Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Hegel on Moral Development, Education, and Ethical Life

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_423



Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) was an important educational thinker. He was, besides Kant, the most eminent philosopher of German idealism. His first great work, Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) was of revolutionary significance. He developed in his Science of Logic (1816) a dialectical system of categories, which was, for example, important for Marxist philosophy. His later philosophical system was summarized in Encyclopedia (1818), which he began to write in Heidelberg. Later in Berlin, his philosophy became internationally famous. He died of cholera in 1831 (on Hegel’s biography see Pinkard 2000; general introduction to his thinking Beiser 1993; Hösle 1987).

Hegel was especially influential for continental philosophy – Marxism, hermeneutics, postmodernism – and also affected American pragmatism, for example, John Dewey. Hegel as a pedagogical thinker is not so influential, but for the philosophy of education even today remains very interesting. New interpretations of his philosophy, for example, the discussion of his social ontology and recognition (Anerkennung), are potentially fruitful for educational theory and worth further development (on recognition see, for example, Honneth 1995, 2010; Ikäheimo and Laitinen 2011).

Besides his academic career, Hegel had very extensive experience as a house and school teacher. He was 45 years old when he acquired his first full-time academic post, a professorship at the University of Heidelberg in 1816. Two years later he moved to Berlin. Before the Heidelberg post, he had spent 14 years as a house and school teacher instructing children and young adults. From 1808 to 1816 he held the post of Rector and Professor of Philosophy at the Gymnasium at Nuremberg and wrote there not only one of his theoretical main works Science of Logic (1816) but also the pedagogically important Philosophical Propaedeutic (published 1840 as a separate volume (XVIII) of the Collected Works). At this time, he reflected pedagogical questions also in his letters and school addresses.

Towards the “Concrete Ethics”: From Morality (Moralität) to Ethical Life (Sittlichkeit)

Following Aristotle, Hegel sees ethics in connection to politics. Ethical action is always situated in a society: virtues, for example, are connected to different social roles to which a citizen has socialized in a society. Hegel’s starting point is on the other hand the ethics of Kant. He stresses like Kant the importance of obligations and universal human rights. However, he does not accept the formalistic traces of Kantian ethics. Kant’s categorical imperative is a universal, law-like formal rule, underlining the free, autonomic choices of a moral agent. The historical and social context is irrelevant for ethical action.

According to Hegel, Kant does not connect moral universalism to the practical motivation and interests of an agent in a concrete historical situation. The Kantian ideal of moral agency leads to an empty conception of both the agent and the moral rules. Kant does not take seriously the specific goods that make up ethical life in a certain society and culture. His rational agent has no moral feelings, no interests, or summa summarum, no real ethical motivation which would constitute a concrete, socially situated morality in the Hegelian sense. This concrete morality can be found only in a connection between morality (Moralität) and ethical life (Sittlichkeit), in understanding the specific goods, roles, and ethically significant institutions within a particular society.

Hegel does not reject Kantian morality totally – this would lead to a cultural relativism, which Hegel does not represent. Hegel accepts the cornerstone of the Kantian ethics: the free will. Only free agents can be considered as morally responsible. Morality makes sense only if we can critically reflect on traditional mores, traditional moral practices and habits. In this sense, Hegel is not a conservative, who would restore traditional morality as such – his famous dictum concerning the reasonability of reality does not mean that the existing order as such would be rational. One should rather critically reflect on how the existing order could be changed towards rational, moral, and political standards. Historically the most important principle is the increasing freedom, which constitutes the cornerstone of Hegel’s philosophy of history (The Philosophy of History, compiled after his death, is probably the most widely read of Hegel’s works). History is progressive; a progress towards a society in which all are free through a progress in a consciousness of freedom. It is therefore clear that Hegel does not accept cultural relativism, which cannot criticize different forms of suppression of individual freedom.

In the German historical context, where the development of capitalism at the beginning of nineteenth century was still very weak, Hegel’s liberal and bourgeois political thinking (especially in his doctrine of “civil society,” bürgerliche Gesellschaft) is quite radical. His doctrine of State (Staat) is not a totalitarian, as many earlier interpretations have misunderstood. The Hegelian State is not only a result of a social contract based on mutual protection of private property, like the Lockean State. Hegel calls this kind of liberal State Notstaat, a State based on need. This State is exclusive; it leaves the powerless and poor people without protection.

