Academic journal article CLIO

G.W.F. Hegel: The Transcendental Idea of God (1795)

Academic journal article CLIO

G.W.F. Hegel: The Transcendental Idea of God (1795)

Article excerpt

The following is a translation of a manuscript by Hegel from 1795. It was first published in 1907 and has not been translated previously. Following current convention, I identify it by the initial words (of the German text) Die transcendent[ale] Idee von Gott.(1)

The manuscript comprises a series of notes that record Hegel's responses to leading ideas in the works of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling. The organization of the notes in the form of an outline suggests that Hegel was contemplating a far more sustained treatment of its ideas. This outline has been recognized as recording an important stage in the evolution of Hegel's religious thought, and it sheds important light on the place of the Life of Jesus in Hegel's intellectual biography. We know that Hegel engaged in a close study of Kant's Critique of Practical Reason in Bern,(2) and the discussion in the manuscript evidences Hegel's close study of that part of the Critique that treated the postulates. Haering interprets the manuscript as marking a critical departure from Kant's rational religion.(3) Harris suggests that the manuscript may have been part of the study that Hegel referred to in remarking in a letter to Schelling of August 30, 1795, "I was once on the point of making clear to myself in an essay what it might mean to approach God. I at that point thought I had found how to satisfy both the postulate according to which practical reason governs the world of appearances and the remaining postulates as well."(4) Harris speculates that Hegel postponed this project in favor of the more derivative Life of Jesus but resumed work on the project outlined in this manuscript in the early positivity study Ein positiver Glauben. . . .(5)

In focusing on the relationship of "The Transcendental Idea of God" to Hegel's religious thought, commentators have tended to read the passage that treats law as subordinate to its principal ethical concerns. Biographical context, however, suggests that the manuscript expressed Hegel's growing interest in specifically political consequences of moral philosophy, and thus the treatment of law and custom may reveal his growing interest in specifically legal institutions - albeit considered in an extraordinarily abstract fashion. Its most extended discussion addresses the issue of whether Sittengesetz can revoke rights - or laws - that it has conferred. This discussion treats, in language derived from Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, issues encountered in Kant's moral philosophy. Hegel grapples with the problem of whether the ascetic renunciation of pleasure on grounds of duty is consistent with the Kantian doctrine that reason posits happiness as the goal of the world. In opposing Sittengesetz, the internal standard that actually regulates behavior, to happiness, Sittengesetz might be translated as "ethical law." But Sitten (for Kant as well as Hegel) denote general social standards of behavior in the sense of convention or custom as distinct from morality. Furthermore, in 1795, under the influence of Goethe and Herder, Hegel came increasingly to identify Sitten with custom in the historical sense.(6) Accordingly, Sittengesetz might be rendered as "law of custom" or "customary law." It will be of lasting significance for Hegel's philosophy of law that he associates descriptive and positive "law" (Gesetz) with custom. In 1795 he already distinguishes custom from law (Recht) and legal rights (Rechte) - and attempts to derive legal right from custom.

The manuscript can be dated reliably to 1795. (It quotes Schelling's essay On the Possibility of a Form of Philosophy in General [1794], which Hegel first received in February 1795 and had read by April 1795.(7)) The manuscript should be read together with the closely contemporaneous remarks that Hegel made in a letter to Schelling of April 16, 1795: "From the Kantian system and its highest completion I expect a revolution in Germany. It will proceed from principles that are present and that only need to be elaborated generally and applied to all hitherto existing knowledge. …

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