During the 1790s the little town of Jena, in Saxony, blossomed into colourful activity. With active support from Goethe, ducal minister in nearby Weimar, the ancient university cast off its reputation for beery rowdiness and intellectual torpor. Schiller was given a post there in 1789, and Fichte in 1794, and their passionate lectures – delivered in German rather than the customary Latin – soon attracted audiences from all over Germany, and from France and Britain as well.
What everyone wanted was philosophy. In particular they wanted to be part of the ‘critical revolution’ initiated by Kant a decade or so before. They were convinced that there could be no going back on Kant’s doctrine that the fundamental forms of experience are created by our own mental activity rather than forced on us from outside. But whereas Kant had launched his ‘critical philosophy’ in a spirit of sober enlightenment, the new romantics were determined to press it forward to the conclusion that we humans are not just creatures of our world but creators of it as well – poetic inventors of our individual and national selves. As Kant grew doddery and forgetful in faraway Königsberg, the young people of Jena were convinced that a post-Kantian future of autonomous self-creation belonged to them.
Before long August and Caroline Schlegel also settled in Jena, followed by Friedrich and Dorothea Schlegel. Then Hölderlin arrived, and in 1798 his brilliant young friend Schelling – a 23-year-old professor with an irresistible sulky pout. Together they formed ‘an eternal concert of wit, poetry, art and science’, as Dorothea Schlegel said; or, in her husband’s phrase, ‘a symphony of professors’.
In less than ten years it was all over. By 1800 a rump of older professors had reasserted the university’s pre-romantic traditions, accusing the newcomers of turning Jena into a steamy bordello. Fichte was dismissed from his post on suspicion of atheism, and the more charismatic teachers began to drift away, taking the best students with them.
And then there was politics. Napoleon’s forces defeated the Austrians at Austerlitz in 1805, and the last frayed threads that bound the German states into the Holy Roman Empire began to snap. In September 1806 the Prussian Army entered Saxony hoping to halt the French advance, but Napoleon retaliated on 13 October by taking possession of Jena. His troops ransacked the town, and the following afternoon they defeated the Prussian Army in a battle on the plains nearby.
These were gloomy days for the inhabitants of Jena, especially for anyone whose prosperity depended on the university. They were particularly bleak for a moody middle-aged philosopher called Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He was unemployed, unmarried and unloved (although his stroppy housekeeper was five months pregnant with their child); and since the arrival of the French soldiers he was homeless as well. Though he had recently been given the title of ‘professor of philosophy’, the post brought no salary. He was 36 years old already, and it seemed likely that his intellectual arrogance and social clumsiness, together with his barrenness as a writer, his incompetence as a speaker, and his unalluring Swabian accent, would always come between him and the academic success he longed for.
His basic problem, as he saw it, was a kind of glum passivity which he referred to as ‘hypochondria’. He defined his ailment as an ‘inability to come out of myself’, but in some ways it was rather the opposite: a compulsion to wander off in his imagination and take refuge elsewhere. His sense of self was diffuse and distracted, and he would identify with almost anything except his own immediate situation. This habit of seeing things from points of view other than his own probably went back to his childhood in Stuttgart, and the never-articulated shocks he suffered at the age of 11 when his devoted mother died. A few years later, as a student in the Protestant seminary at Tübingen, he was thoroughly accustomed to wishing he were someone else – a philosophical pagan in ancient Greece, for instance, or a philosophical revolutionary in contemporary Paris. He also liked to attach himself to bold and brilliant people who could be counted on to outshine him, especially Hölderlin and Schelling, with whom he shared rooms when they were students together in Tübingen. His companions could write and speak better than he could; they could woo better, study better, and no doubt sleep better too. The only thing he excelled at was getting drunk and spending hours reading the ephemeral political press. (‘Reading the morning paper is the realist’s morning prayer,’ he once said.) He made a stab at stylishness by wearing his hair in the revolutionary fashion, short and flat, but in the company of Hölderlin and Schelling – the beautiful Grecian poet and the sensuous philosophical prodigy – he had, by the age of 20, already earned himself the nickname ‘old man Hegel’.
