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.”

Most reference books say that Hegel died of cholera. There was an epidemic of it and Hegel was worried about being infected. But Pinkard argues conclusively that it was not cholera that killed Hegel. He had no diarrhea and no swelling. It was probably, Pinkard says, “some kind of upper gastrointestinal disease.” It is somehow typical of Hegel that the cause of his death should be so vague and ambiguous.

This detail is characteristic of Pinkard’s immense thoroughness and pertinacity. His seventy-eight pages of reference notes, in which Hegel’s letters are the preponderant element, testify to the enormous amount of work he has done. But he has not simply ferreted away at material directly relevant to the detail of Hegel’s everyday life. He is particularly enlightening about the religious and political circumstances of Hegel’s time. He knows a great deal about the history of Hegel’s epoch and conveys it with clarity and authority. He gives an illuminating account of the political divisions within the states composing Germany in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period.

Pinkard, however, is often exceedingly long-winded. When Hegel goes to work as a tutor in Berne, Pinkard, in default of primary material about how Hegel lived there, supplies a long essay on the miserable status of the resident tutor in the late eighteenth century; despised by his employer, hated by the servants with whom he was on the whole classified, eating sometimes with the one, sometimes with the others. Pinkard is also repetitious. We are told four or five times that his contemporaries called Hegel “the Old Man,” and Pinkard uses expressions such as “up for grabs” and “fine and dandy.” The word “horde” is spelled “hoard” several times, so it is not a misprint.

We may assume that the purpose of Pinkard’s dedicated retrieval of the factual detail, however minute and unphilosophical, of Hegel’s life was not undertaken for its own sake, but in order to throw some light on his philosophical writings, which are frequently obscure and badly in need of illumination. Pinkard certainly makes some contribution but in a curiously indirect way. In the first place he segregates the life in different chapters from those given to the philosophy: ten chapters for the former, five chapters for the latter. The disparity is even greater than this suggests since the chapters on Hegel’s life add up to around 480 pages, those on philosophy to around 190. There is a further disparity within the philosophy chapters. The two on the Phenomenology amount to 103 pages, the other three to eighty-two. This may be attributable to the fact that in 1994 Pinkard published a book on the Phenomenology.

Like most people who have worked hard and long on a subject about which a lot of very flimsily based opinions are repeatedly expressed, Pinkard is anxious to demonstrate their falsity. He begins his preface with a list of these falsehoods. Hegel was not, he contends, the idealist forerunner of Marx; he did not argue dialectically from thesis, by way of antithesis, to a reconciling synthesis; he did not glorify the Prussian state as the ideal culmination of history or call on its citizens to obey it unconditionally. Something similar is to be found at the beginning of G.R.G. Mure’s brief and elegant The Philosophy of Hegel of 1965, the best short book on Hegel since Edward Caird’s suave and brilliant Hegel of 1883.

I do not quite see the point of denying that Hegel was the idealist predecessor of the materialist Marx. Marx certainly thought he was and made his own large, if highly selective, indebtedness clear. Contradiction as a moving agent in history and alienation as a recurrent feature of the human condition are obvious instances of Marx’s borrowing. But what is wrong with being Marx’s predecessor? It does not make Hegel responsible for him. As for the dialectic, Hegel did not use the terms thesis/antithesis/synthesis (nor did Kant, in whose own dialectic their germs can just be detected). Fichte, on the other hand, put them firmly to work and Fichte had a more profound influence on Hegel than is usually recognized. In any case, the exposition of Hegel’s system lends itself very readily to the triadic structure imposed on it by commentators and mapmakers. Taken as a whole the system sees (1) the Idea “passing over” to (2) Nature and then “returning to itself” as (3) Mind. The Idea subdivides into Being, Essence, and the Notion; Nature into Mechanics, Physics, and the Organism; Mind into subjective, objective, and absolute mind. And so on, but not rigidly; there are some quartets and duets further down the family tree.

Pinkard’s correction of errors about Hegel’s politics are much more persuasive. He pulverizes the account of the political views of the mature Hegel given by Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper, who saw him as an abject advocate of authoritarianism and his system as a charlatan’s fraud, designed to glorify the Prussian status quo. (Walter Kaufmann, who made the same defense many years ago in “The Hegel Myth and Its Method,” is not mentioned in Pinkard’s text or bibliography.) Hegel started like his contemporary Wordsworth as an enthusiast for the French Revolution, but he did not follow him all the way to docile conservativism. He favored constitutional monarchy with a strong representative element. His ideal monarch was far from absolute, almost symbolic. On the other hand, he was opposed to democracy, at least in the radical, unmediated form proposed in the discussions of the British Reform Bill going on toward the end of his life.

Whatever his elevated conception of the ideal state, he certainly did not bow down before the Prussian state of his own day. He received (very late, he thought) the Order of the Red Eagle, third class, at the same time as his enemy Schleiermacher. But he was often badly viewed by the authorities. Although von Kampzt, the chief of police, came to a great surprise birthday party for Hegel in 1826, he was also infuriated by a number of Hegel’s political activities. After the murder of the reactionary playwright Kotzebue in 1819 a persecution of “demagogues” was instituted. Friends and students of Hegel’s were in trouble and he went out of his way to help them. Pinkard’s corrections of the record invalidate Bertrand Russell’s joke: for Hegel, liberty is the right to obey the police.

