American Hegelians can be seen as developing a more secularized version of Royce's idealism.
Hegel's legacy in logic has been complex and somewhat diffuse. Hegel himself held logic to occupy a fundamental place in philosophical inquiry, providing not simply a theory or mechanism for inference but rather an articulation of the underlying rational structure of all reality. In this sense he can be understood as the leading advocate of a material (as opposed to a merely formal) construal of logic. His logic was also distinctive in its dialectical structure, taking the form of a series of dialectical transformations intended to unpack all the basic categories of the real from tensions inherent in the bare concept of being. But despite a few early adherents and defenders (Kuno Fischer being the most important), relatively few have followed Hegel's lead in these views, and the nineteenth century reform of logic grew much more out of Kantian themes and problems than from recognizably Hegelian doctrines.
Nonetheless, Hegel's influence in logic has been felt indirectly, particularly in connection with his account of conceptual determinacy. On an orthodox empiricist construal, concepts receive their determinate content in virtue of a connection with some nonconceptual content of experience. But this empiricist doctrine has continually come under attack, both in the nineteenth century neo-Kantian movement associated with Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp, and again more recently in the work of the seminal twentieth century American philosopher, Wilfrid Sellars. In looking for alternatives to the traditional empiricist doctrine, logicians and semantic theorists have repeatedly been drawn to Hegelian themes. Thus, for instance, Tyler Burge's "Individualism and the Mental" (1979) introduced his defense of social externalism with an invocation of Hegel, and recent semantic theorists such as John McDowell and Robert Brandom have explicitly turned to Hegelian themes for an alternative to the empiricist account of some foundational given content.
McDowell's Mind and World (1994) develops an essentially Hegelian thesis in arguing that the conceptual content of experience must reach all the way down to its most primitive content and indeed must ultimately be seen as reflective of conceptual structure inherent in the world itself. Brandom's Hegelianism in Making it Explicit (1994) is more nuanced and complex, but his inferentialist semantics adapts a recognizably Hegelian theme in arguing that conceptual determinacy must be traced to the inferential role played by concepts in an essentially social and pragmatic context of demanding and providing reasons. What is common to these approaches is the conviction that semantic or conceptual content is fixed holistically and (particularly in Brandom's account) in the context of unfolding social interactions. Although these accounts are quite distant from Hegel's ambitions for logic, they retain an essentially Hegelian logical moment in finding an essential appeal to a collective, diachronic social background in the fixing of even the most elementary concepts.
Hegel's influence on twentieth century continental European philosophy has been pervasive, and has taken many different forms. The work of Wilhelm Dilthey was seminal in this connection, in part because of his work in recovering Hegel's early theological writings and writing his biography, but mainly because Dilthey's own influential approach to the philosophy of the human sciences owed much to Hegel in arguing for the centrality of narrative, biography, and history in what Dilthey himself called the Geisteswissenschaften (literally, the sciences of Geist—the human sciences such as psychology, anthropology, jurisprudence, and so on).
In the twentieth century, the early works of Herbert Marcuse (1932 and 1960) sought to adapt Hegelian ideas to a new historical and cultural circumstance, combining a broadly Hegelian conception of history with elements of Martin Heidegger's existentialism. The Hegelian-Marxist conception of history as driven by dialectical tension found new voice in the writings of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and other members of the Frankfurt School, albeit in this case without the Marxist and Hegelian optimism regarding the final resolution of such contradictions. And a broad array of thinkers followed a Hegelian lead in locating objectivity in configurations of intersubjective consensus. Rather than contrasting objective truth and subjective illusion, as had been common in the tradition stretching from Galileo to Immanuel Kant, these thinkers (including figures as diverse as Edmund Husserl and Jürgen Habermas) sought to reinterpret the notion of objective truth in terms of an ideal of a normative intersubjective consensus. Although the hints of this theory of objectivity can be traced back to Kant's aesthetics, it is perhaps the most pervasive legacy of Hegel's attempt to think through "the I that is we and the we that is I." Among contemporary European thinkers, Axel Honneth (1992) presents perhaps the clearest case of this Hegelian legacy in political theory.
Finally, Hegel's legacy can be found at work—diffuse but unmistakable—in the standing that the history of philosophy has acquired in the past two centuries. More than any other prominent philosopher since Aristotle, Hegel's philosophical practice was directly related to his appropriation of the history of his discipline. But where Aristotle's writings systematically surveyed the opinions of his predecessors, Hegel claimed to find in philosophy's history both a systematic order and the elements for his own philosophical synthesis. It is now a commonplace—albeit a commonplace that is sometimes challenged—to see the history of philosophy as directly relevant to philosophical inquiry generally. The emergence of this view, as of the conviction that philosophy is essentially unlike the natural sciences in this regard, can be traced to Hegel, who can without exaggeration be credited with inventing the very discipline of the history of philosophy. For Hegel, the history of philosophy is not merely the history of ideas; it is an attempt to reread and rethink the history of attempts to tackle philosophical questions. Its aim is ultimately not historical but philosophical: to uncover a rational order that will itself illuminate those questions themselves.
See also Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.
Cieszkowski, August von. Prolegomena zur historiosophie (1838). Hamburg: Meiner, 1981.
Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press, 1992.
Honneth, Axel. The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts (1992). Translated by Joel Anderson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
Hylton, Peter. Russell, Idealism, and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Hyppolite, Jean. The Genesis and Structure of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (1946). Translated by John Heckman. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974.
Kojeve, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1934). Translated by James Nichols. New York: Basic Books, 1969.
Marcuse, Herbert. Hegel's Ontology and the Theory of Historicity (1932). Translated by Selya Benhabib. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.
Marcuse, Herbert. Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960.
Pippin, Robert. Modernism as a Philosophical Problem: On the Dissatisfactions of European High Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
Stirling, James Hutchison. The Secret of Hegel: Being the Hegelian System in Origin, Principle, Form, and Matter (1865). Bristol: Thoemmes, 1990.
Strauss, David Friedrich. The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (1835–36). 4th ed. Translated by George Eliot. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.
Taylor, Charles. Hegel. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Toews, John Edward. Hegelianism: The Path toward Dialectical Humanism, 1805–1841. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Wayne M. Martin (2005)
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