Hegel: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer

Peter Singer is a famous philosopher (as famous as philosophers can be these days) known for his very strong utilitarian views:

He is known especially for his work on the ethics of our treatment of animals, for his controversial critique of the sanctity of life doctrine in bioethics, and for his writings on the obligations of the affluent to aid those living in extreme poverty.  

But he has also written on German philosophy. In 1983, he published Hegel, a brief introduction to the highly influential 19th century philosopher. Hegel is now part of Oxford University Press’s colorful series of “Very Short Introductions”.

Hegel (the philosopher, not the book) wrote a lot and is notoriously hard to understand. That’s one reason so many academics have written about him. Singer does an excellent job. He devotes chapters to four of Hegel’s works (Lectures on the Philosophy of History; Philosophy of Right; The Phenomenology of Mind; and Science of Logic), the principal topics of which are history, freedom, mind and rationality. But since Hegel is what is known as a “systematic” thinker, none of the topics stand alone.

I came away from Hegel with what feels like a better understanding of his thought, although not good enough to explain it to anyone. All I’ll say is that Hegel seems to have viewed Geist (translated as either “mind” or “spirit”) as a real but abstract entity that has progressed through history, advancing toward more and more freedom, culminating in total rationality (the “Absolute”). Singer concludes that Hegel may have been a panentheist:

The term comes from Greek words meaning “all in God”; it describes the view that everything in the universe is part of God, but – and here it differs from pantheism – God is more than the universe, because he is the whole, and the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts. Just as a person is more than all the cells that make up his or her body – although the person is nothing separate from the body – so on this view God is more than all the parts of the universe, but not separate from it. Equally, just as no single cells amount to a person, so no individual parts of the universe amount to God. 

[This] interpretation is plausible, not only because it is consistent with what Hegel says specifically about God, but also because it makes sense of the dominant theme of his philosophy. If God is the absolute idea, the ultimate reality of the universe, the whole of its parts, we can understand why the absolute idea must manifest itself in the world, and there progress to self-comprehension. God needs the universe in the same way a person needs a body.

… Hegel sees God not as eternal and immutable, but as an essence that needs to manifest itself in the world, and, having made itself manifest, to perfect the world in order to be perfect itself…. It is a vision that places immense weight on the necessity of progress: for the onward movement of history is the path God must take to achieve perfection. Therein may lie the secret of the immense influence that Hegel, for all his outward conservatism, has had on radical and revolutionary thinkers [note: Karl Marx being the most obvious instance].