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Summary Article: Hegel, Georg W. F.
From Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia

The German scholar Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) revolutionized European philosophy, developing a comprehensive system that gathered together the major strands of the speculative tradition, especially Plato, Aristotle, Baruch Spinoza, and Immanuel Kant. His work has continued to exert a profound influence on writers and thinkers in many disciplines down to the present today. In Hegel's system, the term anthropology is used in a technically narrow sense as the discipline that makes explicit the way embodiment affects awareness. Nonetheless, considered in a broader sense, anthropology, the study of human existence in its structure and in its history, is its center. In Hegel's view, the goal of the cosmos itself is to create the conditions for comprehending it and for reordering it for human well-being.


Hegel was born into a family of Lutheran pastors and minor public officials. He attended the theology seminar at Tübingen, where his roommates were the philosopher-to-be Friedrich Schelling and the poet-to-be Friedrich Hölderlin. In honor of the French Revolution, they planted a Freedom Tree; and Hegel annually toasted Bastille Day. His first position was as a private tutor. Through Schelling, he secured a position at the University of Jena, where he taught for 2 years. There, in 1807, he finished his best known work, The Phenomenology of Spirit, as Napoleon won the battle of Jena. Hegel said he saw “the World Spirit on horseback” riding triumphantly through the streets of Jena. He then took a 1-year position as editor of a pro-French newspaper, after which, for 8 years, he served as headmaster of a Gymnasium. During this time, he wrote two of his most important works, his System of Logic and the first draft of his Encyclopaedia of the Philosophic Sciences, which covered Logic, Nature, and Spirit/Mind. In 1816, he was appointed professor at Heidelberg. Two years later, he was called to the newly founded University of Berlin, where he served, with a term as rector, until his death. In 1821, he published his political theory in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, on which Marx wrote a notable critique. His lectures on the philosophy of history and on art, religion, and the history of philosophy were published posthumously.

Dialectic and the Whole

For Hegel, “The truth is the Whole.” What makes anthropos anthropos is the notion of Being that points us, albeit emptily, at everything and everything about everything. That is why every people, no matter how “primitive,” necessarily develops a world view. With the rise of philosophy among the Greeks, those views were subject to critique based on making explicit what is involved but not thought about in all our experience. Aristotle, in particular, following his master, Plato, surveyed the field of experience and laid out the bases for particular forms of inquiry that grew into the sciences. Hegel's thought keeps the Whole in view and heads off the temptation to derive various “isms” by projecting a limited method on the Whole. He claims to rewrite Aristotle in terms of what has developed since Aristotle.

In his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel arrived at the starting point for his system in following out the various governing forms of consciousness operative in Western culture from the beginning. The examination of those forms showed that each form, more fully developed, led to its own breakdown, which inaugurated new forms, which, in turn, went through the same process. They exhibited what he called dialectic. His dialectic traced an Aufhebung, a polyvalent, ordinary German word that can mean cancellation, retention, or elevation. As this appears both in the history he traces and in the conceptual generation of his system, it describes the process of development in which conflicting forms of life or conflicting concepts are overcome by canceling their respective limitations, preserving what is legitimate in them, and elevating them to a higher level of compatibility. This dialectic is not Hegel's “method”; it is the process of reality itself and the conceptual system that can be shown to underpin it.

Phenomenology of Spirit

Human beings, according to Hegel, are bipolar. Experience is anchored in two immediately given factors that are abstracted out of concrete experience: (1) sensory features (color, sound, etc.) and (2) the notion of Being as an empty reference to the Whole. Phenomenology of Spirit begins with the former and ends with the conceptual space governed by the notion of Being that launches the Logic. Phenomenology, in the analysis of consciousness, shows the way in which scattered sensory experiences are gathered around the things exhibited in perception; it also shows how we can speak about these matters because of the universal forms (color, sound, things, forms, language, etc.) involved in language. But consciousness implies selfconsciousness, first of appetites that reveal the needs of the conscious being. But distinctively, human self-consciousness emerges out of encounter with other human beings, which forms the existential center of Hegel's thought.

Here, we find the famous master/slave dialectic that grounds all development in history. It arises in the situation of encounter between living, selfdetermining beings. The slave clings to life and thus gives up his freedom to the master, who is unafraid to risk his life and thus secures his self-determination. But the master's self-determination has the character of irrational arbitrariness. The slave, in being forced to work for the master, learns what the self-indulgent master never learns but what every child should learn through obeying commands: that one does not have to follow one's whims but can determine oneself. This is the first stage of rationally free self-determination. The slave through manipulating materials also learns things about nature that one could not know merely by contemplating it and develops skills for reworking nature that would otherwise have lain fallow. History follows the slave in learning more and more about the natural world by endeavoring to develop techniques for shaping it.

The situation is transcended in the recognition by the Stoics that, whether on the throne (Marcus Aurelius) or in chains (Epictetus), through reason the human being is essentially free to take up his attitude toward his external condition.


There are three parts to Hegel's system, (1) Logic, (2) Nature, and (3) Spirit, each exhibiting the dialectic in its own way. Logic is broader than formal logic, though the latter finds its place within the larger Logic. Hegel develops the categories that human beings necessarily employ without making them explicit.

