In the opening years of the twenty-first century, the enormous influence of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) within the social sciences shows no sign of lessening. This influence is strongest and most obvious in historiography, political theory, and sociology, a discipline that is difficult to imagine in the absence of Hegel. Modern philosophy of religion is similarly inconceivable without Hegel. Hegel’s analysis, in The Philosophy of Right, of capitalist “civil society” and the poverty it inevitably generates is one of the most important early instances of social (as opposed to political) theory, and it decisively shaped Marx’s critique of alienated labor and the history of class struggle, as well as the Frankfurt school’s analysis of the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” in the 1940s. Through Alexander Kojève’s lectures in 1930s Paris, Hegelian themes were absorbed by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and they were passed on in their contributions to existentialism, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology, respectively. Another set of Hegelian concerns was crucial to the “communitarian” critique of Rawlsian liberalism in the 1970s and the “politics of recognition” of Charles Taylor, Axel Honneth, and Nancy Fraser in the 1990s. Even as a bogey to be challenged, Hegel has been crucial. For example, Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore gave birth to Anglo-American analytic philosophy in rebelling against the Hegelian orthodoxy of late nineteenth-century Britain, and much contemporary post-structuralism and post-modernism continues to take Hegel as its great adversary.
Hegel has played an important role in such varied settings in part because of the extraordinary breadth and depth of his work, and in part because of the immense difficulty this poses for the interpreter. While still alive and lecturing at the University of Berlin, he replaced Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte, and his former schoolmate Friedrich von Schelling as the dominant philosophical figure of his age in Germany. Even then, the meaning of Hegel’s teaching was hotly contested, and Hegel quipped that none of his students understood him—with the exception of one, who misunderstood him. “Old,” or “Right,” Hegelians emphasized the commitment to the status quo in Hegel’s infamous claim that “What is rational is actual (wirklich ), and what is actual is rational,” while “Young,” or “Left,” Hegelians emphasized the commitment to reason (Vernunft ).
As with later battles over Hegel, each side in this contest advanced a partial, and hence misleading, account of the matter. Though it still largely determines the popular judgment of Hegel, the Right Hegelian interpretation is most obviously lacking, for Hegel himself took care to distinguish actuality from the “superficial outer rind” of the merely existent; he asked, sarcastically, “Who is not clever enough to see much in his environment that is not in fact as it ought to be?” To argue that the real is rational is in part to define the real as something more than the merely existent, as non-Hegelians do when they castigate a poor teacher for not being a “real” teacher. Just as not all teachers are real teachers in this sense, so not all states are real states for Hegel. In particular, the Prussian and Nazi states, for which he has been wrongly blamed, fail to meet the rational standards of the real in modern times, standards that in Hegel’s own account include a constitutional monarch, trials by jury, parliamentary government, freedom of conscience and of the press, and the other prerequisites of individual autonomy.
In all his writings, Hegel struggled to find a way to relate the individual to the greater community that escapes the alienation and “positivity” of an externally imposed law backed only by custom and the threat of force. His initial attempts in this regard center on love, life, and some form of Volksreligion as modes of experience that attain this moment of community without the sacrifice of individuality. In his mature political philosophy, Hegel used the less religious term freedom to characterize the state of being at home in another (Beisichselbstsein in einem Anderen ) in which one is neither opposed by an alien, hostile world nor engulfed in an unmediated totality that is equally inhospitable to the claims of individual fulfillment. Hegel argues that this is attainable only in a modern polity that the individual can recognize as the precondition and expression of its own freedom.
If the Left Hegelians properly appreciated this, Marx (the most famous of them) nonetheless advanced his own profound misunderstandings of Hegel, misunderstandings that persist to this day. The most significant of these concerns his interpretation of Hegel’s understanding of the dialectic that shapes both history and reason. Marx has passed on to millions a bowdlerization of Hegel developed by Heinrich Chalybäus, according to which the dialectic can be easily broken down to a cookie-cutter triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. But these were never used as terms of art by Hegel himself, who described “this monotonous formalism” as “a lifeless schema.”
For Hegel, the dialectic is a means of conceiving of both history and reason as processes centering upon negation. In the case of the former, this reflects the goals of Hegel’s theodicy, his attempt to demonstrate that, appearances notwithstanding, the bloody history of the West has a rational structure and outcome. In the case of the latter, it is an attempt to overcome the aporias of Kant’s theoretical and practical philosophy, and to give an account of subjectivity that neither rests upon an incoherent conception of a thing-in-itself nor sacrifices human autonomy to heteronomous forces. Only by means of a dialectical philosophy in which what is contains its own negation can Hegel argue, as he does in the Philosophy of Right, that an understanding of the moral and political structures required by the free will can be generated from out of that will itself. Here, as elsewhere, negation takes the form of sublation, an awkward term used to translate Hegel’s Aufhebung, the simultaneous destruction and preservation—at a higher, more rational (and hence real) level—of what is. If Hegel’s account of this process is hardly without problems, it remains one of the most important attempts to develop a conception of reason that does not stand aloof from history and society, but rather engages with the details of their unfolding.
SEE ALSO Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Idealism; Left and Right; Liberation Movements; Marx, Karl; Philosophy; Philosophy, Political; Poverty; Rationality; Resistance; Social Science
Hegel, G. W. F.  1991. Elements of the Philosophy of Right, ed. A. W. Wood. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Pinkard, Terry. 2000. Hegel: A Biography. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Schnädelbach, Herbert. 2000. Hegels praktische Philosophie: Ein Kommentar der Texte in der Reihenfolge ihrer Entstehung. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Suhrkamp.
Stewart, Jon. 1996. The Hegel Myths and Legends. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.