Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Hegel and Philosophy of Education (II)

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_328

Hegel’s contribution to education has been largely overlooked by those in philosophy and in educational theory. This is astonishing because Hegel’s philosophy, of all Western philosophical systematic and nonsystematic critiques, is arguably the one which is most clear about its educational foundations. Before Hegel became a university lecturer, he was for 8 years (1808–1816) the headteacher of the Nuremberg Gymnasium or grammar school. In that time not only did he write his Science of Logic (1812, 1816), he thought through issues of pedagogy and of learning and teaching in many of his letters which are still current nearly 200 years later. These letters written between 1808 and 1816 contained reflections on discipline, on the problems and advantages of student-centered learning, on the contradictions of independent learning, on the bad practice of “spoon-feeding,” on the part that the classics can play, and many other aspects of educational theory and practice. I cannot, in what follows, rehearse all of these, and the interested reader should consult Butler and Seiler (1984).

I will, however, give a brief overview of his educational theory and practice in the Gymnasium before looking at the ways in which education plays a wider and much more significant role in his philosophy overall.

As a teacher Hegel combined an interesting mixture of what we would call traditional and progressive ideas. He discouraged dueling, fighting, and smoking as well as political activity. In his school address of 1810, he stated that “for those attend our school we expect quiet behaviour, the habit of continuous attention, respect and obedience to the teachers and a proper and seemly conduct both towards these and their fellow pupils” (Mackenzie 1909, p. 163). He also introduced military drill into the school day, arguing that it helped students to learn quickly and “to have the presence of mind to carry out a command on the spot without previous reflection” (1909, p. 165). He was impressed by the discipline held in the classroom of Pythagoras who demanded that his pupils keep silent for the first four years of their studies. Surely says Hegel, “the philosopher at least has the right to ask of the reader to keep his own thoughts quiet until he has gone through the whole” (1984, p. 293). Such comments give us today the impression of an authoritarian and didactic teacher, one who did not encourage his pupils to think for themselves or to express their own opinions. Progressive teachers today would see such an approach as at best fearful of losing control in the classroom and at worst as a dogmatic reproduction of the status quo and a suppression of voice and difference. Postmodern thinkers might add that it is no longer credible to believe that a teacher can claim to be offering “a whole.” Hegel’s response to such thinking even in 1816 was that “it has become the prejudice not only of philosophical study but also – and indeed even more extensively – of pedagogy that thinking for oneself is to be developed and practised in the first place as if the subject matter were of no importance” (1984, p. 340). Four years earlier Hegel also expressed the view that “the unfortunate urge to educate the individual in thinking for himself and being self-productive has cast a shadow over truth” (1984, p. 279).

Yet, on the other hand, a much more liberal side to his views on students can also be found. Mackenzie notes that he was much liked by his students and that his “genuine enthusiasm for knowledge” (1909, p. 32) was infectious. He could teach most subjects with ease; he encouraged wide reading and took a personal interest in the students’ reading material. He interviewed all the students before they left the Gymnasium, whether they were proceeding to university or not.

His distaste for traditional didactic forms of instruction is clear in his reproach of the district school councilor, whose “only concept of educating the young is the misery of endless inculcating, reprimanding, memorising – not even learning by heart but merely the misery of endless repetition, pressure and stupefaction, ceaseless spoon feeding and stuffing. He cannot comprehend that in learning a young mind must in fact behave independently” (1984, p. 199). In another school address Hegel made a speech that echoed the thoughts of many modern educators about respect for the learning and freedom of the student. Hegel says that teachers should not induce in children a feeling of subjection and bondage – to make them obey another will even in unimportant matters – to demand absolute obedience for obedience’s sake and by severity to obtain what really belongs alone to the feeling of love and reverence. A society of students cannot be regarded as an assemblage of servants nor should they have the appearance or behavior of such. “Education to independence demands that young people should be accustomed early to consult their own sense of propriety and their own reason” (1909, p. 175).

