What is Hegelianism?
Hegelianism is a school of philosophy heavily focusing on the works of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegelianism was practiced in Germany around Jena, Hegel’s univerisity, in the period directly after Hegel’s death. Hegel’s immediate followers in Germany were divided into two general categories: the Left/Young Hegelians (Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Max Stirner, and David Strauss) and the Right/Old Hegelians (Johann Philipp Gabler, Karl Daub, Heinrich Leo, Leopold von Henning, and Heinrich Gustav Hotho).
Hegel‘s major works include The Phenomenology of Spirit, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences and Philosophy of Right. It is from the latter that the we get the motto of Hegelianism – “the rational alone is real” – which means that we can express reality through rational categories. The need for an uncompromising rationality was considered necessary in order to reduce reality to a synthetic unity within the system of Absolute Idealism. As the last sentence shows, Hegel’s works are considered notoriously difficult to understand, even by professional philosophers. Nevertheless, attentive readers have found it relatively accessible, given sufficient time is spent on the subject. Hegel is considered to be a continuation of Immanuel Kant, in particular Kant’s Transcendental Idealism.
Hegel advocated Absolute Idealism – a theoretical approach attentive to historical progression, in which the world realises its potential through the development of humanity. The end point of this potential is the ‘fulfilment’ of the Spirit where the mind and body are understood as mere abstractions of one indivisible Spirit. Hegel was the first philosopher to think of in such terms – as a reflection on history not as disjointed events (or cyclical events), but a dialectical process where events are understood in a three-stage dialectics. The three stages are, briefly, thesis-antithesis-synthesis: 1. an indeterminate concept (thesis) that is contrasted to 2. a determinate concept (antithesis), and from which 3. a resolution (synthesis) is found. Each epoch in history, for Hegel, has its own spirit (where we get the term Zeitgeist); and while these develop, Hegel’s view was that there remains an absolute Spirit that is reached at the end of historical progress. Hegelian dialectics and views on history have been extremely influential in philosophy (Hegel is currently the most cited philosopher of all time), in particular to Marxist philosophers and Karl Marx himself.
Left/Young and Right/Old Hegelians
While Hegel himself is difficult to place politically, having both elements of right and left wing political spectrum, his philosophy has lended itself to both right and left wing philosophers. The Right Hegelians developed Hegel‘s philosophy in accordance with Christian theodicy. They thus took Hegel into a conservative direction, both in terms of political affiliation as well as religious practice. In particular, they took Hegel’s understanding of historical progress to have culminated and ‘ended’ in the Prussian society of the time. Historical dialectic had thus reached its end and the Spirit was complete. This view was of particular interest to German theologians (Johann Eduard Erdmann and Johann Philipp Gabler), but also philosophers of the day subscribed to this view (Johann Karl Friedrich Rosenkranz and Carl Friedrich Göschel).
The Left Hegelians emphasised the anti-Christian tendencies of Hegel‘s thought. In particular, they disagreed on whether history had indeed reached its end and indeed believed that there remained further (dialectical) progress to be made. After all, as the 1848 revolutions were going to show, Prussian society of the time was far from perfect. In short, the Left Hegelians were particularly interested in the method and approach to philosophy and history that Hegel advocated, while they rejected the many conclusions that Hegel had reached. Of particular note are Ludwig Feuerbach, David Strauss, Bruno Bauer, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. Marx eventually fell out of favour with other Hegelians, not least of which due to his continued critique of their views. Nevertheless, together with Friedrich Engels he developed another view of history – Dialectical Materialism. Max Stirner was another Left Hegelian who did not fully fit in the group, and largely opposed their views, and instead built his own philosophical system. He is considered to be a proto-Existentialism and influenced Nihilism and Anarchism.
Hegelianism had also influenced the British Idealism movement that stated in the second half of the 19th century and lasted until the beginning of the 20th. In particular, the movement showed renewed interest in the works of Kant and approaches to Hegel. Similar movements can be seen in other countries, including Denmark, France, Italy (Gentile’s Fascism was heavily influenced by Hegel) and Poland. In the United States, philosophers did not become convinced of Hegel until the middle of the 20th century, until the ‘Pittsburg Hegelians’ John McDowell and Robert Brandom took him seriously.
Cooper, B. (1984). The End of History: An Essay on Modern Hegelianism, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Haldar, H. (2018). Neo Hegelianism, Sagwan Press.
Toews, J. E. (1985). Hegelianism: The Path Toward Dialectical Humanism, 1805-1841, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zizek, S. (2013). Less Than Nothing: Hegel And The Shadow Of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso.