G. W. Hegel (1770–1832)

Hegel thought that no one can leap very far beyond their own epoch. Following Whitehead’s history of philosophy, Hegel belongs neither to the eighteenth century nor to the Romantic reaction. Though he was a 19th century philosopher, Hegel was unfamiliar with those ideas that Whitehead considered most vital in that period for reconstructing the foundations of physical science: the revival of ether, matter construed as atomic, the conservation of energy, and evolution. But Hegel certainly did participate in ‘the patent dissolution of the comfortable scheme of scientific materialism’ that hatched these 19th century ideas. Though he participated in the Romantic reaction, as a contemporary of Gœthe and a friend of Hölderlin, both of whom protested on behalf of an organic view of nature, Hegel’s approach was speculative rather than intuitive or aesthetic. As an adventure in the clarification of thought, though, even the “partial success” of Hegel’s metaphysical scheme has importance.

1. Brief Vita

The eldest son in a Lutheran family whose ancestors sought refuge from Austrian Catholicism in Württemberg, Hegel was born in 1770—the same year as Beethoven—in Stuttgart. Though steeped in the ideals of the Enlightenment, the rationalist methods as well as the political advances, Hegel’s early education was influenced also by ancient Greece and Rome. Hegel entered the seminary in Tübingen, just prior to the French Revolution, he came into contact not only with both scholastic and Kantian modes of thought but also—though his classmates, Schelling and Hölderlin—the anti-rationalism of the Sturm und Drang. Hegel’s early formal education, at the Stuttgart Gymnasium and the Tübingen Stift, was stamped by the Enlightenment, especially Kant, his informal included figures central to the Counter-Enlightenment (e.g., Hamann, Herder, Spinoza, Schiller and Gœthe) and Hermeticism. Hegel struggled by night to overcome the dichotomies of the understanding, as well as the reduction of revealed religion to moral maxims, that he mastered as if to appropriate by day. Kroner captures it nicely: “Hegel was a Romanticist in his longing for unity; he was anti-Romantic in the way he gratified this longing. Like the Romantics he believed that all things were ultimately one and that the boundaries are only provisional […]. But he insisted that ultimate unification was to be brought about by a rational rather than a Romantic method.”[1]

Though Hegel completed his theological studies in Tübingen, he spent the following years not as a pastor but as a house tutor, first in Bern and then Frankfurt, studying Kant, Fichte, Herder, German Mysticism, and—his former roommate—Schelling; though he agreed with those who were critical of the remaining dualisms in Kant’s scheme (e.g., between the noumenal and phenomenal realm, the self and nature, subject and object, the finite and the infinite, etc.), Hegel was attracted to Kant’s account of teleology in the Critique of Judgment (1790). Like his post-Kantian contemporaries, Hegel thought that the way forward was hinted at by Kant: that nature and conscious share a common source. Hegel interpreted the Urteilskraft of Kant as the productive mid-point mediating between the concept of nature and that of freedom, between subject and object, one that discloses a “region of identity.”

Though he wavered on this, the youthful Hegel believed that the infinite whole, or the Absolute, was a “reality beyond all reflection;” for this reason, Hegel once argued, as late as 1800, that philosophy—which adheres to discursive logic—”has to stop short of religion.” But under the magical influence of Hölderlin, who latched onto Fichte’s description of intellectual intuition, Hegel had a change of mind. In his Über Urteil und Seyn (1795), which he originally penned on the flyleaf of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre, Hölderlin wrote: “Being expresses the connection of subject and object, where subject and object are not only partly united but so united that no separation at all can be undertaken without violating the essence of that which is to be separated, there and nowhere else can one speak of Being simpliciter.” The possibility of intellectual intuition, which serves only a regulatory function in Kant’s critical philosophy, is an unmediated cognition of being simpliciter. Hegel had searched since the time of his Reines Leben zu Denken for a way to think pure being, to apprehend the unity of the subject and object. The ideal of Hegel’s youth, as he called it in a letter to Schelling, then in Jena, by which he meant the en kai pan “was compelled to proceed toward science (philosophy), and at the same time the ideal of my youth had to be transformed into the form of reflection, into a system.”

