Hegel: A Biography

A series of impressive works over more than a decade has established Terry Pinkard as one of the leading exponents of a “new” non-metaphysical Hegel. First in Hegel’s Dia-lectic: The Explanation of Possibility (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988) and then in Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-versity Press, 1994), Pinkard has proposed a distinctly modernist Hegel. The concept of Geist, so central to Hegel’s philosophy, should, Pinkard has argued, be understood not as the abstract entity “Spirit” but as the concrete collective “mindedness” of the human community. Likewise, for Pinkard, the language of the “end of history” should be under-stood not as a conservative foreclosure of the future but rather as a liberal affirmation, in the wake of an age of democratic revolution, of an ongoing, open-ended ended process of critical reflection on the common good. Out of these reinterpretations has come a Hegel of immediate contemporary relevance. Hegel’s dialectical method offers a way to navi-gate the modern/postmodern divide between identity and difference, universal explana-tion and local knowledge. Hegel’s social and political philosophy offers – as Pinkard has made clear in works such as Democratic Liberalism and Social Union (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987) – a way to allow liberalism to combine the language of the autonomy of the individual with the language of a community of value.

One of the purposes of Pinkard’s intellectual biography of Hegel is to summarize the ear-lier commentaries for a wider audience. Thus Pinkard interpolates a number of chapters devoted to the interpretation of Hegel’s major philosophical works — the Phenomenology of Spirit (chapter 5), the Science of Logic (chapter 8), and the Philosophy of Right (chap-ter 11) — amidst “more biographical” chapters. Like the earlier commentaries, these “philosophical chapters” combine a command of Hegel scholarship that is extensive and up-to-date with a lucid style that is entirely accessible to the non-philosopher and non-specialist.

Pinkard’s disciplined approach to philosophical exegesis is well suited to the book’s pri-mary purpose, which is to tell “the story of Hegel’s life.” The range and richness of his-torical reference in the earlier commentaries suggested that Pinkard was well qualified to tell this story. And Pinkard’s biography does not disappoint. The book provides a vivid portrait of Old Württemberg and the Protestant Seminary at Tübingen (chapters 1 and 2), of what it was like to live in early nineteenth-century Nuremberg (chapter 7), and of a Berlin poised between reform and reaction in the years 1818-1821 (chapter 10). Pink-ard’s Hegel is no ghostly specter lamenting on his deathbed that “nobody has ever under-stood me” — a report that Pinkard demonstrates is myth. Instead we have a Hegel who is very much flesh and blood. The Hegel inhabiting Pinkard’s pages is the student whose fondness for pub-crawling in Tübingen prompted a Seminary porter to an exasperated outburst: “Oh Hegel, you’re for sure going to drink away what little intellect you have!” He is the Privatdozent at the rapidly declining University of Jena with few prospects of a permanent position and with an illegitimate son by his landlady. He is the older man, now more established, who was enamoured of the countryside around the University of Heidelberg, who preferred Rossini’s Barber of Seville to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and who spent long hours playing the card game Whist with a variety of decidedly non-academic companions. In short, Pinkard renders Hegel a profoundly sympathetic, even poignant, figure to a contemporary audience: philosophical questions regarding the im-plications of social and political modernity acquire a quite “down-to-earth” address in Hegel’s own difficulties be they in establishing a career and supporting a family amid the upheavals of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries or be they in maintaining integrity and defending students and friends from charges of subversion in the aftermath of the Karlsbad Decrees.

The third and most ambitious purpose of Pinkard’s intellectual biography is to explore how Hegel’s life and Hegel’s work intersect. Here, however, Pinkard is less successful. In part, these difficulties arise from the fact that Pinkard, in a laudable desire to accom-modate “selective readers,” has “separated … off” the more philosophical chapters from the more biographical chapters. Such a strategy may well increase the value of Pinkard’s intellectual biography as a work of historical reference. But at the same time it tends to inhibit a creative dialogue between the narrative of the life and the exposition of the phi-losophy. The result is to reduce the value of Pinkard’s biography as a work of intellectual historical analysis.

Pinkard’s decision to separate the more philosophical chapters from the more biographi-cal chapters is also a response — again laudable in itself — to Hegel’s own strictures about reducing the philosophical to the personal. Yet, as Pinkard’s own interpretation of Hegel’s Geist should have suggested, such a separation is not the only response to the reduction-ism that Hegel rightly condemned. Indeed, for the intellectual historian, a network of traditions of discourse mediates the personal and the philosophical. To be sure, Pinkard locates Hegel at a crossroads between the “Good Old Law” traditions of the German hometowns and the respective rational reform programs of the Napoleonic and Prussian “revolutions from above.” Likewise, Pinkard follows the traditional trajectory of the de-velopment of Hegel’s idealism through a succession of encounters with the writings of Kant and Fichte and with the more immediately personal influence of Schelling and Hölderlin, who had been Hegel’s fellow students and most intimate friends at the Tübin-gen Seminary.

Nevertheless Pinkard neglects some of the more specific sources of Hegel’s engagement with modernity. Pinkard has, for example, little to say of Hegel’s reading in Scottish moral philosophy and political economy. There are just three passing references to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, one reference to Adam Ferguson and none to Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments or to Sir James Steuart. Pinkard also struggles with Hegel’s Protes-tant commitments. Indeed so attenuated do these commitments become that Pinkard has difficulty answering the charges of pantheism and atheism that Hegel’s critics leveled against him with increasing frequency during the 1820s.

Such questions regarding Hegel’s sources are not mere quibbles. They point to an im-portant problem of historical understanding. To the extent that Hegel’s idealism drew more on a French program of rational reform than on Scottish moral philosophy and po-litical economy, to the extent that Hegel’s Protestant commitments were more anthropo-logical than theological, we have a Hegel who to use John Toews categories is a virtual left Hegelian. Yet it was precisely one of Hegel’s purposes during the later stages of his career to resist such a reading of his philosophy and to construct out of a reform-minded Christianity a response both to the extremes of the Prussian reaction and to the extremes of the French revolution.

These difficulties in historical understanding contribute to a problem in thinking about Hegel’s continuing relevance. During the decade after Hegel’s death in 1831, and for much of the next century and a half, his philosophy was largely eclipsed by left Hegelianism. Today, however, Feuerbach’s and Marx’s “philosophy of the future” has lost its youthful self-confidence and its sense of historical inevitability. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that, given the way that Pinkard constructs the context, the epilogue has nothing to say about the “possibility of a contemporary Hegel.” This silence is un-fortunate, for Pinkard is correct in believing that the study of Hegel has something to contribute to a more nuanced liberalism but only, I would argue, if the Hegel we are reading is not a modernized contemporary but the eighteenth and early nineteenth century philosopher whose understanding of the problems and promise of modernity derived from an engagement with Scottish political economy and Protestant civil piety.