The following is an amalgam of a biography available on the Web, originating from the MS Encarta encyclopaedia with some material from Hegel for Beginners published by Icon Books Ltd. See also the more comprehensive Biography at hegel.net
Hegel was born in Stuttgart on August 27, 1770, the son of Georg Ludwig Hegel, a revenue officer with the Duchy of Wurttemburg. Eldest of three children (his younger brother, Georg Ludwig, died young as an officer with Napoleon during the Russian campaign), he was brought up in an atmosphere of Protestant pietism. His mother was teaching him Latin before he began school, but died when he was 11. He was very attached to his sister, Christiane, who later developed a manic jealousy of Hegel’s wife when he married at age 40 and committed suicide three months after his death. Hegel was deeply concerned by his sister’s psychosis and developed ideas of psychiatry based on concepts of dialectics.
Hegel soon became thoroughly acquainted with the Greek and Roman classics while studying at the Stuttgart Gymnasium (preparatory school) and was familiar with German literature and science. Encouraged by his father to become a clergyman, Hegel entered the seminary at the University of Tübingen in 1788. There he developed friendships with the poet Friedrich Hölderlin and the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. From Hölderlin in particular, Hegel developed a profound interest in Greek literature and philosophy. Early on and throughout his life, Hegel recorded and committed to memory everything he read – and he read profusely! Hegel worshipped Goethe and long regarded himself as inferior to his brilliant contemporaries Schelling and Hölderlin.
The Germany of Hegel’s time was extremely backward from an economic point of view. Germany was a myriad of tiny, backward states, relatively insulated from the turmoils of Europe. He was an avid reader of Schiller and Rousseau. Hegel was 18 when the Bastille was stormed and the Republic declared in France and Hegel was an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution, and participated in a support group formed in Tübingen. Hegel finished his first great work, The Phenomenology of Mind on the very eve of the decisive Battle of Jena, in which Napoleon broke the Prussian armies and dismembered the kingdom. French soldiers entered Hegel’s house and set it afire just after he stuffed the last pages of the Phenomenology into his pocket and took refuge in the house of a high official of the town. In the Phenomenology he attempts to understand the revolutionary terror of the Jacobins in terms of their interpretation of Freedom. Hegel celebrated Bastille Day throughout his life.
Having completed a course of study in philosophy and theology and having decided not to enter the ministry, Hegel became (1793) a private tutor in Berne, Switzerland. In about 1794, at the suggestion of his friend Hölderlin, Hegel began a study of Immanuel Kant and Johann Fichte but his first writings at this time were Life of Jesus and The Positivity of Christian Religion.
In 1796, Hegel wrote The First Programme for a System of German Idealism jointly with Schelling. This work included the line: “... the state is something purely mechanical – and there is no [spiritual] idea of a machine. Only what is an object of freedom may be called ‘Idea’. Therefore we must transcend the state! For every state must treat free men as cogs in a machine. And this is precisely what should not happen ; hence the state must perish”. In 1797, Hölderlin found Hegel a position in Frankfurt, but two years later his father died, leaving him enough to free him from tutoring.
In 1801, Hegel went to the University of Jena. Fichte had left Jena in 1799, and Schiller had left in 1793, but Schelling remained at Jena until 1803 and Schelling and Hegel collaborated during that time.
Hegel studied, wrote and lectured, although he did not receive a salary until the end of 1806, just before completing the first draft of The Phenomenology of Mind – the first work to present his own unique philosophical contribution – part of which was taken through the French lines by a courier to his friend Niethammer in Bamburg, Bavaria, before Jena was taken by Napoleon’s army and Hegel was forced to flee – the remaining pages in his pocket.
See Letter from Hegel to Niethammer, 13th October 1806.
Having exhausted the legacy left him by his father, Hegel became editor of the Catholic daily Bamberger Zeitung. He disliked journalism, however, and moved to Nuremberg, where he served for eight years as headmaster of a Gymnasium. He continued to work on the Phenomenology. Almost everything that Hegel was to develop systematically over the rest of his life is prefigured in the Phenomenology, but this book is far from systematic and extremely difficult to read. The Phenomenology attempts to present human history, with all its revolutions, wars and scientific discoveries, as an idealistic self-development of an objective Spirit or Mind.
During the Nuremberg years, Hegel met and married Marie von Tucher (1791-1855). They had three children – a daughter who died soon after birth, and two sons, Karl (1813-1901) and Immanuel (1814-91). Hegel had also fathered an illegitimate son, Ludwig, to the wife of his former landlord in Jena. Ludwig was born soon after Hegel had left Jena but eventually came to live with the Hegels, too.
While at Nuremberg, Hegel published over a period of several years The Science of Logic (1812, 1813, 1816). In 1816, Hegel accepted a professorship in philosophy at the University of Heidelberg. Soon after, he published in summary form a systematic statement of his entire philosophy entitled Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences which was first translated into English in 1959 and includes The Shorter Logic, as Part I. The Encyclopaedia was continually revised up till 1827, and the final version was published in 1830.
In 1818, Hegel was invited to teach at the University of Berlin, where he was to remain. He died in Berlin on November 14, 1831, during a cholera epidemic.
