Hegel brought to the solution of this problem a remarkable strength and vigour of thought, and he has become the creator of a system which must be regarded as the most perfect form of German idealism as well as the ripest fruit of the development of thought since Kant.
George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born at Stuttgart in Würtemberg on the 27th August, 1770, five years before Schelling, and seven after Schiller, both of whom, like himself, were Würtembergers. Swabia, as that part of Germany is called, has been likened to Scotland, and its inhabitants are distinguished not only by peculiarities of dialect, but also by simplicity and sturdiness of character. "The history of a philosopher," says Rosenkranz, Hegel's biographer, "is the history of his thought, the history of the development of his system." Though Hegel lived through a most stirring period of history, in his own life there is not much dramatic incident. Of his early days we know little. He studied at Tubingen University, but did not greatly distinguish himself as a student, and gave little promise of philosophic acumen. After leaving Tubingen he spent six years in Berne and Frankfort as tutor. During this time he laid the foundations of that extensive knowledge, especially of Greek history and thought, which his after career evinced. His own mental life seemed to have passed through an evolution similar to that which ultimately found expression in his philosophy. He was the intimate friend of Schelling, whose career he watched "with admiration and joy"; and in 1801 he went to Jena to take his place beside his friend as champion of the "Philosophy of Identity." In his first published work, which appeared the same year, On the Difference between the Systems of Fichte and Schelling, he is a defender of the latter against the former. In 1802 he united with Schelling in the publication of a Critical Journal, in which the points of view of the two contributors are identical. Both agree that subject and object must be united in a higher unity, and not merely externally harmonized like the two clocks of Leibnitz. But gradually a difference becomes visible; while Schelling clings to his "point of indifference"—the middle point of identity, Hegel asserts that the unity to which all things must be brought is not some middle term between nature and spirit, but that it is a unity of the Spirit with itself— a Unity which is at once higher than self and higher than Nature. In other words, Nature is to be regarded not as another existence side by side with mind, but as a part of its own life. A little later Hegel became Privat-Docent, and, ultimately, in 1805, Professor in Jena. But the political catastrophe which at this time broke over Germany deprived him of his professorship. On the day of the battle of Jena Hegel finished his work on the Phenomenology of the Spirit, which was not only his first great work, but that in which he embodied the distinctive principles of his philosophy. He himself has called it his "voyage of discovery." It has been named by others a philosophical Pilgrim's Progress. It cannot but have caused pain to Schelling, whom he mildly ridicules in his preface, and henceforth the friends of Jena days fall apart. The object of the Phenomenology, the most obscure yet in some respects the most brilliant of all Hegel's works, is to prove that by a necessary process inherent in its very nature, thought undergoes successive transformations, passing from ordinary consciousness upwards till it reaches the position of absolute thought. On its way to this goal every possible phase of thought has its justification, not indeed as a condition in which the mind can rest, but as a necessary stage in the evolution.
After acting for a time as rector of the Nürnberg Gymnasium, in 1816 Hegel was appointed Professor in Heidelberg, and two years later was called to Berlin. He gradually gathered around him a large circle of students and admirers, and he exercised a profound and far-reaching influence on thought and life. Between the years 1812 and 1816 he wrote his Logic, and in 1817 his Encyclopedia of the Philosophic Sciences, in which he sets forth his philosophy as a whole.
In Berlin Hegel lectured on almost every branch of philosophy, the History of Philosophy, the Philosophy of History, the Philosophy of Right, of Art, and of Religion. His lectures were published after his death from the notes of his students, and his works are collected in eighteen volumes.
Hegel obtained a position in the realm of philosophy analogous to that of Goethe in the world of literature. His popularity was not due to any external advantage of address or manner such as distinguished Fichte and Schelling. His delivery was hesitating and embarrassed, and his expression heavy and involved, though it sometimes attained to commanding eloquence.
When he was at the height of his fame and influence he was suddenly cut off by an attack of cholera on the 14th November, 1831.
The philosophy of Hegel, in the first instance, as we have seen, connects itself immediately with that of Schelling. He also would start from the standpoint of the absolute and reach an absolute knowledge. But he declares in his preface to the Phenomenology that the philosophy of Schelling is only the starting-point, not the completion, of the new science. On the one hand he pours contempt on the manner in which Schelling obtains his idea of the absolute. He has simply stated it without defining or proving it. It is as if it were "shot out of a pistol" instantaneously, abruptly, without any attempt to indicate the steps of its evolution. On the other hand, he criticises his formal abstract conception of the absolute as a motionless substance in which all differences are extinguished. "It is the night in which all cows are black." There is no movement, development, or productive energy. Hence Hegel contends that the absolute must not simply be stated, but rationally grounded and deduced. He would vindicate what he calls "the wonderful power of the understanding" as at once a stage and means of attaining to rational knowledge. "It is a ladder which has been let down" to common consciousness by which it may climb to the absolute standpoint. Hegel would, therefore, seek to show how consciousness develops from sense-perception to pure knowledge by a necessary and connected gradation; and in like manner he endeavours to prove that the absolute is not to be conceived as an abstract identity in which all differences are simply merged, but as a living spirit; not as a motionless substance, but as a productive subject from which all finite and particular things are brought forth and realized. "The absolute is spirit," says Hegel. That is its highest definition, to discover and grasp which is the aim of all culture and philosophy—the point to which all religion and knowledge converge.