While Hegel was still a tutor in Bern, Schelling was already espousing a philosophy of nature that no longer relied on the mechanical processes between dead atoms but espoused instead a creative and divine power, a substance with subjectivity, exhibiting the characteristics of organisms and magnetic fields. At least initially, Hegel was considered to be Schelling’s protégé in Jena and an adherent of the Identitätsphilosophie. In protest against the alienated and derivative character of nature expressed in Fichte, Schelling attempts a total and faithful account of the objectivity of the physical world and sensible singularity. Schelling’s presentation of “that which is utterly other independent of our freedom” is not to be understood as simply a stage for moral purification, as in Fichte if not also Kant, but rather as intrinsic to a “process in which the self sees itself develop through a necessary but not consciously observed act of self-positing” (Werke, X, 97). This process or dialectical activity of the self and the limitation necessary to such a process are equally intrinsic to the self’s activity. This Schellingian version of the identity of identity and difference was, to be sure, among the most fetching features of the system to which Hegel felt—at least on his arrival at Jena—an allegiance. During their shared period of time in Jena, Schelling and Hegel co-edited the Critical Journal (1801-1803), through which they hoped to provide a critical forum for reviewing the present state of philosophy and silence in the process what Fichte once called the “philosophical chatterers,” clearing away the “abundantly flourishing weeds” that jeopardized the “few good seeds that had been sown.” Hegel quickly demonstrated that he was no protégé of Schelling, or at least that he was by no means an uncritical adherent of Schelling’s system, and that—according to some Hegel scholars, e.g., Düsing—Schelling learned as much from as he taught Hegel. Schelling left Jena in 1803. Hegel remained until 1807, the time of Napoleon’s conquest of Prussia, framing his system and applying its principles, unflinchingly, to all aspects of human knowledge and experience. By the time the University of Jena closed, Hegel had completed what many consider his magnum opus—the Phenomenology—and transformed the ideal of his youth into a cosmological-metaphysical system.

Hegel spent several years as the director of the Gymnasium in Nuremberg, where he married Marie von Tucher in 1811. Between 1812 and 1816, Hegel published the Science of Logic, which secured him a professorship of philosophy in Heidelberg. While in Heidelberg, Hegel published the first edition of his Encyclopedia. In 1818, Hegel was offered a chair—which had been vacant since Fichte’s death in 1814—at the University of Berlin, where he was widely regarded as the greatest philosopher of his era. It was in Berlin that Hegel published his Philosophy of Right, in which he claims that “what is rational is actual and what is actual is rational,” delivered his Lectures on Religion, and expanded the Encyclopedia (1827, 1830). Hegel died in 1831 of cholera, and was buried in Berlin next to Fichte.

2. The Question of Influence

Whitehead repeatedly denied any direct influence of the Hegelian system, which he once characterized as “complete nonsense,”[2] on his own metaphysical scheme. And the question of indirect influence, or even the anxiety of influence, is complicated when it comes to Hegel. The reception of Hegel’s thought in the contemporary Anglo-American tradition was, for various reasons, some philosophical and others political, was less than appreciative. Moore refuted idealism in 1903, and Russell refuted it in 1918. But to the extent that Whitehead is indebted to—though in sharp disagreement with—Bradley, whose Essays on Truth and Reality are read by Whitehead as an implicit repudiation of the doctrine of vacuous actuality, and Bradley (as well as Bosanquet, Green, and McTaggart) was indebted to Hegel, Whitehead is indirectly indebted to—acknowledged or not—to Hegel. In this regard, Whitehead even suggested—in the preface to Process and Reality—that his own cosmology might be viewed as “a transformation of some main doctrines of Absolute Idealism onto a realistic basis.”

