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Hegelianism is a tradition of philosophy which takes its defining characteristics from a philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, which can be summed up by a favorite motto by Hegel (1770 – 1831), "the rational alone is real," meaning that all reality is capable of being expressed in rational categories. All of Hegel’s work was an effort to synthesize the conflicting religious and cultural elements of Christian tradition, Greek classicism, the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement into a meaningful, coherent unity. He did this by replacing Aristotle’s concept of static and constant being with the idea that all being is constantly in motion and constantly developing through a three-stage process popularly known as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (Fichte and Schelling's formulation; Hegel's own formulation is: "in itself " (An-sich), "out of itself" (Anderssein), and "in and for itself" (An-und-für-sich)). These three stages were found throughout the whole realm of thought and being, from the most abstract logical process up to the most complicated and organized human activity, the historical succession of political and philosophical systems.


Shortly after Hegel’s death, his school diverged into three currents of thought: the conservative Rightist Hegelians who developed his philosophy along lines compatible with Christian teachings and conservative politics; the “Young Hegelians,” or leftists who took up the theory of dialectic and historical progression and developed schools of materialism, socialism, rationalism, and pantheism; and the centrists who concentrated on logic and the philosophical system itself, which they diffused throughout the Western world. In Britain, Hegelianism strongly influenced the rise of British idealism.

Life and Writings of Hegel

Hegel was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1770 and died in Berlin, Germany in 1831. After studying theology at Tübingen he devoted himself successively to the study of contemporary philosophy and to the cultivation of the Greek classics. After about seven years spent as a private tutor in various places, he began his career as a university professor in 1801 at Jena. After an intermission of a year in which he spent as newspaper editor at Bamberg, and a short term as rector of a gymnasium at Nuremberg, he was made professor of philosophy at Heidelberg in 1816, and at the University of Berlin in 1818. Hegel's principle works are "Logic" (Wissenschaft der Logik, 1816), his "Phenomenology of Spirit" (Phänomenologie des Geistes, 1807), "Encyclopedia" (Encyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften, 1817), and Philosophy of History (Vorlesungen uber die Philosophie der Geschichte, 1820). His works were collected and published by Rosenkranz in 19 vols., 1832-1842, second edition 1840-1854.

His Method

All of Hegel’s thinking was concerned with the apparent conflicts he observed in religion and politics. As a seminary student, Hegel found the souls of students of theology and philosophy disrupted by the contradictions between rationalism and supernatural religion, skepticism and faith. The political situation generated by the French revolution was in sharp contrast to the tyranny of the German princes, and the democratic beginnings of the British constitution. Hegel was also witness to the conflict between the tradition of orthodox Protestantism and its rationalist critics in Enlightenment Europe. He began his work when classicism predominated in the intellectual world of Europe, and his early political writings described the ideal of a Greek “polis” where politics and religion were combined and individuals participated democratically in both. European culture soon entered into the period of Romanticism, and this too was embraced by Hegel. All of Hegel’s work was an effort to synthesize these conflicting religious and cultural elements of Christian tradition, Greek classicism, the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement into a meaningful, coherent unity. He did this with the radical concept that, contrary to Aristotle’s portrayal of the nature of being as static and constant, all being is constantly in motion and constantly developing through a three-stage process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

This theory of triadic development (Entwicklung) was applied to every aspect of existence, with the hope that philosophy would not contradict experience, but provide an ultimately true explanation for all the data collected through experience. For example, in order to know what liberty is, we take that concept where we first find it, in the unrestrained action of the savage, who does not feel the need to repress any thought, feeling, or tendency to act. Next, we find that, in order to co-exist with other people, the savage has given up this freedom in exchange for its opposite, the restraint of civilization and law, which he now regards as tyranny. Finally, in the citizen under the rule of law, we find the third stage of development, liberty in a higher and a fuller sense than that in which the savage possessed it, the liberty to do and to say and to think many things which were beyond the power of the savage. In this triadic process, the second stage is the direct opposite, the annihilation, or at least the sublation, of the first; and the third stage is the first returned to itself in a higher, truer, richer, and fuller form.