On the contrary, real State is, for Hegel, more: it is a political unity which promotes common good equally for all of its citizen (it is in this respect a family-like unit). Hegel demands, for example, equal education for all citizen. The State recognizes also individual liberty and preserves a sense of shared identity. It is a moral unit in the Kantian sense: It respects all its members as goals and does not accept using others only as a means. The Hegelian State is in this respect altruistic, a family-like unit, which does not accept economical instrumentalization and exploitation of each other’s productive and consumptive capabilities. State is based in a general commitment to a way of life based on rational and coherent principles. The idea of constitution represents this possibility of a State to be a moral agent of its own. At the same time, constitution must express the deepest interests of the individual citizen (Pinkard 1988, pp. 146–148). The Hegelian State is therefore not a totalitarian whole, because it expresses the rational will and freedom of the individual citizen.

Education in its different forms is closely connected to this institutional structure of ethical life (or society as a whole). Family education is mainly moral education, in which children are educated in the sphere of mutual love, which is the institutional principle of family as a moral unit. This earliest education is mainly instinctive, children are gradually assimilated through loving and caring interactions with parents into altruistic human action, in which others are respected as goals. Mutual recognition of individual interests and capabilities is here, already, important. Through school education, children become gradually become members of a larger community, leading to legal membership of civil society and State, capable to begin ground their own families.

The school is as an institution a kind of corporation. Hegel calls all organizations, which unite people with common interests into groups that represent their interests, corporations. He does not mention schools and universities in this context. Guilds and unions are typical examples of corporations. But considering that schools take the reasonable interests of children and young adults as their guiding lines, one should also call schools corporations. Universities are a special kind of corporation because they produce new knowledge and mediate it to young adults. They are therefore also corporations for scientists and intellectuals.

On the other hand, schools and universities are more than corporations because they are organized by the State as a political unit (not only as a part of Nootstaat). They are therefore more general and reason-based institutions than guilds and unions, which represent only the interests of small groups. Schools prepare children to act for a better future as becoming State citizens. In this respect, schools and universities are not only mediating to the next generation traditional knowledge as such but are also critical moral and political institutions, which help to formulate the general will (cp. Rousseau’s reason-based volonté générale, which is not the common “will of all,” volonté de tous, the will of potentially irrational majority, Rousseau 1762) of future generations. Schools and universities anticipate a probable future in discussing important local and global problems like current environmental questions. In Hegel’s time, such a problem – especially in Germany – was the building of a national State. Therefore the question of patriotism was, in the Hegelian pedagogy of nineteenth century, an especially important problem. This question also arose in other European countries. For example, the most important Finnish Hegelian, J.V. Snellman (1806–1881), who extensively researched the problems of school education ca. 1840, became a national leader in Finland. Finland was at that time an autonomous part of Russia and became independent in 1917 in the turmoils of the Russian Revolution (on the pedagogy of the Finnish Hegelians see Väyrynen 1992).

The Hegelian pedagogy is for this reason morally and politically grounded: The social context and the questions concerning the possible development of the society are important. On the other hand, the structure of knowledge and its adaptability to the psychical development of children must also be taken into account. Hegel stresses in general the activity of the children in learning processes. In this respect, the development of children’s subjectivity, self-consciousness, and personality are crucial goals in all education, be it purely theoretical or practically political. Hegel develops these practical questions of pedagogy extensively and connects them firmly to his more general philosophical views.

Dialectics of Bildung and the Fundaments of Moral Education

Hegel’s pedagogical views are based in his concept of Bildung (one could translate it as a general becoming or formation of man). The concept was developed in German neohumanistic and romantic thinking, for example, in Goethe and Schiller. However, Hegel’s conception is original. Bildung is not a harmonic development like natural growth, it is rather a dialectical process, in which antagonistic elements play a crucial role. The development of a child begins from a natural and instinctive state, which is irrational, capricious, and amoral – not at all idealized, as in Rousseau inspired pedagogies. Bildung begins as an alienation from this natural domain: A child must first be morally educated in the family. There are elements of coercion (and therefore alienation), but the main thing is that the institutional principle of family, love between parents and child, immediately assimilates the child into the normative rules of family life. This first stage of Bildung is therefore taking place quite harmoniously, in the immediate substantiality of the ethical life in the loving and caring family.

At school, the antagonistic aspects of Bildung became more explicit. Norms are more systematically inculcated and the pupil is forced to sacrifice his immediate idiosyncrasies and interests to the experience of the systematic demands of thought, guided by curriculum. Hegel summarizes this process of Bildung as follows: “The final purpose of education … is liberation and the struggle for higher liberation still; education is the absolute transition from an ethical substantiality which is immediate and natural to one which is intellectual and so both infinitely subjective and lofty enough to have attained universality of form” (Hegel 1971, p. 125). In this respect, school teaching mirrors the whole society: it supports the development of the subjective self-consciousness of the pupils and prepares in this way their future lives in the civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft). For example, the competitive elements at school prepare children to the life in capitalistic society.

On the other hand, school teaching must prepare the pupils to work for the more general, communitarian interests of the State (Staat) as ethically responsible citizens. The demands of capitalism may not totally dictate the goals of the education system which has, as a part of the political State. a critical autonomy from the economic system. Especially in higher education (gymnasium, university), general humanistic and scientific goals have a priority. Hegel’s concept of school education clearly mirrors in this way his general views of society. From the viewpoint of moral education, the task of the school is antagonistic, it must support both egoistic and altruistic goals. This mirrors the antagonism of the whole society.

The process of the child’s education, in a way, mirrors the bigger historical process of the Bildung of mankind. The formative stages of Spirit (Geist) provide the material element for the curriculum. This must be communicated to the child. Hegel describes this process in his Phenomenology of Spirit as follows: “Thus as far as factual information is concerned, we find that what in former ages engaged the attention of men of mature minds, has been reduced to the level of facts, exercises and even games for children; and, in the child’s progress through the school, we shall recognize the history of the cultural development of the world traced, as it were, in a silhouette” (Hegel 1979, p. 16). Hegel stresses therefore the importance of the classics of Greece and Rome: they allow the child to distance himself from his own immediate interests and narrow practical demands of a particular historical situation. This is something that philosophy does more abstractly. Hegel therefore even speculates that the classics ought to be accorded a more prominent place than philosophy in the Gymnasium’s curriculum (Hegel 1986, Introduction p. xvi).

Historical knowledge and classics help the children to develop their skills of critical thinking – classics are not, as some conservative philosophers like Hans Georg Gadamer have seen, something in which the universal nature of Spirit could be most easily found. They are rather intellectually a kind of significant other, through which the mind of the child can return to itself as mentally enriched but at the same time as free to criticize even the classical views. Hegel is of course a modernist, for whom classics are not an unsurpassable authority but rather equal partners in the common search for truth, sustainable values, and ethical life.

Classics are especially important for moral education. They help to develop the moral sensitivities of the child and create preconditions for the development of the child’s capacity for participation in the life of his society as a full citizen in emphasizing the different duties of the citizen. Morality will be inculcated gradually through the study of classics. On the other hand, also practical philosophy is important in this respect. Its central systematic role in the Hegelian curriculum will be analyzed later.

Classics are for Hegel not authorities, but rather models for encouraging the pupil’s own ethical and social activity. They are an important tool in awakening this activity. For Hegel, all real learning is an active process. Hegel emphasizes this strongly in his second Nuremberg School Address in writing that “if learning limited itself to mere receiving, the effect would not be much better than if we wrote sentences on water: for it is not the receiving but the self-activity of comprehension and the power to use it again, that first makes knowledge our possession” (Hegel 1909, p. 167). The goal of moral education is active political citizenship. This is possible only if pupils learn practical morality instead of mere abstract morality or moral theorizing. The pupil must learn how to apply moral rules and obligations in different social contexts, leaning on an authentic, concretely situated ethics as opposed to mere formalistic approach. Kantian ethics is for Hegel only a starting point and the ultimate goal is to teach ethical judgment, an ability to evaluate different social contexts and their special ethical problems in order to find solutions. This is possible especially through the study of classics, because through them a positive alienation from the current interests and their limitations becomes possible.

How to Build Pedagogically Relevant Curriculum?

One could speak of the primacy of practical philosophy in the Hegelian view of curriculum (modifying Kant’s “Primacy of the practical reason,” Primat der praktischen Vernunft – see Kant 1978, pp. 191–194). According to Hegel, the subjects of Law and Ethics are pedagogically best suited for children, while they contain material which is more directly practical, connected to the immediate life problems of the children (for example, what rights and obligations do I have in a certain social context? and why?). These are also easier to grasp for the children than purely theoretical questions. Concepts of practical philosophy are more immediate and definite for the child, suitable for their psychical development. Theoretical subjects, for example, the concepts of Logic are only “shadows of the real” and therefore harder to grasp. Also the subjects of the Philosophy of Nature are not very well suited for children, because many of the children regard them as boring and irrelevant (Hegel 1986, Introduction pp. xviii–xix). The concepts of practical philosophy combine the possibility of immediate experience in a life context with rational form: They are therefore best suited to produce valid knowledge from the theoretical viewpoint of the German idealism, which tried to combine empiristic and rationalistic traditions of philosophy.