Most German academics dismissed idealism shortly after Hegel’s death, if not before, though many of them appropriated his dialectical formulae into their own systems. Though initially well-received in America (e.g., by Emerson, W.T. Harris, Royce and even Dewey, a contemporary of Whitehead), American realism and pragmatism where often defined in opposition to idealism. After WW I, on both sides of the Atlantic, Hegelianism was on the decline; by the time that Whitehead arrived at Harvard, in 1924, Hegelians were few and far between. Despite its poor Anglo-American reception, Hegel continues to exercise significant influence not only on the metaphysical thought in Continental philosophy but also—through Marx—on the intellectual and cultural situation globally. If it is accurate to say that “one is denied a full appreciation of modern European intellectual and cultural life, as well as denied an adequate grasp of contemporary political and ideological conflict, in the absence of a critical appreciation of the Hegelian synthesis,” what are we to say of Whitehead’s denial of any direct acquaintance with Hegel’s thought?

Though it lost the unity of its tidal stream, the Hegelian system—not unlike the nature-poetry of the romantic revival to which it contributed—”dispersed itself into many estuaries as it coalesced with other human interests” (SMW 95). It is difficult to believe that Whitehead, both before his speculative turn or afterwards, was wholly unacquainted with Hegel’s thought. Prior to Whitehead’s so-called speculative turn, which coincided with his arrive at Harvard, Hegel and Whitehead may have symbolized a deep division in philosophy between logical empiricism and speculative philosophy; but the distinction is blurred by the time Whitehead wrote Process and Reality. Though some view Whitehead’s speculative thought as an anomaly, Whitehead saw continuity: Not unlike Hegel, a hundred years earlier, Whitehead wanted to work through the logical, conceptual, and finally the metaphysical foundations of the sciences in the twentieth century. Even after the speculative turn, though, when his thought is closest to Hegel’s, Whitehead’s scheme is classified as a critical realism and thus once again distinguished—perhaps wrongly—from absolute idealism.

Whitehead acknowledges that his own philosophy of organism is a recurrence to pre-Kantian modes of thought. Like Hegel’s Jenaer Zeit Identitätsphilosophie, Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is closely allied not only to Spinoza’s scheme of thought (PR 7) but also neglected aspects of Aristotle’s thought. So there certainly is a shared philosophical heritage, one that predates Hegel speculative philosophy. It would be strange if the systems of Hegel and Whitehead, who share a similar vision of what speculative “scheme of thought” consists in, did not converge—through the logic of shared alliances—in their basic metaphysical if not also their process-oriented phenomenological matrices for explaining actual entities and the becoming of being. But to the extent that advances in sciences in general and mathematics in particular can provide an answer—or even model—for solving speculative philosophical or metaphysical problems, it would be unexpected to find that Whitehead’s cosmology does not diverge significantly from Hegel’s speculative scheme of thought. With an eye toward Whitehead’s treatment of the nineteenth century, Hegel should be classified as a synthesis of German Romanticism and critical Rationalism. But this characterization should be qualified: like Whitehead, Hegel placed importance on the intuition of nature expressed in romanticism and metaphysical poets. Both Hegel and Whitehead appreciated the nature-poetry of romanticism as “a protest on behalf of the organic view of nature, and also against the exclusion of value from the essence of matter of fact” (SMW 94).

3. Hegelian Categories Relevant to Whiteheadian Scholarship

Though it is true that the parallels between two epochs “must not be pressed too far” (SMW 34), there are significant points of convergence between the metaphysical systems developed by Hegel and Whitehead. For both philosophers, speculative metaphysics consisted in the search for the secret key to the interconnecting patterns of general abstract conditions applicable to the complex relationships among the entities of any one concrete occasion. Beyond the question of direct or indirect influence, much has been written about what appear to be similarities in aim, scope, basic scheme or metaphysical matrix, and to a certain degree also the philosophical methods for formulating a speculative cosmology. Perhaps these are merely coincidental if not anachronistic parallels, a resonance not much different from what Whitehead shares with other key figures in Western metaphysics. Whitehead is renowned as a mathematician; Hegel was not. But Whitehead believed that philosophy had been misled by the example of mathematics and the deductive method. The proper method of philosophy, or the method of discovery, as Whitehead describes it in Process and Reality, consists in descriptive generalization—namely, “the utilization of specific notions, applied to a restricted group of facts, for the divination of the generic notions which apply to all facts.” If this is true, we may well underestimate the considerable success achieved by Hegel in “providing generic notions which add lucidity to our apprehension of the facts of experience.”

