Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich


Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
(1770–1831)
   A German idealist philosopher and one of the most important thinkers of the 19th century, Hegel was one of the key influences on Karl Marx and his thought. Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Hegel studied philosophy and theology at the University of Tübingen, and after a brief period as a private tutor in Bern, Switzerland, he went on to study further and became a lecturer at the University of Jena. The seizure of Jena by French troops forced him to flee and he worked for a period as a newspaper editor and then as a school headmaster before becoming professor of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg in 1816. In 1818 he moved to the prestigious University of Berlin, where he remained until his death from cholera in 1831.
   Among Hegel’s major philosophical works are The Phenomenology of Mind (1807), The Science of Logic (1812, 1813, 1816), The Philosophy of Right (1821) and The Philosophy of History (1830–31). In these and other writings Hegel outlined a comprehensive philosophical system that covered both the natural and social worlds with particular emphasis on religion, philosophy, culture, history and politics. For Hegel the whole of reality represents the expression and unfolding of “Absolute Spirit,” and the whole of reality is an interconnected totality. Every aspect of reality reflects Absolute Spirit and gives us a means of grasping the nature of it. For example, in his philosophy of history and political philosophy Hegel shows that the history of the world is nothing other than the history of the development of the “Idea” of freedom, and freedom is the essence of Spirit. Gradually human freedom has developed, both in terms of human understanding of freedom and in terms of the development of political and legal structures, institutions and processes allowing greater freedom.
   It was this that Marx first embraced as a disciple of Hegel’s thought and then rejected notably in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843). Marx was critical of Hegel’s conservatism, his belief that freedom could be attained in a class society with a market economy and a constitutional state. Marx argued that Hegel’s philosophy was abstract, passive and lacked a critical perspective, so that it ended up endorsing the profoundly unfree Prussian state of Hegel’s day. Many of the flaws in Hegel’s thought stemmed from his philosophical idealism that gave primacy to Spirit and the realm of ideas instead of concentrating on the material world, the world of human activity. Marx embraced a materialist outlook that essentially saw ideas as born out of human activity, and in particular as reflecting the level of economic and technological development in any given society. Nevertheless, Marx still acknowledged the profundity of Hegel’s thought and incorporated a form of Hegel’s dialectic into his thought. Marxists and commentators on Marx dispute the degree of influence of Hegel on Marx, but there is strong evidence to suggest that Marx’s thought embodied dialectical themes from his early through to his later writings.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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