Hegel termed the three stages:

  • in itself (An-sich)
  • out of itself (Anderssein)
  • in and for itself (An-und-für-sich).

These three stages are found succeeding one another throughout the whole realm of thought and being, from the most abstract logical process up to the most complicated concrete activity of organized mind, the historical succession of political systems or the development of systems of philosophy.

Doctrine of Development

In logic, which Hegel claimed was really metaphysics, the three-stage process of development is applied to reality in its most abstract form. According to Hegel, logic deals with concepts robbed of their empirical content; logic is simply an examination of the process without the contents. Hegel's study of reality begins with the logical concept of being. Hegel declared that being is essentially dynamic, tending by its very nature to pass over into nothing, and then to return to itself in the higher concept of becoming. Aristotle had supposed that there is nothing more certain than that being is identical with itself, that everything is what it is. Hegel added that it is equally certain that being tends to become its opposite, nothing, and that both are united in the concept of becoming. Aristotle saw a table as a table. Hegel saw as the whole truth that the table was once a tree, it is now a table, and one day it "will be" ashes. Thus becoming, not being, is the highest expression of reality. It is also the highest expression of thought, because we attain the fullest knowledge of a thing only when we know what it was, what it is, and what it will be, the history of its development.

At the most basic level "being" and "nothing" develop into the higher concept “becoming;” farther up the scale of development, “life” and “mind” appear as the third steps of the process and are in turn developed into higher forms of themselves. All of these are stages of “becoming.” The only thing always present is the process itself (das Werden). We may call the process by the name of "spirit" (Geist) or "idea" (Begriff). We may even call it God, because at least in the third term of every triadic development the process is God.

Categorization of Philosophies

Division of philosophy

In considering the process of spirit, God, or the idea, it becomes clear that the idea must be studied (1) in itself, the subject of logic or metaphysics; (2) out of itself, in nature, the subject of the philosophy of nature; and (3) in and for itself, as mind, the subject of the philosophy of mind (Geistesphilosophie).

Philosophy of nature

Philosophy of nature takes up the study of the “process” or “idea” at the point where its development enters into “otherness” in nature, the point where it enters into the substantial, material world. Hegel referred to nature as “estranged spirit” and saw the whole world process as a process of divine self-estrangement. By “estranged” Hegel did not mean “annihilated” or “altered.” In nature the “idea” has lost itself, because it has lost its unity and is splintered into a thousand material fragments. But the loss of unity is only apparent, because in reality the “idea” has merely concealed its unity. Examined philosophically, nature reveals itself to us in a myriad of successful attempts of the idea to emerge out of the state of otherness, and present itself as a better, fuller, richer idea, namely, “spirit,” or “mind.” Mind is, therefore, the goal of nature and also the truth of nature. Whatever is in nature is realized in a higher form in the mind which emerges from nature.

Philosophy of mind

Hegel expressed the synthesis of the divine and the human in the doctrine of the absolute and the relative “Geist” (“mind” or “spirit”). “Geist” translates to “esprit” in French, “ruach” in Hebrew, “spiritus” in Latin, and “pneuma” in Greek, but in English this word has been more or less lost, partly due to British empiricism and partly to Descartes’ division of man into intellect and body. In English Hegel’s phenomenology of “Geist” has been translated as phenomenology of “mind,” but in this case the word “mind” implies an element of spiritual power, and not simply intellectual movement.

The philosophy of mind begins with the consideration of the individual, or subjective, mind. It is soon perceived, however, that individual, or subjective, mind is only the first stage, the "in-itself" stage, of mind. The next stage is objective mind, or mind objectified in law, morality, and the State. This is mind in the condition of "out-of-itself." There follows the condition of absolute mind, the state in which mind rises above all the limitations of nature and institutions, and is subjected to itself alone in art, religion, and philosophy. The essence of mind is freedom, and its development must consist in breaking away from the restrictions imposed on it in its “otherness” by nature and human institutions.