Pinkard’s five chapters on Hegel’s philosophy do not do much to diminish the obscurity of his writings, although they do not—always supposing that that is possible—augment it. They stick pretty closely to the text in a broadly uncritical spirit. He glosses over the ghastly confusions of Hegel’s notion of “passage” from the Idea to Nature; we get no clear analysis of the problem of how pure thought somehow gives rise to solid, heaving, earthy nature. There is no indication that Pinkard has looked at the better-known English-language commentators on Hegel—Edward Caird, Josiah Royce, J.E. McTaggart, Geoffrey Mure, J.N. Findlay, Charles Taylor—nor do they appear in his bibliography.

Still, there are some helpful interpretative hints in the biographical chapters. Hegel’s philosophy really divides into two parts: one cosmic, comprising his logic and his philosophy of nature, the other social-historical, dealing with the human mind, social institutions and their history, and the higher domains of art, religion, and philosophy. This second part was first explored in the wild, fascinating carnival of the Phenomenology. Hegel’s original intention was that that book should be the introduction to his system. But over the following six years more grandiose ideas prevailed and he decided to develop the “science of consciousness” (his phrase for the subject matter of the Phenomenology) from an altogether more comprehensive starting point: what he idiosyncratically described as logic. It was, in fact, a theory of the universe and led on to a highly speculative cosmology, his philosophy of nature.

Hegel’s “logic” was, I believe, a fairly deeply encoded theology. That interest is found in his first, theological, writing. The problem of God was the chief piece of unsettled business bequeathed by Kant to his German successors. They were not interested, as Kant was, in authenticating the credentials of natural science in the face of Hume’s skepticism. Instead of consigning belief in God to faith, as Kant had, they transformed the concept of God to make it accessible to the requirements of reason. The result was a kind of pantheism in which God is Everything, Spinoza’s Substance, the completed totality of things; God is not supernatural in the style of the God of Christianity or the world of Kant’s things-in-themselves.

Here Pinkard’s account of Hegel’s early theological reflections and the intellectual circumstances in which they were carried on is particularly helpful. Concretely he was, in an Enlightenment spirit, impatient with the supernatural (his early life of Christ ignores miracles and the Resurrection). At a more abstract level he absorbed Fichte’s idea that mind is the creator of everything, giving rise to it by a kind of artistic self-expression. For Fichte this is a major dramatic event in which the “I” (which is not, of course, you or me but the “Absolute I”) “posits” the world. By “posits” Fichte really means “creates,” but it sounds like the much less audacious “assumes the existence of.” For Hegel the idealistic first principle that mind creates nature is arrived at by a process, a dialectical development that starts from the bare concept of being.

If the dialectical idea was put to work in Hegel’s full-blown system to prove the existence of God, or a rarefied philosopher’s version of God, his idea of a sequential, cumulative process of unfolding, penetrable by reason, was derived from his studies of the human world: human nature, social life, the higher elements of culture. His presentation of the successive forms of human consciousness, social organization, of art, religion, and philosophy, and of history itself are persuasive and illustrated with a wealth of knowledge, even if they are always contestable. All of them are essentially temporal or historical, cases of literal sequence in time. Among other examples is his explicit philosophy of history (in effect, the history of the state) in which Hegel dis-tinguishes the pre-classical (Oriental despotism), the classical (slave-based aristocratic rule), and the post-classical, the “German world” (i.e., Europe since the barbarian invasions). This historical triad reappears in Hegel’s philosophy of art (the symbolic, represented by architecture, the classical, represented by sculpture, and the romantic, represented by painting, music, and poetry). The same pattern recurs in his philosophy of religion. First there is “the religion of nature,” including magic and the great Eastern religions, then the religion of “spiritual individuality” (i.e., personal gods), and finally Christianity, the “absolute religion.”

By contrast, the application of the dialectical frame to logic is simply unintelligible. But its application to nature, however weird it may be in detail, has turned out to be brilliantly prophetic of the comprehensive evolutionary development of natural science in cosmology and biology since his time. That the dialectical idea in Hegel has its source in the history of mankind explains why his “human philosophy,” the subject matter of his philosophy of mind, is so much more interesting than his logic.

Pinkard’s account of Hegel’s con-tinuing concern with religion and politics, from his earliest days, supplies an enlightening context for the late Gothic extravagance of his thinking. His system is presented in uncompromising abstraction as a process of pure thought contemplating itself. In fact, it is something much better than that. It is, in its more digestible parts, a series of highly imaginative pattern-finding speculations about human society, history, and culture.

The blanket condemnation of his work by Anglo-Saxon empiricism is undiscriminating. It is true that espousing his logic would be like buying tsarist government bonds, and his philosophy of nature is a wild gamble. But to take his human and social philosophy seriously is a moderately sound investment. His importance is not merely negative, as being the provoker of Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche, but as being the main exponent, after the ignored Vico, of a historical conception of the works of the human mind. This is subliminally recognized by the fact that most of what is of interest that is written about Hegel deals with his human, not his strictly metaphysical, philosophy.

Pinkard adds a great deal to the usual conception of Hegel derived from the brief biographical notes that precede the main content of books about him or are to be found in the histories of philosophy in which he figures. The struggle to establish himself was long and painful. He did not get a paid university post until he was forty-six. His early adult years were impoverished and lonely, although he was materially comfortable after he came to Nuremberg as a school principal when he was thirty-eight. After leaving Tübingen he was not a member of any sort of philosophical community until his insecure years at Jena between 1801 and 1807; and Jena’s decay as a philosophical center was already well advanced when he got there. Everything came out of his own head and the reading he had stored in it. There is a certain heroism about Hegel’s solitary endurance on the long road to the final, almost bureaucratic, dignity of his position in the 1820s in Berlin as Germany’s leading philosopher.

This Issue

June 21, 2001