In March 1807, aged 36, a towering giant of German philosophy was struggling to come to terms with a career dip.
With an illegitimate son to support and a patrimonial inheritance run dry, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had chucked in an unpaid academic post and accepted a job as an editor at a local newspaper in Bamberg, where he was compiling reports on royal boar hunts. Only a newly acquired coffee percolator offered brief caffeinated thrills.
To make things worse, friends got in touch with feedback on his recently completed 600-page magnus opus, The Phenomenology of the Spirit. They found it hard going.
The man Bertrand Russell later described as “the hardest to understand of the great philosophers” responded with a rare moment of self-doubt. Sometimes, he conceded, it was “easier to be sublimely unintelligible than to be comprehensible in a simple way”.
The humbling Bamberg years feature prominently in three new biographies released in Germany around today’s 250th anniversary of Hegel’s birth, all searching for chinks in the intellectual armour of an intimidating influence on German public life.
Because in spite of a raft of essays celebrating his relevance, numerous commemorative events and the reopening of his Stuttgart birthplace as a museum, Hegel’s formidable difficulty and fraught political legacy make him hard for modern Germans to embrace.
“What surprised and pleased me alike during my research was that Hegel had a very meandering, non-linear CV,” said Sebastian Ostritsch, an academic at Stuttgart University and author of Hegel: The World Philosopher.
While his philosopher friend Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, a student flatmate along with the poet Hölderlin, was made a professor aged 23, Hegel didn’t get a full professorship until his mid-40s, after leaving behind his short digression into journalism and accepting an academic post in Heidelberg.
Bamberg, where Hegel became an editor of a local newspaper. Photograph: Kevin Rushby/The Guardian
During his spell as a hack, the Stuttgart-born intellectual wrote a short unpublished essay that not only defied his reputation for long-windedness but tackled a common complaint about his philosophy: “Who thinks abstractly?” he asked in the eponymous essay. His answer: “The uneducated, not the educated.”
“One common prejudice is that Hegel is an abstract philosopher,” Ostritsch told the Guardian. “In fact he is the opposite: a philosopher who does not try to put ideas or people into boxes […] In our age, stereotypical thinking and partisan arguments rule supreme. Hegel would have dismissed this as bad abstract thinking.”
Hegel’s view of history as a realm of non-linear but apparently inevitable progress was, however, later firmly embraced and adapted by Karl Marx, earning him a reputation in some circles as a proto-socialist. Others saw in Hegel’s ideas about the individual and the state the seeds of the darkest chapters of twentieth-century totalitarianism.
As a result, few contemporary German politicians are likely to evoke Hegel’s notion of the weltgeist – an invisible force advancing world history – with the gusto of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who wrote a university dissertation on the philosopher. Angela Merkel is more likely to quote Karl Popper, a noted anti-Hegelian.
For Klaus Vieweg, a philosopher at the university of Jena and author of another biography, Hegel: Philosopher of Freedom, it’s all a “disastrous” misunderstanding caused by numerous misreadings. For him, Hegel was neither a covert revolutionary nor a champion of state control but a political moderate whose balancing of economic and social concerns was never more relevant than in pandemic times.
“Hegel sketched out a counter vision to rapacious Wall Street capitalism that remains highly relevant,” Vieweg said. “He believed in the market as an indispensable basis for our society, but that the dominant principles of a modern state needed to be something else: freedom, justice and sustainability”.
The image of a thinker strictly wedded to a vision of inevitable progress was off, Vieweg said: “Hegel was an optimist, but never a wide-eyed optimist. After the French Revolution, he was convinced that the idea of freedom could be put into people’s heads, but he never believed that would inevitably lead to a freer society.”
Yet in the social climate of 2020 even mild Hegelian optimism seems a big ask, as commentator Andreas Rosenfelder wrote in a long article for German daily Die Welt, trailed on its front page with the promise “This Sunday, you will understand Hegel”.
“The present age looks like an open war between reason and reality”, Rosenfelder wrote. “In the Hegelian year of 2020, this contrast is brought into sharper relief with every argument on Twitter, every pandemic wave, every autocrat’s election campaign. The world is slowly going mad, and we can only watch from the sidelines.”
Hegel does not only present the problem but also can also provide a solution, the article argued. In times of conspiracy theories and filter bubbles, Hegel’s method of thinking – dialectics – can become a kind of intellectual self-help. Or as Jürgen Kaube summarises the philosopher’s central message in the third biography to be published this August: “Thinking is effective.”
Earlier this month, German comedian Florian Schroeder showed how it could be done when he took to the stage at a protest of coronavirus sceptics in Stuttgart, Hegel’s birthplace.
In a video of the event that has since gone viral, the comedian faces the crowd of hundreds who question the existence of Covid-19 and suspect face masks to be part of a plot to silence their critical opinions, telling them he wanted to talk about Hegel’s idea of dialectics, a method of argument that relies on a contradictory process between opposing sides.
“Freedom doesn’t mean being irresponsible. Freedom which only expresses itself as irresponsibility is the end of freedom,” said Schroeder, as the boos grew louder. “Freedom means you have to suffer someone like me. That, my friends, is dialectics.”
Originally published: 2020-08-26 23:00:43