German Idealism, From Kant to Hegel, Part 5: Hegel

While Johann Fichte and Friedrich Schelling were luminaries of German idealism in their time, the most famous son of German Idealism known to posterity is Georg W.F. Hegel. Hegel did not share the same early fame as Fichte and Schelling and only became a major figure in German philosophy with the publication of his famous Phenomenology of Spirit in 1807. Like the rest of the post-Kantians, Hegel took the spirit of Kant and drew upon Fichte and Schelling to try and create an all-encompassing system of philosophy to provide both total knowledge and total meaning in life.

Hegel’s corpus is extensive, and I will be drawing and synthesizing the general arc of Hegel’s systematic philosophy from Phenomenology of Spirit, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, and his Elements of the Philosophy of Right, especially as it relates to the general theme we’ve already covered in Fichte and Schelling. In most ways, Hegel inherits the Fichtean and Schellingian thrust of having a moral order of duties and rights with each other that provide for moral community. Hegel goes a step further in his politicization of the movement of philosophy and the formation of law, order, and political structures as the manifestation of our recognition of each other in historical progress.

Understanding Hegel is difficult due to his verbose style. However, once you’re able to deconstruct Hegel’s language most of what he says is somewhat straightforward and easy to grasp. In second section of the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel gives his easiest and most straightforward analogy to his philosophical vision. He tells the story of the plant bud blossoming to yield fruit; it begins as a seed, becomes roots and stem eventually emerging with a bud, the bud blossoms into a flower, and the flower is pollinated and then brings forth fruit. It is only at the end of this process can we know what the entire process of necessary unfolding entailed.

Hegel’s philosophical system is anti-reductionist and explicitly Schellingian and Goethean in nature (in fact, the Phenomenology’s structure mirrors that of Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism). It considers ‘the whole picture’, as it were, and understands philosophy as the task of engaging with “purposive activity.” From guiding tendency into activity  to aims/results; the task of philosophy is to penetrate the phenomenon of activity to understand the guiding tendency’s unfolding development to results (which Hegel calls the Sache Selbst, or the real issue of philosophy). This means, however, as Hegel said at the end of the Preface to the Philosophy of Right, philosophy only comes to know the reality of the world at the close of its unfolding development; philosophy only takes flight at the coming of the shades of dusk.

One should immediately see, from one of the few analogies that Hegel uses which is comprehensible, how his system is very much in the tradition of post-Kantian idealism. Where Kant would have us cut-off the phenomenological and noumenal worlds at, say, the blossoming of the flower, Hegel sees the movement of the phenomenological as revealing the noumenal at the end of the process if keeping with the Kantian language and dynamic. That is, the noumenal (the thing-itself) is revealed at the end of the development process through the realization of the transcendental idea. However, Hegel is anti-reductionist because to reduce the phenomenon of development back to its origo (the seed) is to have clearly misunderstood what one was observing. Likewise, to focus only on the results is to focus on the “lifeless corpse that has left the guiding tendency behind.” Hegel is fighting against reductionism and utilitarianism by emphasizing a sense of organic holism in philosophy.

This is why Hegel asserts “the Truth is the whole.” Only at the end-stage do we understand the truth of the whole. The Absolute is the result, and the realized, manifested in the world through the activity of Spirit. Hence, “the rational is real and the real is rational.” Hegel may be an “idealist,” but the functional manifestation of his philosophy is empirical (like with most of the German idealists). It is a philosophy about the world of experience; it is a philosophy concerned with incarnate (or embodied) living in the corporeal world which we exist in; it is a philosophy of the real, of thought and action united instead of separated.

The unfolding of truth and its incarnate manifestation in the world is the “purposive activity” that reason is. Hegel maintains a sense of classical ontological teleology but one that is in the process of becoming rather than one that is in a fixed state as a given. This is double-play on Hegel’s part. Many Aristotelians, for instance, criticize Hegel’s concept of being and non-being, of becoming and non-becoming. This is due to misunderstanding Hegel’s pontifical philosophy. He bridges being and non-being, becoming and fixity, together. For, in a sense, man has a fixed state—but that is what he is unfolding to be or realize. That also means, however, man in this imperfect state is not yet what he is truly meant for.

Let us return to Hegel’s image of the plant bud becoming flower and producing fruit. Hegel asserts that primordial man, like the seed, has a fixed end; a telos or destiny. Primordial man has not yet blossomed, or produced, that end of being yet. As such, man is in a state of becoming—the unfolding movement to his teleological constitution like the seed becoming bud, flower, and eventually producing fruit. Man develops to his teleological end. Man has a nature, but that nature is not yet manifested in the world. Hegel’s philosophical vision, in some sense, is a temporalized recontextualization of Christian chiliasm. The total vision of man is that which is to come. And that which is to come is rooted ethical life in a community (a secularized, temporalized, heavenly city bound together in, and by, love).

