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Hegel: A Biography
Hegel: A Biography, by Terry P. Pinkard; 780 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, $39.95.
The number, size, and difficulty of Hegel's works by themselves intimidate even determined readers; what other philosophers and critics have made of him in the hundred and seventy years since his death could make them despair of understanding anything about him altogether. Even the mention of his name can cause arguments--some call him the most pretentious, incomprehensible, and self-serving philosopher of all time, while others call him the philosophical founder of the modern world. Until now, no single work of scholarship provided a clear path through the ideas and opinions built up over the years, but Terry Pinkard's biography has finally given English-speaking readers a way through the labyrinth. Devoted Hegelians will undoubtedly find minor faults in this lengthy book, yet Hegel: A Biography represents a remarkable achievement in sober, well-written scholarship. Best of all, the picture of Hegel that emerges from these pages provides a credible picture of the human being who provoked these arguments, revealing a conflicted, temperamental, yet ultimately well-meaning professor of philosophy.
The mere fact that a book on Hegel manages to be both scholarly and readable is cause for celebration, as is Pinkard's ability to communicate the nuances and complexities of Hegel's cultural context without distortion. No startling revelation or daring thesis makes this biography newsworthy, and Hegel scholars will recognize many of the anecdotes, including how he fled Napoleon's invasion of Jena with the draft of the Phenomenology of Spirit under his arm. Like many Hegel anecdotes, this one is a slight exaggeration (he got out in plenty of time), perpetrated by Hegel himself for dramatic effect. Pinkard sifts the evidence on this and many other Hegel legends carefully, coming to entirely reasonable conclusions in nearly all cases.
However, the book does not consist solely of the narrative of Hegel's life. Pinkard devotes several long chapters to detailed examination of Hegel's works, focusing mainly on those that readers are least likely to have already encountered. The Phenomenology receives somewhat less attention than the two versions of the Logic, and the Philosophy of Nature, a work often used as an example of Idealism's ridiculous extremes, is explained in respectful, yet [End Page 477] honest detail. Those already familiar with the Phenomenology, the Lectures on Aesthetics, and The Philosophy of History will therefore gain a valuable perspective on what made Hegel so important and influential: the enormous scope of his system.
For literary scholars, the book contains insights into his relationship with Friedrich Hölderlin, his friend from the Tübingen Theological Seminary, and the lively intellectual atmosphere of Jena in the 1790s. Hegel, Hölderlin, and Schelling shared an apartment while at Tübingen, and together became enamored of Fichte's philosophy. Later, Schelling helped and encouraged both of them to join him at Jena, where Fichte, along with Goethe and Schiller, was leading a new intellectual movement based on Kant's philosophy. Pinkard's description of Hegel's time there solves many mysteries. Why did young intellectuals go to Jena to study with Fichte rather than to Königsberg to study with Kant? (Kant was neither very charismatic nor interested in teaching at this point; Fichte was the opposite.) Why did so many luminaries gather in one spot at one time? (The University of Jena was at the center of a much-needed educational reform movement; most other universities were worthless theological backwaters in the 1790s.) How did the French Revolution and Napoleon affect their ways of thinking? (They wanted Revolutionary and Napoleonic reforms without the bloodshed and tyranny.) Overall, Pinkard gives readers a coherent picture of this mix of philosophy, politics, and literature while losing none of its complexity.
Hölderlin, as it turns out, played an important role in virtually every aspect of Hegel's development, and remained a powerful influence on Hegel long after madness had confined him to a tower in sight of...