Summing up this ambivalence at the heart of Hegel’s educational theory and practice, he notes that “to regard study as mere receptivity and memory work is to have a most incomplete view of what instruction means. On the other hand, to concentrate attention on the pupils own original reflections and reasoning is equally one-sided and should be still more carefully guarded against” (1909, p. 167). The contradictory nature of Hegel’s reasoning here and his seemingly holding two irreconcilable views are totally in keeping with the philosophical system for which he is so infamous. In moving now to look at the part education plays in the system, we can make a smooth transition by looking at one of the most educationally significant of Hegel’s letters. Speaking not only of philosophy in the Gymnasium but of philosophy as a whole, Hegel wrote:

Philosophical content has in its method and soul three forms: it is 1. abstract, 2. dialectical, and 3. speculative. It is abstract insofar as it takes place generally in the element of thought. Yet as merely abstract it becomes - in contrast to the dialectical and speculative forms- the so- called understanding which holds determinations fast and comes to know them in their fixed distinction. The dialectical is the movement and confusion of such fixed determinateness; it is negative reason. The speculative is positive reason, the spiritual, and it alone is a really philosophical. (1984, p. 280)

It is this triune system which has made Hegel one of the most difficult and challenging yet profound and comprehensive thinkers of the modern era. His philosophy is unusually, but importantly, a theory of what education actually is. Fundamentally, Hegel views education and learning as “experiential” (see Hegel 1977, p. 55). But to have a philosophy of education or, better, a science or philosophy that is education, experience has somehow to experience itself, to recognize the educational development which is taking place. The logic of this “self-experience” has the triune structure outlined above. An object is thought (known) and then mediated in its being known as a thought thought again or known as not known and finally known and not known as both of these. This final stage is therefore not final at all, and its instability is its being educational or our continued learning from and about experience.

Hegel’s system has been and continues to be characterized variously as dogmatic, totalitarian, closing, oppressive, and domesticating and as the archetypal model of a system which believes it has grasped the structure and content of knowledge as a whole. But these interpretations, be they from within Marxism, critical theory, postmodern theory, feminism, literary theory, philosophy, sociology, or cultural studies, have not read and continually refuse to read Hegel’s system educationally. The only thing that grows in “certainty” in the system is our own comprehension of the necessity of uncertainty in all that we do, all that we think, and all that we learn. When the philosophical and spiritual education which lies at the heart of Hegel’s system is interpreted only as an ordinary abstract education offering abstract knowledge, then it is interpreted as if it were an “empirical whole.” But such thinking is precisely what our philosophical education undermines and continually protests against.

More sophisticated readings of Hegel, particularly those which place him in relation to Kant, argue that he is not offering a naive theory of truth nor a philosophy of absolute closure (see, e.g., Rose 1981). However, unlike Rose, most other commentators who find that they can identify with the circle of misrecognition in Hegel and sympathize with the power of its return cannot go the “whole” way in comprehending this misrecognition to be science. The charge against Hegel is that his phenomenology of experience and learning overcomes its own uncertainties by claiming (or desiring) to have its meaning, structure, and truth present to it before those experiences (see, e.g., Beardsworth (1996), p. 59). The circle, in other words, completes only what it presupposes or what it wants to complete, leaving no room for the different, the incommensurable, and the impossible.

This is a difficult charge to consider in such a brief space, but three defenses can be made here (see also Tubbs, 1997). First, to assume that uncertainty and difference have a significance somewhere other than within the circle of experience is to reify them and to separate them from the conditions which are their predetermination, even if this predetermination renders them “impossible.” Second, such reification is only another repetition of modern (bourgeois) social and political relations, separating again the laboring consciousness from its objects and refusing the philosophical and spiritual import of the logic of their return to each other in and as experience (again). Third, it is therefore Hegel (and Nietzsche!) who offers a critique of modern unfreedom without importing concepts of impossibility, trace, or “differance,” concepts which themselves presuppose negative experience not to be its own education and development. The Hegelian system stands guard against all such presuppositions of education, positive and negative, abstract and dialectical, empirical and postmodern.

