The Hegelians

In one rather obvious way, Hegel's thesis was falsified, or at least rendered in need of qualification, by the subsequent history of philosophy and theology. The lack of an overwhelming consensus in favor of his position suggested that philosophy had not reached the final point of its evolution. The presence of radical disagreement called into question the historical optimism of his position, and even in his own later writings one senses some pessimism regarding the future of philosophy and history.

During his own lifetime, Hegel's work not only commanded wide support but also provoked varied forms of opposition. These trends continued after his lifetime and led to a polarization of views which eventually brought about the dissolution in the 1840s of the syntheses he offered between reason and revelation, religion and philosophy, and church and society. Nonetheless, his engagement with theologians and church leaders discloses the extent to which he sought not to replace religion but only to bring its claims to a higher form of understanding. The communal activity of the church is not rendered obsolete so much as set within the new light of philosophical consciousness.

Throughout the 1820s, Hegel's attempt to distinguish his position from competing alternatives signifies a debate already underway in German society. The attempt to integrate the revealed truths of Christianity with the speculative reasoning of philosophy distances Hegel both from rationalist orthodoxy and from anti-rationalist theologies of feeling. Much of what Hegel writes is consciously directed at the teaching of Schleiermacher, his theological colleague in Berlin. Occasioning a lively public debate, Hegel's program attracted support, yet even amongst his followers anxieties can be detected. One concern surrounded the apparent distortion of the central doctrinal themes of Christian theology. The necessity of creation, the drive toward a unitarianism of the third person of the Trinity, the incarnation as a religious symbol - all these prevented orthodox theologians, otherwise sympathetic to Hegel's attempt to integrate philosophy and theology, from an unqualified commitment to his system. In The Life of Jesus (1835), a book that is sometimes viewed as marking the split within the Hegelian school, David Friedrich Strauss distinguished right-wing from left-wing Hegelianism. On the right were those who maintained the traditional doctrine of the person of Christ (two natures in one person), while on the left were skeptics who doubted both the historical veracity of the gospel record and traditional dogma. Situated somewhere in the Hegelian middle were those who steered a mediating course. Although Strauss's division was somewhat restricted by Christological criteria, his categories have persisted in subsequent descriptions of Hegel's school. The right-wing or Old Hegelians are identified as those who sought to avoid impressions of pantheism by maintaining ideas of a personal God, individual immortality, and historical revelation. These included early disciples of Hegel such as F. W. Carove (1789-1852) and F. W. Hinrichs (1794-1861). It is against this strain of Hegelianism that Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) reacted so violently in Lutheran Denmark. On the Hegelian left was a radical intellectual and political grouping who sought the translation of Hegel's insights into practical outcomes. Reacting against the intellectualism of his philosophy, they sought a greater degree of empirical application from philosophy. This led to the emergence of a more critical attitude to religion in the work of Strauss (1808-1874), Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), and Karl Marx (1818-1883). Thus, in Feuerbach's work there is a secularizing or humanizing of Hegel's philosophy by which theology becomes subordinated to anthropology. Already in 1828, Feuerbach had written to Hegel in terms which indicate a significant departure from his teacher's thought.18 The subject of striving is our sensuous nature which seeks its fulfillment in the natural world. This can come about not through the re-assertion of Christianity as the absolute religion but through a new era of world history in which Hegel's theology is broadened through its being secularized. In signaling his departure from Hegel's intentions, Feuerbach's work reveals the manner in which the left wing had departed from Hegelianism by the 1840s.

In part, the demise of Hegel's own program may have been the consequence of a polarization of positions which evacuated the middle ground that he and several theological followers - K. Daub (1765-1836), P. K. Marheineke (17801846), and F. C. Baur (1792-1860) - had sought to occupy. With both the reassertion of Christian orthodoxy on the right and the secularization of theology in the hands of the left-wing Hegelians, public support for Hegel's program of scientific theology was eroded.