Philosophy of history

Hegel's philosophy of the State, his theory of history, and his account of absolute mind are the most interesting portions of his philosophy and the most easily understood. The State, he says, is mind objectified. The individual mind, which, on account of its passions, its prejudices, and its blind impulses, is only partly free, subjects itself to the yoke of necessity, the opposite of freedom, in order to attain a fuller realization of itself in the freedom of the citizen. This yoke of necessity is first met with in the recognition of the rights of others, next in morality, and finally in social morality, of which the primal institution is the family. Aggregates of families form civil society, which, however, is but an imperfect form of organization compared with the State. The State is the perfect social embodiment of the idea, and stands, in this stage of development, for God Himself. The State, studied in itself, furnishes for our consideration constitutional law. In relation to other States it develops international law; and in its general course through historical vicissitudes it passes through what Hegel calls the "Dialectics of History."

Hegel teaches that the constitution is the collective spirit of the nation and that the government is the embodiment of that spirit. Each nation has its own individual spirit, and the greatest of crimes is the act by which the tyrant or the conqueror stifles the spirit of a nation. War, according to Hegel, is an indispensable means of political progress, a crisis in the development of the idea which is embodied in the different States; out of this crisis the better State is certain to emerge victorious. Historical development is, therefore, a rational process, since the State is the embodiment of reason as spirit. All the apparently contingent events of history are, in reality, stages in the logical unfolding of the sovereign reason which is embodied in the State. Passions, impulse, interest, character, personality are all either the expression of reason or the instruments which reason molds for its own use. Historical events should therefore be understood as the stern, reluctant working of reason towards the full realization of itself in perfect freedom. Consequently, we must interpret history in purely rational terms, and sort the succession of events into logical categories.

The widest view of history reveals three important stages of development: Oriental monarchy (the stage of oneness, of suppression of freedom); Greek democracy (the stage of expansion, in which freedom was lost in unstable demagogy); and Christian constitutional monarchy (which represents the reintegration of freedom in constitutional government).

Philosophy of absolute mind

Even in the State, mind is limited by subjection to other minds. There remains the final step in the process of the acquisition of freedom, namely, that by which absolute mind in art, religion, and philosophy subjects itself to itself alone. Art is the mind’s intuitive contemplation of itself as realized in the art material; and the development of the arts has been conditioned by the ever-increasing "docility" with which the art material lends itself to the actualization of mind or the idea.

In religion, mind feels the superiority of itself to the particularizing limitations of finite things. In the philosophy of religion, as in the philosophy of history, there are three great moments: Oriental religion, which exaggerated the idea of the infinite; Greek religion, which gave undue importance to the finite; and Christianity, which represents the union of the infinite and the finite.

Last of all, absolute mind, as philosophy, transcends the limitations imposed on it even in religious feeling, and, discarding representative intuition, attains all truth under the form of reason. Whatever truth there is in art and in religion is contained in philosophy, in a higher form, and free from all limitations. Philosophy is, therefore, "the highest, freest and wisest phase of the union of subjective and objective mind," and the ultimate goal of all development.

Historical Interpretations of Hegelianism

No other philosophical school could compete with Hegel’s system in its rigorous formulation, its richness of content and its attempt to explain the totality of culture. For more than thirty years, it brought together the best minds of German philosophy. As its influence spread, Hegel’s thought provoked increasingly lively reactions, and was re-articulated numerous times as it mingled with contrasting philosophical positions.

There are four distinct stages in the historical development of Hegelianism. The first was the immediate crisis of the Hegelian school in Germany from 1827 through 1850, when the school was always involved in polemics against its adversaries, and divided into three currents: the Hegelian Rightists, the Young Hegelians, and the centrists. During the second phase, usually referred to as Neo-Hegelianism, from 1850 to 1904, when Hegelianism diffused into other countries, the ideas of the centrists were predominant and the primary interest was in logic and a reform of the dialectic. The third stage, a renaissance of Hegelianism, began in Germany during the first decade of the twentieth century, after Wilhelm Dilthey discovered unpublished papers from Hegel’s youth. It stressed a critical reconstruction of the genesis of Hegel’s thought, with special attention to the Enlightenment and Romanticist influences and to possible irrationalistic attitudes. This phase was characterized by the publication of original texts and historical studies, and by an interest in philology.

