Hegelianism is the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel which can be summed up by the dictum that "the rational alone is real", which means that all reality is capable of being expressed in rational categories. His goal was to reduce reality to a more synthetic unity within the system of absolute idealism.
Hegel's method in philosophy consists of the triadic development (Entwicklung) in each concept and each thing. Thus, he hopes, philosophy will not contradict experience, but experience will give data to the philosophical, which is the ultimately true explanation. If, for instance, we wish to know what liberty is, we take that concept where we first find it—the unrestrained action of the savage, who does not feel the need of repressing any thought, feeling, or tendency to act.
Next, we find that the savage has given up this freedom in exchange for its opposite: the restraint, or, as he considers it, the tyranny of civilization and law. Finally, in the citizen under the rule of law, we find the third stage of development, namely liberty in a higher and a fuller sense than how the savage possessed it—the liberty to do, say, and think many things beyond the power of the savage.
In this triadic process, the second stage is the direct opposite, the annihilation, or at least the sublation, of the first. The third stage is the first returned to itself in a higher, truer, richer, and fuller form. The three stages are, therefore, styled:
These three stages are found succeeding one another throughout the whole realm of thought and being, from the most abstract logical process up to the most complicated concrete activity of organized mind in the succession of states or the production of systems of philosophy.
In logic – which, according to Hegel, is really metaphysic – we have to deal with the process of development applied to reality in its most abstract form. According to Hegel, in logic, we deal in concepts robbed of their empirical content: in logic we are discussing the process in a vacuum, so to speak. Thus, at the very beginning of Hegel's study of reality, he finds the logical concept of being.
Now, being is not a static concept according to Hegel, as Aristotle supposed it was. It is essentially dynamic, because it tends by its very nature to pass over into nothing, and then to return to itself in the higher concept, becoming. For Aristotle, there was nothing more certain than that being equaled being, or, in other words, that being is identical with itself, that everything is what it is. Hegel does not deny this; but, he adds, it is equally certain that being tends to become its opposite, nothing, and that both are united in the concept becoming.
For instance, the truth about this table, for Aristotle, is that it is a table. For Hegel, the equally important truth is that it was a tree, and it "will be" ashes. The whole truth, for Hegel, is that the tree became a table and will become ashes. Thus, becoming, not being, is the highest expression of reality. It is also the highest expression of thought because then only do we attain the fullest knowledge of a thing when we know what it was, what it is, and what it will be-in a word, when we know the history of its development.
In the same way as "being" and "nothing" develop into the higher concept becoming, so, farther on in the scale of development, life and mind appear as the third terms of the process and in turn are developed into higher forms of themselves. (Aristotle saw "being" as superior to "becoming", because anything which is still becoming something else is imperfect. Hence, God, for Aristotle, is perfect because He never changes, but is eternally complete.) But one cannot help asking what is it that develops or is developed?
Its name, Hegel answers, is different in each stage. In the lowest form it is "being", higher up it is "life", and in still higher form it is "mind". The only thing always present is the process (das Werden). We may, however, call the process by the name of "spirit" (Geist) or "idea" (Begriff). We may even call it God, because at least in the third term of every triadic development the process is God.
The first and most wide-reaching consideration of the process of spirit, God, or the idea, reveals to us the truth that the idea must be studied (1) in itself; this is the subject of logic or metaphysics; (2) out of itself, in nature; this is the subject of the philosophy of nature; and (3) in and for itself, as mind; this is the subject of the philosophy of mind (Geistesphilosophie).
Passing over the rather abstract considerations by which Hegel shows in his Logik the process of the idea-in-itself through being to becoming, and finally through essence to notion, we take up the study of the development of the idea at the point where it enters into otherness in nature. In nature the idea has lost itself, because it has lost its unity and is splintered, as it were, into a thousand fragments. But the loss of unity is only apparent, because in reality the idea has merely concealed its unity.
Studied philosophically, nature reveals itself as so many successful attempts of the idea to emerge from the state of otherness and present itself to us as a better, fuller, richer idea, namely, spirit, or mind. Mind is, therefore, the goal of nature. It is also the truth of nature. For whatever is in nature is realized in a higher form in the mind which emerges from nature.