What, then, do we learn within the circle of experience? Do we overcome our misrecognitions? Do we learn from our experiences to see the world “correctly”? Do we arrive at the truth? The answer for Hegel is both yes and no. We do arrive at a recognition of that which we have misrecognized, but this recognition does not overcome misrecognition, and it does not save or “mend the world” (Fackenheim 1994). It does give us a philosophical and spiritual understanding of the world and it is positive in this sense. But it retains its negativity for it is based on our experience in which our knowledge of the world is always lost. How, then, would we live within this negation of negation? The answer is we would live educationally, learning and continually struggling to comprehend the contradictory and difficult nature of those experiences, to know them as both true and untrue, and to resist all one-sided repetitions of modern unfreedom. This philosophical and spiritual education is far more dramatic than any abstract determination about truth or identity which resolves the difficulty. In any case, as Hegel made clear in the Introduction to his Phenomenology of Spirit, such resolutions cannot hold against the negative power and inevitability of further experiences in which the philosophical and the spiritual return again (and again).

To end, two further things can be said of Hegel and education. First, the structure of his philosophical system, being as it is a science of rational experience, is also a model of personal, social, spiritual, and political development. His Philosophy of Right (1967) reveals this educational structure showing the movement from “natural” family education to the civil education of bourgeois social relations in which the family is replaced as educator. Second, within civil society we experience many different ways in which our civil relations have truths beyond their immediate bourgeois appearance. These are our experiences of culture which, for Hegel, represent the relation between persons and the universal. Bildung is the term used by Hegel to describe this sort of education, but it does not “end” in culture or in cultural studies. Culture for Hegel is not the “end of reason” (1967, p. 125) for our experience of culture (it could, e.g., be religious or aesthetic) is itself another education for us, one which Hegel describes as “the absolute transition from an ethical substantiality which is immediate and natural to the one which is intellectual and so both infinitely subjective and lofty enough to have attained universality of form” (1967, p. 125). Freedom becomes for Hegel an educational issue characterized by the difficult struggle to make these experiences our own education, our own spiritual self-development. Rejecting reason and freedom on the grounds of their difficulty and their tendency to disappoint us, and even to oppose themselves, as recent postmodernism has done, would be despised by Hegel. The difficulty is precisely what freedom consists in and demands.

Lastly and perhaps most controversially, Hegel has a philosophy of history. This means that he sees the same educational development outlined above in the unfolding of human history. It would seem from his Philosophy of History (1956) that the rationality of the West marks the highest expression of human development that the world has seen and, according to Fukuyama (1989), can expect. “Late twentieth-century Western” philosophizing has largely rejected such a view, rejecting in particular its racist and imperialist overtones that “west is best” and that all other world views are underdeveloped, naive, simple, whatever. (At times Hegel seems equally derogatory to women.) In response, at the very least one is obliged to read the Philosophy of History in the light of the system and therefore educationally. What the Philosophy of History reveals is the history of human misrecognition of itself and of its knowledge of truth and the forms in which that misrecognition has been represented. Nor does the philosophy of history for Hegel necessarily culminate in the end of history. True, at times, it appears that there is little left to do, but equally and predominantly our “philosophical” stage of Western development is that in which our own negativity is still also our own subjectivity. This is the basis of the modern State but is still characterized by misrecognition and struggle and not by final resolutions. Those “final solutions” which have been part of the Western twentieth century are not Hegelian in nature; indeed, they are expressions of what happens when the struggle of freedom and of education is refused or is itself reified. The use of international law to try and combat the triumph of unfreedom may well be Hegelian, but international law itself is also another form of misrecognition and necessarily both master and slave of world spirit. It is by no means the case that Hegel’s philosophy of history precludes other world views, e.g., Judaism and Islam, from developing their relationship between State and religion or human freedom and divine law or again between reason and God, in their own ways. There is evidence that this has always happened, continues to happen, and will happen in the future. Hegel’s critics are perhaps more imperialist than their adversary and certainly less open to education and learning in assuming that other world views are either inside or outside the philosophy of history rather than, as the West is, in constant negotiation with it and repetition of it.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Education, University of WinchesterHampshireUK