Denn da das Objekt ausser mir und die Erkenntnis in mir ist, so kann ich immer doch nur beurtheilen: ob meine Erkenntnis vom Object übereinstimmen. Einen solchen Cirkel im Erklären nennen die Alten Diallele.
In the preceding chapter, a start was made towards understanding the problem for which epistemological circularity is intended as a solution, through examination of Hegel’s analysis of the “Attitudes of Thought to Objectivity.” In that context, the suggestion was made that Hegel’s analysis of different modern epistemological strategies refers to the answer to a problem which has traversed the entire philosophical solution since its inception. Our task here is to extend the discussion of that topic through consideration of the History of Philosophy in order to provide a more adequate understanding of Hegel’s grasp of epistemology and to evaluate the concept of epistemological circularity.
To avoid misapprehension, it immediately should be noted that the discussion to follow will rest on a triple distinction between the origin of the epistemological problem in ancient philosophy, whose continued study ties together the ancient and modern phases of philosophy in a single tradition; Hegel’s specifically modern approach to that problem, only partly in evidence in the analysis of the “Attitudes of Thought to Objectivity,” which is supplemented here by detailed discussion of Descartes’s thought; and the adequacy of the proposed solution. Accordingly, the discussion will develop in three stages, beginning with a reexamination of the epistemological problem in both the ancient and modern portions of the history of philosophy, followed by analysis of Hegel’s detailed consideration of the Cartesian view, and ending in an evaluation of the concept of epistemological circularity as a solution to the epistemological problem as Hegel grasps it. Throughout, the emphasis will be less on offering a new version of Hegel’s reading of the problem of knowledge than in supplementing that acquired through the relevant portions of the Encyclopedia by further discussion of History of Philosophy.
In order to comprehend how Hegel views the problem of knowledge in the historical context, we require both a general statement of that topic and its identification against the historical background. The problem of knowledge is easily described, for instance in terms of the repeated rejection of dualism in the formulation of the normative conception of philosophy in the Differenzschrift, and in the criticism in terms of this standard of other positions both in that text and in later writings. An adequate grasp of the relation of thought to objectivity will require, it can be inferred, a demonstration of the unity in terms of which the diversity of thought and being can be established.
It follows that an adequate grasp of the relation will need to resolve that problem which, according to Hegel, is central to the entire philosophical tradition since its inception and to thought itself. “The task of philosophy,” Hegel writes, “is defined as making the unity of thought and being, which is its fundamental idea, into an object and grasping it, that is, to grasp the innermost necessity, the concept” (HP III, 409; XX, 314).
According to Hegel, this problem is coeval with philosophy itself. An account of Hegel’s grasp of the ancient origins of the problem of knowledge could be provided in several ways, for instance through the detailed study of his reading of the different philosophical positions as variations on a single theme. Here it will not be necessary to do more than merely indicate how that might be done in some general remarks on Hegel’s understanding of ancient philosophy.
For Hegel, any claim for the unity of thought and being must be demonstrated. But it is characteristic of Greek philosophy that the required unity was merely asserted, but not proven. The problem of the unity of thought and being arises nearly with philosophy itself. As Hegel reads Parmenides, the latter’s main insight is that thinking produces itself as thought, so that thinking and being are identical and there is nothing outside of being. The basic problem of the relation of thought and being is not resolved by Parmenides, but is transmitted as an ongoing concern to later thinkers.
According to Hegel, Plato’s analysis of the one and the many in the theory of forms, which is meant to resolve the Parmenidean question, founders on the inability to explain the concept of participation. From Hegel’s standpoint, a more adequate analysis is provided by Aristotle’s concept of activity [energeia] as the unity of thought and what is thought. “The main moment in the Aristotelian philosophy,” Hegel writes, “is that the thinking and the thought is one—that the objective and the thinking (the activity) one and the same is” (HP II, 148-49; XIX, 162-63).
This interesting passage deserves a more extensive analysis than can be given here, especially in view of Hegel’s clear insistence on the centrality of activity for Aristotle’s positive view. This point, which is only rarely made by commentators, is of great significance for an appreciation of the development of the Greek philosophical tradition, as well as for Aristotle’s own position. Here it will be sufficient to stress Hegel’s indication of the relation between thought, what is thought, and being, as three forms of the same thing.
In more general terms, the significance of Aristotle’s introduction of the concept of activity is that in place of the formal unity, undemonstrated by Plato, he substitutes a dynamic relation. According to Hegel, the relation of thought to being is not fixed. It is, rather, “activity, motion, repulsion” (HP II, 149; XIX, 148). In consequence, Hegel can hold that even though the Aristotelian position lacks the necessity which, as Hegel concedes, cannot be demanded of the thought of the time, in modern terms his thought can be characterized as a monism based on a speculative unity in diversity, of which the highest example is the circular movement of God with which Hegel ends the Encyclopedia.
