Metaphysical Foundations of the History of Philosophy: Hegel's 1820 Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy

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HEGEL EXPLICATES HIS THEORY of the history of philosophic thinking in several introductions to the various cycles of Lectures on the History of Philosophy held in Jena, Heidelberg, and Berlin. Only the introductions to the first cycle of Heidelberg lectures (1816) and to the second cycle of Berlin lectures (1820) survive in Hegel's own hand. (1) Since the earlier of these is an integral part of the latter, an analysis of the 1820 Introduction provides a reliable account of Hegel's theory.

Hegel lectures on the history of philosophy mainly as a philosopher, not as a historian. "The history of philosophy must itself be philosophical," (2) he declares in the address delivered ahead of the 1820 Introduction. (3) Thus, he is not interested primarily in delivering a chronicle of philosophic ideas, propositions, claims, arguments, and counterarguments in the historical order of their formulation. He presupposes his audience's general acquaintance with historical facts and events pertaining to philosophic theories, as well as with major thinkers' general tenets. Hegel is rather concerned with showing, first, why these tenets were relevant and enjoyed recognition in their time; second, how and why they were subsequently transformed; and third, how a core meaning may be discerned in them throughout their transformations.

A paradigmatic illustration of Hegel's procedure in interpreting fundamental principles of the philosophic tradition is provided by the following comment on "being person" in a Remark to his treatment of "property" in the 1821 Philosophy of Right:

   The notion that what spirit is according to its concept or in
   itself, it should be also in its Dasein and for-itself (thereby
   that it be person capable of property, having ethicality [and]
   religion)--this idea is itself spirit's concept (as causa sui, i.e.
   as free causation, spirit is such cuius natura non potest concipi
   nisi existens; Spinoza, Ethics I, Def. 1.) Precisely in this
   concept ... there lies the possibility of the opposition between
   what spirit is merely in itself and its being also for itself ...
   and thus the possibility of the alienation of personhood. (4)

In other words: the late modern conception of personhood as subjectivity with rights (to property, to moral convictions, beliefs, and so forth) is explained by Hegel as realization of the core meaning of Spinoza's "god" (or, as in other passages, of Descartes's res cogitans, equally inconceivable unless as existent). The core meaning of "spirit" since its inception as nous is the idea of a being that determines itself into being what it is--one important expression of which is, for example, modern political philosophy's notion of an autonomous, self-determining subject.

The first of the goals outlined in the address and Introduction to these Lectures (see above) implies a serious attempt to grasp and to convey the sense in which philosophic concepts and arguments are meant and understood at their inception. This is where the philological and historiographic skill of the historian of philosophy has its rightful and necessary place. The second and third goals presuppose a theory of philosophy as a particular kind of thinking with specific logical and epistemological features. Here is where the philosopher must deliver an interpretation of historically documented theories and their principles that includes but also goes beyond the meaning ostensibly intended by each of them.

The philosopher lecturing on the history of philosophy has, then, two sets of criteria guiding the exposition: the theoretical order of philosophic concepts (dictated by the analysis of their meanings, which is for Hegel a logical and metaphysical task at once) and the chronological order of their expression in the history of philosophic systems. These two sets of criteria do not operate independently of one another. Hegel's explicit claim is actually stronger than this. …