This unfolding to rooted ethical life is what Hegel calls History. Hegel’s philosophy of History, then, establishes a comprehensive and political reading of the movement of History which makes him a powerful philosopher relevant to political philosophy as much as to metaphysics and epistemology. History, then, for Hegel, is essentially philosophical; it is ethical. History pertains to human-to-human relationships. History pertains to the face-to-face. History is about us! For only philosophy, the “queen of the sciences,” can understand the totality of History. History is, therefore, the movement of the Spirit and its manifestation in time and space to its purposive end; that end being rooted ethical life through the bonds of duties and obligations to one another in a recognized ethical (sittlichkeit) community.

In History the Spirit manifests itself as Being-in-itself; Being-for-itself; and most importantly, Being-for-us! While there is an unmistakable collective tidal wave in Hegel’s philosophy which threatens to sink and overwhelm the individual who is not that important to the totalizing unfolding of History, Hegel’s philosophy also has an unmistakably individualistic element to it. I do, in fact, matter; and Spirit manifests itself for me. Hegel’s I, the particular I, is connected and individuated. There is no contradiction in Hegel because Hegel doesn’t pit the two together but sees them as existing in the same being of the I.

The manifestation of the Spirit through determinacy is something concrete and invites human participation. This participation is collective, but it is also individualist. It invites all to participate, but in this invitation, it is reaching out to me in particular too. This cannot be forgotten about Hegel (though is often forgotten about Hegel by Hegel’s critics, especially those who follow the negative approach of Karl Popper). Spirit’s determinacy manifests itself in numerous ways: art; literature; law, religion; economy; social structures; states and communities; relations with others (friendships and families, etc.). Hegel would not be a proponent of ‘spiritual but not religious.’ For Hegel, such a mentality is to misunderstand the Spirit and become a victim of History (someone who doesn’t understand History). ‘Spiritual but not religious’ refers to primordial times when Spirit hadn’t yet manifested itself in determinate and concrete ways inviting particularized participation. The emergence of orderly and formal religion is the manifestation of the Spirit’s purposive activity for there is a community in this purposive construction. This applies to everything else, like the formation of national communities with particular constitutions inviting people to participate in it rather than remain in an atomized of unconnected filial state of existence as in our primordial past.

Thus, the movement of Hegel’s understanding of the Spirit in History is this: purposive community and purposive participation in that community. Hegel’s philosophical movement is not a single plant blossoming to yield fruit but many plants blossoming to yield fruit like an organic living organism; a giant network of interconnected roots and foliage that nourish each other and through this collective organic entity grows into a flourishing organic entity. The incarnate determinacy is the temporalization of the Beatific Vision in the world rather than apart from the world! This world becomes a literal manifestation of “the world to come.” Or, as Hegel says, “the divine idea realized on earth.”

The most famous section of the Phenomenology, the sections on Lordship and Bondage, or Master-Slave, is the sketched outplaying of the essence of Hegel’s philosophy. The entirety of the lordship-bondsman section can be summed up as the drive for recognition (face-to-face). In this meeting of two not yet as one, there is a “struggle to death” in which the competing forces try to exercise dominion over the other. This end in several ways. Either A defeats B or vise-versa; both A and B defeat each other; A subdues B or vise-versa; or, teleologically but never in historical practice, A and B mutually recognize each other. This mutual recognition of each other is what the Spirit aims for but History, as we know, is a messy thing. So, it is often the case that one party dominates the other.

It is Hegel’s lordship-bondsman dialectic that famously influenced Marx. Because Hegel asserts the increase of consciousness comes from purposive activity, it is the bondsman who grows in consciousness through purposive work while the lord grows lazy and doesn’t increase in his consciousness because he is in a place of security. The bondsman might be an extension of the lord’s arm, so to speak, but he is the one who, in doing the purposive work, comes to have a greater awareness of the world and his relationship with the lord and the world in an unsettling place between. The bondsman exists for others; he exists for the lord, he exists for his fellow bondsmen, and he exists for the world of materials he works with. In sum, the bondsman exists for others while the lord exists for-himself. This ensures the bondsman growth in consciousness and power over time which the lord will eventually recognize. This is the irony of the lord-bondsman dialectic; it is the lord who recognizes the bondsman, and in this recognition, loses his grip on power over the bondsman until, over time, the lord recognizes the bondsman as an equal. This emergence to mutual recognition is what humans seek and what the Spirit aims for and is inevitable; this mutual recognition is not one of subject-object but of subject-subject. In this achievement the transcendental self which was previously unknowable to us in Kant’s philosophy is knowable to us in Hegel’s philosophy (as it is in Fichte and Schelling too). (Hopefully one can see how this influenced Marx’s understanding of the inevitable triumph of the proletariat.)

In this growth to recognition of each other emerges duties and obligations to each other; this is manifested through the determinacy of community and law. Community, in Latin, commune, means to communicate. It is, in other words, understanding. A community can only be a community if it has mutual understanding. A community in which people do not trust and understand each other is not a true community.

For Hegel, as with the rest of the Germans, this means that community is rooted in language, culture, and traditions. Those who share the same language, the same culture, and the same traditions will fuse together like Adam and Eve, multiplicity becoming one, whereby understanding and the duties and obligations that come with understanding and recognition now manifest. The German idealist tradition, in this regard, is deeply hermetic, spiritual, and, indeed, religious in its dimension and interior character.

In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel’s crystal-clear portrait of the purposive activity of Spirit in the political sphere, the movement of individuals into families, then communities, and then to a constitution-state, is the ultimate movement of the Spirit. This manifestation of the state is, in essence, just the enlargement of the family to its exhaustive end. For civil community, or civil society, as Hegel says, is just an extension of the original family by which all politeia is founded on. The essence of Hegel’s political philosophy is eminently conservative in this respect. It is filial, communitarian, particular, and nationalist. Moreover, it is cameralist.

In this unfolding of the Spirit into manifested community there are four archetypes that Hegel outlines: The hero; the victim; the person; and the citizen. The hero is the founder of states and is the unwitting embodiment of the Spirit’s purposive activity. The person is the “moral individual” who seeks to help others but has no home. The person, though moral, is unrooted and detached. In being unrooted and detached the moral person is inferior to the ultimate culmination of the purposive activity of the Spirit: citizenship. To be a citizen is to be the most determinate, concrete, and particular manifestation of Reason itself. To be a citizen is to have a community. It is to be the product of the purposive activity of the Spirit in times past. For instance, the Spirit was, over the course of hundreds, if not thousands, of years, working to bring people together to whom you can trace your genealogy from and in this bringing people together into a community with a culture and history there emerged law, order, and the nation-state as well as, of course, your family. The victim is the lowest person in History because the victim is someone that History has passed over. The victim is not the brutalized individual of the lust for domination but the individual who has no reflective and conscionable knowledge of the purposive activity of the Real. The victim is, basically, the atomized hedonist who lives only for himself and bodily comfort apart from the world of relations and relationships; the victim is the person who doesn’t recognize the faces of others and only understands himself as a body for self-pleasure.

It is here that there is the enduring paradox of Hegel’s “end of History.” In the culmination of citizenship and the nation-state we see the end of the purposive activity of Reason whereby philosophy can now unlock and understand what the “whole story” was about. But rather than something dreary Hegel leaves us with something still progressive and optimistic. It is up to us to carry on the purposive activity of the Spirit because it has manifested itself for us! This leaves us with the same end as Fichte and Schelling earlier; a community of love bound by rights, duties, and obligations to each other which can only stand if we discharge our duties and obligations to one another in the determinate fashion that the Spirit has given us. And this was the movement of History: From the unconscious individual separated and atomized from the world to the conscious I integrated and networked in a grand web of face-to-face relationships in an ethical community of love where we truly live lives as persons with hearts. In this ethical community we find our fulfillment in the rights and duties dedicated to others: spouse, family, civil society, and state.

To the spouse I have duties of love and sacrifice to the other. To the family I have duties of love and sacrifice to others. To the town or civil society where I live and make my home I have duties of love and sacrifice to the purposive activity of the town and everything that comprises the life-activity of the town. And, of course, to the state I have duties of love and sacrifice (patriotism or nationalism) to the whole community as a citizen. These orders of dutiful love and sacrifice constitute the heart of the highest life possible: sittlichkeit. All history is moving toward this consummate realization. (Here we see how we also transcend the lower orders of ethical life: we start with ourselves, proceed to the family, but then the family itself is transcended to the tribe or town, with the tribe or town being transcended to the nation; yet in this process of sublation (aufhebung) we still carry forward the goods of the past; we never, for instance, eradicate our duties of love and sacrifice to the family but we come to understand that there are also higher realities than just the family.)

Hegel’s end of History is a networked community that recognizes each other’s rights but a community that also knows that these rights depend on our duties and obligations to each other which can only be sustained through the indwelling of neighborly love which compels us to action. Hegel’s end of History is, then, not the end of purposive activity but the perpetual recapitulation of purposive activity in the determinate forms that Spirit has given us and depends on us to maintain. In our purposive participation in that community of love bound by rights, duties, and obligations, “history” very much continues in the expressions of our love in the communities and determinate institutions the Spirit bequeathed to us for our moral joy.


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  1. “A community can only be a community if it has mutual understanding. A community in which people do not trust and understand each other is not a true community.”

    This is so important. I imagine that in the New Jerusalem, people say what they mean, mean what they say, and are understood in their meanings. I thought if this because of the peculiar deficiency in the English language of not having a way to say “Geist.” This makes it very difficult to establish a concept of it that is shared in the community of English speakers, which is a good portion of the world in our aeon. “Geisteswissenschaft,” for instance, refers to the subjects we ordinarily call “the humanities.” But literally it should “the spiritual sciences.”

    Wittgenstein’s maxim has the unfortunate ring of truth to it if we take it to be a map of the spiritual country that a given community may inhabit: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anthony Esolen, a great little hero of mine, has said similar things about spiritual theology, or the transcendentals, being the true glue of the “humanities.” I always found Hegel’s descriptions, or at least what I’ve made of Hegel’s descriptions, very enchanting and important. After all, the Triune Godhead in Christianity (irrespective of his heterodoxy) understands, speaks, communicates and draws all things to it in understanding.


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