"The History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom...The destiny of the spiritual world, and...the final cause of the World at large, we claim to be Spirit's consciousness of its own freedom, and ipso facto, the reality of that freedom...This final aim is God's purpose with the world; but God is the absolutely perfect Being, and can, therefore, will nothing but himself."
"All the worth which the human being possesses, all spiritual reality, he posses only through the State...For turth is the unity of the universal and subjective will; and the Universal is found in the State, in its laws, its universal and rational arrangements. The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth. We have it, therefore, the object of history in a more definite shape than before; that in which Freedom obtains objectivity. For Law is the objectivity of the Spirit."
Hegel was born in 1770, the first of three children. His mother passed away early in his life; he was eleven-years-old at the time. By the age of 18, Hegel began attending the theological seminary of the University of Tubingen. There he met and befriended some of those who would become his major contemporaries, including Schelling, who would become a rival of Hegel, and Holderlin, the German Romantic Poet. He graduated in 1797 and moved to Frankfurt. By 1805, Hegel began his professorship at Jena due to the help of Schelling. Fichte and the Schlegel brothers were already professors there, as well as Schelling, Hegel's old schoolmate.
An idealist philosopher steeped in Romantic sentiment (i.e., Rousseau), including a skeptical stance toward Enlightenment thought tempered by the Enlightenment virtue of "freedom," Hegel, of course, went on to become one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century. While at Jena, Hegel completed his first great work, The Phenomenology of Mind, in 1807. By 1806, when the French had taken the city of Jena, Hegel was forced to flee, thus moving on to Bavaria, where he became the editor of the Bamberger Zeitung. Shortly thereafter, due to a distaste for journalism, Hegel moved on to Nuremberg to serve as the headmaster of a Gymnasium. There, he married his wife, Marie von Tucher, and bore three children -- two sons and a daughter (who died shortly after her birth). Hegel also fathered an illegitimate son, Ludwig, who later came to live with him and his family. Hegel finally settled at the University of Berlin, where he remained for the rest of his years. He died on November 14, 1831 due to cholera.
Hegel's philosophy has engendered much controversy over the years such that one overarching summary of his work is very difficult to produce. Since this brief essay on Hegel's work is being written in the context of Hegel as a precursor to existential- phenomenological thought, my disclaimer amounts to disclosing that this can only be a reading of Hegel from an existential-phenomenological perspective. For a more over-arching perspective, it is suggested that the reader consult some of the links listed below -- or, even better, read Hegel himself.
Early on in his work, Hegel's close connection to romantic trends in philosophy lead him to criticize the "positivity" of the orthodox religions of his era in order to urge a move toward a more romantic vision of religion--toward a "folk" sensibility relying less on dogma and abstract claims of church authorities. In this sense, both Hegel and later existentialist thought, beginning with Kierkegaard, find a connection in this fundamental sensibility. Kierkegaard would, however, critique Hegel's movement toward the concept of "Absolute Spirit" in his subsequent work. Also, during this early period, Hegel spent considerable time contemplating the problems of modern social and political life. Hegel explored the possibility that some individuals may "consent" to political power of some sort without fully coming to terms with the implications of this power or by holding feelings of resentment. In this sense, Hegel opened up the exploration of the concept of "alienation," which would subsequently influence Marx, as well as 20th century existentialist thought. For Hegel, alienation (Entfremdung) is the characteristic of the modern problem in which one's will appears "strange," "alien" or "other," leading toward the feelings of dissatisfaction in much of modern life.
Hegel's more romantic perspective on the philosophy of religion, history and politics shifted shortly thereafter. This shift consisted of Hegel's argument that philosophy should consist of an understanding of the history of philosophical thought, wherein past philosophical thought is viewed as partially true rather than false. The progression of philosophical 'truth' for Hegel involves a dialectical resolution of past oppositions into increasingly accurate syntheses. Although Hegel never used them, Hegel's concept of this dialectic can be more easily grasped in terms of Heinrich Moritz Chalybaus' terms "thesis," "antithesis," and "synthesis." With this terminology, the "thesis" consists of a historical movement which, in itself, is incomplete. To resolve the incompletion, an "antithesis" arises which opposes itself to the historical thrust of the "thesis." In turn, the "synthesis" arrives when the "thesis" and "antithesis" become reconciled in such a way that a higher level of 'truth' is obtained. This "synthesis" thereby becomes the "thesis," which will again give rise to an "antithesis," leading to a new "synthesis," and so on. For Hegel, this dialectical movement is the result of a rational movement in history. That is, for Hegel, history involves the movement of Absolute Spirit, consisting of a collective subject which lives through, yet surpasses, each individual human subject. Thus, for Hegel, the individual's own subjectivity is, in a sense, a reflection of the social
inheritance which has its own "logic" which surpasses the finite individual. Ultimately, for Hegel, this historical progression will culminate with the 'end of history' when the Absolute Spirit finally comes to an understanding of its own infinite self -- and, in this sense, Absolute Spirit becomes the full expression of an infinite God. This teleological concept of 'truth' argues that our species' perspective on 'truth' is not finite or contingent, but, rather, "identical" with "what there is, in truth." Ultimately, the human being is "at home" in the world by understanding "how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term." This 'hanging together' takes place in the collective through the rational movement of history.
Kierkegaard would later critique Hegel for his pretensions of finality -- the essential foundation of his absolute idealism. For Kierkegaard, any existing thinker is necessarily finite and incomplete. Further, Kierkegaard criticized Hegel for basing his philosophy on a supposed presuppositionless or absolute starting point; whereas, for Kierkegaard, this undercuts the starting point of all philosophy as the beginning of wonder -- as opposed to the suspension of doubt. Finally, Kierkegaard takes issue with Hegel for his belief in an immanent God, for Kierkegaard wants to establish God as "wholly other."
In terms of Hegel's argument that the human being is "at home" in the world when he or she discovers he or she is not finite or contingent, but "identical" with "truth," Heidegger, on the contrary, would later argue that the human being is fundamentally not-at-home in the world, since the human being is the "null base of a nullity." That is, the human being, as a being-towards-death, is not-at-home-in-the-world as authentic since the human being understands that he or she includes the possibility of having no more possibilities (death).