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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 at deciphering the prophecies of the Book of Daniel. Knowing these things about them is no help in trying to understand their mathematical work. But Hume’s grimly Calvinist upbringing helps to explain the peculiarly acid character of his hostility toward religion. T.H. Green’s having had an alcoholic brother may account for the unusually moralistic tone he gave to his Hegelian philosophical commitment. Bertrand Russell’s solitary upbringing as an orphan in the house of an authoritarian grandmother throws some light on the weird inhumanity of his moral thinking. The more fundamental question of why one should be interested in the works of philosophers hardly invites a rapid answer. It may be enough to say that even if their problems do not seem of intense interest, the ingenuity of their answers may be. Furthermore, throughout its history—apart from intervals of scholastic introversion, as in the fourteenth cen-tury, or in much of Anglo-Saxon philosophy today—philosophy has influentially penetrated most other varieties of human thinking. And it is proof of barbarism not to be interested in the history of the human mind.

The story Terry Pinkard tells in the greater part of his large Hegel: A Biography is not especially exciting but it is reasonably absorbing, and, as I shall argue later, of some interpretative value. Hegel was born in 1770 in the city of Stuttgart, capital of Württemberg, a Protestant enclave in generally Catholic southern Germany. He was the son of a middle-ranking official of the state’s finance department, a man with the conscientious stolidity and respectable conventional opinions and behavior proper to his station. He was distinguished by his concern for the education of his intellectually promising elder son. Hegel’s mother is a shadowy figure who died in 1783 when he was thirteen. Hegel had a younger brother who became a soldier and died fighting in Napoleon’s army in Russia in 1812. (Of the original Württemberg contingent of 16,000, only 1,500 survived.) Hegel’s sister, Christiane, was nearer to him in age and much closer to him emotionally; indeed she was somewhat obsessed by him. An intelligent but unstable woman, who proved a difficult member of the household when she lived with Hegel and his wife, she eventually committed suicide.

Hegel went to school at the local, classically oriented Gymnasium and not the more socially elevated, almost business school–like Karlsschule, in accordance with his father’s intention that he should become a Protestant clergyman. In pursuit of that plan he went on in 1788, on the eve of the French Revolution, to the University of Tübingen, which was in a decayed state and amounted to little more than a small and undistinguished theological seminary. (Its days of glory as the home of the Tübingen school of biblical criticism under F.C. Baurl lay half a century ahead.) Hegel made up for the weaknesses of the place by neglecting his official studies and immersing himself in the currents of thought of the Enlightenment and their apparent actualization in the French Revolution; he studied the philosophy of Kant, which he took to fairly slowly, and that of Kant’s immediate critics, and above all, his radical follower Fichte.

These unofficial studies were carried on in intense collaboration with the philosopher Friedrich Schelling and the poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Tübingen at least attracted some interesting students. Pinkard reports some of the usual student activities: card-playing, of which Hegel remained fond, beer-drinking in the countryside, some tentative romantic episodes, the planting of a “freedom tree” to celebrate the French Revolution. Hegel was known by his intimates as “the Old Man.” On graduating, without distinction, in order to earn a living and to escape the threat of a clerical career, he became a tutor in a reactionary, patrician family in Berne and followed that with another, less disagreeable two-year stint of tutoring in Frankfurt. In this melancholy period, his isolation was relieved only by correspondence with his Tübingen friends. One of them, Schelling, was doing disagreeably well. In 1798 he was appointed to a chair at Jena; by the time Hegel left Frankfurt, Schelling had published a number of widely noticed books. It was during this time that Hegel wrote what came out only in 1905 as Early Theological Writings.

In 1801, supported by a legacy from his father, who had died two years before, Hegel took an unpaid post at Jena. Before Hegel’s arrival there, it had been a very lively intellectual center, the main site of Kant studies. Fichte had been there and it was the birthplace of German Romanticism with Schiller, and then the Schlegel brothers. By the time Hegel arrived, the glory had faded. Fichte had been sacked for atheism. Not long after Hegel’s arrival Schelling appropriated August Schlegel’s wife and left for Würzburg, as did several other of the brighter stars. Hegel struggled on and set to work on his first major work, the Phenomenology of Mind, which was published in 1807. In the aftermath of the Battle of Jena the university closed down and Hegel, his legacy used up and with no job, was in a desperate position.

During his Jena period his landlady (or possibly cleaning woman) Frau Burkhardt presented him with an illegitimate son, known as Ludwig Fischer. This put Hegel in distinguished philosophical company, alongside Descartes, Hume, Marx, and A.J. Ayer. Ludwig’s story is sad. Farmed out at first, he was eventually accepted into Hegel’s family, with a painfully marginal status. He naturally resented this, left home as soon as he could, and joined the Dutch army, dying of fever in the Dutch East Indies in the year of Hegel’s own death. A crowning misfortune is the fact that he has no entry in Pinkard’s index, although he is a notably embarrassing presence in the text.

Following his difficulties over Ludwig and the collapse of his university, Hegel as usual landed on his feet, shaking off Jena and Frau Burkhardt to edit the local paper in the small town of Bamberg for a year and a half. From there he went to be rector of the Gymnasium in the altogether more significant city of Nuremberg, a considerable step up in the world. In his eight-year period of what Pinkard rightly calls “Nuremberg respectability” Hegel settled down into his maturity. At the age of forty-one he married into a good local family, his wife being just under half his age. Her father soon died, her mother thought the world of Hegel, and he became the de facto head of the von Tucher family, despite having no von of his own. There were evening parties and sightseeing trips into the countryside. But these comforts did not reduce Hegel’s resolve to secure a chair in philosophy. In a great many letters to his kindly patron, Niethammer, he reiterated this desire as well as soliciting loans. Hegel was very good at extracting “travel grants” to supplement his salary. Two sons were born and Frau Hegel endured a long series of miscarriages in the ultimately successful pursuit of a daughter.

In 1816, at the age of forty-six, Hegel finally secured a chair, at Heidelberg. A year later he brought out the summary of his whole system, his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, and in 1818 achieved his ideal job, a chair at the University of Berlin, founded by Alexander von Humboldt in 1809 to be a center of Bildung and for the spiritual reconstruction of Germany after its catastrophic disruption by Napoleon. Two years later Hegel published his Philosophy of Right, which is probably the most widely read of his works today. It was the last substantial work he wrote, although the multivolume treatises compiled from lecture notes by him and his students came out after his death.

In Berlin the social life begun in Nuremberg was enlarged and became more splendid. He joined and attended various clubs but was kept out of the Prussian Academy of Sciences for the rest of his life by the unrelenting animosity of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the other leading luminary in Berlin. There was a meeting, but hardly a reconciliation, with his onetime friend Schelling, from whom he had been for many years estranged. The trips into the countryside of his Nuremberg years now gave way to travel: to Belgium, Vienna, and, finally, Paris. He met and befriended the eclectic philosopher Victor Cousin (whose mistress Louise Colet was taken over by Flaubert) and came to his aid when he was in trouble with the authorities. He enjoyed the celebrity he had achieved and especially being chosen as rector of the university. But increasing attacks on his ideas were vexatious. The inevitable dwindling of his lecture audiences was very painful to him. He stammered and was a bad lecturer, starting every bit of his exposition with the word Also, “therefore.”

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