While in one sense Hegel brings philosophy back to the standpoint of the intellect and demands that the world shall be grasped as a rational whole, his philosophy may also be said to be the justification of the common consciousness. It is to the consciousness of man as man that the world must be explained. Truth is not to be reached by way of the mysticism of Jacob Boehme, or the intuition of Jacobi, but by the advance from the lower forms of the understanding to the higher stages of reason. For truth is not of two kinds. There must be no opposition between ordinary consciousness and higher knowledge. However sensuous, rude, and partial an ordinary man's consciousness of himself and the world may be, it is still, after all, a rational consciousness. It is the function of philosophy not to deny, but to correct and enlarge what is contained in the common man's thought of things. Philosophy, according to Hegel, "can only vindicate that highest synthesis which brings thought from the finite to the infinite, when it has fully recognised and done justice to the finite consciousness with which it starts." "That which is rational is real, and that which is real is rational." These words, which occur in the preface to his philosophy of Right, may be regarded as the keynote of his system. All reality is the expression of reason, and all being the realization of thought. The world itself is the evolution of the thinking Spirit.
The stages which the consciousness of the individual passes through have actually been passed through by the universal mind. The world-mind as exhibited on the plane of history is, equally with the individual mind, under the necessity of passing through the same stages. Knowledge consists in the re-reading of experience. It is for each of us the thinking of God's thoughts after Him. The Absolute exists first in the form of pure, pre-existent idea. It descends into the unconscious spheres of nature; if awakes to consciousness in man, realizes itself in the social institutions of the world, and finally in art, religion, and science, enriched and completed, it returns into itself again. Philosophy is a development, the highest product and goal of the world-process. Sensation, feeling, willing, are but lower forms of thought, each of which is necessary to and contained in that which is higher. Morality, art, and religion are stages in the progress of humanity towards the attainment of absolute knowledge.
Before entering upon a detailed exposition of Hegel's system, there are three main features of his philosophy which it will be well to keep in mind.
1. Perhaps the first most distinctive feature of his philosophy is his insistence on the concrete-historical character of mind. This is specially the note of his first work, the Phenomenology, where, as we have seen, he sketches in broad outline the development of the mind from sense-perception to its return to itself in universal self-consciousness. His whole system is but an elaboration of the sketch which he gives us in this earlier work. The ultimate fact for Hegel, the principle of all reality, is always mind or spirit which only reaches complete consciousness of self by passing through and taking up into itself all the previous grades of its development. Thought constitutes the structure of reality—Hegel is an acknowledged idealist. Everything must be explained in terms of mind, and there is no higher criterion, no other test of truth than thought. Indeed, for Hegel as for Aristotle, truth and thought are but two different expressions of the same thing; and to say that thought is a system of reality is just to say truth is a whole in which are contained all lesser truths. The idea is the real, and all actuality is the unfolding of the idea.
2. From this there follows a second feature of Hegel's view, viz. that thought is an organic unity—a unity of distinguished and related parts. The whole is implied in every part, and every part is implied in the whole. It is, moreover, a graduated system in which the parts are not mechanically put together, but form an organism. All parts are justified, all are needed, and are there for the sake of and by reason of the whole. This interconnection is of the very essence of thought. Yet while all the parts are necessary, they stand in the relation of superiority and inferiority. The lower categories pass into the higher, but they do not cease to be. They live on, transmuted into higher forms of life. "The bud vanishes with the appearance of the blossom, and we may say that the one is contradicted by the other; the fruit again proclaims the blossom a spurious form of the plant's existence, the truth of the one passes over into the other. These forms are not merely distinct, but crush each other out as being mutually incompatible.
3. A third feature which follows from the former is that this system of unity of thought is to be conceived as a unity of opposites. In ordinary life the common understanding is constantly taking the part for the whole. Men are accustomed, says Hegel, to see only this or that, and to draw sharp distinctions between the true and the false. As a matter of fact, no part is complete in itself. It always implies something else. The partial is always the false, just because it is partial. Only in the system of truth as a whole can we escape contradiction; only when we allow for both sides do we attain to truth. Any isolated view pressed to its extreme at once displays its inadequacy. Thus in the advance of thought every notion passes into its opposite, and so there comes about an equal justification for the opposite as well as the original notion, and the truth is reached, not when we rest in any one of the sides and regard it as the whole, but when we take as complementary the two abstractions into which our thought has been sundered. The abstract notion, the notion which involves a contradiction when taken in its isolation, is not abolished, it is simply taken up into a larger whole, and its true nature as part of a richer reality is established. Each part is necessary to the other, each supplies an element required for the complete notion. This supreme grasp of thought which unites what understanding severs Hegel calls "Speculation," and this movement from the simplest notion through negation and contradiction to higher, Hegel styles the "Dialectic of Thought."