To put this point differently, despite the lack of a concept of necessity, which appears only later in the history of philosophy, the Aristotelian position offers what can fairly be called a monistic view of the unity of thought and being in terms of a concept of activity. This activity expresses itself, on the level of thought and being, in a circular motion: “As the essence, the true, is accordingly to postulate that which in itself moves therefore in a circle; and this is not only in thinking reason to see, but also through the deed [ergō], that is, ready to hand, existing realiter in the visible nature” (HP II, 145; XIX, 160). In that sense, there is a circularity present in the relations between thought and being, knower and known, thought and objectivity.
Hegel’s treatment of the relation between Plato and Aristotle can be summarized by saying that both are concerned with a similar problem, that is, the unity of thought and being. Aristotle advances beyond Plato, in that he provides in his position a concept of activity as a means to think the unity which Plato merely asserts. As Hegel notes, Aristotle’s concept of activity differs from movement [kinesis] in that it “... is in its distinguishing at the same time identical with itself” (HP II, 148; XIX, 164). But Aristotle is not yet able to demonstrate the necessity of the unity of thought and being which philosophy must provide.
The result of the discussion is to show that the problem of knowledge, or the relation of thought and being, arises early in Greek thought, whose evolution can fairly be regarded as an ongoing endeavor to resolve it. This same problem similarly recurs as a continuing concern in modern philosophy, which links together the positions of the main modern philosphers beginning with Descartes. The specific phase of the discussion initiated by Kant and continued by his successors is the endeavor to grasp the unity in question with innermost necessity:
The Kantian philosophy formulates the task, but has only the abstract absoluteness of reason in self-consciousness as its result ... on the other hand it has the Fichtean philosophy as its continuation, which grasps the essence of self-consciousness as the concrete ego, but does not surpass the subjective form of the absolute from which the-Schellingean philosophy begins, which it discards, and proposes the idea of the absolute, the true in and for itself. [HP III, 409—410; XX, 314–15]
The identification of the Greek origins of the problem of knowledge and description of its presence as a continuing concern in the entire philosophical tradition together broaden our appreciation of Hegel’s understanding of epistemology in the historical background. We perceive here a breadth and concreteness which were not apparent in the abstract discussion of modern epistemological strategies in the account of the “Attitudes of Thought to Objectivity.” But it must be stressed that Hegel’s approach to the solution of the problem of epistemology, despite his awareness of its historical roots, remains specifically modern. For his own position is determined by its post-Cartesian status, in particular by his reading of Descartes’s position. A fundamental difference between the Encyclopedia and the History of Philosophy is that the latter text provides the detailed analysis of Descartes’s position, which alone makes Hegel’s dependence on that view visible.
Despite the importance of the critical philosophy for the constitution of Hegel’s thought and for his reading of the modern tradition, for the problem of the relation of thought to being Descartes, not Kant, is the more important thinker. From this perspective, Kant’s significance for modern philosophy is primarily methodological. For he substitutes his own critical approach for the dogmatism and skepticism attributed by him (with reason, according to Hegel) to Descartes and Hume. Hegel’s treatment of the Kantian position focuses consistently on the extent to which the critical philosophy is not genuinely critical. The problem of a genuinely critical position is twofold as it applies to Kant: on the one hand, to be “critical” means “to surpass the supposed dogmatism in the Cartesian position in a manner which successfully avoids the skeptical consequences of empiricism”; and on the other, to be “critical” means “to be self-critical.”
Hegel’s reading of the critical status of the critical philosophy is basically skeptical. Although he concedes its genuinely critical intent, he questions its success in avoiding either skepticism or dogmatism, as well as its claim to be self-critical. It is, then, only in intent, but not in practice, that Kant can be said to advance beyond Descartes. Further, the critical philosophy is determined by the Cartesian position, since both the problem in general with which it is concerned and even its specific approach are broadly Cartesian in inspiration. In a word, Hegel’s treatment of Kant, important as it is, is not self-contained but points backward to the Cartesian view.
In order to understand Hegel’s reception of Descartes’s position, we need to set this position in the context of Hegel’s reading of modern philosophy. According to Hegel, modern philosophy shares with ancient thought the perspective of real consciousness, and further includes the medieval insight on the diversity of thought and what is thought. The specific characteristic of modern thought is the thought of thought and objectivity. “The main concern is there not so much to think objects in their truth, as to think the thinking and grasping [Begreifen] of the objects, this unity itself” (HP 160; XX, 63).
