The History of Hegel’s Youth
Review of Wilhelm Dilthey’s collected writings, Vol. IV

Georg Lukács

It would be very pertinent to raise the objection to Dilthey's account of Hegel's youth that Dilthey is not only unable to perceive Hegel in the true historical context of social development; he does not even attain to an understanding of the dialectical method, adopting on the contrary Trendelenburg's false and shallow standpoint, which bourgeois research into Hegel surmounted long ago. Thus it would be very tempting to dismiss the work from this angle—were it not both unjustifiable and fruitless to do so. For in the first place, the majority of historical materialists, having fallen far below Feuerbach in their simplifying of the dialectical method, have no justification for condescending disparagement in the mere fact that the level of bourgeois philosophy is even lower in this respect. Secondly—and this is the important thing—a great deal can be learnt from Dilthey's book in spite of the weakness of his method.

The book charts Hegel's development from his very first beginnings up to the systematic essays which form the usual starting‑point for the interpretation of Hegel: up to the Jena essays (Knowledge and Faith etc.) and the Phenomenology. This account is instructive above all in that it strikes another blow at the supposition—largely deriving from Hegel himself—that the development of classical philosophy in Germany is a straightforward and purely systematic one leading from Kant to Hegel via Fichte and Schelling. To be sure, Kant remains the common philosophical starting-point. And there is no denying that Fichte and above all Schelling exerted a great (albeit often over‑estimated) influence on the young Hegel's development. But it is a major achievement of Dilthey's to have expounded the autonomous aspects of Hegel's development—at least on a purely philosophical plane.

Principal among these aspects is the decisive influence of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and, in conjunction with it, that of the French Revolution. Hegel's development differs chiefly from the development of his old friend Schelling in Hegel's closer relation to the Enlightenment's bourgeois-revolutionary philosophy. To whatever extent he later transcended this—and in the twofold sense that in his method he progressed to dialectics, while in his content he came to terms with the reactionary Prussianism of his age, this relation, this involvement with the finest and most advanced traditions of the revolutionary bourgeois class still saved him from relapsing into those extremely reactionary tendencies to which Schelling and his contemporaries (including Friedrich Schlegel) fell victim.

The Enlightenment failed theoretically to solve its main problem, which was the problem of history. This formed the point of departure for the young Hegel's propositions. History had become an ineluctable and at the same time insoluble problem for the revolutionary bourgeois class. So long as it simply criticised the society of feudal absolutism, it could point out with regard to this society's institutions (right, the State, religion etc.) that these have a merely contingent, merely positive existence, not one that is rooted in human reason. Consequently, it countered 'positive' rights with natural rights, the State of necessity with the rational State, positive religion with rational religion—forms whose contents were bound to be realised from the class interests of the ambitious bourgeois class. Thus it was necessary, in short, to demonstrate the relative, merely historical character of all the institutions of feudal absolutism in contrast to the content of bourgeois ones, which was permanent and governed by reason.

The victories of the bourgeois class, in particular the victories won in the French Revolution, changed this situation dramatically. They not only provided the bourgeois class with positive power but at the same time forced upon it an awareness of the relative nature of its own class situation. As became clear to the advanced theologians of the French Revolution, though not in terms of methodical concepts, it was to transpire that the economic realisation of natural rights, the rational State and so on leads beyond bourgeois society; that the bourgeois class has to retain power flanked by two hostile camps: feudalism and the proletariat. The antagonistic character of bourgeois society became a problem—albeit initially in a manner that was negative and unconscious, and hence could not be formulated.

But at this stage, the attitude to the problem of history underwent a decisive shift on the theoretical plane as well. For on the one hand, bourgeois society had henceforth likewise to be grasped and assessed as a historical phenomenon. This gave rise to an insoluble problem: the problem of comprehending society and its institutions both as absolute and as a necessary product of history. Thus natural right had to be fulfilled in the positive rights of the bourgeois State etc. It had changed its function: from now on, it was to defend the established bourgeois order instead of attacking a feudal Establishment. Another point is that this change to the proposition in terms of method was just a consequence of the change in content. The development of the bourgeois class was increasingly oriented towards coming to terms with elements of the society of feudal absolutism that it found useful or insuperable. In ideological terms, this meant that rational religion no longer had the task of replacing the historical religion, Christianity, with a rational religion, but rather of justifying Christianity from the standpoint of rational religion. As a result of the immature form of bourgeois society in Germany, this change was more abrupt here than in France or Britain—it was simultaneously enacted in a purely ideological form. And while this detracted from its politico-social concreteness, it greatly promoted the purely theoretical, philosophical clarity and depth of the proposition.

It is from this standpoint that the problems of the young Hegel's development must be appreciated. That the religious problem, the relation of rational and positive religion, is foremost we can easily understand. Remember that much later, when class differentiation had advanced much further, the first great intellectual conflict over the 'reform of consciousness', the hypothesis of historical materialism, similarly revolved around this problem (Bruno Bauer, Feuerbach). But it is very interesting to observe how Hegel, starting out from Kant's 'religion within the bounds of pure reason' and perceiving in positive religion a lowering of the rational religion of Christ, is driven up against the historical problem more and more forcibly; how the 'justification of the established' increasingly occupies a central place in his expositions; and how there is less and less deducing of religion's 'essence' from a priori ethical theses (as with Kant). Let us note only in passing that in many respects, the young Hegel's theory of 'love' as the central question in the philosophy of religion anticipates Feuerbach's theories. What is essential is his development in questions of rights and politics, especially concerning the French Revolution.

But all along, the attempt to grasp every phenomenon not merely in abstract concepts but from the totality of concrete historical life, 'unceasing' life, is of vital importance. Not only because this shows us the sources from which the almost immeasurable plentitude of Hegel's later oeuvre was built, but because the problem of the historical whole, of the inner coherence of the countless concrete determinants, and the possibility and method of knowing it dictates all the young Hegel's logical propositions. And as Dilthey shows, he came to recognise that here the existing methods of thinking, abstract reflection, were inadequate. Thus a new logic, the dialectical method, emerges as a necessary consequence of the historico-social proposition. The book's demonstration of this is its greatest achievement. Here, although Dilthey not only rejects the dialectical method but even fails to grasp it, he has made a valuable contribution to the history of its genesis.


SOURCE: Lukács, Georg. “The History of Hegel’s Youth: Review of Wilhelm Dilthey’s collected writings, Vol. IV,” in Reviews and Articles from Die rote Fahne, translated by Peter Palmer (London: The Merlin Press, 1983), pp. 52-55.


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