Biography of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel / Биография Георга Вильгельма Фридриха Гегеля


Hegel was born on 27 August 1770 in Stuttgart, in the south German state of Wiirttemberg, son of a middle-class civil servant. His professional career, pursued entirely outside his home state, did not begin until he was over thirty, and was interrupted between 1806 and 1816. His eventual rise to prominence was meteoric: Hegel was offered a professorship at the University of Heidelberg in 1816, followed by an appointment two years later to the prestigious chair in philosophy at the University of Berlin which had had Fichte as its only previous occupant.

Hegel occupied this position until his death from cholera on 14 November 1831. The influence of his philosophy began to decline even before his death, but its impact on Prussian academic life was perpetuated through the activity of some of his students, especially Johannes Schulze, who was Privy Councillor in charge of education from 1823 until the 1840sJ Hegel’s first lectures on right, ethics and the state were delivered in 1817, during his first autumn at Heidelberg. As his text he used the paragraphs on ‘objective spirit’ from his newly published E1lcyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1816).  His second series of lectures came a year later in Berlin.

He soon formed the intention of expanding his treatment of this part of the system in a longer text, which probably existed in draft well before his third series of lectures on right and the state were delivered in 1819-1820. A fateful tum of political events in Prussia forced him to delay publication of this new work. Since the defeat of Prussia by Napoleon in 1806-1807, a reform movement within the government had been taking the country away from absolutism and toward constitutionalism.
After the defeat of Napoleon in ISIS, this made Prussia an object of suspicion and alarm throughout the relatively less progressive continental states, especially Austria and Russia. In the summer of ISI9, the cause of reform was decisively defeated by its opponents within the feudal nobility (see Preface, note I S).

In September there was a conference of German states in Carlsbad. It imposed censorship on all academic publications and set forth guidelines for the removal of ‘demagogues’ from the universities. This resulted in the dismissal of several prominent academics, including Hegel’s old personal enemy J. F. Fries, but also in the arrest of some of Hegel’s own students and assistants (see Preface, notes 6, S, II, 1 2, IS, IS). In the light of the new situation, Hegel revised his textbook on right, composing a new preface in June, IS20. Published early in IS2I, it was to be his last major work.

Hegel and the Prussian state
Hegel’s political thought needs to be understood in relation to the institutions and issues of its own time. Yet this is something even Hegel’s contemporaries themselves were often unable to do. The difficulty and obscurity of Hegel’s writings posed problems for them, just as they have for subsequent readers. The Preface of the Philosophy of Right, with its immediate relation to events of the day, provided the earliest critics with an easy and obvious way of grasping, labelling, and categorizing its contents. From Hegel’s attacks on Fries and his evident attempt to placate the censors, they inferred that he was an opponent of the Prussian reform movement, siding with the reaction’s repressive policies toward intellectual life generally and the universities in particular. In the light of the-se conclusions, they judged (or prejudged) the political theory presented in the rest of the book.

Had the critics studied the actual contents of the Philosophy of Right more closely, however, they could not have reconciled them ,vith the idea that Hegel’s defence of the state is an apology either for the conservative position or for the Prussian state as it existed in 1820. In 1815, under the reform administration of Chancellor Hardenberg, King Friedrich Wilhelm III solemnly promised to give his people a written constitution. The political victory of the conservatives in the summer of 1819 ensured that the promise would never be kept, and it was a firm tenet of the conservative position that it never should be kept, that it never should have been given in the first place. Yet earlier in the year both Hardenberg and the progressive Interior Minister Wilhelm von Humboldt drew up constitutional plans, providing for representative institutions, in the shape of a bicameral estates assembly. These plans are strikingly similar to the Estates as described by Hegel.

The Prussian officer corps and the higher levels of the civil service were open only to the hereditary nobility. Reformers under the administration of Chancellor Karl Freiherr vom Stein (1808-1810) had attempted without success to open them to the bourgeoisie. In Hegel’s rational state, all citizens are eligible for military command and the civil service. Hegel advocates public criminal trials and trial by jury, neither of which existed in Prussia during his lifetime. Hegel’s rational state does strongly resemble Prussia, not as it ever was, but Prussia as it was to have become under the reform administrations of Stein and Hardenberg, if only they had been victorious. Where Hegel’s state does resemble the Prussia of 1820, it provides for the liberalizing reforms which had been achieved between 1808 and 1819. Hegel was no radical, and certainly no subversive.

In relation to the Pruss ian state of 1820 he represented the tendency toward moderate, liberalizing reform, in the spirit of Stein, Hardenberg, Humboldt and Altenstein (who had arranged for his appointment to his chair in Berlin). Hegel did not have to be ashamed of publishing his views (until the middle of 18 I 9, most of them were even the official position of the monarch and his chief ministers). But they were diametrically opposed to the views of Pruss ian conservatives on some of the largest and most sensitive political issues of the day. If Hegel was not a conservative, does that mean that he was a ‘liberal’? It does mean that Hegel was a proponent (usually a cautious and moderate one) of many social and political policies and tendencies that we now recognize as part of the liberal tradition.

But the term ‘liberalism’ normally connotes not only these policies, but also a deeper philosophical rationale for them, or rather a plurality of rationales which to some degree share a common spirit and social vision. The vision is individualistic, conceiving society as nothing but the outcome of the actions and interactions of human individuals pursuing their individual ends. The spirit is one which tends to be suspicious of grand theories of human destiny or the good, preferring instead to protect individual rights and freedoms, and living by the faith that human progress is most likely if individuals are left to find their own way toward whatever they happen to conceive of as the good. In line with what has just been said, it is also a moralistic spirit, for which individual conscience, responsibility and decency are paramount values.

The power of this vision and this spirit in modem society can perhaps best be measured by the fact that ‘liberalism’ in this sense is the common basis of both ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’ as those terms are now used in everyday political parlance, and by the fact that liberalism’s principles sound to most of us like platitudes, which no decent person could think of denying. Hegel does not see liberalism in this sense as a foe, since he sees its standpoint as expressing something distinctive and valuable about the modem world. But he does regard its standpoint as limited, and for this reason potentially destructive of the very values it most wants to promote. He regards this standpoint as salvageable only when placed in the context of a larger «ision, which measures the subjective goals of individuals by a larger objective and collective good, and assigns to moral values a determinate, limited place in the total scheme of things. In this sense, Hegel is a critic of liberalism, even its deepest and most troubling modem critic. This is what gives the greatest continuing interest to Hegel’s ethical thought and social theory.