After World War II, the revival of Marxist studies in Europe revived many of the polemical themes of the school’s early years, and brought about renewed interest in Hegel’s influence on Marx’s interpretations of political and social problems.

Early Hegelian school

Early Hegelianism passed through three periods; the polemics during the life of Hegel (1816-1831), religious controversies (1831-1839) and political debates (1840-1844). While Hegel was alive, the polemics stemmed from various objections to Hegelian thought and not from disagreements within the school. The history of Hegelianism began from the period when Hegel taught in Berlin and the publication of Naturrecht und Staatswissenschaft im Grundrisse (1821; Eng. trans., The Philosophy of Right, 1942). This book was criticized by Johann Herbart for mixing the monism of Spinoza with the transcendentalism of Kant, and the liberal press criticized Hegel for attacking Jakob Fries, a psychologizing Neo-Kantian, in the Introduction. Hegel was also criticized by disciples of Friedrich Schelling, an objective and aesthetic idealist, and of Friedrich Schleiermacher, a seminal thinker of modern theology; and by speculative theists such as Christian Weisse of Leipzig and Immanuel Fichte, the son of Johann Fichte. Some of Hegel’s responses to these criticisms made a considerable impact, particularly eight articles in the Jahrbücher für wissenschaftliche Kritik (founded 1827; “Yearbooks for Scientific Critique”), a journal of the Hegelian right. Among Hegel’s most loyal disciples and defenders were Hermann Hinrichs, his collaborator, and Karl Rosenkranz.

Three currents of Hegelianism

Soon after Hegel’s death, the school divided into three currents of thought. The “Hegelian Rightists,” in which Hegel’s direct disciples participated, defended Hegel against charges that his philosophy was liberal and pantheistic. They developed his philosophy along lines which they considered to be in accordance with Christian teaching, and sought to uphold its compatibility with the conservative political politics of the Restoration which followed the defeat of Napoleon. They included Karl Friedrich Göschel, Johann Philipp Gabler, Johann Karl Friedrich Rosenkranz, and Johann Eduard Erdmann.

Until Feuerbach’s “Thoughts regarding Death and Immortality” (1830), Hegelianism was primarily represented by the “Old Hegelians” who emphasized the Christian and conservative elements in his writings. After Feuerbach and the “Life of Jesus” (1835) of D.F. Strauss, the denial of personal religion became more prominent.

The “Hegelian Leftists" (also referred to as "Young Hegelians") were mostly indirect disciples of Hegel who interpreted Hegelianism in a revolutionary sense, at first pantheistic and later atheistic. They emphasized the dialectic as a “principle of movement” and attempted to develop a rational political and cultural reality, finding in Hegel’s dialectic the ammunition to attack the existing bourgeois, religious, monarchical social order, now regarded as only a moment in the forward development of history. The Leftists accentuated the anti-Christian tendencies of Hegel's system and developed schools of materialism, socialism, rationalism, and pantheism. They included Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, Richter, Karl Marx, Brüno Bauer, and Otto Strauss. Max Stirner socialized with the left Hegelians but built his own philosophical system largely opposing that of these thinkers.

The centrist Hegelians were more concerned with the philosophical significance of Hegel’s system, its genesis and problems of logic. This current of thought was predominant in Neo-Hegelianism, as Hegelian thought diffused throughout Europe and the United States.


The diffusion of Hegelianism outside of Germany took two directions: Europeans were concerned with addressing political and cultural problems, while those in the United States were more interested in the philosophy of history and in political theory.

