(NB There is now a new and revised paperback version of this famous book, published by Cambridge University Press, 2000. My notes are based on the older edition)
For Hegel, the world is produced of necessity by Geist, but this is not the usual creation by a Supreme Being who is infinite and unknowable. Such a conception of God was an empty category, a 'full stop to knowledge', leading only to the 'bad paths' of intuition or faith, not Reason. Geist is both material and spiritual. Of necessity, a subjective force must create an other if it is really to be a subject. This applies to the mundane ego and the Absolute Subject alike - which leads to a potential critique of the radical subjectivity of Husserl, via Hegel's critique of Kantian morality (see below).
The other must be a genuine other, not just the actual appearance of, say, a material world. The real world is therefore contingent to some extent, rather than directly reducible directly to some magic formula of the unfolding of the Idea. In other words, the Idea is not just some simple essence transparently underneath empirical reality. The contingency of the world is necessary.
Reason (capital R, - vernunft or 'speculative reason' rather than just understanding of a given reality, verstand) can perceive the dialectical links between contingent reality and Spirit. The Idea or the Concept is the system that produces the dialectical movements. Subjectivity leads to otherness which leads to alienation (loss of knowledge or control over the other) which in turn leads to a recovery of otherness. This recovery of otherness involves the understanding of otherness, its 'negation' or 'return' to subjectivity. This dialectic process of otherness and return is discovered in history, and is exemplified in Hegel's work on civilisation, religion, and philosophy.
H's own philosophy was the first to recognise the full system, partly because of his brilliance (!) but partly because certain actual developments in society were necesssary before philosophy could gain the truth - 'the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk' - that is, full wisdom about events occurs only in the last stages of actual developments. A stage of social development is necessary before philosphical insights can be gained.
being - determinate being - quantity - quality - measure - essence - Idea.Roughly, the idea is that 'being' as a concept is soon seen as too general, and as failing to distinguish enought types of being, leading to a more refined concept - 'determinate being'. 'Quantity' ,likewise, is too abstract, since some criteria are needed to decide what to include in the count, producing the inevitable development of the more refined concept 'quality' - and so on.
Although this looks Kantian, H rejects K's views that concepts apply only to subjective judgements, while 'things as they are' are unknowable. H's view is that essences are manifested in being, they produce or 'body forth' in material being. And, of course, they do so in an historical sequence rather than being simply universal 'a priori'.
In the discussion on logic, causal analysis is rejected as mere verstand, a mere operating at the level of appearances. Causal analysis must be arbitrary, as recognised by Hume - eg X causes Y, but what causes X? Any X is both cause and effect, and the choice of where to start in the causal chain is arbitrary (or produced by utility or contingency). Appearances are produced by Geist manifesting itself - although material reality is contingent to some extent, it is a a mistake to treat it as totally contingent or self-sufficient.
Taylor says the whole discussion begins well enough, showing how contradictions mustl ead to higher level resolutions etc., but it soon begins to drift into smuggling in premisses about just what is a higher order concept, in order to justify H's project.
Judaism, as a subsequent stage of development, did offer a universal god but an abstract, fierce, and unknowable one. This has one consequence in particular for H - 'the fate of the abstract and universal was to be identified with the rawest particular' (a criticism Marx was to make against Hegel's notion of the State as universal, according to Colletti 1973 - see below). More generally, Judaism eventually produces a classic 'unhappy consciousness' - men are in a world whose purpose is unknown, and this is a block on the development of Reason.
The Enlightenment offered a morality based on subjective groundings and reason - as does Utilitarianism, natural law liberalism, Rousseau's liberalism etc. H offers a very contemporary-sounding criticism here - none of the versions of liberalism can reconcile individual wills and the social. Utilitarianism is condemned as particularly unstable, leading to egoistic demands at the expense of social life (H. sounds very like Durkheim here), and H criticised the English Reform Bill especially. Rousseau's notion of the General Will was on the right lines, but still not related to Geist, still too linked to immediate human wills.
Kantian morality is also a product of Enlightenment: K recommends that we choose potentially universalisable maxims as the basis of our morality. H's criticisms are twofold: (a) this is empty and formal only, since we are asked to choose 'as if' norms were universally applicable - there is no connection with concrete action; (b) if K's maxims ever were operated in a moral community, acting morally would become second nature, losing the essential element of choice (again, very close to Durkheim via Lukes). These problems are classic examples of contradiction for H.
H's solution to all this is to argue that morality is already embodied or grounded or 'objectivised' in sittlichkeit (customs or social morality, almost common-sense or tacit social knowledge). There is still a need for systematisation, of course. In the course of this, H argues that Christianity is the Absolute religion since its creeds embody essential elements of the Idea - eg the Trinity is a representation of movements of the Universal (Father) to the particular (Son) to the recovery of the particular in the community (Holy Ghost).
Again, the choice of aspects as necessary seems riddled with assumptions. But H claims to have grounded morality in a conception of the social. Individual freedom or autonomy means merely discovering the more-than-egoistic purpose behind it all. H. says that man is finite and must be, like all finite things, in contradiction (this leads to a theodicy). But men can transcend their finitude by discovering their part in the Universal, in the necessary scheme of things, so that they can live on in the community and therefore in Geist. This is the meaning of Jesus who is the one united individual/particular/ universal. H had criticised Christianity once as too 'positive', too concerned with JC as symbol, with his incarnation. The real point is the Pentecost conveying to the community the body of Christ, and thus the notion of unity with the Universal.
A properly organised State must embody
the tenets of the Idea: the recognition of the particular and some universal
synthesising element. This leads to the idea of a segmented State, with
different elements embodied in different 'estates' or 'stande'.
Eventually, three stande were isolated as important : (a) peasantry
who identify with the particular national body or culture via emotional
attachments, custom, sentiment etc.; (b) civil soc. - utility and
private interests plus the utilitarian mechanisms to harmonise them (markets
etc). Here, reason as calculation rules.; (c) a 'universal class' (initially
an educated aristocracy then an expert civil service) which operates to
maintain the nation as a whole using universal Reason. This class contains
the other two - contains them politically and socially and contains them
in the special sense of aufheben, a dialectical reconciliation and transcendence
of other elements. H also believed in the need for a monarchy, as the universalist
symbol of the State, and, to give due weight to the need to preserve the
concept of the particular and individual, an actual hereditary person
had to be it.
Notoriously, H allegedly links his ideal State directly to the Prussia of his day. But Taylor says it's not quite as apologetic as it seems. H had praised Prussia for being a progressive monarchy, of the kind he hoped to see, before 1848 and before the acccession of Frederick-William IV. He definitely preferred the German system to Britain or France - and his attacks on reformers in those countries gives him his illiberal reputation. But the 'left-wing Hegelians' who followed him were quick to point out that he wanted a State based solely on Reason, not custom or privilege, and this could be a source of 'immanent critique' of the existing State. Nevertheless, Marx's 'methodological' point (in Colletti 1973) remains; idealism is always prone to compromise with existing reality?
Colletti L (ed) Karl Marx: Early
Writings, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books