Ernst Troeltsch's Critique of Hegel: Normative Thought and History

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Introduction

Hegel's philosophy is as well known to us through the assessment of his detractors as from sympathetic readings. From Schelling's earliest critique to Karl Popper's diatribe we are afforded a range of criticism that reveals the unsettling tension that has led authors, in some cases, to wholeheartedly denounce Hegel's philosophical approach. (1)

Not all negative critiques have been wholesale refutations of Hegel's system. Most have argued that Hegel's approach to history violates the fundamental premise upon which all history and historiography must turn--individuality. Leopold von Ranke, who disputed both Hegel's view of history and of God, laid the groundwork for subsequent critiques like Ernst Troeltsch's. Accordingly, the footing for Troeltsch's attack on Hegel lies in an understanding of historical methodology to which Ranke devoted most of his theoretical speculation. Although Troeltsch would eventually advocate methods departing from Ranke's call for Unparteilichkeit, or objective reconstruction, he held Ranke in the highest esteem. (2) At times Troeltsch expresses an antagonism toward Hegel that seems paradoxical, but in some instances he cannot resist his debt to Hegel's conception of the dialectical complexity of history. Troeltsch was especially opposed to Hegel's eclipse of the individual in history, but, along with Hegel, Troeltsch was m otivated by the intuition that history provides the necessary material presence from which totality and completion can be actualized, a completion and totality, he emphasized, that history forms from within itself.

An historical reading of Hegel means that we must regard his philosophy in light of Kant's epistemology (3) In reforming Kant's understanding of consciousness and experience, Hegel attempted to restore some sense of classical metaphysics to philosophy in that he historicized the Logos. (4) Above all, Hegel's system redressed the Kantian tenet that consciousness has merely a regulative function. Hegel advanced the idea that reason was constitutive of reality; his understanding of the tenability of the unmediated contact between the subject and object of consciousness was a direct assault on Kant's program. In turn, however, the neo-Kantian movement that swept Germany in the nineteenth and early twentieth century quickly rejected Hegel's system and restored credibility to Kant's philosophical gain, the productivity of the epistemological self. (5) Within this circle of mutual critique Ernst Troeltsch's response to Hegel insightfully acknowledged the tension that drove Schelling and Kierkegaard in their efforts to counter Hegel's insinuation that an "existential system" was not only tenable, but a matter of historical outcome. Troeltsch, who is known in theological circles for his major work on the social teachings of Christianity, delivered a broadside against Hegel in his culminating work on history and historiography, Der Historismus und seine Probleme (1922). But throughout the course of his literary output one can trace the development of his later and more incisive critique. (6)

What drove Troeltsch to make Hegel the focus of his sweeping critique of historical speculation in the nineteenth century is partially answered by his active participation in the "call back to Kant." But fully to appreciate Troeltsch's argument against Hegel requires a view of Troeltsch within the context of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule, where he took his first stand against Hegel. To trace Troeltsch's critique of Hegel from his earliest dispute with the dogmatic and evolutionary apologetics of Christianity, to his final work, Der Historismus und seine Probleme, reveals a literary trail that begins with an affirmation of Hegelian developmental logic and ends with a staunch position on the indissolubility of individuality in historical movement and the interpretation of history.

Like Kierkegaard's appropriation of Hegel's terminology, Troeltsch's critique of Hegel is testimony to the ambiguous stand many of Hegel's critics adopted. …