The task, then, of understanding Hegel’s reception of Descartes implies an understanding of the latter’s contribution to this specifically modern approach to the relation of thought and objectivity. It is this specific Cartesian contribution which is doubly presupposed, but never directly discussed, in the analysis of the “Attitudes of Thought to Objectivity” and as the legitimate conceptual context against which the doctrine of circularity conceivably might resolve the problem of the relation of thought and being.
To understand Descartes’s contribution, we need to distinguish his intention from the result of his position. Descartes’s intention is to provide a position based on self-subsistent, and hence fully independent, reason. But in fact, in his own position Descartes provides a dogmatic, uncritical approach, in essence what Hegel regards as a mere philosophy of the understanding [Verstandesphilosophie]. Although the intent of the Cartesian philosophy can be regarded as to bring about the separation of reason and faith inherent in the concept of independent reason, at best Descartes can be held to have set this uncompleted, but crucial, task as a challenge to future thought.
The sense in which the Cartesian position represents an attempt to liberate reason from faith can be seen against the background of Hegel’s reading of the modern period. In his consideration of this phase of thought, Hegel discusses earlier thinkers, such as Bacon and Böhme. But he holds that Descartes’s position is doubly distinguished: as the first new position since neo-Platonism; and as the revival of philosophy, hence the true beginning of modern thought. Now, the single theme which above all others is typical of modern philosophy, as Hegel reads it, is its emancipation from religion through the insistence on independent reason. This form of reason, which Hegel refers to variously as “the Protestant principle” or “the principle of thinking,” is defined by him as “thinking free for itself, what must count, what must be acknowledged” (HP III, 217; XX, 120). To restate this point in another fashion, it is only when reason has been distinguished from faith that it can think the unity of thought and being.
This interesting description of the principle of modern philosophy calls immediately for two comments on Hegel’s view of the relation between Lutheranism and modern thought. Hegel’s suggestion is that just as the Protestant Reformation marked the beginning of the modern period of Western religion, so the onset of modern philosophy can be regarded as the result of the reflection of the spirit animating this religious upheaval onto the philosophical plane. The relevant similarity lies in the fact that in Lutheranism, the same separation between the subjective, religious principle and philosophy occurs in virtue of which inner conscious thought becomes the criterion of truth (see HP III, 221; XX, 123) as occurs in the Cartesian position.
In that sense, despite his Catholic faith, Descartes legitimately could be cast in the role of the Luther of modern philosophy (!), which, precisely, is modern because of its quasi-Lutheran, rational emphasis. Indeed, to the extent that modern philosophy represents the continuation of the Protestant Reformation with other means, it properly can be held to originate, as clearly is suggested by at least one of Hegel’s disciples, in Luther’s revolt against the strictures of the Roman Church.2 One therefore should not overlook the philosophical significance of Hegel’s proud claim, made early in his study of the History of Philosophy: “I am a Lutheran and want to remain so” (HP I, 23; XVIII, 94). Beyond an acknowledgment of his religious affiliation, Hegel is also indicating his attachment to the principle of independent reason, as revealed in consciousness, as the standard he makes his own—the same standard further advanced by Kant in the critical philosophy.
Second, Hegel’s stress on the relation of modern philosophy and Lutheranism casts a significant light on his understanding of the relation between Kant and Descartes. For the critical side of the Kantian position now can be seen as a further, major moment, although not the last step, in the process of the full emancipation of reason. In other words, beyond evident dissimilarities revealed by Hegel’s reading of the tradition, due to the inherent dogmatism of Descartes’s position and the skeptical result of the critical philosophy, Descartes and Kant are united by their desire to complete the Lutheran undertaking of the divorce between reason and faith; indeed, that is a necessary condition of the real possibility of philosophy from the modern perspective.
In intent, if not in execution, Descartes’s position is wholly imbued with the concept of independent thought. The novelty of his position, in terms of which it marks the beginning of modern philosophy, lies in its attempt to free thought from theology. Descartes, according to Hegel, “is in fact the true beginner of modern philosophy insofar as it makes thinking its principle. Thinking for itself is here distinguished from theology, which it places on the other side; it [i.e., thinking—T.R.] is on a new foundation [Boden]” (HP III, 221; XX, 123). It is important to note that although Hegel characterizes the result as a new ground [Boden], this term is understood here in a non-Cartesian sense. Boden is a permissible translation for the Cartesian words fondement and fundamentum. Descartes insists more than once on the need to provide philosophy with a fundamentum inconcussum, a principle which is both certain and able, by means of deduction, to provide for the development of a certain philosophy on this basis.
Hegel, on the contrary, apparently is unconcerned with the foundationalist side of Cartesian epistemology. Both here and in the Encyclopedia, he is interested mainly in the cogito, not as a foundation but as an example of the immediate relation between thought and being, as the relation which will give rise in the critical philosophy to the concept of the transcendental unity of apperception which Kant, following Descartes, regards as the highest principle of philosophy.
