Fichte’s attempt to deify Subject (Human) to counterbalance Substance (Nature) had proved a failure. Philosophy was returning to although not quite trustworthy, but still more habitual for it ground of Nature. Now it was, in essence, that same Spinozan “Substance”, but somewhat modified. It was still the “Cause of Itself,” but as Its Cause now there appeared not just “It Itself”, but one of Its attributes, namely, “Mind”. Hegel himself did not believe he was returning to Nature. He was sure he kept on exploring Subject, the only difference being that now in the capacity of the Latter there appeared not Human, but Mind.
The greatest of the philosophers of Modern Times, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, was born on 27th of August, 1770, in Stuttgart, Germany. His father was a court official. Wilhelm (as the philosopher-to-be was called in the family) started his studies very early, with his mother as his first teacher. His Latin classes began when he was five.
In 1776, Wilhelm entered a gymnasium. During those years, he read voraciously and kept a diary. Especially he liked the poet F. G. Klopstock (incidentally, J. G. Fichte’s father-in-law) and writers associated with the German Enlightenment, in particular, G. E. Lessing.
In 1781, Wilhelm’s mother died, presumably from typhoid. He was 11 then. The boy and his father also caught the disease, but survived.
In 1788 Wilhelm Hegel entered the faculty of theology at Tübingen University. There, he made friends with two fellow students, the poet J. C. F. Hölderlin and another philosopher to be, F. W. J. Schelling. This friendship greatly influenced the three’s personality formation. They watched the unfolding of the French Revolution with shared enthusiasm. As a sign of their commitment to its ideals, the friends planted the “Tree of Freedom” in Tübingen’s central square.
In 1793, having graduated from the university, Hegel worked as a house tutor for several years. His manuscripts of that period largely dealt with the study of Christianity.
In 1801, Hegel submitted a thesis on the orbits of the planets at the University of Jena and became a lecturer there in logic and metaphysics. Soon his first book appeared entitled “The difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s systems of philosophy”. In parallel, Hegel and Schelling founded “The Critical Journal of Philosophy”. Interestingly, the great poet J. W. von Goethe was the minister of culture and higher education in the duchy of Saxony-Weimar, when Jena then belonged.
In 1806, Napoleon entered Jena. Hegel welcomed this event, regarding the French emperor as an “extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire”. Moreover, Hegel seemed to recognize in Napoleon his “godson”, the incarnation of Absolute Spirit. In a letter to one of his friends, Hegel wrote: “I saw the Emperor, this Wold-Soul, riding out of the city on reconnaissance; it is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it” (subsequently, the “Wold-Soul” would be quite rightfully changed by commentators into the “World Spirit”, or “World Mind”). By the way, Wilhelm’s younger brother was killed in Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812.
On the 14th of October, 1806, the Battle of Jena took place near the city, in which Prussia suffered a crushing defeat. From the devastated Jena Hegel moved to Bamberg, then to Nuremberg. There, he was employed as a headmaster of a gymnasium.
In 1807, Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit” came out. In this work, he, for the first time, tried to state his philosophical teaching, which he called the “system of absolute idealism”, or the “system of absolute knowledge”. The “Phenomenology” represented his account of the evolution of consciousness from sense-perception to absolute knowledge. In its most coherent form, his teaching was later stated in his “The Science of Logic” (Die Wissenschaft der Logik) published in 1812-1816.
Hegel’s own teaching formed to a large extent as criticism of I. Kant’s teaching, and also as the rethinking of I. G. Fichte’s, and Schelling’s, doctrines. In contrast to Kant, who doubted the capabilities of human cognition, Hegel argued that there was no sufficient reason to doubt the trustworthiness of human knowledge. It was exactly “Absolute Knowledge” (which may also be designated as “Absolute (i. e. objective) Notion” or “Absolute Spirit”) that he put forward as the starting point of his philosophy. Surely, Human Himself cannot be recognized as Absolute Subject. Mind – That’s the only “real” Absolute available to Human.
Certainly, Absolute Knowledge is thoroughly theoretical and even “empty” in the beginning. But this is what cognition exists for – to move from the “abstract” to the “concrete” and from the “known” to the cognized. So, the world is cognizable, since cognition is, in essence, none other than the self-cognition of Absolute Spirit.
Hegel’s teaching has sometimes been characterized as a combination of the Spinozean “Substance” and the Fichtean “I.” He takes up the theme of Absolute Subject suggested and developed by Fichte. But, unlike the latter, Hegel means by Absolute Spirit not the “Rational Will”, but pure Mind, without any hints of anthropomorphism. But what causes Mind to move, if not Will? This question, too, was decided by Hegel purely logically: he evokes Heraclitus’ idea of a contradiction “lying in the foundation of the world that is incomprehensible for human mind”. Hegel names this contradiction, that is, between Being and Nothing, and lays it as the foundation of his teaching. “Contradiction – this is truly what makes the world moving”, – he argues. The Hegelian principle of development implies repudiation of the basic law of classical logic, formulated as early as by Aristotle, the law of non-contradiction. In this way, the term “dialectics” is being reinstated, which formerly designated “controversy”, and now it designates a development based on contradiction. Therefore, Hegel defined Truth as the “unity of contradictory propositions”.