Nevertheless, later in the nineteenth century Hegel's philosophy continued to arouse interest and to be appropriated in different ways around Europe and North America. In Britain, there was little initial enthusiasm for Hegel partly due to the anti-speculative nature of philosophical work in England and Scotland, but perhaps also because Hegel's work had been tainted by the (somewhat vague) charge of pantheism. Yet this was to change in the second half of the nineteenth century, ironically at a time when Hegelianism had largely collapsed in Germany. In 1855, an English translation of Hegel appeared with the publication of part of his Science of Logic.19 The first major study of Hegel in English was James Hutchison Stirling's The Secret of Hegel, Being the Hegelian-System in Origin, Principle, Form, and Matter, the two volumes of which were published in London in 1865. Stirling viewed Hegel's philosophy as the necessary development of Kant's transcendental idealism. Instead of positing an unknown world of things in themselves, Hegel understands the universal principles of the understanding as bringing to our consciousness the real world, as "the diamond net which by its invisible meshes encloses, not the veil that conceals, the real world."20 While offering an enthusiastic endorsement of Hegel's philosophy, Stirling's work, like that of his master, was difficult if not impenetrable. It was remarked at the time that if Stirling knew the secret of Hegel, he had managed to keep it to himself.21 Yet his book precipitated a stream of translations and further discussions of Hegel from philosophers including T. H. Green (1836-1882), John Caird (1820-1898), Edward Caird

(1835-1908), Henry Jones (1852-1922), F. H. Bradley (1846-1924), and Bernard Bosanquet (1848-1923). Thus British idealism flourished as a movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly in Glasgow and Oxford (mainly at Balliol). Largely preoccupied with issues relating to epistemology, perception, science, and art, the idealists saw Hegel's work in relation to problems inherent in Kant. This philosophy was also allied to a keen interest in political and social reform through enhancing the role of the state in the late Victorian period.22

In the work of the Oxford philosopher T. H. Green, we find the development of an idealist system that reveals significant Hegelian influences.23 Our awareness of an orderly and intelligible world requires the existence of an enduring subject or consciousness which organizes sensory experience. According to the same principle, the world itself must be sustained and organized by an overriding "spiritual principle." How this relates to individual subjects is not always clear, but it seems that the "Eternal Spiritual Principle" must reproduce itself in the emergence of finite minds. Accordingly, Green views historical progress in terms of the process by which spirit (the spiritual principle) attains greater fulfillment. Green's progressive understanding of history informed his political thought - he was the first active university teacher to serve on the Oxford Town Council. Reposing on a moral basis, the state had a duty to promote the freedom of its individual citizens. This end, however, required a criticism of laissez-faire economics leading to some anticipation in Green's work of the welfare state. Green's theological commitments seem largely to have been accommodated to his philosophical convictions. While remaining within the Church of England, he criticized scriptural infallibility and doctrinal rigidity. The relevance of Christianity seems instead to have resided in the "essentially spiritual nature of all existence and our mission to be the instruments of some divine process."24

John Caird, the Glasgow theologian, offers a more determined effort to integrate Hegelian themes with classical Christian dogma. Belonging to the established Church of Scotland, Caird's sympathies were catholic, tolerant, and politically progressive. Like Green, he was actively involved in social reform and enlisted church support for a deeper understanding of the causes of poverty. In this and other ways, he played an important part in the renewal of Scottish church life in the late Victorian period.25 Although influenced by Kantian and Hegelian philosophy, Caird's theology attempted a more orthodox appropriation of this than did that of his younger brother Edward Caird, who held the Chair of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow before becoming Master of Balliol College, Oxford. This is most apparent in his two volumes of Gifford lectures, The Fundamental Ideas of Christianity.

In describing the relation of the world to God, John Caird discusses two propositions at some length. The first is that infinite Spirit or Mind constitutes the reality of the external world. In Kantian mode, he argues for the conditioning powers of the mind. We bring to sensation various organizing and processing principles. However, the sense that nature persists when not experienced or known by us is guaranteed by the principle that it exists by virtue of an intelligence neither imperfect nor transient in which everything has its being. (This resembles a Berkleian defense of idealism.) The same principle applies also to our finite minds and their operations. These presuppose an Absolute Intelligence. Indeed, Caird even remarks that "all intellectual and spiritual progress may be said to be measured by the degree in which we cease to think our own thoughts, abnegate all self-assertion, and let our minds become the pure media of the universal and absolute intelligence."26