This new foundation upon which Descartes has placed philosophy is understood by Hegel not in the sense of the foundation of knowledge, which Descartes clearly intends. Rather, Hegel in effect stresses the equally obvious continuity between Descartes and Plato in his interpretation of the concept of the foundation as the decision to abandon all presuppositions in order to rely on thought alone. That is so even if, as is the case, the non-speculative, Cartesian cast of mind employs thought only under the mode of understanding, and not yet as reason: “By setting aside all presupposition, he began from thinking, truly in the form of determined, clear understanding; one cannot call this thinking speculative thinking, speculative reason” (HP III, 221; XX 123-24). To put the same point in more Hegelian terminology, Hegel is clear in distinguishing the new foundation upon which Descartes has placed philosophy—that is, that of thought as such, under the form of the understanding—from the Cartesian concern with foundationalism [Grundlage], expressed in a series of popular, naive writings (see HP III, 223; XX, 126).
In the Encyclopedia, especially in the discussion of the “Attitudes of Thought to Objectivity,” there is little direct mention of Descartes. In the History of Philosophy, this relative oversight is corrected, and the importance of his thought for modern philosophy and Hegel’s position is clearly in evidence. Hegel’s discussion of Descartes in that text is divided into three points, concerning Descartes’s new turn [Wendung] and his views of extension and of spirit. Although the latter two points are interesting for Hegel’s grasp of his predecessor, they do not require our attention here. The former point is highly relevant to the present discussion, since it casts significant light on the relation of Hegel’s thought to Descartes’s view, as he reads it.
In a gloss on Descartes’s new turn, Hegel writes: “He began, that every presupposition must be set aside, thought must start from itself; all previous philosophy, especially that which began from the authority of the Church, was set aside” (HP III, 224; XX, 126). This simple statement is important, because it describes the novelty of Descartes’s new turn in terms which Hegel makes constitutive of his own concept of philosophy. In the space of a single sentence, he makes two important points: he relates his own mature, quasi-Platonic view of philosophy as necessarily presuppositionless to the conceptual advance made by Descartes, in virtue of which nothing other than thought is to be admitted; and he further rests the possibility of such thought on the possibility of an effective distinction between reason and faith.
In order to understand why Descartes is unable to carry out his self-defined program, we need to follow Hegel’s subtle discussion of it under the headings of “thought as such” and the “certain” [das Gewisse], and above all as concerns the transition from “certainty to the limited [zu Bestimmten], or truth.” It is significant, in view of his earlier insistence that the true legacy of the critical philosophy lies in Fichte’s thought, that Hegel’s account of Descartes’s position is largely a restatement of it in Fichtean form as a series of related theses.
The first thesis is that a beginning from thought as such is an absolute beginning. But although Descartes insists on the need for thought to presuppose nothing, he nevertheless presupposes, as Hegel notes, that which is not presupposed by thought—that is, that which is thought in thought as given to it in immediate intuition, as well as the interest of freedom; in other words, the freedom of the conceptually unfettered subject. Descartes’s second principle is the direct certainty of thought, in which thought is certain of itself alone in independence of any other standard. Here it is interesting to note that for Hegel there is a point of convergence between Fichte and Descartes. “Descartes begins therefore with the standpoint of the self [Ich] as that of simple certainty [des schlecthin Gewissens], as Fichte also begins: I know, it posits itself there in me” (HP III, 228; XX, 130).
In the context of Hegel’s reading of modern philosophy, his proposed identification of the positions of Descartes and Fichte is significant, since it seems to reaffirm his earlier conviction of the role of Fichte’s position for the modern tradition. Much like Reinhold, Hegel seems to suggest that after the critical philosophy, further progress requires a qualified return to a form of rationalism. The link between the critical philosophy and rationalism cannot arise from Reinhold’s attempted reformulation of the critical philosophy. It is, rather, provided in Fichte’s position, which is both the true result of the critical philosophy and at the same time essentially Cartesian in key respects, including the adoption of the standpoints of the subject and of subjective certainty. It is no accident that Hegel’s reading of Descartes is conducted from a Fichtean perspective, since he merely is maintaining his initial approach to contemporary German thought in the wider context of the modern philosophical tradition.
If we follow the Fichtean character of Hegel’s reading of Descartes’s thought, the problem which arises is how to mediate the two principles identified so far, that is, how to relate an absolute beginning in thought and subjective certainty in order to achieve knowledge. From a similar perspective, as Hegel reads him, Fichte was able to deduce a series of concrete limitations on the basis of subjective certainty. “Fichte also afterwards again began with the same absolute certainty, with the self, and continued from there, to develop all limitations from this point [Spitze]” (HP III, 230; XX, 132). But it should be noted that if Hegel rejects Fichte’s attempted transition from the subject to the objective world, he also rejects the Cartesian solution.
Hegel’s objection to Descartes’s proposed transition from certainty to truth, or definiteness, concerns the series of problems which have come to be known as the Cartesian circle. The objection based on the so-called Cartesian circle, already formulated by Arnauld and known to Descartes, turns on the claim that in his reasoning Descartes commits a petitio principii. In the context of his thought, it is alleged that he makes good the veracity of clear and distinct ideas in terms of the existence of God, which in turn is demonstrated only in terms of such ideas.3
Whether that is in fact a petitio is a matter of continuing controversy which falls outside the scope of this essay. But it should be noted that Hegel’s criticism does not depend on the objection that Descartes’s argument fails because of the form in which it is expressed. Nor is he in a position to object to circularity as such. Unlike Descartes, who in his response to Arnauld seeks to dissipate even the appearance of a circle in his own reasoning, Hegel makes of it an integral part of his analysis of knowledge. Hegel is, then, entirely consistent in his suggestion that the problem is not the form in which Descartes states his argument, but rather that he employs an assumption which he cannot demonstrate as its basis. Hegel’s objection, which is accordingly not formal but substantive, contains the inference that Descartes’s view is not in principle incorrect, provided that a satisfactory manner to advance the point at issue can be found.
Hegel’s objection turns on the assertion that Descartes’s naive transition from certainty to thought rests on an undemonstrated unity of thought and being. His account of this unity is triply significant in the context of his own thought. In the first place, Hegel’s insistence on the relation between the epistemology and metaphysics, or ontology, in the Cartesian position is important in regard to his own thought. In his own position and in his interpretation of other views, he is consistent in rejecting all attempts to compartmentalize philosophy into discrete regions. For to limit claims to know merely to the level of consciousness is to restrict knowledge claims to mere certainty, which has no call to truth.
Second, there is an interesting suggestion in the description of the principle of the unity of thought and being as new with Descartes. This statement is puzzling, since a very similar assertion was made as early as the dawn of the Western philosophical tradition, as Hegel himself notes in his discussion of Parmenides (see HP I, 252; XVIII, 289—90). Perhaps Hegel has in mind that Descartes’s originality lies in the initial statement of this idea in modern times, although not as such. But from another perspective, the evident novelty in Descartes’s formulation of this point lies in its restatement—from the peculiarly modern, subjective angle of vision—from the perspective of thought which has as its task to know being. This task is indeed begun by Descartes’s creation of the modern epistemological tradition.
Third, we have Hegel’s clear description of this principle as “the most interesting idea of modern times überhaupt” (HP III, 233; XX, 136). Thus, for Hegel, at least, the importance of the concept enunciated by Descartes ranges far beyond its immediate philosophical concept. If, as he suggests, Descartes is unable to prove the relation he necessarily assumes to hold as a condition of knowledge, a point Hegel largely follows, it is obvious that the reasons for Descartes’s failure are a matter for careful consideration.
To determine whether Descartes fails to realize his intention, the intention must be identified. Hegel regards the Cartesian line of reasoning as a further development of Anselm’s original version of the ontological argument. This argument depends on the concept of degrees of perfection to argue for an essentially more limited identity of thought and being. More generally, the ontological argument for the existence of God is a specific instance of the transition from certainty to truth, both of which rest, in this analysis, on an undemonstrated unity between thought and being.
The Cartesian argument is reconstructed by Hegel in five stages, concerning: 1) grades of reality; 2) the relation between the concept of a thing and its existence; 3) the principle ex nihilo nihil fit; 4) the relation of a concept and its cause; and 5) the ontological proof. It is interesting to note, concerning the last point, that Hegel remarks on, but does not follow, the line of reasoning which Kant earlier develops against the proof. Although Kant’s suggestion is indeed significant, there is nonetheless an identity of predicates, or more broadly essence and existence within the concept, that is, as thought.
Hegel’s objection is formulated in terms of the alleged inability here, as in the demonstration of the cogito, to deduce specific content, or indeed any content at all. This line of reasoning is anti-Kantian, and reminiscent of Schelling. The Cartesian claim that we have an idea of a perfect being which cannot be due to us and hence exists is, according to Hegel, merely a presupposition. More precisely, the content of this idea is not demonstrated since, as is the case for the cogito, the unity of thought and being merely is asserted. It is relevant here to recall that Hegel suggests in his analysis of the cogito that the proof offered by Descartes is not a conclusion, since it lacks syllogistic form (see HP III, 229; XX, 131), as Descartes also admits (see Encyclopedia, par. 64). Although it is true that there is indeed a unity between thought and being for both the cogito and the proof of the existence of God, in each case this result is arrived at merely on an empirical, and hence nonphilosophical, basis.
Enough has been said about the details of Hegel’s reception of Descartes’s view to allow us to make some more general comments. A clue as to how to proceed is suggested by Hegel’s own procedure. In his study of the history of philosophy, Hegel is careful to distinguish the problems with which particular thinkers are concerned from the solutions proposed by them. This procedure is not difficult to justify; even if the position in question constitutes a genuine step forward, it is rarely, if ever, the case that the problems under study unambiguously can be held to be fully resolved. More generally, the nature of the case study of the history of philosophy reveals that there are fewer problems (which constantly recur under novel and less novel formulations) than there are proposed solutions for them.
If we apply a Hegelian approach to the history of philosophy to Hegel’s own account of Descartes’s position, we easily can detect a fundamental tension between the proposed solution and the problem for which it is advanced. As Hegel reads the Cartesian philosophy, there is a manifest tension between the reliance on independent thought, on the one hand, and the claimed unity of thought and being, on the other. For in the decision to render thought independent and hence self-subsistent, the central theme of his position, Descartes renounces the dependence on any and all presuppositions. Certainly that is the intent, if not the necessary effect, of his reliance on the cogito as an Archimedean point to defeat skepticism and end the quarrel of the schools.
Descartes’s thought is not presuppositionless, since it relies on a unity between thought and being, which is presupposed but not demonstrated, as Hegel points out, at two crucial points in the chain of reasoning: in the ontologicai proof necessary in order to effect the required transition from certainty to truth, and in the cogito itself. Accordingly, Descartes’s position is shown to rest on a presupposition. In other words, the assurance of the Cartesian position, whose proudest claim lies in the pretended freedom of thought from presuppositions, is shown on the contrary, to repose on a presupposition which is not eccentric to it, but is lodged at its very heart.
Hegel’s demonstration of a tension in the Cartesian view between the method and the problem to which it is addressed affects both his reception of the immediate position and the succeeding portion of modern philosophy which it begins and which remains conditioned by it. Descartes’s philosophy is, as Hegel indicates, no more than the “course [Gang] of clear understanding” (HP III, 240; XX, 144). In virtue of the tension intrinsic to the development of his argument, his use of thought does not as yet attain the wholly critical and self-critical standard of reason, for which it, however, constitutes the indispensable initial stage.
Even if Descartes’s position must be regarded as unsatisfatory, in view of the demonstrated inability to meet the standards intrinsic to it, which it sets for itself, it need not wholly be rejected. On the contrary, it needs to be preserved, or, more precisely, the undeniable extent to which it is profoundly true requires acknowledgment. Indeed, despite his rejection of the line of argument which constitutes the letter of the position, Hegel accepts in general terms the spirit inherent in it. For he specifically endorses the concern with independent thought that marks the onset of modern philosophy, and hence separates this part of the Western philosophical tradition from its prior moments; and he endorses as well the concern with the problem of the unity of thought and being as the central difficulty to whose solution this instrument must be applied.
If this interpretation of Hegel’s reception of Descartes’s is correct, two inferences immediately can be drawn; each of them has the effect of calling attention to the signal importance of Descartes, more so even than Kant, for Hegel’s reading of modern philosophy, and, in consequence, for his mature view of circularity.
In the first place, it is important to notice a subtle, but significant, shift in Hegel’s interpretation of modern philosophy. Interestingly, this shift does not lie in a difference in appreciation between the early, immature, and later, mature phases of Hegel’s thought. The early view of the Differenschrift and the later one of the Encyclopedia agree, as noted, in a nearly identical stress on the Kantian position as the central view in contemporary thought. But in the lectures on the History of Philosophy, which cover the entire period of Hegel’s academic career and hence both precede and succeed the official version of the position in the Encyclopedia, with the extension of the discussion to philosophy as a whole, the stress shifts noticeably towards Descartes. Here the entire modern period is treated as a further development of the Cartesian framework, including both the principle of thought and the problem of the demonstration of the unity (from this angle of vision) of thought and being.
This shift in perspective is less a change in Hegel’s basic understanding of the critical philosophy than a widening of perspective to include it within a larger conceptual context. There are several advantages which derive from this shift in perspective, especially as con cerns Kant. An obvious advantage is that the opposition between the precritical and critical forms of thought is now relativized through its insertion in a broader background provided by the unfolding of the consequences of the Cartesian principle of thought.
Although Kant’s position retains its status relative to others in the modern tradition, an immediate result is to redeem in part the promissory note implicit in the frequent claim for the unity of the history of philosophy. For Hegel indicates that just as the critical philosophy continues in the thought of Fichte and Schelling, so also does it prolong the attack on a new formulation, from the perspective of modern thought, of a problem already on the intellectual agenda at the origin of Greek philosophy. Kant’s position, and its sequel in the views of Fichte and Schelling, should be measured not in terms of isolated positions to which they respond, but rather from the perspective of thought alone to demonstrate the unity of subjectivity and objectivity. To state this point differently, had Kant succeeded, his position would have resolved not only Hume’s difficulty concerning causality but also Descartes’s reformulation of the deeper problem of the relation of thought and being.
Second, we can infer that the mature Hegel regards his ultimate task as the resolution of the Cartesian problem in terms of the Cartesian principle of thought. This statement should not be taken to mean that Hegel desires to retrace Descartes’s steps, either through the appropriation of his line of argument or through reliance on basic Cartesian distinctions. Nor is it sufficient to suggest that he desires only to be more critical than the critical philosophy, that is, self-critical, although that is certainly part of his intention. His wider goal is to accomplish, as Descartes cannot, a philosophical transition from certainty to truth which is aware of the conditions of the transition but makes no assumptions concerning it. It is this same undertaking which Hegel identifies as the task of modern philosophy itself, which he describes as proceeding from “the standpoint of actual self-consciousness” (HCP III, 159; XX, 63).
There is an important corollary as concerns the interpretation of Hegel’s position. For Hegel’s endeavor is not an attempt to transcend previous philosophy, except insofar as it is the latest version of the undertaking, everywhere present in the modern philosophical moment from Descartes onwards, to bring philosophy to a close through the successful resolution of its central problem. Hegel’s own understanding of his thought would seem to imply that it is conditioned by the goal of succeeding where Descartes and later thinkers either had failed or at most had been only partially successful. This goal lies in the philosophical demonstration of the unity of thought and being, which as yet merely had been asserted on empirical, nonphilosophical grounds.
It further results that the turn to circularity is in the final analysis to be regarded both as a presuppositionless demonstration of the unity of thought and being, as Hegel says, and as the fulfillment of the Cartesian epistemological form of the ancient problem of knowledge. In other words, even if the concept of circularity is invoked initially in reaction to Reinhold’s desire to systematize the critical philosophy, the deeper significance of that move, which Hegel only later realizes, is in the concern neither with Reinhold nor with Kant as such; it is, rather, in the concern with Descartes, or more precisely in the concern to resolve the Cartesian restatement of an enduring philosophy problem, that is, the demonstration of the unity of thought and being upon which knowledge depends.
This point should now be sharpened, since it provides a standard internal to Hegel’s position in terms of which it can be evaluated. Study of the fate of the doctrine of circularity in Hegel’s mature thought reveals three major changes. There is, to begin with, a significant elaboration of the mature view of circularity in comparison to its initial formulation. As noted, the major change in this respect is to understand circularity as following from the normative view of philosophy as a necessarily presuppositionless science. The doctrine of circularity is, then, an unavoidable result of the quasi-Platonic view of philosophy dominant in the philosophical tradition.
Second, there is a revision of Hegel’s reading of modern philosophy, as a result of which Kant’s position is understood in relation to Descartes’s. In the present context, that means that although Hegel’s position initially was intended to complete the critical philosophy, he came to understand that this task could occur only within the framework of the Cartesian philosophical moment.
Third, the problem with which Hegel ultimately is concerned in his mature position is the relation of thought and being from within the Cartesian perspective of subjectivity. It is, then, as a solution for this problem that the mature doctrine of circularity can be evaluated.
Since Hegel’s analysis of modern philosophy is formulated largely in terms of the Cartesian position, it seems justified to appeal to it in order to provide the framework for an assessment of Hegel’s thought. Even if Descartes’s view legitimately can be seen from different angles of vision, from whatever perspective one chooses, there are two basic stages in the epistemological argument: 1) to discover a foundation, or Archimedean point, which will yield certain knowledge; and 2) to provide for the transition from certainty to truth. In other words, Descartes’s problem, as Hegel reads the former’s position, is an endeavor to resolve, from the perspective of subjectivity, the traditional problem of the unity of thought and being in the face of the diversity generated by the distinction in kind between two forms of substance.
Hegel’s mature doctrine of circularity can be understood as a solution to the Cartesian formulation of the problem of knowledge through a theoretical analysis in which an appeal is made, in antirationalist fashion, to practice. For although Hegel accepts the need to resolve the problem of modern philosophy, and of philosophy itself, from the Cartesian perspective, he rejects the rationalist approach. In his doctrine of circularity, the stress shifts from theory to practice as the way to provide for a demonstration of knowledge.