When he left Tübingen in 1793 his teachers said he had ‘some competence in philology’ but no great talent for philosophy. Unable to get a post in a university, he spent the next five years as a private tutor in Berne and Frankfurt, struggling to tame his excited dreams of amalgamating Kantian philosophy with popular politics to form a secular successor to the Reformation. ‘The philosophers are proving the dignity of man,’ he wrote, and ‘the people will learn to feel it.’ The diffusion of the critical philosophy was destined to create ‘a revolution in Germany’, and it was in the hope of playing an active part in the revolution that he moved to Jena in 1801.
He had left it rather late. The university was already in decline; there were very few students to listen to his courses of private lectures, and their fees did not cover his expenses. But the strange dialect, the half-finished sentences and the vicious cycles of snuff-taking, sneezing, coughing and spluttering held a fascination of their own, and Hegel gradually acquired a circle of devotees: a handful of earnest young men who were convinced that he would be the one to lead German philosophy to its future glories. Others disagreed, and as early as 1804 August Schlegel was complaining of the gangs of inarticulate young Hegeleien who swarmed the streets of Jena. But Goethe still had faith in the hapless philosopher: despite his shortcomings in ‘rhetorical technique’ (and surely some friend should whisper a word to him about it), he had a trefflicher Kopf – ‘an exceptionally sharp mind’.
But when Hegel pleaded with Goethe to find him a salaried university post (‘I am the oldest Privatdozent in philosophy’), the great man was unable to help. Part of the trouble was that Hegel had no proper book to his name. Goethe’s own publishers had announced in 1802 that they would bring out Hegel’s lectures on ‘Logic and Metaphysics’, but his conception of philosophy changed continually as he wrote, and he was unable to complete the book. By 1806, however, he had struck a deal with a publisher in Bamberg who was willing to bring out a large work under the title ‘Introduction to the System of Science’. The contract specified that a payment would be made when half the book had been delivered, but since no one – not even Hegel – could say how long the book was going to be, it was impossible to say when the halfway point had been reached. It was then agreed that a payment would be made on receipt of the entire manuscript, provided it reached Bamberg by 18 October. Most of the final chapter was dispatched by courier on the 13th, leaving only the conclusion for Hegel to complete before his deadline.
But that was the very day French troops entered Jena, and Hegel took more interest in their heroic commander than in his own predicament. Napoleon seemed to him to embody the combination of qualities he had been dreaming about ever since he was a student: philosophical rationality together with revolutionary zeal and popular power. Clutching the unfinished manuscript of his concluding paragraphs, he went off to gaze at the world-historical phenomenon. ‘I saw the Emperor,’ he wrote: ‘this world-soul, riding out of the city on reconnaissance; it is indeed a wonderful sensation to set eyes on an individual who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.’ He went back eventually to his writing, but another month elapsed before he could travel to Bamberg and deliver the last paragraphs personally to his publisher. Excuses were accepted, fees paid, and Hegel’s first book went into production at last.
He stayed on in Bamberg to read the proofs, and landed a job that might have been made for him, as the well-paid editor of a pro-Napoleonic daily newspaper. For the first time in his life he had an independent regular salary; and when his book, now entitled Phenomenology of Spirit, came out in April 1807, he began to build a literary reputation too. One reviewer – who had been among Hegel’s first students in Jena – said that reading Hegel could change your life, and leave you wanting to dedicate your entire existence to the ‘realisation of the truths contained in his system’.
Those great Hegelian truths might be difficult to grasp in detail, but it was easy enough to catch their general drift: they were meant to inject a sense of historical change into the Kantian theory of autonomous mental creativity. A subtitle described the Phenomenology as a ‘Science of the Experience of Consciousness’ and the burden of Hegel’s argument was that consciousness is innately incapable of staying put. It is always in possession of a wealth of excellent insights, but it can never be content with them. It wants something more. It has a wandering eye, and a reach that exceeds its grasp: an exorbitant yearning for certitude condemns it to a restless state of mistrust. Beguiled by a mirage of perfect epistemological bliss, it denies the knowledge it has, deserts it and sets off optimistically on what will prove to be a ‘journey of despair’.
The itinerary can be read off from the chapter titles of the Phenomenology. Consciousness begins by putting its faith in the well-known certainties of immediate sensation, but before long they bend and break like the oak in the old folk-tale, and it is left befuddled and sad. It pulls itself together and moves on hopefully to perception, only to have its trust betrayed once more; then it staggers through self-consciousness, reason, morality and religion, repeating the obsessive cycle of momentary hope and prolonged humiliation over and over again.