The last full-length work published by Hegel was The Philosophy of Right (1821), although several sets of his lecture notes, supplemented by students’ notes, were published after his death. Published lectures include The Philosophy of Fine Art (1835-38), Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1833-36), Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (1832), and Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1837).
Hegel’s aim was to set forth a philosophical system so comprehensive that it would encompass the ideas of his predecessors and create a conceptual framework in terms of which both the past and future could be philosophically understood. Such an aim would require nothing short of a full account of reality itself. Thus, Hegel conceived the subject matter of philosophy to be reality as a whole. This reality, or the total developmental process of everything that is, he referred to as the Absolute, or Absolute Spirit. According to Hegel, the task of philosophy is to chart the development of Absolute Spirit. This involves (1) making clear the internal rational structure of the Absolute; (2) demonstrating the manner in which the Absolute manifests itself in nature and human history; and (3) explicating the teleological nature of the Absolute, that is, showing the end or purpose toward which the Absolute is directed.
Concerning the rational structure of the Absolute, Hegel, following
the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, argued that “what is rational
is real and what is real is rational.” This must be understood in
terms of Hegel’s further claim that the Absolute must ultimately be regarded
as pure Thought, or Spirit, or Mind, in the process of self-development.
The logic that governs this developmental process is dialectic. The dialectical
method involves the notion that movement, or process, or progress, is the
result of the conflict of opposites. Traditionally, this dimension of Hegel’s
thought has been analysed in terms of the categories of thesis, antithesis,
and synthesis. Although Hegel tended to avoid these terms, they are helpful
in understanding his concept of the dialectic. The thesis, then, might
be an idea or a historical movement. Such an idea or movement contains
within itself incompleteness that gives rise to opposition, or an antithesis,
a conflicting idea or movement. As a result of the conflict a third point
of view arises, a synthesis, which overcomes the conflict by reconciling
at a higher level the truth contained in both the thesis and antithesis.
This synthesis becomes a new thesis that generates another antithesis,
giving rise to a new synthesis, and in such a fashion the process of intellectual
or historical development is continually generated. Hegel thought that
Absolute Spirit itself (which is to say, the sum total of reality) develops
in this dialectical fashion toward an ultimate end or goal.
For Hegel, therefore, reality is understood as the Absolute unfolding dialectically in a process of self-development. As the Absolute undergoes this development, it manifests itself both in nature and in human history. Nature is Absolute Thought or Being objectifying itself in material form. Finite minds and human history are the process of the Absolute manifesting itself in that which is most kin to itself, namely, spirit or consciousness. In The Phenomenology of Mind Hegel traced the stages of this manifestation from the simplest level of consciousness, through self-consciousness, to the advent of reason.
The goal of the dialectical cosmic process can be most clearly understood at the level of reason. As finite reason progresses in understanding, the Absolute progresses toward full self-knowledge. Indeed, the Absolute comes to know itself through the human mind’s increased understanding of reality, or the Absolute. Hegel analysed this human progression in understanding in terms of three levels: art, religion, and philosophy. Art grasps the Absolute in material forms, interpreting the rational through the sensible forms of beauty. Art is conceptually superseded by religion, which grasps the Absolute by means of images and symbols. The highest religion for Hegel is Christianity, for in Christianity the truth that the Absolute manifests itself in the finite is symbolically reflected in the incarnation. Philosophy, however, is conceptually supreme, because it grasps the Absolute rationally. Once this has been achieved, the Absolute has arrived at full self-consciousness, and the cosmic drama reaches its end and goal. Only at this point did Hegel identify the Absolute with God. “God is God,” Hegel argued, “only in so far as he knows himself.”
In the process of analysing the nature of Absolute Spirit, Hegel made significant contributions in a variety of philosophical fields, including the philosophy of history and social ethics. With respect to history, his two key explanatory categories are reason and freedom. “The only Thought”, maintained Hegel, “which Philosophy brings ... to the contemplation of History, is the simple conception of Reason; that Reason is the Sovereign of the world, that the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process. “As a rational process, history is a record of the development of human freedom, for human history is a progression from less freedom to greater freedom.”
Hegel’s social and political views emerge most clearly in his discussion of morality and social ethics. At the level of morality, right and wrong is a matter of individual conscience. One must, however, move beyond this to the level of social ethics, for duty, according to Hegel, is not essentially the product of individual judgment. Individuals are complete only in the midst of social relationships; thus, the only context in which duty can truly exist is a social one. Hegel considered membership in the state one of the individual’s highest duties. Ideally, the state is the manifestation of the general will, which is the highest expression of the ethical spirit. Obedience to this general will is the act of a free and rational individual.
At the time of Hegel’s death, he was the most prominent philosopher in Germany. His views were widely taught, and his students were highly regarded. His followers soon divided into right-wing and left-wing Hegelians. Theologically and politically the right-wing Hegelians offered a conservative interpretation of his work. They emphasised the compatibility between Hegel’s philosophy and Christianity. Politically, they were orthodox. The left-wing Hegelians eventually moved to an atheistic position. In politics, many of them became revolutionaries. This historically important left-wing group included Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx.