“The Hegel of the early theological manuscripts thus has a man-centered view of human regeneration. Indeed, at times it would appear that man is the only spiritual being, although he must unite with a larger life to recover wholeness. The mature Hegel has broken with this view, and adopted a notion of the absolute as Gesit. Man as a spiritual being is related to a larger scheme of spiritual activity. […] This is not supposed to be a regression to heteronomy in that the larger scheme is that of Gesit with which man comes to identify as his indispensable vehicle… [W]hile claiming to avoid heteronomy Hegel has broken with his earlier, Kant-influenced, man-centered formulations of autonomy. […]
Without our being able to be sure because of the lack of evidence, it is probable that the early Hegel was quite radical politically. In the early days at Tübingen young radicals followed the progress of events in Paris with interest and enthusiasm. And while it is not likely that they wanted simply to re-edit the French Revolution in Germany, and certainly not its Jacobin phase—for all that the reactionaries dubbed them all with the title ‘Jacobin’—nevertheless it is probable that they favoured far-reaching political change in the direction of equality and popular representation. […]
The mature Hegel on the other hand was not a political radical at all. It is easy, however, to misconceive the change. It is too simple and misleading to see it simply as a shift from left to right. First, it is probable that the ‘organic’ notions of the state, derived from the Greeks, the distrust of the ‘mob’ acting outside any institutional framework, the stress on differentiated function, these ideas which are so important to his later political theory were there at the beginning. And reciprocally, the mature Hegel incorporates a great deal of the principles of 1789, more than were incorporated in the Prussian state of his time of which he is so often accused of being the apologist, and more in some respects than contemporary bourgeois writers if one thinks of his prophetic mistrust of the thrust of a capitalist economy.
The change rather lies in his conception of the role of willed action to political change. The regeneration he looks for in the 1790s is something which seems largely to have to be done by religious and political transformation. In the later system the fulfillment of man’s destiny is something which is in train; it is incumbent on men to recognize and live in relation to it. Of course, here to we can easily misconceive the difference. To recognize one’s connection with Geist is ipso facto to change oneself and the way one acts and in important respects. A change of consciousness cannot just be opposed to a change in reality; they are bound up together; and this link between the two was important from the beginning of Hegel’s thought, for which religious transformation was central. But there is a difference nonetheless between a view which sees widespread willed social and political transformation as something to be done by those who would achieve regeneration and a view which sees the relevant social and political transformations as needing to be discerned and hence accepted and lived in the right spirit. […]
The man-centered conception of regeneration naturally goes with the prospect of a willed transformation of institutions to realize the desired end. But with the development of a notion of Geist as a subject greater than man, Hegel developed a notion of historical process with could not be explained in terms of conscious human purposes, but rather by the greater purposes of Geist. The transformation in political, social, religion institutions which must come about if man is to fulfill his destiny are no longer seen as tasks which men must consciously accomplish; on the contrary, although they are carried through by men, these do not fully understand the part they are playing until after they have come about. This is the mature Hegelian doctrine of the ‘cunning of reason’ and the retrospective understanding of history which Hegel expressed in that famous phrase of the Preface to the Philosophy of Right, that ‘the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk’.
In other words the notion that man is related to a larger, cosmic subject went along with the displacement of the subject of history in Hegel’s thought, who is no longer simply man—if indeed, he every clearly conceived it as such—but Geist. What needs to be done in the sense of carried through by intentional action is thus not the institutional transformation of history, for these can no longer be intentionally encompassed in this sense, but rather the recognition of what Gesit has in train and the connecting of oneself to it. This is, of course, what the young Marx was protesting against when he complained that ‘philosophers’ had only interpreted the world, whereas the task was to change it. The young Hegel would have been closer to agreeing with him than the mature philosopher.
Thus these four transpositions in Hegel’s position which take place around the time he goes to Jena and carry through the Jena period into his mature position, are related: the acceptance of separation as part of the ultimate unity, the shift to philosophy as the crucial medium, the shift from a man-centred theory to one centred on Geist, and the notion that man’s realization is not planned by him, but can only be recognized post hoc. […]
Man’s task is now to recognize, and to recognize clearly, not by a cloudy intuition which would deny his vocation to rational autonomy; and thus the apex of human realization, which turns out to be the realization of Geist, lies in philosophical awareness. From this vantage point, we can see more clearly that this complex shift in Hegel’s thought was also probably motivated by the political events of the time. In the early 1790s many young radical Germans had hopes of revolutionary developments in their homeland. By the end of the decade, these had faded: the ancien régime in Germany was plainly proof to any transformation within. The main hope of change remained the French Army, and later its leader Napoleon. Hegel seems to have been one of those Germans who judged favourably the results of Napoleonic hegemony in the 1800s. But the changes wrought thereby were not as radical as those dreamy of in the early 1790s, nor did this revolution from without induce a sense of self activity. […] It was not a vantage point from which it was easy to believe that men consciously and deliberately make their own history.”
-Charles Taylor, ‘Hegel’