Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel Biography

Philosopher (1770–1831)
Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was one of the creators of German Idealism. He explored how contradictions ultimately integrated to create the whole.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born on August 27, 1770, in Stuttgart, Germany. He studied philosophy and classics at Tübingen. After graduation he became a tutor and an editor and explored theology. His first published success was Phänomenologie des Geistes (The Phenomenology of Spirit) in 1807. Hegel taught at Heidelberg and Berlin, publishing work on dialectical thinking and theories of totality. He died of cholera in 1831.

Early Life

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, known to friends and family as Wilhelm, was born on August 27, 1770, in Stuttgart, Germany. He was the eldest of three children born to Georg Ludwig, who worked for the civil service, and Maria Magdalena, the daughter of a high-ranking lawyer at the Württemberg court. His mother taught Wilhelm Latin declensions before he started Latin school at age 5, after attending the German school at age 3. Although she died of a fever when Wilhelm was in his early teens (he and his father narrowly escaped the same fate), she instilled in him a love of learning, and he avidly absorbed the writings of Enlightenment philosophers.

After studying at the elite Gymnasium Illustre preparatory school in Stuttgart, he went on to study at the seminary school art the University of Tübinge, because his father was urging him to join the clergy. But friendships forged with other students, such as his roommate Friedrich W.J. von Schelling, sparked Hegel's interest in forming his own philosophy, which subverted the prevailing influence of Aristotle and of other popular philosophies. When Hegel graduated, he instead became a private tutor.

Defining His Philosophy

When Hegel's father died just before 1800, leaving him a small inheritance, Hegel was able to concentrate more fully on his system of philosophy, which had begun with religious and social themes, but began to move more toward educational reform. Building on Immanuel Kant's transcendental idealism and Rousseau's politics, Hegel developed an elaborate system of philosophy incorporating history, ethics, government and religion, and began publishing his philosophical treatises, while working as an unpaid university lecturer along with his old college friends.

Ultimately Hegel's philosophy rejected Kant's and other popular theories as too restrictive. He developed what is called dialectical thinking, as laid out in his first major work, The Phenomenology of Spirit, which was intended to be part one of his comprehensive scientific system, but was so big that it could only serve as an introduction.

Unlike Aristotle's philosophy, Hegelianism is not a "method" or set of principles, but experiential, with experiences becoming data points in forming the whole. It holds that reality is unfolding, like the chambers of a shell, and that "the rational alone is real." Hegel eschewed Absolute Mind (or Spirit) as a vantage point, in favor of the common, everyday state of mind, whereby a series of moments makes up the whole, defined as "totality."

Hegel said, perhaps hubristically, " writing that book I became aware of employing a new and unprecedented way of thinking." But he clarified his system by likening it to grammar: "You only really see the rewards when you later come to observe language in use and you grasp what it is that makes the language of poetry so evocative." His structure for this logic was an incorporation of thesis and antithesis into synthesis—nothing is negated; it all works together to form the whole.

From 1808 to 1815 Hegel taught philosophy and served as headmaster at a school in Nuremberg after working briefly as a newspaper editor, a job he disliked. During this time, when Hegel was around 40, he married Marie von Tucher. They went on to have three children together: a daughter who died in infancy, and sons Karl and Immanuel. Earlier, Hegel had fathered an illegitimate son, Ludwig. His sister Christiane, who had been deeply distressed by his marriage, offered opportunity for Hegel's study of psychosis.

In 1816, Hegel became chair of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg and published the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, which brought him acclaim and advanced him to the position of chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin.

Death and Legacy

Hegel died in Berlin on November 14, 1831, during an outbreak of cholera. In 1820 he had published Elements of the Philosophy of Right, but many of his lectures and other works were published after his death. His sister, distraught over his death, committed suicide three months later.

Hegel is considered the last of the great philosophical-system builders of modern times, but his philosophies quickly became politicized, set in opposition to champions of individualism such as Søren Kierkegaard and Arthur Schopenhauer. Karl Marx and extremists on the Fascist-to-Communist spectrum inverted Hegelianism so that the rational whole being greater than the sum of its parts became a justification for authoritarian creeds.

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