The Logic begins with the empty notion of Being and shows how it dialectically transforms itself when we carry out careful analyses. The Logic lays out the categories involved in (a) the sensory encounter with individual things (quality, quantity, and measure), (b) the intelligible apprehension of the universal notions things exhibit to an intellectual being (essence, existence, and actuality), and (c) the human subject together with the formal logical categories employed in intellection (what we may call Formal Logic, Systems Logic, and the Logic of Life). It is the human subject, grounded in life and seeking the true and the good, who is typically left out of the scientific picture but who is the basis of science and, for Hegel, the purpose of the cosmos.


The Logic is instantiated in Nature and in Geist (Mind/Spirit). The latter refers to the way human awareness, beyond the sensations and desires that govern animal awareness, transcends the here-and-now by being aware of the Cosmos and its time-encompassing, transcendent Ground mediating the relation between persons. Humans are thus able to pursue the True and the Good in cooperation with other humans. Nature and history display the further conditions that make possible ongoing scientific inquiry and the kind of society grounded in human rights where people can move creatively in all directions compatible with a sense of identity with family, with groups formed around occupations, and with the various levels of the state.

According to Hegel, the state comes into being historically when agriculture and marriage are institutionalized. It expands into empire with the invention of writing. The story of the development of rationality is centered on freedom. In the ancient empires, only one person was free, the emperor; and his freedom was only formal freedom or arbitrary will. A further development occurs with the Graeco-Roman period, when citizens, but not slaves, were free. A kind of culmination occurred through Christianity, which affirms the intrinsic dignity of all humans. It required centuries before that could fully penetrate society. Hegel discerned the main lines of that development in the Prussian Reform Movement, which was cut short by monarchical reaction. In the society he envisioned, what was made possible was the choice of rational or substantial freedom.

Objective Spirit

Hegel explores the institutional structures within which the free spirit can reach full actuality: the realm of objective spirit, residue of the work of those long dead, treated in his “Philosophy of Right.” He follows Aristotle in rooting human development in the institution of the family, where one learns what it is to identify with and foster others. As in Aristotle, there is an encompassing level Aristotle called the polis, which, historically developed, became the complex of institutions Hegel calls the State.

In modernity, two new features appeared: (1) recognition of abstract right in the right to property and (2) the inviolability of conscience, which together developed into a set of rights inserted between family and state to form civil society, the locus of free-entry associations like business enterprises, universities, churches, fine arts societies, and the like. Here, we find freedom of the press, of religion, of enterprise, of inquiry and publicity, and of marriage and occupational choices, and the right to a jury trial. A major function of the state is to preserve such rights, constitutionally structured in a hierarchy of functions and jurisdictions that buffer the individual from unwarranted intrusion from above. The function of administration at the level of civil society is to provide infrastructure, ensure fair trade practices, and provide a safety net for those severely disadvantaged by the otherwise free enterprise system. Nonetheless, poverty and the possibility of an alienated rabble arise through the changing relation between overproduction and the economic capacity for consumption.

The state features an independent judiciary and a legislative assembly comprising the commercial, agricultural, and civil service branches. Members of the latter are to be “educated to universality” of outlook at the University of Berlin. The monarch stands atop the system, constitutionally limited and dependent on a cabinet of trained civil servants. In an ideal organization, like the Queen of England, his function is to sign documents and preside over official functions.

Absolute Spirit

Hegel rejects a world society of lasting peace, which would further support the natural tendency of individuals to limit their horizons to purely private interests, with little or no concern for the Whole. The threat of war between sovereign states makes individuals aware that they need to think in terms of the nation as a whole. The tension that this unsettled relation between states produces leads into the ultimate rational dimension of final reconciliation brought about by religion. Religion provides the highest mission of art, to represent the Absolute in sensory form. Philosophy provides the ultimate interlocking set of categories that completes and rationally grounds religious orientation.

Relation to Marx

Karl Marx was one of the Young Hegelians, who followed the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach's reduction of religion to anthropology, rejected the grounding of the Whole in Spirit rather than in material forces, focused on the alienation involved in the master/slave relation as that played out in the emerging proletariat, and employed the dialectic for historical analysis. In setting thought back on its feet, reversing Hegel's general position, Marx regarded philosophy as ideology, dependent on and rationalizing the basically formative control of the means of production.

See also Aristotle; Deconstruction; Frankfurt School; Marx, Karl; Marxist Anthropology; Plato

Further Readings
  • Hegel, G. W. F. (1981). Hegel's phenomenology of spirit (Miller, A. Trans.). Oxford University Press Oxford, UK.
  • Hegel, G. W. F. (1991). Elements of the philosophy of right (Nisbet, H. Trans.). Cambridge University Press New York, NY.
  • Hegel, G. W. F. (2007). Hegel's philosophy of mind (Inwood, M. Trans.). Clarendon Press Oxford, UK.
  • Inwood, M. (2007). A commentary on Hegel's philosophy of mind. Clarendon Press Oxford, UK.
  • Petry, M. (1977). Hegel's philosophy of spirit (3 vols.). Springer New York, NY.
  • Pinkard, T. (2000). Hegel: A biography. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, UK.
  • Robert E. Wood
    © 2013 SAGE Publications, Inc

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