The publication of The Secret of Hegel by James Hutchinson Stirling in 1865 introduced Hegelianism to Britain where, transmuted into absolute idealism, it became part of the dominant academic philosophy in Britain until challenged by Russell and Moore in Cambridge, and writers such as J. Cook-Wilson and H.H. Prichard at Oxford, at the beginning of the twentieth century. In Britain, Hegelianism was represented during the nineteenth century by the British Idealist school of James Hutchison Stirling, Thomas Hill Green, William Wallace, John Caird, Edward Caird, Richard Lewis Nettleship, J. M. E. McTaggart, and Baillie. British interest in Hegel was largely powered by political thought.

In Denmark, Hegelianism was represented by Johan Ludvig Heiberg and Hans Lassen Martensen from the 1820s to the 1850s. Benedetto Croce and Étienne Vacherot were the leading Hegelians towards the end of the nineteenth century in Italy and France, respectively. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a French Hegelian Socialist. Among Catholic philosophers who were influenced by Hegel the most prominent were Georg Hermes and Anton Gunther.

In eastern European, Hegelianism was represented by philosophers and critics such as the Polish count Augustus Cieszkowski, a religious thinker whose philosophy of action was initially influenced by the left; the theistic metaphysician Bronislaw Trentowski; in Russia by literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, the democratic revolutionary writers Aleksandr Herzen and Nikolay Chernyshevsky, and certain anarchists such as the Russian exile and revolutionist Mikhail Bakunin.

Hegelianism in North America was represented by Thomas Watson and William T. Harris. In its most recent form it seems to take its inspiration from Thomas Hill Green, and whatever influence it exerts is opposed to the prevalent pragmatic tendency. Its two centers, the schools in St. Louis and Cincinnati, seemed to duplicate the German division into a conservative and a revolutionary current. The conservative Hegelians of the St. Louis school included the German Henry Brokmeyer, and William Harris, founders of the St. Louis Philosophical Society, which published an influential organ, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. They sought a dialectical and speculative foundation for American democracy and a dialectical interpretation of the history of the United States. The Cincinnati group centered around August Willich, a former Prussian officer, and John Bernard Stallo, an organizer of the Republican Party. Willich founded the Cincinnati Republikaner, in which he reviewed Marx's Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (1859) and sought to base the principles of social democracy on Feuerbach’s humanism. Stallo interpreted the democratic community as the realization of the dialectic rationality of the Spirit, with a rigorous separation of church and state.

Influence of Hegel

The far-reaching influence of Hegel is partially due to the vastness of the scheme of philosophical synthesis which he conceived and partly realized. A philosophy which undertook to organize every department of knowledge, from abstract logic up to the philosophy of history, under the single formula of triadic development, had a great deal of attractiveness. But Hegel's influence is due in a still larger measure to two extrinsic circumstances. His philosophy is the highest expression of that spirit of collectivism which characterized the nineteenth century. Hegel especially revolutionized the methods of inquiry in theology. The application of his notion of development to biblical criticism and to historical investigation is obvious when the spirit and purpose of the theological literature of the first half of the nineteenth century is compared to that of contemporary theology. In science, too, and in literature, the substitution of the category of “becoming” for the category of “being” is due to the influence of Hegel's method. In political economy and political science the effect of Hegel's collectivistic conception of the State supplanted to a large extent the individualistic conception which had been handed down from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth.


  • Beiser, Frederick C. 1993. The Cambridge companion to Hegel. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521382742
  • Mackintoch, Robert. 1903. Hegel and Hegelianism. Edinburgh, UK: T & T. Clark.; 1996 Thoemmes Press, ISBN 978-1855060609
  • Pochmann, Henry A., Henry Conrad Brokmeyer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Torrey Harris, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. 1948. New England transcendentalism and St. Louis Hegelianism; phases in the history of American idealism. Philadelphia: Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation.
  • Toews, John Edward. 1980. Hegelianism: the path toward dialectical humanism, 1805-1841. Cambridge [Eng.]: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521230483

External links

All links retrieved February 13, 2014.

General Philosophy Sources


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