Caird's second proposition is that the idea of God involves or demands the existence of a finite world. Here he argues that God fulfills the divine self in the existence of the world and in the spiritual life and destiny of human persons.27 There is both a divine element in us and a human element in God. All art, science, morality, and religion rest upon a divine ideal which provides the standard and criterion of truth and judgment. Yet that divine ideal is only realized in us. Its presence in God demands a world in which it is instantiated. God as subject requires a world as object. Love must give itself away in suffering, sacrifice, and union with the other. The Christian idea of the Logos or Son of God implies the self-communication of God and the making of others in the divine image. Knowledge takes us far beyond ourselves, but also deeper into ourselves and into God: "As part of an intelligible world, every object which intelligence contemplates is its own object; and as it enters into knowledge and yields up its essence to the mind that lays hold of it, it becomes for that mind a revelation of its own latent wealth, or rather of its capacity for participating in the wealth of the Mind for and in which all things have their being."28 A question that arises is whether the distinctiveness of human personality is overwhelmed in this process.29 Is there resurrection, or only absorption into the divine life? "Religion is the absolute self-surrender of the soul to God. It means the giving up or annulling of the private, particular self, of every interest or satisfaction that belongs to me as this particular individuality, and the blending or identification of my will, and potentially of my whole life and being, with the will of the Infinite."30

The decline of British idealism is dated most readily from the time of the First World War. The shattering of late-Victorian and Edwardian optimism by the traumas of the war rendered anachronistic any account of steady historical progress. By then, however, English-language philosophy had already returned to realism and a more piecemeal approach to philosophical enquiry in the work of G. E. Moore (1873-1958), Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), although neo-Kantian idealism continued to flourish for a time in Germany in the work of Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) and Paul Natorp (1854-1924). As Geoffrey Warnock has pointed out, idealism declined not so much because it was decisively defeated but because a younger group of philosophers generated interest in a fresh set of topics, thus abandoning older patterns of thought that quickly seemed arcane and outmoded: "Metaphysical systems do not yield, as a rule, to frontal attack.. Such systems are more vulnerable to ennui than to disproof. They are citadels, much shot at perhaps but never taken by storm, which are quietly discovered one day to be no longer inhabited. The way in which an influential philosopher may undermine the empire of his predecessors consists, one may say, chiefly in his providing his contemporaries with other interests."31

Other features of idealism have also been questioned. At the end of Christendom, we have come to an era of cultural fragmentation when the reconciliation and progress suggested by Hegel's philosophy seem remote possibilities. Since Kierkegaard, critics have complained about the totalizing and depersonalizing tendencies of Hegel's philosophy, which describes and positions each particular in terms of a global system. Individuality is thus expended for the sake of a comprehensive explanatory scheme. Moreover, the attempt to offer a historical study of religion which locates Christianity at a point where all other faiths are regarded as at best anticipatory is now discredited. Historical and social scientific study of religion has its own integrity without subordination to the interests of theology. Islam continues to command the allegiance of millions in a world that remains "furiously religious" (Berger). The projects of Christian theology are more fragmented and occasional. The systematic theologies that are written today do not generally attempt the vast integration of discourses, disciplines, and religions that we find in Hegel. Although philosophy shows positive signs today of a reawakened interest in the resources of the Christian tradition, the grand Hegelian synthesis cannot be repeated at this time. At best, it is viewed as a monumental accomplishment of an earlier, more self-confident era.

However, the student of modern theology cannot afford to bypass Hegel's work. Its conceptuality has entered the bloodstream of Christian thought, particularly in the renaissance of Trinitarian doctrine from Barth onward. The dynamism of the life of God, as opposed to more static accounts of the divine being, is captured by Hegelian terminology with the consequence that even when his metaphysical commitments cannot be shared, elements of his thought continue to be appropriated and discussed. Hegel's work demands study not only in its own right as the great Christian philosophy of modernity, but also for the suggestiveness of its concepts, themes, and arguments, without which much in contemporary theology cannot be understood.


1 Throughout his Berlin period, Hegel retained his Swabian accent, being described as "a genuine Tübingen Seminarian" at work in the Prussian capital. Terry Pinkard, Hegel: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 528.

2 A selection of Hegel's early theological work is available in Early Theological Writings, trans. T. M. Knox (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

3 Peter C. Hodgson, ed., Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 84.

4 Science of Logic, trans. W. H. Johnston and L. G. Struthers (London: Allen & Unwin, 1929).

5 For Plotinus, being is expressed through flowing outward and returning to itself. Yet even he did not view the history of the world as philosophically significant in this process.

