Dialectical Process

The Concept of Bildung: What Is It?


The concept of Bildung has been important to the philosophy of education for many years, however it is becoming rare for discussions in the English language to use the term itself.

Through this essay, I aim to demonstrate what the concept of Bildung is. I shall begin by analysing the concept in terms of Hegel’s understanding. Once I have established this understanding, I will compare this concept of Bildung to those found in Bildungromans (with a focus on Rousseau’s Emile).


Our main focus for understanding Bildung in relation to Hegel’s writing is to look at how he presents the learning process in his Phenomenology of Spirit. The Phenomenology of Spirit is an explanation of the dialectical process that the natural consciousness follows in its pursuit to reach the standpoint of absolute knowing.

To be able to reach absolute knowing, natural consciousness must go through a series of forms of consciousness and the dialectical process demonstrates how it is that we follow these forms of consciousness. There is a misconception that is often tied to Hegel in that people belief that Hegel’s dialectic is made of a thesis, antithesis and synthesis. However, Allen Wood argues that people who use these terms are usually showing that they have “little or no first hand knowledge” of Hegel’s work (Wood, 1990, pp. 4-5).

This theory states that a dialectical process works because a conflict arises. An example of this would be a case in which a person who tries extremely hard to be morally good but perform an action which is morally devastating. This form of conflict is not conflict in the sense that two opposing terms are placed together, rather it is conflict as one term develops into its opposite. We can see this more clearly in Hegel’s example of human emotion where somebody who is feeling extreme relief “seeks relief in tears” (Hegel, EL, §81).

What Hegel is actually referring to with a dialectical method is very similar to that described above, however it does not have three distinctions of thesis, antithesis and synthesis as those are terms that were used by Fichte and Schelling. Instead of these three terms we can use the three phases of the dialectic. These phases are as follows:

1) Simple affirmation- this is simply where a concept is asserted. When consciousness attempts to analyse the implications of the concept, it overturns into its opposite

2) Negation- This is the stage where the initial concept has been overturned

3) Sublation (Hegel uses the term Aufhebung)- Michael Inwood defines Aufhebung as meaning abolition, raising or preserving and says that Hegel uses all three definitions at once (Inwood, 1992, p.283).Therefore, the third phase of the dialectical process abolishes the opposition between phase one and two and raises them up to a higher level where they are reunited in a new concept. The sublation also preserves the opposition between phases one and two which means that the conflict is not forgotten in the new stage, rather this new knowledge is built upon in the next stage to help further the process.

Earlier I mentioned that this dialectical process is central to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. This is because in each stage of the development of the natural consciousness, the consciousness is trying to make sense of the new concepts. It is the consciousness which discovers the contradictions and sublates the concept to reach a higher level.

Hegel himself states this point as he claims that the theme of the Phenomenology of Spirit is the “long process of culture towards genuine philosophy… through which Spirit achieves knowledge” (Phenomenology of Spirit, English translation hereafter referenced as ‘PhG’, §68). While I believe that this translation of the Phenomenology by __ Miller is generally good, I believe the term ‘culture’ is a very crude translation here. The original text uses the term “Bildung” instead of culture (Phenomenologaie des Geists, §68), meaning that the theme of the Phenomenology is the long process of Bildung. Therefore, we can understand Bildung through the process of the Phenomenology of Spirit.

However, leaving the definition of Bildung for Hegel here would be a mistake as we have not captured the entire meaning. Also, it would be unfair to completely disregard Miller’s use of the term ‘culture’ in translation as culture is certainly a large part of Bildung in Hegel’s work.

In his entry on ‘culture and education’ in A Hegel Dictionary, Inwood explains that originally, Bildung only referred to the physical formation of an entity. However, this does not align with our understanding of Bildung so far through this essay. Instead, we rely on the eighteenth-century definition given by J. Moser which included a sense of ‘education, cultivation, culture’ both as a process and as a result (Inwood, 1992, p.68).

We can see this inclusion of culture into the definition of Bildung when we consider the progression of Hegel’s theory in the Phenomenology of Spirit. The explanation that I gave above focuses very much on the role of the conscience and thus is a very solitary progression. However, the Phenomenology also includes a discussion on the progression of spirit in history. He states that the same development we see in our own natural consciousness is mirrored in the development of history. Self-actualization in Hegel is done by following the same sublation of the self into the universal of society; it is the “cancelling of the natural self” so that the individual will “belongs only to the universal substance and can be only a universal” (PhG, §489)

Terry Pinkard stresses this point by claiming that in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Bildung is the process that modern culture uses to form the modern self. It is a process where a human being does not only become a self but also a particular kind of self who derives self-worth from living according to self-given principles (Pinkard, 1997, pp.324-325).

So, we have now seen that Bildung is much more than the progression of the consciousness in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. It is clear that it also involves some sort of sense of community and culture. For Hegel, Bildung is education in a much broader sense than we would use the word today. It focuses on the education of the spirit and so is not simply learning spellings or multiplications by rote, instead it is the development of the spirit as a whole.

However, Hegel is not the only philosopher to use the term Bildung and so we cannot finish an explanation of what Bildung is by only referring to the Phenomenology of Spirit. An important way in which the term is used is through the literary genre of the Bildungsroman. This genre includes works such as Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796) and focus on the portrayal of a young person coming to maturity. For the next section of this essay I shall focus on a particular Bildungsroman and try to decipher what Bildung means in the context of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile.


Émile is a good example of a Bildungsroman as it follows the eponymous character from birth through to maturity. The text was originally written by Rousseau to appease mothers who asked him to write a guide for the education of children. This text is often misrepresented as it has become a core element of modern education but rarely keeps its philosophical core. Education through play has become a core element in the United Kingdom’s Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum and is often attributed to Rousseau’s work on education found in this Bildungsroman. So, if we analyse the text, we should be able to clearly see what the concept of Bildung is for Rousseau.

Perhaps the key element in Émile is the concept of negative education. Rousseau states that in a child’s education, the most important thing to do is to “prevent anything from being done” (Rousseau, 1999, p.41) and many people understand this to mean that children will naturally develop according to their stages of nature if you leave them alone. A good example of this understanding is Novello’s explanation of negative education where he claims that Rousseau believes that the “child must always do what the child wants to do” (Novello, 1999). It seems as though Novello has made this deduction from the part of Émile where Rousseau claims that it is up to the child to desire, seek and find what he wants to learn.

This initial explanation may fit with Hegel’s understanding of Bildung in so far as the child will naturally develop his consciousness and will find contradiction himself. Although this does not encompass the ‘culture’ or the social aspect that we saw in Hegel’s understanding of Bildung so it seems difficult to understand how the two texts are referring to the same concept of Bildung here. Rousseau appears to have ignored a large part of what Bildung is.

However, if we continue reading the section of Rousseau to which Novello is referring, we see that the next line states that it is up to the tutor to “put [what the child seeks] within his reach” (Rousseau, 1999, p.179). This line is key as it demonstrates that Rousseau does believe that there is a natural progression of development in a child’s life as there is in Hegel’s understanding of the Phenomenology of Spirit, however the child is still guided by his tutor in Rousseau’s Bildungsroman. This begins to allow a similar understanding to Hegel as we are now starting to see where the cultural aspect of Bildung is found.

A further example of this discussion of culture found in Rousseau comes from his discussion about what will happen without the tutor’s input. He claims that human beings are “naturally good” and that we are not born with “perversity in our heart” (Rousseau, Letter to de Beaumont, cited in O’Hagan, 1999, p.15), rather our bad characteristics are developed due to our interaction within society. It would be easy to claim that Rousseau has steered away from the cultural aspect of Bildung here, as this point could be used to further the idea that the child should develop without tutor input.

This is where it is important to expand on the distinction between “positive education” and positive teaching. Positive education is that which educates a child’s mind beyond its current level of development and “gives the child knowledge of the duties of man”. This is what is to be avoided as it can lead to a malign form of amour-propre. This malign form is developed from an infant’s reaction to the frustration he experiences when he attempts to command other people through means such as crying.

I believe it is here where the difference between Hegel and Rousseau’s understanding of Bildung begins to appear. Hegel’s conception of Bildung was very much centred around a frustration and a collapsing of everything that one knows as seen in the Phenomenology of Spirit, whereas in Rousseau’s Émile, frustration must be avoided.

This is also seen in the relationship that Rousseau describes between pupil and tutor. Rousseau never gives specific qualities that the perfect tutor would possess as he believes these would be obvious, however he argues that the tutor should be young enough to allow the tutor to become a peer to the pupil and allow a love to develop between them (Rousseau, 1999, p.51). An important note here is that ‘love’ must not be read as a romantic love, but the love one friend has for another. If this relationship did not exist in this form, then the pupil would become frustrated at the power being displayed by the tutor and thus would discover that the learning environments created by the tutor were indeed fabricated and thus they would not have the intended impact.

This is completely contrary to the Hegelian view that that it is of great importance to break down the self-will of the child through stern discipline (Wood, 1998, p.22). But the role of the tutor is not the important aspect of Bildung, the progression of the learning is the key issue.

What Conclusions can be Made?

It seems clear that for both Hegel and Rousseau, the term Bildung relates to the educational progression from birth. However, claiming that Bildung is education is much too broad a conclusion. For Hegel, Bildung is a complex education that focuses on the frustration of being wrong. This is seen in the dialectical process where failure and frustration are necessary requirements to progress to the next stage of consciousness. Alternatively, in Rousseau, Bildung is clearly more of a gentle guidance to come across situations in which you can utilise the stage of reasoning that you have naturally reached to progress further. So, while Bildung is clearly an educational development, there are differences as to what exactly this means.

Both Hegel and Rousseau do have a sense of culture and community in their understanding of Bildung, however they also represent this in very different ways. For Hegel, this sense of community is clearly seen by destroying the individual and becoming a universal. This is not found in Rousseau where the development of Émile is the development of a boy into a man. Admittedly this development will later include his place in society, but it is important that he remains an individual with his own capacities to develop.

However, these are only two potential definitions of Bildung, as I stated earlier, Émile is an example of a Bildungsroman but there are many others in existence. M.H Abrams has even suggested that the Phenomenology of Spirit is a Bildungsroman. The only difference between the aim of the Phenomenology of Spirit and the aim of Émile is that Émile focuses on following the development of one man whereas the Phenomenology of Spirit focuses on the human spirit as a whole (Abrams, 1973). It would be very interesting to continue this explanation of Bildung in reference to a few other examples of a Bildungsroman to ensure that we are getting a definition of the term itself rather than a discussion of two theories.