Thus, Hegel’s Absolute Spirit is an acting agent, it is Subject laid as the foundation of Nature, or, as Spinoza would put it, the “Natura Naturans” of Substance. However, in Its activity there can be no willfulness; it is “forced”, so to speak. Absolute Spirit acts by virtue of Its inherent contradictoriness. And Its activity is development.
How, indeed, does development proceed? It proceeds as a successive relay of identities and distinctions. In the beginning, there is absolute identity, or primordial rest. And now, in this primordial rest some unrest arises – in this way a distinction (contradiction) hidden there is being displayed. This distinction manifests itself and reaches its full expression. But, having shown, it retreats and gives way to identity. It looks like the same primordial rest restores. But, in reality, it is not so. The restored identity is another, new identity, not that which was in the beginning (before distinction shows). The new identity is an identity of a higher level, with a new distinction ripening in it, which corresponds to this level. And this new distinction is also due to manifest itself in its own way.
Such is a general scheme of development, according to Hegel. As aforesaid, Hegel lays in the foundation of his dialectics the contradiction between Being and Nothing. In the beginning, this contradiction is purely declarative, as it were, and becomes apparent in no way; it is as much Being, as it is Nothing. Still, there is contraction between Them, and it cannot but manifest itself, either. And it really shows. In this way, the first unrest arises here, Becoming. The Latter, however, is not eternal, either. Having duly manifested Itself, this contradiction is being sublated, or overcome, thanks, again, to the identity of Being and Nothing, which is also cannot but show.
Whereas Plato’s “Ideas” are, in fact, thoughts in the “head” of the Creator God, Hegel completely repudiates the remnants of anthropomorphism in What Truly Exists and puts forward the principle of self-development of the Divine Mind, or Absolute Spirit. Verily, Hegel’s philosophy represents God’s becoming aware of Himself as Reason.
In the course of Its development, Hegel’s “Absolute Spirit” goes through three major stages. At first, It develops in Its purity, in the sphere of logic. Having displayed and overcome necessary distinctions in Itself, It estranges Itself into Nature. At this stage, being in the form of Nature, Absolute Spirit abides “away from Itself”, so to speak. Here, It also goes through a series of identities and distinctions specific of this, “natural”, stage of development. Finally, Absolute Spirit is born again in human consciousness. It reaches Its full expression in art, religion, and philosophy. And It completely returns to Itself in Hegel’s teaching of Absolute Spirit.
In 1816, Hegel moved to Heidelberg, and in 1818, to Berlin. It was at Berlin University that his lecturing activity reached its climax. His lectures were attended by many people from all over Germany and also from abroad, including Russia. It should be noted that the extremely lofty matters dealt with by the lecturer did not result in any “wall” appearing between him and the students. Hegel always remained accessible, and in personal communication he showed himself to be an exceptionally modest and responsive man, which, too, might be indicative of genuine greatness.
Hegel was also keen on music. In 1829, he attended a celebrated concert, arranged by F. Mendelssohn, where J. S. Bach’s “Matthew Passion” was performed after nearly a century of oblivion. Subsequently, he called Bach “a great and true Protestant”. Hegel would often visit the Mendelssohns’ house, where an intellectual and creative atmosphere reigned, inherited from Felix’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, who had initiated the Jewish Enlightenment and who would be otherwise known as the “German Socrates”.
In 1830, Hegel became rector of Berlin University. But his rectorship did not last long. Soon he fell ill with a severe gastric abdominal infection (possibly, cholera), and on the 14th of November, 1831, the great philosopher left this world. He had wished to be buried beside J. G. Fichte, which was fulfilled.
Many people would admire Hegel’s teaching of the development of Absolute Spirit. And yet, a doubt would creep in: whether it was really Spirit? The Russian revolutionary A. I. Herzen, for one, was leaning to its “corporeal” interpretation (to Marxism, in the end) and perceived Hegel’s “Logic” as the “algebra of revolution”. A breakthrough interpretation of the Hegelian dialectics was undertaken by the Russian writer and thinker L. N. Tolstoy: he attempted to apply the idea of absolute development to the development of the Person.
Hegel’s teaching had a tremendous impact not only on the further development of philosophy proper, but on the entire European culture, including the Russian culture. As Dmitry Chizhevsky mentions in his book “Hegel in Russia”, the influence of Hegel’s philosophy was the “culmination of the German influence in Russia”.
The pre-revolutionary Russia saw a real craze for Hegel. Ivan Kireyevsky, one of the founders of the Slavophile movement, wrote: “There is no youth here in Russia, who would not reflect on Hegel”. Leo Tolstoy noted that in Russia “those who wanted to cognize Truth, studied Hegel”. Among those Russians who were keen on Hegel there were: the poet V.A. Zhukovsky, literary critic V. G. Belinsky, writers N. V. Gogol and I. S. Turgenev, composers M. P. Musorgsky and A. N. Serov, revolutionaries A. I. Herzen and M. A. Bakunin. Such a prominent figure in the Russian culture as K. C. Aksakov was convinced that the “Russian people are advantageously, compared to all others, destined to comprehend Hegel”.
Maybe, it is not by chance that the first attempt at interpreting the Hegelian dialectics – with regard to the development of Personality – was undertaken precisely in Russia. It was done in the trilogy “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” by Leo Tolstoy, added by his idea of “comprehensive self-improvement”. It should be noted here, too, that is was not the last attempt to interpret Hegel’s dialectics in Russia.