The Method of Discovery. If the “true method of philosophical construction is to frame a scheme of ideas, the best that one can, and unflinchingly explore that interpretation of experience in terms of that scheme,” Hegel’s Phenomenology—and the System of Science to which it was to serve as an introduction—is the product of the true method. The original sub-title of the Phenomenology, which Hegel likened to an odyssey of the mind, was The Science of the Experience of Consciousness. In a letter to Gœthe Hegel explained that his scientific works were concerned not so much with ‘an opinion to be put across’ than a methodology to be demonstrated.’ If the proper object of speculative philosophy consists in the “elaboration of schemes, definitely stated at each stage of progress,” as Whitehead says, then Hegel’s scheme is speculative to the extreme. Speculative Philosophy, thought Whitehead, is the search for the secret key to the interconnecting patterns of general abstract conditions applicable to the complex relationships among the entities of any one concrete occasion. As Whitehead put it: “The key to the patterns means this fact: —that from a select set of those general conditions, exemplified in any one and the same occasion, a pattern involving an infinite variety of other such conditions, also exemplified in the same occasion, can be developed by the pure exercise of abstract logic” (26). As a philosopher, Hegel was preoccupied to the extreme with “the gradual elaboration of categoreal schemes” and metaphysical categories as “tentative formulations of ultimate generalities.” Ideally, says Whitehead, “the scheme is a matrix from which true propositions applicable to particular circumstances can be derived.” But this is the beginning, not the end of metaphysics: After framing a scheme of ideas, philosophers are required—avers Whitehead—to “unflinchingly explore the interpretation of experience in terms of that scheme.” It is difficult to find a better description of what Hegel attempted, as an introduction to his system, in the Phenomenology.

The Abstract and the Concrete. The notions of the abstract [das Abstrakte] and concrete [das Konkrete] are central to Hegel’s thought. But for Hegel, a sensory item or particular may be abstract (i.e., cut off from other sensory objects) and a universal may be concrete (i.e., grown together with other universals or sensible entities) as well as abstract. So while it is true that our logical concern is with the thoughts that we abstract from the concrete and inessential features, these abstract thoughts are not severed from concrete entities. If concepts were abstracted from representations (Vorstellungen), such that they are sharply distinguished from one another, it would be difficult to make sense of the fluid relationships between concepts developed in his Logic. For Hegel, speculative philosophy unifies—through the labor of metaphysical logic—what the analytic understanding divides. Instead, thoughts are derived from each other and thus form a concrete system rather than a discrete and abstract aggregate. So when Hegel speaks of “concrete universality,” he is suggesting that concepts should not be sharply distinguished from the sensible concrete nor separate from other concepts—i.e., that the concept of universality is not sharply distinguished from particularity and individuality. It is in this sense that Hegel can say that finite entities are ideal [ideell], since they depend no on themselves for their existence but on some larger self-sustaining entity: the true infinite includes, and “consummates,” the finite. When Whitehead argues that the “concrete enduring entities are organisms, so that the plan of the whole influences the very characters of the various subordinate organisms that enter into it” (SMW 79), he is not far from Hegel’s own claim that the members of an organism are ideal with respect to the organism itself, that the organism is ideal with respect to its species, and the species is ideal with respect to the world as a whole. Hegel’s system aims at establishing the connection between the abstract, the concrete and also the particular. Universals are embedded in particularity. Though we have tended to misinterpret or caricature his theory of abstraction, Hegel does not commit the fallacy of—as Whitehead calls it—misplaced concreteness.

Immediacy. By the “immediate occasion,” Whitehead meant that occasion which involves as an ingredient the individual act of judgment in question” (SMW 25). The immediacy of the occasion is a central preoccupation in Hegel’s thought: Following Hőlderlin, Hegel treated the individual act of judgment [Urteil] as, in the highest and strictest sense, the original separation of what was “most intimately united in intellectual intuition, that separation through which object and subject first become possible” (Urteil und Seyn, 1795). Hegel would have agreed with Whitehead, who insisted that “there are no brute, self-contained matters of fact, capable of being understood apart from an interpretation as an element in a system” and that “whenever we try to express the matter of immediate experience, we find that the understanding leads us beyond itself, to its contemporaries, to its past, to its future, and to the universals in terms of which its definiteness is exhibited” (PR 14). In his analysis of experience, especially “immediate experience,” where he and Bradley agree most, Whitehead shares a certain metaphysical kinship with Hegel.