But the story has a happy ending. Consciousness will be the last to realise it, but every step of its miserable voyage was in fact taking it closer to where it always wanted to be. ‘The sequence of configurations which consciousness passes through on its journey,’ Hegel says, ‘is actually the particularised history of its education, its Bildung.’ Consciousness eventually gets wise to its own folly, and its history of anguish, denial and self-doubt is transfigured into the happiness of ‘absolute knowing’. It had always imagined that certainty was an immaculate heavenly mystery: now at last it can see that it was nothing more than a summation of all the transitory everyday notions it had constructed for itself in the course of its earthly experience. Each stage of its arduous journey had been necessary, and no short cuts would have been possible: without errors, after all, there would have been no experience, and without experience, no truth. In the world of the Phenomenology, a truth is nothing but a corrected error, and the edifice of knowledge is built not of sublime transcendent facts but of ordinary mistakes, duly exposed and chastised, named and shamed. Consciousness wins through to absolute truth entirely by its own deluded efforts.
In a way Hegel was telling an old-fashioned journey-story in the tradition of Homer, Virgil, Malory or Bunyan. But it was specifically a philosophical tale: its hero was not an individual, but consciousness in general, and the journey it described was one that all of us must make if we are ever to learn the truth about ourselves and the world. It would therefore have been ridiculous to recount it in a traditional third-person style, as if the narrator could be excused from travelling the same path; and Hegel’s great gimmick was to tell the basic tale of the Phenomenology not in the third person but in the first. The narrative standpoint is thus derived from within the story, and the journey is traced from the wandering point of view of consciousness itself. Hegel made the narrator plural, moreover, so as to put all of us, as readers, in the same predicament as the journeying consciousness. The baffled traveller is no one but ourselves, or rather – since the story is told in the past tense – our former selves, whose follies and heartbreaks we now recollect in scientific tranquillity. The Phenomenology is not the biography of absolute knowledge, but its collective autobiography: the confessions of a penitent dogmatist who lives within us all.
Hegel’s experimentation with narrative points of view was partly inspired by Kant, but partly also a reaction against him. Kant had famously compared himself with Copernicus who, ‘when he failed to make good progress in explaining the motions of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolved round the spectator, tried to see if he might have greater success if he made the spectator revolve while the stars remained at rest’. Copernicus, as Kant saw it, had realised that the apparent celestial motions which baffled earlier stargazers were not independent objective realities, but merely projections of the movements of earthbound human observers. And Kant’s big conjecture – the basis of what he optimistically called his ‘Copernican revolution’ – was that the same might apply to the metaphysical notions which had baffled earlier philosophers: they too, he thought, might be nothing but our own errant perspectives which we first projected onto the world and then mistook for independent realities.
But Hegel realised that Kant’s analogy was not perfect. Cosmologists may be able to discount their earthly existence and envisage the solar system from the point of view of a sun with themselves circling round it on the surface of a spinning planet; but a philosopher could never lay aside the fundamental forms of human experience and try to imagine what the world would be like without them. There were no external vantage points in philosophy – no fixed stars – only various movements between different points of view. The Phenomenology was an attempt to encompass every kind of experience in one lingering backward glance. If Hegel had been a film director, he would have been a master of continuous tracking shots, like the one in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent which moves through an entire ballroom before coming to rest, two or three minutes later, on the murderer’s twitching eyes.
According to Hegel, ‘the philosopher must command as much aesthetic power as the poet.’ But if the Phenomenology is a great work of literature, it is not a fine piece of writing. Hegel was a virtuoso of large-scale patterns of literary exposition, but had little matching skill in the art of the paragraph or the sentence. His occasional good phrases – ‘the enormous labour of world history’, ‘the terrible power of the negative’, or the image of truth as a ‘Bacchanalian revel in which no member is not drunk’ – only show up the forlorn tawdriness of the rest.
Yet Hegel responded to criticisms of his prose with defiance. If he sometimes set aside the precepts of conventional grammarians, he said, it was because they conflicted with philosophy’s highest ideal: namely, ‘speculation’, or the effort to grasp reality in its thoroughly interactive entirety. The grammatical obsession with dividing every sentence into a ‘subject’ and a ‘predicate’, Hegel thought, was a deadly enemy to speculation: the clumsy dichotomy shattered the unity of the ‘speculative proposition’ and spoiled the ‘rhythm of the floating centre’.
Take the statement that ‘reason is spirit,’ for example. Grammatical appearances might lead you to suppose that it asserts a link between two separate, well-defined terms. In fact, according to Hegel, it functions speculatively, laying ‘reason’ and ‘spirit’ side by side and allowing their meanings to mingle tenderly with each other. Philosophy, you might say, paints its pictures in watercolours rather than oils. It creates gentle linguistic spaces where words are not held accountable to unduly rigid rules, but allowed to relax and drift a little, to find their own levels and redefine each other mutually, in accord with what Hegel called ‘the rhythm of the organic whole’. And for Hegel it was impossible, when kitted out in ‘the garb and style of Locke or ordinary French philosophy’, to achieve the freedom of movement that speculation requires. Philosophical prose, as he put it in the Preface to the Phenomenology, has to be ‘read over and over again before it can be understood’.
The Phenomenology itself was quickly established as a book that needed to be read over and over again. Somehow it contrived to be solidly monumental and diaphanously elusive at the same time. It was both laboriously explicit and riotously ambiguous. If it was absolutist, theistic and idealist, it was also relativist, atheistic and materialist. It was conspicuously unassimilable: in other words, a palpable classic.
Luckily for Hegel, it was also sufficient to launch his stalled academic career. He became rector of the highly respectable Gymnasium in Nuremberg, married a highly respectable wife, and wrote his Science of Logic which, if not exactly respectable, was at least more conventional than the Phenomenology. He was briefly a professor in Heidelberg, where he published his Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, a systematic survey of every branch of human knowledge. Then he was called to Berlin, where he attempted to reconstruct the rational bases of legal and political power in the Philosophy of Right. In his 13 years in the Prussian capital (he died there in 1831 at the age of 61) he became a fashionable celebrity: a connoisseur of food, wine and snuff, a devotee of opera and theatre, and a patron of painters and sculptors; his name was even linked with that of Anna Milder-Hauptmann, the great dramatic soprano who had created the role of Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio. And he attracted a large public to the synoptic lecture courses (later reconstructed with the help of student notes) in which he tried to identify a logical structure in the history of art, the history of religion, the history of science, the history of philosophy, and the history of the world.
The question of what Hegel really meant continued to cause bewilderment, however, especially when it came to his favourite subject: politics. He was known to be loyal to the French Revolution, and he liked to celebrate Bastille day with lots of champagne. He regarded the restoration of the French monarchy as a ‘farce’, and was disgusted by Walter Scott’s Life of Napoleon. (Scott was ‘arrogant’ and ‘insipid’, Hegel wrote: ‘unacquainted with the characteristic principles that distinguish the essence of the Revolution and give them their almost immeasurable power over the minds of the people’.) He was openly impatient with German patriotism, or Deutschdumm as he called it, and when Prussia was swamped by a wave of aristocratic reaction in 1819 he did not hesitate to intervene on behalf of students arrested for ‘demagogic’ resistance. A few years later he defended his French colleague Victor Cousin, who faced a 15-year prison sentence in Berlin for being a ‘subversive’. And in an assessment of the English Reform Bill which he started publishing in the last weeks of his life, he said he hoped it would sweep away the long tradition of unashamed stupidity in London politics, though he feared it would not substitute a sufficiently rational, Napoleonic alternative. The Prussian censor did not permit the public to read his concluding reflections on the evils of hereditary power.
But if Hegel’s progressive political opinions were well-documented, they sometimes seemed hard to reconcile with his general conception of philosophical method. Heinrich Heine, a student of Hegel’s in the 1820s, described his philosophy as ‘servile’, and the Introduction to the Philosophy of Right seemed to prove his point. In particular, the statement that ‘the rational is real, and the real is rational’ seemed like a shameless endorsement of whatever political arrangements happened to prevail – including, at that time, the savage repression of reform in Prussia.