6 Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), §§ 178-196.

7 Peter Hodgson, Hegel: Theologian of Spirit (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 8.

8 The term "sublation" is often used as the preferred English translation of the German noun Aufhebung, with the verb "to sublate" rendering aufheben. This expression, drawn from the Latin sublatio, meaning "lifting up," is not altogether clear to English-speaking students of Hegel. Its function is to denote the way in which there is both abolition and fulfillment at every stage of the dialectical process.

9 Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans T. M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 1:111.

10 For a discussion of Hegel's aesthetic theory, see Stephen Houlgate, Freedom, Truth and History: An Introduction to Hegel's Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1991), 126-175.

11 Houlgate, Freedom, Truth and History, 130.

12 Karl Barth characteristically complains that revelation is here a matter of divine necessity "Hegel, in making the dialectical method of logic the essential nature of God, made impossible the knowledge of the actual dialectic of grace, which has its foundation in the freedom of God." Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (London: SCM, 1972), 420.

13 Charles Taylor, Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 495.

14 Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, vol. 2, ed. Peter C. Hodgson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 447.

15 Taylor, Hegel, 498.

16 "This prejudice [i.e., against Judaism] is seen in perspective only if seen together with the prejudice of Hegel's Christian (and that of the Hegelian philosophy itself), for ancient Greece and all its works." Emil Fackenheim, The Religious Dimension of Hegel's Thought (London, 1967), 136. Fackenheim also notes that Hegel's more positive remarks concerning Judaism were often ignored by later German Hegelians.

17 Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, vol. 3, ed. Peter C. Hodgson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 246-247.

18 This is discussed by Laurence Dickey, "Hegel on Religion and Philosophy," in Cambridge Companion to Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 322ff.

19 The Subjective Logic of Hegel, trans. H. Sloman and J. Wallon (London: John Chapman, 1855).

20 John H. Muirhead, The Platonic Tradition in Anglo-Saxon Philosophy: Studies of the History of Idealism in England and America (London: Allen & Unwin, 1931), 168. In what follows, I have drawn from Muirhead's discussion of "how Hegel came to England."

21 Muirhead, The Platonic Tradition, 171.

22 For a survey of the movement, see H. D. Lewis, "The British Idealists," in Nineteenth Century Religious Thought in the West, vol. 2, ed. Ninian Smart, John Clayton, Steven T. Katz, and Patrick Sherry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 271-314. The Scottish idealists are usefully discussed and anthologized in David Boucher, ed., The Scottish Idealists: Selected Philosophical Writings (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2004).

23 Green's writings are collected in The Works of Thomas Hill Green, ed. R. L. Nettleship (London, 1885-1888).

24 Lewis, "The British Idealists," 301.

25 For discussion of John Caird, see A. C. Cheyne, Studies in Scottish Church History (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), 165-184.

26 John Caird, The Fundamental Ideas of Christianity, vol. 1 (Glasgow: MacLehose, 1899), 153.

2 7 Caird, The Fundamental Ideas, 155.

29 This criticism was argued most cogently by A. S. Pringle-Pattison, who advocated a form of personalist idealism over against absolute idealism. See his Hegelianism and Personality (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1887).

30 Caird, The Fundamental Ideas, 193.

31 G. J. Warnock, English Philosophy since 1900 (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 10-11. For further discussion of the shift from idealism to realism in British philosophy, see Rudolf Metz, A Hundred Years of British Philosophy (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938).


Important primary sources, available in English translation, for the study of

Hegel's views on religion include the following:

Hegel, G. W. F. Phenemenology of Spirit, trans. A. V Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Hegel, G. W. F. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, 3 vols., ed. and trans. Peter C. Hodgson et al. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984-1987.

For an anthology of Hegel's theological writings with useful introduction and notes, see the following:

Hodgson, Peter C. (ed.). G. W. F. Hegel: Theologian of the Spirit. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997.

For Further Reading

Boucher, David. British Idealism. London: Continuum, 2009.

Hodgson, Peter C. Hegel and Christian Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Houlgate, Stephen. Freedom, Truth and History: An Introduction to Hegel's Philosophy.

London: Routledge, 1991. Pinkard, Terry. Hegel: A Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Taylor, Charles. Hegel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 19 75.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment