Notes on “The Young Hegel”

Friday, 28th August, 2015

Book details

The Young Hegel: studies in the relations between dialectics and economics
Georg Lukács
1966 (English translation 1975)
MIT Press


The point of “Young Hegel” is to show the development of Hegel’s thinking up to (and including) his Phenomenology of Mind. The special focus is to show how Hegel’s study of economics (primarily Adam Smith and David Ricardo) affected this development.

This is the most biographical treatment of Hegel I’ve read so far. It’s divided into sections with Hegel at Berne (1793-96), Frankfurt (1797-1800) and Jena (1801-03, 1803-07). The “very” young Hegel in Berne is depicted as idealising Classical civilisation, especially of Greece, which he would contrast absolutely with the “positivity” and dogma of the Christian world. In Frankfurt, Hegel became “reconciled” to the bourgeois/Christian reality, and this reconciliation brought with it (or was partly) a need to link the two worlds — for example to explain the historical changes (Hegel’s main source seems to have been Gibbon!).

I think “reconciliation” is Hegel’s word but, in Lukács’ telling, the process was more than only intellectual. Lukács talks of Hegel’s Frankfurt “crisis”, and how Hegel took much of the source material from his own personal experience of life.

Hegel’s debates with Kant, Fichte and Schelling are covered in detail. So Hegel is placed in historical context in terms of philosophy; also the political situation in Germany and France, and the political/economic situation in England are shown to influence (determine, Lukács would have it) Hegel’s thinking.

The exploration of Hegel’s study and use of economics is very good. Obviously at least part of the point of this exploration is to confirm and consolidate our understanding of the similarities between Hegel and Marx. Pinkard stressed how Hegel’s “idealism” (as in not materialism) is not quite as straightforwardly “idealist” as you might think (e.g., Hegel describes animals as idealists). What you might call Hegel’s “proto-materialism” is drawn out by Lukács.

Marx turns up from time to time in this book, but not really until the final chapter. After a synopsis of the Phenomenology, Lukács reviews Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (EPM), which culminate in a critique by Marx of the Hegel’s Phenomenology.

Another frequent visitor in the book is Goethe. Lukács is always stressing the similarity of thinking between Goethe and Hegel.

For all the foibles of his style (see below), Lukács knows how to put a book together, and this book finishes in a kind of triple climax. The first is the one you expect and that the whole book has been building up to: the Phenomenology, dealt with in a huge crescendo of exposition. For the second, Marx steps out of the shadows and we plunge in to EPM. The third and final climax is announced on the very last page — “Historically, only one figure may be placed on a par with Hegel: …” — and it is Goethe who takes the final bow and receives the bouquet.

Lukács’ style

Lukács does have a tendency

  • to be a bit unmediated/deterministic with his explanations
  • not to shilly-shally about with minor issues
  • to make sure Stalin gets a mention every so often.

For the unsympathetic reader there is plenty not to like about Lukács. I like to think Lukács was writing assuming two particular audiences: (a) Marxists, so certain things don’t have to be explained, and certain things can be short-circuited, and (b) the censor and the KGB.

Next steps

Marx’s EPM is an obvious next stop.

For strengthening understanding of the development of the dialectic, with Hegel and Marx as two points on the timeline as it were, I should re-read Ilyenkov’s Dialectical Logic.

Goethe: the work most mentioned is Wilhelm Meister. Iphigenia on Tauris and Confessions of a beautiful soul also get interesting mentions (as does Faust obvs).


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