As already mentioned, Hegel’s general view concerning the formation of knowledge was activistic. Following Kant and Fichte, he stressed the constitutive role of subjectivity in the formation of knowledge. This subjective aspect and the objective validity of knowledge can be easily connected with each other in the human context, than in the case of nature. Hegel actually leans here on the conception of actors knowledge, developed earlier especially by Aristotle, Hobbes, and Vico, according to which people can have a more certain knowledge of the things that they have – or could have – made. People can, for example, reenact – to use the expression of Collingwood – historical actions in their mind and understand, on which values, goals, and believes historical actions were based. As Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) stressed, this kind of understanding can reach a more certain knowledge than the empirical research of nature, because people have no possibility to grasp such an inner view of the principles behind the creation of nature (creationistic position excluded).

The priority of Law and Ethics in the Hegelian curriculum stresses the objective validity of their concepts. They are therefore ideally suited to combine the subjective starting point of all knowledge with objective certainty. Hegel’s metaphysical position is objective idealism and this is pedagogically easiest to understand in the realm of objective spirit, in which the doctrine of ethical life (Sittlichkeit) plays a key role. Basic institutions of the society, family, civil society, and State are for him primarily historical products of human mind, and people can understand them correctly only if they can reenact, what kind of values, goals, and believes they objectify. Even the children can easily understand, how, for example, the concept of private property rights was born (possessing first my own body and power to work, as Locke explains). On the other hand, private property has objective validity expressed at the institutional level. Obligations and norms express this objective aspect and the reasons for these rules are not even for children any harder to understand as the ideas of basic rights.

Understanding the concepts of Morality and Law, therefore, gives the children an intuition regarding objective knowledge is possible combining constructive subjective aspects and objective validity in a society. The children may therefore already learn to avoid simplified theoretical positions like naïve realism or subjective relativism. Michael George and Andrew Miller have summarized this central idea of Hegel well in their Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophical Propaedeutic in writing, that “Education generally, by retracing the path of Spirit’s self-realization, raises the individual’s subjectivity to a recognition of the rationality underpinning the social institutions of his society. … The Propaedeutic therefore … (brings) the child of the modern world into that state of intellectual appreciation which alone would enable him to participate as an active, rational, informed and concerned citizen of his society and age” (Hegel 1986, Introduction, p. xxi).

Hegel underlines in his didactics the primacy of the content instead of form. He criticizes Kant’s dictum of the priority of philosophizing instead of the content, basic concepts of philosophy. Hegel believes that the two cannot be separated so easily. It is in reviewing the content that one learns to philosophize. Children especially need the careful, systematic study of the content of law and morality, in order to learn philosophy. Philosophy devoid of content and systematic structure is haphazard, empty, and fragmentary. This does not exclude the activity of the children’s subjectivity: as George and Miller put it, “to think through detailed material in class and in homework is to re-enact the principle of thought itself … the pupil must then take on the hard ‘labour of the Notion’, i.e. think though (should be through? – KV) the problem himself and ‘possess’ it” (Hegel 1986, Introduction, p. xix). Although Hegel criticizes such pedagogies, which stress the role of a play, he does not underestimate the positive role of the imagination in child’s subjectivity. Especially the study of classics of Greek and Rome – and also Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – take children to a different world and encourage their imagination. It is important to reflect freely different possibilities: this promotes children’s capability to critical thinking.


  1. Beiser, F. C. (1993). The Cambridge companion to Hegel. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Hegel, G. W. F. (1909). Second school address. In M. Mackenzie (Ed.), Hegel’s educational theory and practice. London: Swan Sonnenschein.Google Scholar
  3. Hegel, G. W. F. (1971). The philosophy of right (trans: Knox, T. M.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Hegel, G. W. F. (1979). The phenomenology of spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Hegel, G. W. F. (1986). The Philosophical Propaedeutik (trans: Miller, A. V.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  6. Honneth, A. (1995). The struggle for recognition: The moral grammar of social conflicts. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  7. Honneth, A. (2010). The pathologies of individual freedom: Hegel’s social theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Hösle, V. (1987). Hegels System: Der Idealismus der Subjektivität und das Problem der Intersubjektivität (pp. 1–2). Hamburg: Meiner.Google Scholar
  9. Ikäheimo, H., & Laitinen, A. (Eds.). (2011). Recognition and social ontology. Leiden/Boston: Brill.Google Scholar
  10. Kant, I. (1978). Kritik der praktischen Vernunft. Stuttgart: Reclam.Google Scholar
  11. Pinkard, T. (1988). Hegel’s dialectic. The explanation of possibility. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Pinkard, T. (2000). Hegel: A biography. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Rousseau, J. J. (1762). Du contrat social; ou, principes du droit politique. Amsterdam: Marc Michel Rey.Google Scholar
  14. Väyrynen, K. (1992). Der Prozess der Bildung und Erziehung im finnischen Hegelianismus. Helsinki: Societas Historica Finlandiae.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OuluOuluFinland