Only One Man Ever Understood Me, and He Did Not Understand Me Either

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel? Heinrich Heine? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had a major influence on later schools of thought including Marxism and existentialism. Yet, critics have complained of his unintelligibility. One colorful anecdote claims that Hegel made the following pronouncement on his deathbed:

Only one man ever understood me, and even he didn’t understand me.

Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: Hegel died in 1831, and in 1834 the prominent poet and essayist Heinrich Heine included the anecdote in “Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland” (“On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany”): 1

Als Hegel auf dem Todtbette lag, sagte er: „nur Einer hat mich verstanden,” aber gleich darauf fügte er verdrießlich hinzu: „und der hat mich auch nicht verstanden.”

Here is one possible rendering in English:

When Hegel lay on his death-bed he said: ‘only one man has understood me;’ but immediately afterwards he added with chagrin: ‘nor did he understand me neither.’

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1847 John Hoppus who was a Professor of Philosophy and Logic at University College London published “The Crisis of Popular Education” which included an extended excerpt from Heine’s work translated into English. Hoppus called Heine a facetious writer. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

A talented and somewhat facetious German writer, on the history of philosophy, says “He (Fichte) has altogether peculiar notions respecting intelligibility When Reinhold was of the same opinion with him, Fichte declared that nobody understood him better than Reinhold. But when the latter afterwards deviated from him, Fichte declared that Reinhold had never understood him. When he differed from Kant, he announced in print that Kant did not understand himself. I am here touching on the comic side of our philosophers. They are always complaining of not being understood. When Hegel lay on his death-bed he said: ‘only one man has understood me;’ but immediately afterwards he added with chagrin: ‘nor did he understand me neither.'”

In 1892 a multi-volume edition of “The Works of Heinrich Heine” included a somewhat different translation: 3

When he differed from Kant, he put it into print that Kant had never understood himself. Here I touch upon a comic point in our philosophers in this, that they incessantly complain that they are not understood. When Hegel lay on his death-bed he said, “Only one man ever understood me;” but added immediately after, “and he did not understand me either.”

In 1894 the Chicago, Illinois based journal “The Monist” printed a version of the tale using German and English: 4

The universal complaint of German philosophers, says Heine is das Nichtverstandenwerden, “not being understood,” “Nur einer hat mich verstanden,” said Hegel plaintively on his deathbed, “Only one man ever understood me,” and, as the appalling implications of that confession dawned upon him, he turned and added in his last gasp, “und der hat mich auch nicht verstanden,” “and he didn’t understand me either!” Yet it would be wrong, from Heine’s witticism, to suppose that Hegel’s work was all for naught in the history of philosophy.

In 1907 “The Detroit Free Press” of Detroit, Michigan printed an article titled “Unappreciated Genius” that included the following: 5

There can be no question that it takes generations, as a rule, before men arrive at a full appreciation of a genius. This is not strange. For a genius is always a man whose matter and manner tower above his contemporaries. The genius never lived who would not have been put to death, as many geniuses have been, by some of their fellow mortals, if these fellow mortals had been able fully to understand them. “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn’t,” Hegel once pathetically remarked. The common ignorance was really the philosopher’s salvation.

In 1929 the anecdote continued to circulate in the pages of “The Dubois Morning Courier” of Dubois, Pennsylvania: 6

The learned professor even hints that in future man may be born with a brain sufficiently developed to understand Einstein’s relativity theory at sight.

It would not be necessary then for a philosopher to die as the great Hegel died, according to Heine’s description, saying “only one man has ever understood me,” and adding, after a pause, “and even he did not understand me.”

In 1961 a book of “Famous Last Words” compiled by Barnaby Conrad was reviewed in a Charleston, West Virginia newspaper. The following item was reprinted from the book: 7

Georg Wilhelm Hegel, the German philosopher: “Only one man ever understood me.” Pause. “And he didn’t understand me.”

In 2000 “Hegel: A Biography” by Terry Pinkard stated that the anecdote was fictional: 8

Emblematic of the anti-Hegelian reaction that quickly set in was an apocryphal story that quickly sprang up and was soon widely cited around all of Germany that on his deathbed Hegel had said that nobody ever understood him – except for one man, and even he didn’t understand him.

In conclusion, the story about Friedrich Hegel’s deathbed remark was popularized a few years after his death by Heinrich Heine by 1834. QI does not know whether Heine constructed the tale or learned of it from someone else. Earlier German citations may exist. Yet, the story may be apocryphal.

Image Notes: Illustration of Friedrich Hegel with Students circa 1828 by Franz Kugler. Portrait of Heinrich Heine circa 1831 by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to Laurence Horn whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1834, Der Salon von H. Heine by Heinrich Heine, Volume: Zweiter Band (Volume 2), Section: Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland (On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany), Quote Page 221, Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg, Germany. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1847, The Crisis of Popular Education: Its Historical, Internal, Statistical, Financial, and Political Relations by John Hoppus (Professor of Philosophy and Logic, University College London), Chapter 5: The Aim and Spirit to be Cherished in the Work of Popular Education, Quote Page 102, John Snow, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1892, The Works of Heinrich Heine, Translated from German by Charles Godfrey Leland (Hans Breitmann), Volume 5, Germany, Volume 1 of 2, Section: From Kant to Hegel, Quote Page 157, William Heinemann, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1894 October, The Monist, Volume 5, Number 1, Section: Book Reviews, Review of “History of Modern Philosophy from Nicholas of Cusa to the Present Time” by Richard Falckenberg, Start Page 120, Quote Page 122, The Open Court Publishing Co., Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1907 September 15, The Detroit Free Press, Unappreciated Genius, Section 3, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1929 December 7, The Dubois Morning Courier (The Courier-Express), Today, Quote Page 8, Column 4, Dubois, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1961 November 26, Sunday Gazette-Mail, Speaking of Books: Today’s Review by James F. Dent, (Book Review of “Famous Last Words” collected by Barnaby Conrad), Quote Page 12D, Column 1, Charleston, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 2001 (2000 Copyright), Hegel: A Biography by Terry Pinkard (Northwestern University), Quote Page 662, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (Google Books Preview)