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Chapter 1

G. W. F. Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit
Stephen Houlgate

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) is one of the greatest (though also least studied) philosophers of the Western tradition. His thought spawned both Marxism and existentialism, and exercised considerable influence on many of the major philosophers of the twentieth century, including Dewey, Gadamer, Sartre,Derrida, and Habermas. It is true that many regard Hegel’s work as too difficult and obscure to merit close scrutiny. Those who do take the trouble to study his work carefully, however, encounter a thinker whose richness and subtlety, in my view, is matched only by that of Plato, Aristotle and Kant. Hegel was born in Stuttgart on August 27, 1770. He studied philosophy and theology at Tübingen, becomingfriends there with Hölderlin and Schelling, and sharing their enthusiasm for Rousseau, Kant, and (initially at least) the French Revolution. From 1793 to 1800 he worked as a house tutor, first in Berne and then in Frankfurt-am-Main, and wrote several manuscripts on religion and love that remained unpublished until the early twentieth century. In 1801 he moved to Jena where, under the influence ofSchelling, he began to develop his philosophical system. The distinctive introduction to that system, the Phenomenology of Spirit, which contains the famous analyses of the master/slave relation, the unhappy consciousness, and Sophocles’ Antigone, was published in 1807. While he was rector of a school in Nuremberg, Hegel completed the first part of the system itself, the monumental Science of Logic(published in three volumes from 1812 to 1816). In 1816 Hegel became professor of philosophy at Heidelberg and in 1817 published, under the title Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, an outline of his whole system, including, in addition to logic, the philosophy of nature and the philosophy of mind or spirit (Geist). During his years in Berlin from 1818 to 1831, Hegel then published theworks and delivered the lectures that would make him the most famous and influential philosopher in Germany. The Elements of the Philosophy of Right appeared in 1820, and two further, revised editions of the Encyclopaedia were published in 1827 and 1830. When he died on November 14, 1831, Hegel left behind not only his wife, Marie, and two sons, Karl and Immanuel, but also a body of thought that wouldinspire and provoke numerous philosophers, theologians, and 8

G. W. F. Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit

9

social theorists right up to the present day (despite being neglected by much of the philosophical establishment in Britain and the USA).

Freedom and Mutual Recognition
Hegel has been treated by some philosophers not just with indifference, but with outright hostility andsuspicion. Karl Popper, for example, famously counted him (with Plato and Marx) among the most potent enemies of the “open society.” Such a judgment is, however, hard to sustain when one reads carefully what Hegel actually wrote and taught. His texts and lectures make it clear that he was in fact an unceasing advocate of freedom and rationality, and no friend of totalitarianism or obscurantism. In thePhilosophy of Right, Hegel argues that freedom entails exercising choice, owning property, and working to satisfy one’s manifold needs. Freedom cannot, however, consist simply in doing what I want, because it is secured only when it is recognized by other individuals. I may insist that I am free to take possession of the objects of my desire, but I can do so in fact only when others acknowledge myright to own those objects. For Hegel, rights are first established by the very concept of freedom itself, since that concept determines what freedom requires, and whatever must fall to me as a free being thereby constitutes my right. As a free being I have the right to own property or engage in work, whether or not others recognize that right. That is why I can demand of others that they...
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