Robert Fulford's review of Hegel: A Biography, by Terry Pinkard

(The National Post, July 29, 2000)

For most of the 20th century, the densely knotted philosophy of Hegel was screened from public view by Karl Marx and his vast army of followers. After all, Marxism came out of Hegel, even if it came by a route that Hegel wouldn't have followed. Marx seized on Hegel's theory of history and turned it into a theory of revolution, giving Lenin and Stalin the arguments that produced their despotic empire. This made it hard to think about Hegel without thinking about the Gulag and other atrocities.

Marx aside, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) remains a thinker of great audacity and power. Over the years many philosophers have found him inspiring, including such eminent Canadians as Charles Taylor of McGill and Emil Fackenheim of the University of Toronto. Five years ago, in an essay on "Canada's Hegel," David MacGregor of the University of Western Ontario identified his influence on Canadian thinkers as various as Deborah Coyne, Barry Cooper, David Bercuson and Pierre Trudeau. MacGregor suggested that Hegel's emphasis on community, self-consciousness, and "the politics of recognition" evoke particularly strong echoes in Canada.

Now Terry Pinkard, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and a prolific Hegel scholar, has written Hegel: A Biography, to explain his value and meaning in the post-Marxist era.

Hegel is an intellectual quarry containing marble of many hues and patterns. Thinkers slice out what they want, then claim they've found the essence. German nationalists loved him as much as Marx did, and Nazi apologists borrowed his ideas on history and destiny. Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre put him to use, as did Theodor Adorno and the post-modern thinkers Adorno influenced. Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (1992) became a great success with its Hegelian argument about history reaching a conclusion.

If such disparate philosophers claim Hegel as a grandfather, that may be due to his notorious contempt for clarity as well as to the richness of his thought. He is a German idealist in the most terrifying meaning of the term. His greatest admirers call him difficult, and the adjectives "forbidding" and "impenetrable" attach themselves to his work like barnacles. By contrast, Heidegger is simply a good brisk workout, and Nietzsche is a walk in the park.

As Charles Larmore of the University of Chicago noted recently in The New Republic, Hegel happily followed in the bad-writing tradition pioneered by his great predecessor, Immanuel Kant. German philosophers made obscurity fashionable, even mandatory. They forgot, Larmore claims, "that clarity is not a mere embellishment of the intellect; it is the very heart of intellectual virtue." Forgot it? They seem never to have considered it -- and they would disdain anyone who dared mention it in serious company.

Pinkard, trying to give us the man as well as the thinker, runs into intractable problems. Hegel's letters were rarely self-revealing and few of his contemporaries left personal records. While Pinkard tells us more than we need to know about German university politics, he has little to say about what formed Hegel's character. His narrative leans heavily on speculation: Hegel's mother died when he was 11, but Pinkard can only guess at how this affected him and whether it led to his speech impediment and his apparently cool relations with his father.

Pinkard is better on the one towering ethical issue in Hegel's private life, his illegitimate child. In his mid-30s Hegel wrote a few words about sex in the margin of a manuscript, to the effect that men have desires while women have the need to satisfy men's desires; on the subject of women, he never advanced much beyond feudalism.

Around this time, as a penniless bachelor in Jena, working on The Phenomenology of Spirit while yearning for a good university job, he fathered a baby, Ludwig, with his landlady and housekeeper, Johanna Burkhardt, a woman recently abandoned by her husband. As Pinkard says, "Hegel's situation now became completely and totally desperate."

He accepted a newspaper job in Bavaria and left mother and baby behind in Jena. The child went into an orphanage, where Hegel was to pay the board for 10 years. Soon his career took a happier turn. A famous old secondary school in Nuremberg appointed him its head, and in a few years he felt secure enough to become engaged to the daughter of a good family. Announcing this to a friend, he wrote: "I ask you to keep this ... secret, since otherwise it might incite even more the impudence of that Burkhardt woman, should she find out about it." But she did learn of it, and (the story goes) showed up in Nuremberg, demanding satisfaction. Hegel was trying to negotiate a legal agreement with her, but (typically) the record doesn't show whether he succeeded.

His letters seldom portray him as a noble spirit. After his wedding he wrote: "I have now reached my earthly goal. For what more does one want in this world than an official post and a dear wife?" By then he was on the course that by 1818 would take him to Berlin and the most prestige-laden chair of philosophy in the German-speaking world. Five years after he married, Hegel brought 10-year-old Ludwig, whose mother had in the meantime died (history doesn't even record the year of her death), into his house, where the boy never felt accepted alongside Hegel's two legitimate sons.

The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), his greatest work, born the same year as Ludwig, focused on the working of mind and spirit through history. It was a reaction to the rush of history around him. His life straddled the death of religion-dominated Europe and the birth of the secular era in which we now live. He was part of the generation of intellectuals for whom the French revolution was exhilarating and Napoleon a titan. In 1806, at 36, Hegel glimpsed the great man himself: "I saw the Emperor -- that World Soul ... it is truly a wonderful sensation to see such an individual ..." To Hegel, Napoleon was not a dictator but a world-historical figure who would end feudalism and spread human rights across Europe.

After the American and French revolutions, the Europeans of the early 19th century were navigating their lives without a familiar compass. Hegel stepped forward and said, in effect: Follow me, we can think our way out of this. As an idealist, he thought that reality exists in the working of the mind. He believed that one over-arching philosophic system would apply to the whole world, and he was creating it. He put his faith in progress, conciliation and community. He argued that the development of civilization over millennia is the logical (if not inevitable) working through of the human spirit. In Hegel, history is no mere series of events; it is the unfolding of the mind as it comes to understand itself. Heightened self-consciousness is humanity's chief task and destiny.

During his last 13 years, in Berlin, his books became increasingly influential. Now he was the great sage of the Prussian capital, the focus of discussion and gossip far beyond the academic world. Whatever happened in Berlin, whether a new opera or a new political idea, everyone wanted to know what Hegel thought. Even his wretched style of lecturing, previously hated by students, began to seem admirable, almost chic. His notorious habit of restating his ideas on the run, sometimes delivering three or four versions of the same notion in succession, turned into an asset: students considered themselves privileged to hear great thoughts being born. Hegel's sudden death in 1831, caused perhaps by cholera or perhaps by the respiratory ailment that had plagued him for years, was experienced as a tragedy across the city and among readers of philosophy everywhere. At his funeral, one speaker compared him to Jesus Christ, and his students started publishing notes of his lectures, swelling his already sizeable body of work.

But soon his followers began fighting among themselves, like the heirs of a billionaire whose will is unclear. They split into those who thought his legacy conservative and those who considered it subversive. The first group fell into step behind the Prussian government. The second eventually produced Karl Marx, and soon Hegel was right in the middle of revolutionary history, though not in the way he had always hoped.

As an interpreter of Hegel, Pinkard does not wear his learning lightly, and as he piles on the analysis he pays no heed to the reader's pathetic cries for mercy. His index, so carelessly prepared that it is next to useless, symbolizes a lack of interest in his readers. I was glad to read his details-rich book, but even gladder to finish it.

Hegel: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, 780 pp., $59.95), by Terry Pinkard

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