Hegel’s Naturphilosophie. The philosophy of nature developed by Hegel, especially during his collaboration with Schelling, when Hegel was still under the spell of the Spinoza of Tübingen and steeped in Gœthe’s scientific writings, in which substance qua nature is construed as the identity of identity and difference, is the point of philosophical if not distinctively metaphysical contact between Hegel and Whitehead. Though Hegel’s strength is displayed in his analysis of consciousness, the philosophy of nature was considered indispensable to the larger system from the time of the Jeneser Logik. Metaphysik and Naturphilosophie (1804-1805). And while Hegel begins his quest of the Absolute in terms of this absolute self, he never forgets his promise to “recompense nature for the mishandling that it suffered at the hands of Kant and Fichte.” The Absolute, God or “what truly is,” must rise above the stark opposition between spirit and nature, subject and object; the goal of the Identity Philosophy was really never in question since the Tübingen years. The exposition of the ideal was contested. Both Fichte (i.e., the purified critical philosophy) and Spinoza fulfill, according to Schelling’s “Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism,” the aims of genuine philosophy to the highest degree, i.e., they are monistic, complete, and not susceptible to contradiction. Both start from the Absolute and return to it.

The central critique of Spinoza and Fichte, which the critical journalists viewed as the greatest achievements of philosophy at that time, was their failure to make nature wholly intelligible: Fichte devoted entirely too little attention to the objectivity, otherness, and impact of nature. The Fichtean subsumption of objectivity (the world) under subjectivity (the Ego) merely explains it away without making it comprehensible. In short, the failure of the Fichtean resides in its failure to work out an intelligible system of nature and to demonstrate its unity with the Absolute Ego. Spinozism is condemned, on the other hand, for an abstract conception of nature. In his Of Human Freedom, Schelling claimed that “if the doctrine that all things are in God is the basis of the entire system (of Spinoza) it must at least first be vitalized and severed from abstractness before it can become the principle of a system of reason.” If the goal or ideal is—most generally stated—organic wholeness or unity, then the structure for its realization is to be found in the matrix of identity of identity and difference. Nature was no longer conceived as something that is dead, and wholly opposed to the self, but rather as something creative [natura naturans].[3] And while this solution is patently modeled after Spinoza, it has now been filtered through the post-Kantian conceptual apparatus and purged of the mechanistic presentation of nature. Hegel agreed with Schelling’s claim that nature is “petrified intelligence” (Enc. II § 247A). And yet Hegel disagreed with Schelling, who believed that the system allowed only an intuitive or aesthetic apprehension of identity and difference. Hegel believed that our understanding [Verstand] could be elevated, dialectically, to the speculative standpoint of reason [Vernunft].

The Absolute. Hegel, like Nicholas of Cusa before him and also Kant, used the term das Absolute to refer to the ultimate, unconditioned reality. Schelling suggested, expressing a view indebted to Spinoza and Fichte, that the absolute was a neutral “identity” that underlies both the subject qua mind and the object qua nature. Hegel, though, held that the absolute was not something underlying the phenomenal world but rather a conceptual system embedded in it. Beyond the speculative meaning of the term, Hegel also believed that the absolute served as a philosophical expression of God. Neither Spinoza nor Schelling was able to explain how the absolute generates the phenomenal world. And unlike Schelling, who believed that our knowledge of the absolute was immediate and unconditioned, Hegel thought that apprehending the absolute, which is by no means static, was the result of a long process of inquiry. What is absolute is not static, but develops, manifesting itself both at successively higher levels of nature and in the advance of human knowledge through history. Hegel’s philosophy of history invites comparison with Whitehead’s analysis of concrescence. For both philosophers, the primordial nature of God is not that of restricting possibilities […] but an inexhaustible source of novelty which stirs the processes of reality. When it comes to ultimate categories, for God-World mutuality, Whitehead’s refers to “creativity” rather than God—and yet, the philosophical theism developed by Hegel and Whitehead both deny God’s simplicity.

