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Hegel: A Biography by Terry Pinkard

Ralph Blumenau immerses himself in a monumental biography of Hegel by Terry Pinkard.

Terry Pinkard is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. This monumental work has 665 pages of text, followed by 115 pages of notes, sources, and index. Ten of its fifteen chapters deal primarily with Hegel’s life and with the social, cultural and political climate within which he worked. These biographical chapters are very accessible, although marred by a style that is peppered with colloquialisms and even slang – I have lost count of the number of times Pinkard uses the phrase ‘a bit’, as in ‘a bit worried’ or ‘a bit of scepticism’. The editorial staff ought to have eliminated these. Moreover, the proofreading of the book is quite the worst I have ever come across and is a disgrace to an academic publisher.

The technical discussion of Hegel’s philosophy is, mercifully, presented in five separate chapters, all of which I have found almost impenetrable. A reader seeking an outline of Hegel’s philosophy would do much better to read Peter Singer’s little book from the Oxford University Press (1983). Pinkard himself is openly scornful of much that has been written about the philosopher previously. In his Preface, he leads the reader to expect a demolition of some of the ideas generally held about Hegel’s teaching. He points out that the notion of thesisantithesis- synthesis attributed to Hegel in a popular book (not listed in Pinkard’s bibliography) by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus in the middle of the l9th century, and subsequently perpetuated by Marx, was never held by Hegel. Frederick Coplestone says that he used these terms only seldom (Pinkard says “never”). Nevertheless, even Pinkard shows how often Hegel explained the development of a new idea arising out of the clash between contradictions.

Extraordinarily, Pinkard never mentions the notorious phrases which Hegel applied to the State: “The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth”; “we must therefore worship the State as the manifestation of the Divine on Earth”; “the State exists for its own sake” etc. All these are quoted and sourced by Karl Popper in his famous attack on Hegel, The Open Society and its Enemies (Vol.II, pp.31 and 305), but Popper does not figure in Pinkard’s bibliography either. These quotations are not confronted. Instead, Pinkard uses a sentence from Hegel’s Philosophy of World History to convey the opposite impression: “The universal spirit or world spirit is not the same thing as God.” (p.494)

Pinkard does succeed in bringing out the development of Hegel’s thought. Like every great philosopher, Hegel changed some of his ideas in the course of his life. Moreover, he was capable of perplexing his contemporaries by what appeared to them to be contradictions in his behaviour. The strength of this biography is that it shows how Hegel could combine sympathy for the early phases of the French Revolution and then for Napoleon with acting, at the very end of his life, as a government commissar to supervise the University of Berlin and therefore responsible for seeing that the University did not fall foul of the repressive Carlsbad Decrees to which the Prussian government subscribed. He approved of the dismissal of a colleague, de Wette, for radicalism, but then urged that he should continue to receive his salary and, when the university refused, contributed to a secret annual fund to support him. He had great sympathy for those of his students who got into trouble for liberalism, and was yet very hostile to liberalism himself. No wonder that, even in his life-time, the Reformers with whom Hegel identified himself in many respects, thought he had sold out to the conservatives. Pinkard generally defends him against this charge. As Hegel himself pointed out to Heine, his famous sentence that “the Real is the Rational and the Rational is the Real” consisted of two statements and whilst the first of them has a conservative bent, the second has a radical one: if a situation is not or is no longer rational, it loses the claim to be real. After Hegel’s death, the Young Hegelians (also called Left Hegelians) would use the second part of the sentence as their lodestar, and would restore to the dialectic the dynamism which is built into it and with which conservatism was really very ill-matched.

Certainly, Hegel was constantly opposed by the reactionaries in the Prussian government and always felt in danger of being denounced as a ‘demagogue’ (i.e., subversive) or an atheist, either of which would have been a cause for his dismissal. He survived because of the patronage of the Education Minister, von Altenstein (whose own survival in an increasingly reactionary government is itself surprising).

The kind of reform he and von Altenstein supported and for which he made a philosophical case was an enlightened and rational cameralism: the state should be run by cultured civil servants who would yet respect corporate representation. He rejected liberalism on Rousseauist lines: liberals wanted individuals to be given the vote in geographical constituencies; and Hegel believed that this would lead to people selfishly putting their individual interests above community ones. He was well aware that the old corporate bodies could also be selfish and particularist, and he never solved the problem of how to get them to merge their own interests in those of the state. At the same time, the kind of state he supported was itself particularist: he had no sympathy whatever with the German nationalism that grew in strength during his lifetime, and he punned that those who supported Deutschthum (Germanness) were really deutsch dumm (stupidly German). His dialectic did not envisage that the Spirit of History was working towards national unification (but, to be fair, he never claimed that the philosopher could be a prophet: his ideas are conditioned by his times and cannot transcend the contemporary world).

One of the most interesting themes of the book is the immense importance the reformers attached to the universities as the motor of enlightenment, reform and modernization; and within the universities, the principal task of promoting Bildung (culture based on independent thought) should fall upon the departments of philosophy. This idea had been launched by Fichte at the University of Jena at a time when the German universities were in a parlous state and were still dominated by the theologians. Fichte’s ideas won the support of Goethe, then the Minister at the Court of Weimar with responsibility for the university. From this time onwards, German governments took an increasing role in financing the universities, and having a say over the appointment of professors. Hegel had his first academic appointment at Jena (1801 to 1808). His identification with the ideas of the reformers secured him appointments to professorships, first in Heidelberg (1816 to 1818) and then in Berlin (1818 to his death in 1831). Unfortunately, as Pinkard points out, whenever Hegel took up a university position, the cause for which he stood happened to be in retreat: at Jena the reforming philosophers were leaving just as he arrived and the university was subsequently devastated by the French bombardment during the Battle of Jena (1806); at Heidelberg the traditionalists (who there included most of the students) were fighting back; and at Berlin the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819 also put the reformers on the defensive.

Pinkard is also interesting on Hegel’s personality. Extremely sociable and convivial in private life, he was dry, ponderous and nervous as a lecturer; and yet he gradually attracted very large and loyal student audiences who took his pauses, hesitations and repetitions as signs that he was arguing with himself while speaking, appearing, as it were, to put the dialectic into operation even while he was thinking. The contradictions which infuse his theories were also present in his life.

© Ralph Blumenau 2002

Ralph Blumenau lives in London and teaches philosophy at the University of the Third Age. His book, Philosophy and Living is due to be published on September 2 by Imprint Academic.

Hegel: A Biography by Terry Pinkard (Cambridge University Press £25)

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