Philosophy as Encyclopedia: Hegel, Schelling, and the Organization of Knowledge

By Rajan, Tilottama | Wordsworth Circle, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Philosophy as Encyclopedia: Hegel, Schelling, and the Organization of Knowledge


Rajan, Tilottama, Wordsworth Circle


The Enlightenment is often called "the age of the encyclopedia" (Yeo 277), a term meaning "circle of learning," which is thus connected with constructing disciplinarity and imagining a virtual university. In this period, encyclopedias assumed their current form as encyclopedic dictionaries or alphabetized encyclopedias. Though reduced to secondary reference systems that store rather than synthesize knowledge, such encyclopedias bear with them a conception of knowledge, namely as information or technology, which has continuing implications for Wissenschaft, science, and the consequent separation of sciences as modes of knowledge from arts. In the Romantic period, however. Friedrich Schlegel criticized this "encyclopedia of the French," suggesting Idealism as a better basis for the unity (or otherwise) of knowledge (Behler 284). I will here consider the Idealist encyclopedia: not the "literary" version of the Schlegels, but the more systematic, if related, philosophic encyclopedia. The Idealist encyclopedia can be considered a subset of a broader "Romantic" encyclopedia. The latter includes the Schlegels' "literary" encyclopedia, Hegel's Idealist Encyclopedia considered as a Romantic experiment, and such texts as Coleridge's Notebooks. As the last example indicates, the Romantic encyclopedia is not taxonomic but is the underlying condition of possibility for what is really at work even in the more systematic "Idealist" encyclopedia: namely a sense of the disseminative interconnectedness and incompleteness of knowledge. What is at issue in the Romantic encyclopedia, and even in its Idealist version as a subset of a Romantic project, is thus not a compilation of all knowledge, but an encyclopedic thinking which discovers that thought cannot be exhausted in a single discipline or form of thought. This thinking is "organicist:" it sees different areas of knowledge as organically interconnected, with the caveat that organisms are infinitely complex, integrated but not unified entities.

Hegel's Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1816-32) is of particular interest, because, on the one hand, like Fichte, he makes education a way of thinking, not "a content of positive knowledge" (Readings 67). Schlegel similarly distinguishes method, as the "spirit" and "inner life force" of philosophy, from system, as its "letter" and external "organization" (255). On the other hand, Hegel's Encyclopedia is closer in form to medieval and Renaissance encyclopedias that try to be organons of all knowledge, than is the "encyclopedistics" of Schlegel or Novalis. For it has the form of a system, not the least because Hegel wants to pose his claim for the centrality of philosophy against the assumptions of the new French and Scottish encyclopedias. In his "Introduction" to the earliest version of his encyclopedia, the one-volume Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline (1816), Hegel therefore criticizes "assemblages ... of information" and the inclusion of "pseudosciences" such as heraldry--the technologies (in a Heideggerian sense) covered by Diderot and other post-Baconian encyclopaedists (53). His encyclopedia is to comprise the philosophical, not the empirical and practical sciences. Even as it expands philosophy into non-philosophy, thus exploring the margins of philosophy, it will include sciences with a positive content that "exist for themselves outside of philosophy" only if they can be thought philosophically (53). If Hegel's Encyclopedia is both the institution of a method of thinking encyclopedically and the claim that all knowledge can be systematized through a philosophical paradigm, in what ways are the goals of method and system at odds? Does the system foreclose the full radicality of the encyclopedic method? Or does this method make it possible to rethink the very concept of system?

To be sure, Hegel's Encyclopedia has a sweep that makes it Idealist rather than just Romantic. Yet Idealism is an "idea" in Kant's sense (Critique 218-29, 373-87), a desire for totality, identity and absolute knowledge that develop as a project within a Romanticism that unravels these goals.

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