A new life of Hegel: worth examining

June 04, 2000|By George R. Lucas Jr. | By George R. Lucas Jr.,Special to the Sun

"Hegel: A Biography," by Terry Pinkard. Cambridge University. 765 pages. $39.95.

Georg Hegel is reputed to have begun his professorial career in 1801 by presenting a dissertation on planetary orbits to the faculty at Jena, in which (it is alleged) he "deduced" the necessity of there being only five planets.

In 1818, Hegel was summoned by the Prussian Minister of Culture to a prestigious chair of philosophy in Berlin. He allegedly responded in his subsequent lectures on world history and political philosophy by "deducing" that all of human history had conspired to produce first Athens, then Rome, and finally the reactionary monarchy that underwrote his own salary.

In this comprehensive narrative and intellectual biography of Hegel, Terry Pinkard argues that these and numerous other allegations of speculative nonsense are seriously inaccurate. He weaves plausible accounts of the origin and significance of these familiar lampoons of Hegelian philosophy into a detailed yet wonderfully entertaining account of one of modern Europe's most influential figures.

Pinkard guides us through Hegel's early childhood and moderately troubled family life to his experience as a university student at Tubingen during the heady first years of the French Revolution.

Universities in Europe were in the midst of transition and even collapse. Most were engaged merely in the transmission of outmoded and irrelevant knowledge instead of encouraging new theoretical innovation or scientific discovery. They were populated by a professorial guild more intent on guarding ancient privileges than in expanding the frontiers of knowledge. Students were utterly lacking in intellectual interests and given to fraternity life, binge drinking and brawling.

The exception was Jena, briefly guided by Wolfgang Goethe and Alexander von Humboldt toward the ideals of freedom of expression and unfettered search for truth. A professor's own current scholarly investigations became the material disseminated to students in the classroom. It was to this fledgling variant of the modern research university that the best minds in German-speaking Europe were drawn.

Pinkard offers broad historical accounts of general interest. He describes the intellectual vitality of the literary and philosophical movement known as "Romanticism" that first emerged at Jena, and recounts the subsequent impact of Prussian and Austrian politics in the aftermath of Napoleon on academic life in Berlin.

Separate accounts of interest to specialists are provided, including a careful account of Hegel's own copious writing projects at Jena. Hegel deemed most of this early work unsuitable for publication during his own lifetime, but it figured prominently in the fashioning of his magisterial "Phenomenology of Spirit" in 1807.

Hegel retained some of his own youthful revolutionary sympathies. He went to some lengths in his later years at Berlin to defend students and colleagues whose more radical views cost them their positions and even their freedom.

At the same time, Hegel had endured a long and frustrating struggle to establish a respectable academic career and earn a living wage -- not helped in the least by his penchant for copious quantities of excellent French wine. He became increasingly unwilling to place the welfare of his family and career at risk in the face of unstable political circumstances.

Philosophers maintain that the unexamined life is not worth living, but it is often true that most philosophers' lives are not really worth examining. Pinkard eloquently demonstrates that Hegel's is the exception to this observation. In the process, he offers readers a wider window on a period of tumultuous cultural and political innovation that bears more than fleeting relevance for our own.

George R. Lucas Jr. is an associate professor of philosophy at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis and chair of the American Philosophical Association's Committee on Careers in Philosophy. He has written four scholarly books, including "Two Views of Freedom in Process Thought: A Study of Hegel and Whitehead." He received a doctorate in philosophy from Northwestern University.

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