Workers' Liberty #68


Hegel and revolution

Hegel: A Biography, by Terry Pinkard, Cambridge University Press.

Reviewed by Melissa White.

When one of his students was detained in prison for seven weeks under suspicion of revolutionary sympathies, Hegel with some other students rowed a skiff in the middle of the night to the prison. Through the prison cell window and in Latin (so no prison guards would understand), Hegel told his student that he was doing everything within his powers to secure his release.

Terry Pinkard describes Hegel as a humourous individual, not incapable of forming political enemies, fond of drinking with his mates and going abroad. Hegel once paid a quarter of his year's salary to secure the release of one of his students from prison, arrested and accused of sympathising with the stabbing murder of an aristocratic arch-reactionary, and let students with no independent means attend his lectures for free, at a time when students had to pay honoraria directly to their lecturers.

But Hegel grew quite crabby in his old age, and his attempt in his early work to break the deadlock between subject and object in Kant's system by supposing that both subject and object together comprised two sides of 'The Absolute' (the subject playing the active side) was abandoned for more prosaic topics: world history, and the place in it of the 1831 July revolution in France. Hegel started to suspect that the July events were not in any way a vindication of his political philosophy as he had outlined it in the past 10 years, and Hegel's students were shocked at his dismissal of those events.

Hegel's life was nevertheless a fascinating one. He shared a room at the theological seminary in Tubingen with both Germany's greatest Romantic poet, Holderlin, and Germany's greatest philosophical idealist of nature, Schelling. He made personal friends with Goethe, had a public brawl about the university with Schleiermacher, and was buried next to his Jena predecessor, Fichte.

Hegel lived at the confluence point of important changes in the philosophical world. He was 19 at the time of the French Revolution, which he agitated for within the strict confines of the seminary with Holderlin and Schelling.

Hegel's work can be interpreted as the consummation of the great philosophies of the subject and a forerunner of Heidegger's concerns - or prefiguring Marx's work and aiming at the modern restoration of the Aristotelian polis in the age of 'social contract'.

Pinkard has opted for a third interpretation of Hegel, in which Hegel's work is not at all concerned with metaphysics and is solely concerned to secure a sound footing for epistemology after Kant. The word 'dialectic' is not mentioned once in 780 pages! Pinkard strives to make Hegel's work relevant for contemporary analytic philosophy.

He locates Hegel's political philosophy in the emergence of bourgeois civil society in the Western Germanic duchies and Prussia. (Also, sadly, he dispels the fabulous myth that Hegel completed the Phenomenology of Spirit at midnight on the eve of the historic Battle of Jena!)

In 1841, 10 years after Hegel's death, his old boyhood friend and greatest philosophical rival, Schelling, was summoned to Humboldt University to take up Hegel's chair to 'stamp out the dragon seed of Hegelian pantheism in Berlin'. Sitting in the audience of Schelling's inaugural address were those who were to become the foremost exponents of existentialism, anarchism and Marxism - Soren Kierkegaard, Michael Bakunin and Friedrich Engels.

None of them was impressed with what Schelling had to say. The event is symbolic of the close eye that all were keeping on the Hegelian legacy. An immediate fracturing of the Hegelian troops would follow into 'Right' and 'Left' Hegelians, and the young Marx would emerge as the most influential of the Left.

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