An Introduction to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Austin Tannenbaum
8 min readJan 4, 2021

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1770. He was a bright child who excelled at his studies from an early age. At 13, his mother contracted a “bilious fever,” which she transmitted to both Hegel and his father. While she succumbed to the illness, the two men narrowly survived.

As a young man, Hegel went to seminary school and earned a certificate in theology. He spent his life occupying various tutoring and university positions and wrote in his free time. In November of 1831 Hegel died of cholera after an epidemic had broken out earlier that year. Legend has it that he uttered, “and he didn’t understand me!” just before he expired.

Hegel’s last words are fitting given his reputation as a notoriously difficult thinker to understand. Part of the reason for this difficulty is his dialectical approach to philosophy in which knowledge is developed through opposition.

Dialectics is a discursive tradition that dates back at least to Socrates, who approaches his conversations by establishing a topic, then asking his interlocutor to assert some thesis about it, and finally exposing the flaws in that thesis. In The Republic, Plato depicts Socrates discoursing with a character named Cephalon about justice. Cephalon asserts that justice “consists of telling the truth and paying one’s debts.” Socrates counters that it is not just to repay one’s debts if doing so causes harm, such as if someone returned a borrowed weapon to a person who had gone mad. By employing the dialectical method, Socrates reduces his interlocutors to aporia, or confusion by invalidating what they thought they knew. Socrates’ use of the dialectical method typically generated negative knowledge, or knowledge of “what is not.”

Hegel’s dialectic unfolds a bit differently. Its structure is triadic, consisting of three moments commonly represented as thesis → antithesis → synthesis, although Hegel did not use these terms. Instead, he describes it as abstract → negative → concrete.

At the beginning of each dialectic, a proposition is made that seems to offer knowledge. However, upon investigation, the proposition is discovered to possess internal contradictions and is consequently negated. Yet this negation is of a special type, which cancels out but…

Austin Tannenbaum

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