How (Not) to Speak Properly: Writing "German" Philosophy in Hegel's Aesthetics and History of Philosophy

By Rajan, Tilottama | CLIO, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

How (Not) to Speak Properly: Writing "German" Philosophy in Hegel's Aesthetics and History of Philosophy


Rajan, Tilottama, CLIO


In a fragment from 1803, G. W. F. Hegel writes: "Properly speaking, it belongs to the highest cultural development of the people (hochste Bildung des Volkes) to say everything in their own language. The concepts that we mark with foreign words seem to be themselves foreign and not to belong to us immediately as our own." (1) Hegel is writing at the beginning of a history that culminates with Martin Heidegger: a history by the end of which German will claim to be the "natural" language of philosophy alongside Greek. (2) Hegel's anxiety at this time over a philosophy in the mother tongue--since G. W. Leibniz did not write in German--was shared by J. G. Fichte in his Addresses to the German Nation. (3) But it should be read beside Samuel Taylor Coleridge's suggestion that the Germans, lacking England's sense of "nationality," had many universities, and were "forever ... thinking." For what Coleridge praised as England's "fullness of occupation with commerce" and concern with "the affairs of the whole," (4) was also symptomatically linked with that nation's having only two universities; thought, apparently, is impoverished by having only one language.

If the lack of a national identity made intellectual richness possible, German idealism was further complicated by the multidisciplinarity of the philosophy in which it tried to fix its identity, and by the many cultures it explored in constructing philosophies of religion, art, or mythology. For Hegel could not say everything in the language of philosophy, and still less through the nationalistic hypostasis of this philosophy as The Philosophy of History. Rather, he was driven to think both philosophy and history through disciplines such as natural history and aesthetics that were foreign to these fields. In his lectures on Aesthetics, moreover, there is no form of art that properly speaking is not foreign, or if there is, it does not speak properly. To be sure, classical art is the very paradigm for a thought at home with itself in the "adequate embodiment of the Idea." (5) But this art is not German. For the classical too is a foreign concept, and it no more belongs to Hegel than the oriental art whose problems it supposedly resolves. Moreover, as Hegel concedes in his more detailed history, the classical itself contains sedimented layers of earlier, oriental thought (A, 1:309, 441-43).

One example of idealism's need to translate itself through alien concepts is The Philosophy of Nature, a text in which Hegel shows extensive knowledge of English and French as well as German science, thus forcing himself to deal with a materialism deeply foreign to idealism. Unlike F. W. J. Schelling in his early work, Hegel does not claim a synchronicity of Nature and Spirit. Though he wants to see Spirit "presaged in Nature," Nature is the "idea in the form of otherness," an "alien existence in which Spirit does not find itself." (6) Indeed Spirit itself is a "movement of ... becoming another to itself." (7) Whereas logic is "the science of the Idea in and for itself," the Idea unestranged in experience, the best Spirit can claim is to be "the Idea as it returns to itself from its otherness." (8) This paper will not discuss philosophy's self-estrangement in natural science, a topic I pursue elsewhere. (9) Rather, it will explore the consequences of thinking philosophy's labor of the negative through art, as what Antoine Berman calls "the experience of the foreign," (10) and through the very history of the art of philosophy itself.

To be sure, Hegel wants to see this history, the history of spirit's Bildung through the encyclopedia of the nonphilosophical disciplines, as a "circle, which is self-enclosed" and which "holds" all its "moments" together; he also hopes to contain each discipline's phenomenology of Spirit within a similar totalizing history. But anticipating Schelling's Philosophical Investigations Into the Nature of Human Freedom (1809), Hegel writes in The Phenomenology of Mind that an "accident . …

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