If Hegel derived his conception of the absolute from Schelling, he borrowed his dialectic method from Fichte. But his employment of this method is much more thorough and insistent. While Fichte begins with the ego and derives the whole world from the subject, with Hegel the ground of development lies in the object, in the self-movement of the idea, and the subject is, as it were, the spectator who follows the evolution with his own thought. While Fichte, moreover, expressly declares that the original opposition of the ego and the non-ego cannot be derived from any other notion, and at each stage of his procedure refers back to the universal ego from which everything is produced, Hegel proceeds by a strictly immanent dialectic to develop each higher stage from the conflict and union of lower, till finally the absolute, which is the harmony of all opposites, is reached.
The dialectic is based on the recognition of the union of opposites. All affirmation implies negation, and all negation involves affirmation. This law of development, proceeding by thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, and thus advancing from contradictions to ever fuller and more complex reconciliations, while it is regarded by some students as a stumbling-block, is hailed by others as a veritable discovery. It is certainly the pulse of Hegel's system, and with fearless consistency it is applied to every subject. If it be accepted it revolutionizes our whole view of life. The law of contradiction of formal logic, according to which a thing cannot be and not be at the same time, must yield to the higher truth, that there is a sense in which everything is and is not, and that all reality is a synthesis of opposites. The whole alone is the real. The partial fact is only an abstraction which needs to be brought into its relation with the whole in order to gain validity. Nothing can remain in hard isolation. Everything is a stage—a fleeting stage—false if taken alone. This law gives life and movement to the universe. This triple movement of thought runs through everything, from the simplest being right up to God. Thought always advances from simple abstract identity through differences to unity. The very world itself must follow this spontaneous evolution of thought. Nature, history, philosophy, everything illustrates the working of this law. The acorn holds within it the oak. The oak is at once the negation and fulfilment of the acorn. The child contains the possibility of the man, and the man at once negates and affirms the child. History presents the same law on a larger scale. Civilization develops by the action and reaction of opposing tendencies. The ages of authority are followed by ages of licence and lawlessness, and from their union there is evolved the higher stage of constitutional liberty.
The universe then for Hegel is a development, the process of the absolute, the manifestation of God. Behind the whole movement the absolute is eternally present, not as a fixed substance, but as a fluid, self-revealing spirit. The rhythmic advance of thought in the world is but the unfolding of what is already in existence, of what Aristotle would call "potential being." God reveals Himself in the logical idea, in nature and in mind. But while thought runs through every stage, it is not alike conscious of itself at every stage of development. It is only to the philosophical vision that God is seen revealing Himself, first, in the pre-existent stage of pure being; next, in the natural world, through its materialized forces and forms of life; and, finally, in (he spiritual world through the individual soul, in (he moral order of society, and in the creations of art, religion, and philosophy.
The philosophy of Hegel is an idealism, but it may be called a realism as well. Thought is, indeed, prior. Thought, in fact, is everything; but it is thought finding itself in a world of actualities which has no meaning but for, and apart from thought. Nature for Hegel is no fixed solid, as it was for Fichte, limiting and opposing thought. It is not even, as with Schelling, a mere parallel of mind, a twin offspring of the absolute. Nature and mind have, indeed, the same origin, but they are not co-equal branches of one stem. The natural world proceeds from the "idea"; the spiritual from the "idea" and nature. At the basis of all reality, whether natural or mental, there is thought. It is thought in its potentiality. In one sense the idea is first, in another it is last. It interpenetrates every part of being. But while in a sense it is only potential in the lower forms of existence, it comes to self-consciousness in the higher.
It is the province of philosophy to follow the eternal thought of God, to reproduce in our own consciousness the unfolding of reality, the evolution of the absolute. According to Hegel, philosophy must proceed dialectically and reproduce in the consciousness of the thinking subject the necessary stages in the development of thought. Everywhere the system falls into three parts, and every part of the system observes the triadic law. Every truth, every reality, has three aspects or stages. It is the unification of two partial aspects of truth, through affirmation, differentiation and harmony. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, is the perpetual law of thought.
As absolute reason, then, observes this triple movement; beginning first with the most abstract concept, the concept of pure being, and then externalizing itself in nature and finally returning into itself again in spirit, so philosophy has three broad divisions:
1. The Logic, which is the statement of the abstract conditions of self-consciousness, the exposition of the categories or terms of thought which we use in the thinking of the world.
2. The philosophy of nature, or the statement of the forms of the external world in and through which reason becomes concrete.
3. The philosophy of the mind or spirit, which deals with the stages
through which consciousness passes from the simplest forms of physical
activity to complete self-consciousness, to the unity of the subjective
and objective mind in art, religion, and philosophy.