The epigram was of course intended to express a speculative proposition rather than a political opinion: it was meant to bring out the affinities between realism and rationality in politics, and the inanity of the kind of political reasoning which holds itself aloof from actual historical processes. Hegel explained to Heine that his intention was not to justify the existing order, but to suggest that in the long run ‘everything that is rational must come to pass’ – that while a lost cause could never ultimately be rational, rationality itself would never become a lost cause. There might be delays, but in due course the process of reform was sure to be resumed.
But in a way Heine was right: philosophising as Hegel understood it was bound to put a damper on political passion, indeed on zealotry of all kinds. It called for ironic detachment about everything; it meant ‘looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it’, as Hegel put it in the Phenomenology; and it depended on losing all self-assurance and finding yourself again only ‘in utter dismemberment’. Even your most righteous convictions had to be looked at from every possible point of view and judged in terms of all the circumstances of which they form a part. In philosophy, unlike religion, pure hearts and beautiful souls are not enough. And in politics, as in philosophy, we can never be righteously certain of the full implications of what we are doing.
The peculiar elusiveness of Hegel’s thought has always given a special interest to the story of his life: biography, it is tempting to think, should help us pin the great wriggler down. The first life of Hegel, by Karl Rosenkranz, was published in 1844. Hegel had been dead for 13 years and his intellectual legacy was a matter of dispute between ‘Right’ and ‘Left’, or, as Rosenkranz put it, between romantisch and hypermodern – between ‘aristocratic English Toryism’ and ‘democratic French Communism’. Marx, enjoying his self-imposed exile in proletarian Paris, was marvelling at how revolution in Germany ‘begins in the brain of the philosopher’, but he was unable to make any progress with ‘the seemingly formal but in fact essential question of how we now stand in relation to the Hegelian dialectic’. Rosenkranz, however, solved the problem by describing Hegel as a Demagogenbekehrer, a specialist in ‘turning’ revolutionary hotheads and leading them back to political moderation. But still his interpretation leant towards the left. He preserved, for example, an anecdote about Hegel making a midnight boat trip to hold a secret conversation, in Latin, with a young man who had been imprisoned on political grounds and whose cell had a window facing the Spree river. On the whole, however, Rosenkranz’s Hegel was above politics: he was an unparalleled intellectual inventor who had devised a special way of combining ‘sharpness of definition’ with ‘high poetry’ so as to turn philosophical argumentation into a ‘true work of art’.
The next biography was Rudolf Haym’s Hegel und seine Zeit, published in 1857, which presented Hegel as little more than a purveyor of philosophical comforts to the Prussian state. Haym himself was a supporter of a more comprehensive German nationalism, but his view of Hegel had a lasting attraction for all sorts of readers as it excused them the labour of reading Hegel for themselves. Nearly a century later it was still common to dismiss Hegel by appealing to the P-word. Bertrand Russell, for instance, said that Hegel defined freedom as ‘the right to obey the police’ and despotism as the tyranny of ‘an absolute monarch ruling over a country which is not Prussia’. And Karl Popper was content to describe Hegel as a ‘clown’ and a ‘charlatan’ whose philosophical labours had no higher motive than ‘the restoration of the Prussian Government’.
There were others, of course, who showed more respect. Revolutionary socialists, embarrassed by the fact that Hegel was Marx’s favourite philosopher, repeated a few mind-numbing mantras about how the working class had appropriated ‘the dialectic’ and changed its valency from reactionary idealism to revolutionary materialism. But they were baffled when it became fashionable to divide Hegel into two: the daring existentialist of Jena and the elderly conformist of Berlin, and in 1948 Georg Lukács tried to dismiss the idea of a romantic ‘young Hegel’ as a piece of Fascistoid irrationalism. A small band of conscientious agnostics meanwhile spent decades tracking down fugitive manuscripts and making them conveniently available to future scholars.
It was not till the 1960s that fresh attempts were made to marshal the available documents and propagate new interpretations of Hegel’s thought from new accounts of his life. Walter Kaufmann’s brisk and sympathetic account of Hegel as a liberal philosopher of freedom was the first, in America in 1965. And at about the same time, Jacques D’Hondt began piecing together evidence of Hegel’s revolutionary entanglements, presenting him as a ‘progressive reformer’ and a likely recruit to the French Resistance if not the Communist Party.