The philosophy of mind begins with the consideration of the individual, or subjective, mind. It is soon perceived, however, that individual, or subjective, mind is only the first stage, the in-itself stage, of mind. The next stage is objective mind, or mind objectified in law, morality, and the State. This is mind in the condition of out-of-itself.
There follows the condition of absolute mind, the state in which mind rises above all the limitations of nature and institutions, and is subjected to itself alone in art, religion, and philosophy. For the essence of mind is freedom, and its development must consist in breaking away from the restrictions imposed on it in its otherness by nature and human institutions.
Hegel's philosophy of the State, his theory of history, and his account of absolute mind are perhaps the most often-read portions of his philosophy due to their accessibility. The State, he says, is mind objectified. The individual mind, which (on account of its passions, its prejudices, and its blind impulses) is only partly free, subjects itself to the yoke of necessity—the opposite of freedom—in order to attain a fuller realization of itself in the freedom of the citizen.
This yoke of necessity is first met within the recognition of the rights of others, next in morality, and finally in social morality, of which the primal institution is the family. Aggregates of families form civil society, which, however, is but an imperfect form of organization compared with the State. The State is the perfect social embodiment of the idea, and stands in this stage of development for God Himself.
The State, studied in itself, furnishes for our consideration constitutional law. In relation to other States it develops international law; and in its general course through historical vicissitudes it passes through what Hegel calls the "Dialectics of History".
Hegel teaches that the constitution is the collective spirit of the nation and that the government and the written constitution is the embodiment of that spirit. Each nation has its own individual spirit, and the greatest of crimes is the act by which the tyrant or the conqueror stifles the spirit of a nation.
War, Hegel suggests, can never be ruled out, as one can never know when or if one will occur, an example being the Napoleonic overrunning of Europe and its abolition of traditional Royalist systems. War represents a crisis in the development of the idea which is embodied in the different States, and out of this crisis usually the State which holds the more advanced spirit wins out, though it may also suffer a loss, lick its wounds, yet still win in the spiritual sense, as happened for example when the northerners sacked Rome — Rome's form of legality and its religion "won" out in spite of the losses on the battlefield.
A peaceful revolution is also possible (according to Hegel) when the changes required to solve a crisis are ascertained by thoughtful insight and when this insight spreads throughout the body politic:
If a people [Volk] can no longer accept as implicitly true what its constitution expresses to it as the truth, if its consciousness or Notion and its actuality are not at one, then the people's spirit is torn asunder. Two things may then occur. First, the people may either by a supreme internal effort dash into fragments this law which still claims authority, or it may more quietly and slowly effect changes on the yet operative law, which is, however, no longer true morality, but which the mind has already passed beyond. In the second place, a people's intelligence and strength may not suffice for this, and it may hold to the lower law; or it may happen that another nation has reached its higher constitution, thereby rising in the scale, and the first gives up its nationality and becomes subject to the other. Therefore it is of essential importance to know what the true constitution is; for what is in opposition to it has no stability, no truth, and passes away. It has a temporary existence, but cannot hold its ground; it has been accepted, but cannot secure permanent acceptance; that it must be cast aside, lies in the very nature of the constitution. This insight can be reached through Philosophy alone. Revolutions take place in a state without the slightest violence when the insight becomes universal; institutions, somehow or other, crumble and disappear, each man agrees to give up his right. A government must, however, recognize that the time for this has come; should it, on the contrary, knowing not the truth, cling to temporary institutions, taking what — though recognized — is unessential, to be a bulwark guarding it from the essential (and the essential is what is contained in the Idea), that government will fall, along with its institutions, before the force of mind. The breaking up of its government breaks up the nation itself; a new government arises, — or it may be that the government and the unessential retain the upper hand.
The "ground" of historical development is, therefore, rational; since the State, if it is not in contradiction, is the embodiment of reason as spirit. Many, at first considered to be contingent events of history, can become, in reality or in necessity, stages in the logical unfolding of the sovereign reason which gets embodied in an advanced State. Such a "necessary contingency" when expressed in passions, impulse, interest, character, personality, get used by the "cunning of reason", which, in retrospect, was to its own purpose.