4. Conclusion

To someone unacquainted with Hegel as well as Whitehead, it might appear that “the sole common characteristic is the penchant of both for obscure and highly idiosyncratic philosophical vocabulary.”[4] But for those familiar with Hegel, should they resist specialization if not insularity long enough to explore his thought, Whitehead might well be viewed as the culmination of Hegel’s metaphysical system. For those who appreciate Whitehead’s speculative philosophy, Hegel’s scheme of thought will seem vaguely familiar—indeed, they might even suggest that Hegel could be fruitfully reinterpreted as a proto-process philosopher. Critical comparisons of Hegel and Whitehead, which are perhaps as difficult as they are rare, will shed light on both philosophers and contribute also to “an adventure in the clarification of thought that is progressive and never final.” But that is not to say, of course, that Whitehead’s speculative metaphysics was directly or even indirectly influenced by or indebted to Hegel (or Hegelianism). Though there are sharp disagreements between their respective systems, and while the parallels between their speculative schemes “must not be pressed too far,” it might be fair to claim for Hegel what Whitehead granted to Bradley—namely, that “the final outcome is after all not so greatly different.”


[1] Richard Kroner, “Hegel’s Philosophical Development” in Early Theological Writings: G.W.F. Hegel (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia), 1948, 15.

[2] Essays in Science and Philosophy, 1948, 10; see also G.R. Lucas, 1979.

[3] Though he recognized that his metaphysical system lacked the poetical or intuitive “presence” of nature, a sense for nature that Whitehead discovers in the English Romantics (from Coleridge to Wordsworth) and Hegel inherited from Gœthe (as well as Novalis and Hölderlin), which exhibited—as Whitehead puts it—”entwined prehensive unities,” nevertheless Hegel was convinced that the dialectical logic of the Absolute held for consciousness as well as nature. The unified system of thought that constitutes the essence of consciousness is immanent also in nature.

[4] See George R. Lucas’s Introduction to Hegel and Whitehead (1986), which provides a survey of Anglo-American and European Hegel-Whitehead scholarship.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Lucas, George Ramsdell, Jr. 1979. Two Views of Freedom in Process Thought: A Study of Hegel and Whitehead (Missoula, Scholars Press).

Lucas, George Ramsdell, Jr. 1989. The Rehabilitation of Whitehead. An Analytic and Historical Assesment of Process Philosophy (Albany, SUNY Press).

Lucas, George Ramsdell, Jr. & Antoon Braeckman (eds.). 1990. Whitehead und der deutsche Idealismus (Berne).

Lucas, George Ramsdell, Jr. and George L. Kline (eds.). 1986. Hegel and Whitehead (Albany, SUNY Press).

Christensen, Darrel E. 1986. The Search for Concreteness. Reflections on Hegel and Whitehead. A Treatise on Self-Evidence and Critical Method in Philosophy (Selinsgrove/ London/Toronto, Susquehanna University Press).

Rockmore, Tom. 1990. “Whitehead et Hegel: Réalisme, idéalisme et philosophie spéculative,” Archives de Philosophie, 53, 261-69.

Ellis, Robert. 1981. “From Hegel to Whitehead,” Journal of Religion, 61, 4, 403-421.

Wells, Harry Kohlsaat. 1950. Process and Unreality. A Criticism of Method in Whitehead’s Philosophy (New York, King’s Crown Press).

Hartshorne, Charles. 1983. Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers. An Evaluation of Western Philosophy (Albany, SUNY Press).

Author Information

Kipton E. Jensen
University of Botswana
Department of Theology and Religious Studies
Private Bag 00703 Gaborone, Botswana

How to Cite this Article

Jensen, Kipton E., “G. W. Hegel (1770–1832)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/bios/historico-speculative-context/hegel/>.