After Kaufmann, the next full biography was Horst Althaus’s readable but philosophically unambitious Hegel und die heroischen Jahre der Philosophie, which came out in 1992. Its new incarnation in English would be far more valuable if the publishers had not decided to omit 11 of its 44 chapters on the ground that topics such as Hölderlin, Schelling and even the Reform Bill are ‘of more direct interest to a German audience’. This is particularly shameful treatment for a work which they advertise, more boastfully than accurately, as ‘the first book-length biography of Hegel since the 19th century’.
Jacques D’Hondt has crowned a long life of committed scholarship by writing what his publishers call ‘the first biography of Hegel in the French language’. Revisiting his old findings, D’Hondt demonstrates that Hegel harboured ‘revolutionary inclinations’ to the end of his days: his religious views were always ‘close to atheism’ and he ran great risks in protecting ‘demagogues’ from the Prussian police. Most sensationally, D’Hondt finds indications that Hegel had links with Freemasonry and that he may even have been an initiate of a banned Bavarian order. If Hegel really was a Mason, then he would have taken the greatest care to conceal it, and D’Hondt, prodding us with sheafs of exclamation marks, asks us not to spoil the pleasures of plausible conjecture by unreasonable demands for direct evidence!
Terry Pinkard is the author of several solid theoretical studies beseeching his American colleagues to take Hegel seriously as part of ‘the mainstream of philosophers’. Hegel, he argues, constructed ‘one among many competing explanations of the perennial problems of philosophy’, and even anticipated many of the positions now defended by the brightest and nicest of contemporary analytic philosophers. (For instance he interpreted consciousness not as a substantial entity but as a historically specific aspect of social existence, rooted not so much in ‘mind’ as in ‘normativity’ and, to use Jonathan Lear’s term, ‘mindedness’.) More generally, Pinkard follows Robert Pippin in treating Hegel as a pioneer of ‘philosophical modernism’, or the doctrine that the central phenomena of human existence are autonomous self-creation and self-regulation.
Having established himself as a considerable Hegelian philosopher in a thoroughly modern mode, Pinkard has now moved into the booming industry of philosophical biography. The publishers call his book ‘the first major biography of Hegel in English’, and for once they are not exaggerating. They could in fact have gone further: in its plain and businesslike way, this is the most rounded and reliable life of Hegel there has ever been. For the benefit of the hard-pressed and the narrow-minded Pinkard has separated his interpretations of the thought from his descriptions of the life, but readers who confine themselves to one side of the story will miss most of the point. Pinkard regards Hegel’s philosophy as a ‘radical modernism’ which acknowledges no standards of judgment outside the ‘like-mindedness’ of historical humanity; but his reasons for doing so are biographical as well as textual. Equally, his chronicle of Hegel’s daily life – emphasising the conscientiousness with which he performed his academic duties, his enthusiasms for card-games, wine and theatre, his loyalty to the French Revolution, and his doubts about the shapeless individualism of some of his fellow liberals – would not be of much interest if it was not being used as evidence that Hegel was a liberal leftist who, despite Marx’s clever quip, stood firmly on his feet rather than his head.
But Pinkard’s unswerving assumption that there is an entity called ‘Hegel’s philosophy’ whose lineaments can be made out with the help of the story of his individual life is not quite true to the spirit of Hegel. From a biographical point of view, Hegel lived his intellectual life as academics and would-be academics have to, carefully differentiating himself from those who might be considered his rivals – in his case, Kant, Fichte and Schelling. From a philosophical point of view, however, Hegel was not interested in such individual differences, and refused to freeze them into doctrinal dogmas. Philosophy, for him, was not a matter of choosing one philosophical ‘position’ in preference to others; and there could be no such thing as ‘Hegel’s philosophy’, if that meant an item of intellectual private property that he should be expected to ‘defend’ against all challengers. ‘I have devoted my life to philosophy,’ he told his students at Heidelberg. And: ‘we older men who have grown up amid the storms of the time may call you happy, who can dedicate yourselves to truth and philosophy when you are still young.’ He did not want to push any particular doctrine, but simply to foster the habit of nachdenken: of thinking things over, or stopping to have a think. And thinking, for Hegel, was the specific antidote to the follies of self-certainty: its significance could never be confined within the boundaries of an individual life.