We are, therefore, to understand historical happenings as the stern, reluctant working of reason towards the full realization of itself in perfect freedom. Consequently, we must interpret history in rational terms, and throw the succession of events into logical categories and this interpretation is, for Hegel, a mere inference from actual history.
Thus the widest view of history reveals three most important stages of development:
Even in the State, mind is limited by subjection to other minds. There remains the final step in the process of the acquisition of freedom, namely, that by which absolute mind in art, religion, and philosophy subjects itself to itself alone. In art, mind has the intuitive contemplation of itself as realized in the art material, and the development of the arts has been conditioned by the ever-increasing "docility" with which the art material lends itself to the actualization of mind or the idea.
In religion, mind feels the superiority of itself to the particularizing limitations of finite things. Here, as in the philosophy of history, there are three great moments, Oriental religion, which exaggerated the idea of the infinite, Greek religion, which gave undue importance to the finite, and Christianity, which represents the union of the infinite and the finite. Last of all, absolute mind, as philosophy, transcends the limitations imposed on it even in religious feeling, and, discarding representative intuition, attains all truth under the form of reason.
Whatever truth there is in art and in religion is contained in philosophy, in a higher form, and free from all limitations. Philosophy is, therefore, "the highest, freest and wisest phase of the union of subjective and objective mind, and the ultimate goal of all development."
The far reaching influence of Hegel is due in a measure to the undoubted vastness of the scheme of philosophical synthesis which he conceived and partly realized. A philosophy which undertook to organize under the single formula of triadic development every department of knowledge, from abstract logic up to the philosophy of history, has a great deal of attractiveness to those who are metaphysically inclined. But Hegel's influence is due in a still larger measure to two extrinsic circumstances.
His philosophy is the highest expression of that spirit of collectivism which characterized the nineteenth century. In theology especially Hegel revolutionized the methods of inquiry. The application of his notion of development to Biblical criticism and to historical investigation is obvious to anyone who compares the spirit and purpose of contemporary theology with the spirit and purpose of the theological literature of the first half of the nineteenth century.
In science, too, and in literature, the substitution of the category of becoming for the category of being is a very patent fact, and is due to the influence of Hegel's method. In political economy and political science the effect of Hegel's collectivistic conception of the State supplanted to a large extent the individualistic conception which was handed down from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth century.
Hegel's philosophy became known outside Germany from the 1820s onwards, and Hegelian schools developed in northern Europe, Italy, France, Eastern Europe, America and Britain. These schools are collectively known as post-Hegelian philosophy, post-Hegelian idealism or simply post-Hegelianism.
The Rightists developed his philosophy along lines which they considered to be in accordance with Christian theology. They included Johann Philipp Gabler, Johann Karl Friedrich Rosenkranz, and Johann Eduard Erdmann.
The Leftists accentuated the anti-Christian tendencies of Hegel's system and developed schools of materialism, socialism, rationalism, and pantheism. They included Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Bruno Bauer, and David Strauss. Max Stirner socialized with the left Hegelians but built his own philosophical system largely opposing that of these thinkers.
In Britain, Hegelianism was represented during the nineteenth century by, and largely overlapped the British Idealist school of James Hutchison Stirling, Thomas Hill Green, William Wallace, John Caird, Edward Caird, Richard Lewis Nettleship, F. H. Bradley, and J. M. E. McTaggart.
Hegelianism in North America was represented by Friedrich August Rauch and William T. Harris, as well as the St. Louis Hegelians. In its most recent form it seems to take its inspiration from Thomas Hill Green, and whatever influence it exerts is opposed to the prevalent pragmatic tendency.
Benedetto Croce and Étienne Vacherot were the leading Hegelians towards the end of the nineteenth century in Italy and France, respectively. Among Catholic philosophers who were influenced by Hegel the most prominent were Georg Hermes and Anton Günther.
Hegelianism spread to Imperial Russia through St. Petersburg in the 1840s, and was – as other intellectual waves were – considered an absolute truth amongst the intelligentsia, until the arrival of Darwinism in the 1860s.