Springtime for Hegel

Until recently the only substantial biography of Hegel was the one brought out by his follower Karl Rosenkranz in 1844, thirteen years after Hegel’s death. The book has not been translated and it is perhaps significant that it is merely mentioned, with no comment on its uniqueness, in Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy and in the article on Hegel in the latest (last?) printed Britannica.

There are several reasons for this neglect. The first is trivial, but symptomatic of the difficulty of describing Hegel’s life and character. It is his name, which strikes one not as that of a person but of a thing: an asteroid perhaps. Associated with that is the fact that he does not seem to have had a functioning first name. He was indeed baptized Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. But, in adult life at least, nobody seems to have called him by any of them. His devoted and affectionate wife, who was some twenty years his junior, always referred to him as Hegel. But that may have been the custom of the epoch. The mother of the heroine of Pride and Prejudice always addresses her husband as Mr. Bennet, at roughly the time Hegel was serving as rector of a Gymnasium and toiling away at the most intractable of his works, the Science of Logic.

Next there is the matter of his appearance. One picture is nearly always used when occasion arises to produce one. It shows him as pale and rather flabby, with some thin hair tumbling over his forehead, his eyes looking suspiciously to his left, giving very much the impression of a bankrupt undertaker confronted by his creditors. Terry Pinkard in a pictorial section of fifteen items in his Hegel: A Biography supplies only one other of his subject, in which he looks like Luther in a soft black cap and a kind of dressing gown.

What principally endows Hegel with his singularly abstract transcendence of ordinary humanity is his writing. There is a lot of concrete illustrative material in the large works on applied philosophy—aesthetics, religion, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of history—reconstructed after his death from notes of his lectures by students. But his own writings are for the most part carried on at a stratospheric intellectual altitude, with vague technicalities being moved bewilderingly about in puzzling appositions and compounds (“in-itself and for-itself” and the like). In the crowning elements of his system—the Science of Logic and the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences—this is most oppressively evident. The words do not sound like those of a person but of something altogether more diaphanous—the Absolute—it would seem.

It might be argued that there is no real need for biographies of philosophers. But as the perpetual wranglings of philosophers suggest, personality enters strongly into philosophy. Mathematicians have lives too, often quite interesting ones. Galois died in a maliciously provoked duel; Archimedes contributed to the defense of Syracuse against the Romans; Newton slaved away …

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