Considered from the perspective of the Cartesian position, which Hegel adopts, the mature doctrine of circularity is adequate to provide for certainty, but not to provide for the transition from certainty to truth. The inadequacy lies in the ability to make out the claim for reason to know being, which must be the case in order to make the transition from certainty to truth. Hegel’s endeavor to provide a philosophical demonstration of the unity of thought and being does not succeed, since he cannot show that reason is self-subsistent through its separation from faith.
Hegel’s appeal to circularity can be understood against the Cartesian background. As concerns the demand for certainty, the doctrine of circularity can be regarded from two perspectives: either as a rejection of the original Cartesian view of a foundation, or indubitable first principle; or as a defense of one strand of the Cartesian position against another, better-known but incompatible strand. The difference of perspective depends on the manner in which Descartes’s position is interpreted.
Study of Descartes’s writings yields two distinct views of the justification of claims to know. The Cartesian position almost always is understood as based on the concept of the cogito, which functions as an absolute foundation, or fundamentum inconcussum, which can be demonstrated without presuppositions and which provides for the deduction of the remainder of the theory. It is this foundationalist view of knowledge which is in evidence in part 2 of the Discourse and in the second of the Meditations. But there is another, very different view of knowledge in Descartes’s writings. In the sixth part of the Discourse, he unexpectedly presents a broadly pragmatic model, similar to the Hegelian doctrine of circularity. Speaking of two prior texts, the Dioptrics and the Meteors, Descartes writes:4
For it appears to me that the reasonings are so mutually interwoven, that as the later ones are demonstrated by the earlier, which are their causes, the earlier are reciprocally demonstrated by the later, which are their effects. And it must not be imagined that in this I commit the fallacy which logicians name arguing in a circle, for, since experience renders the greater part of these effects very certain, the causes from which I deduce them do not so much serve to prove their existence as to explain them; on the other hand, the causes are explained by the effects.
These two doctrines not only are different but are further incompatible. The former doctrine justifies the truth of theory based upon it through an appeal not to experience but to the deductive relation to premises from which it follows and which have been established as true; in the latter doctrine, on the contrary, the claim is made that although principles do explain what follows from them, they themselves are established as true only through an appeal to their results in experience.5 The initial doctrine is concerned wholly with the a priori, as based on an absolute foundation independent of possible experience. The second doctrine offers a merely relative justification, whose claim to truth is dependent on an appeal to experience. The betterknown foundationalist approach would, if correct, yield apodictic, or unrevisable, claims to know. The lesser-known nonfoundationalist approach at best can yield the relative conviction provided by experience, but not apodicticity.6
Hegel’s mature view of circularity can be regarded either as an inversion of the more widely known Cartesian foundationalism or as a further elaboration of the less well-known Cartesian appeal to experience. With respect to the former, Hegel substitutes for Cartesian apriorism an a posteriori approach. This approach bases the claim to know upon the relation of theory to experience, and accordingly relativizes its permissible strength. With respect to the latter, Hegel elaborates the consequence of an appeal to experience through a more developed understanding of the relation of circularity to all forms of justification and of the interrelation of forms of circularity.
The Hegelian doctrine of circularity is adequate to resolve the initial stage of the Cartesian form of the problem of knowledge. For at the price of a relativization of the claims to know, Hegel demonstrates how knowledge in fact arises out of experience. The limitation of the mature doctrine of circularity is its inability to account for the second phase of the problem of knowledge, that is, to effect the transition from certainty to truth, or, in Hegel’s own terms, to demonstrate the unity of thought and being.
Although the need to provide a philosophic demonstration of this unity is indicated clearly in the History of Philosophy, Hegel’s own positive view is most available in the Encyclopedia. The problem itself is discussed most prominently in the account of the Kantian view of the theological idea of reason (in pars. 49-52), in the context of the “Second Attitude of Thought to Objectivity.” Hegel comments here on Kant’s inability to offer a genuine identity, which would require reason to surpass the limits of experience (par. 49). According to Hegel, who here follows the argument developed by Fichte in the First Introduction to the Science of Knowledge, the desired unification can be carried out in only two ways (par. 50): from the perspective of being, or from the perspective of thought in the form of an ontological proof (par. 51; see also par. 52).
Hegel’s own solution to the problem, through a positive concept of reason distinct from the Kantian view, is indicated, but never developed, in a number of passages. Of interest here is the constant association of the positive concept of reason and belief. From this perspective, three distinct claims for the positive form of reason can be distinguished.
One such relation is the assertion of the cognitive, or rational, content of religious belief, a doctrine already asserted in the last chapter of the Phenomenology. For instance, in the discussion of immediate knowledge in the context of the “Third Attitude of Thought to Objectivity,” Hegel describes “truth for spirit” as “reason alone” before adding that although mediated knowledge should be limited to finite content, “thus is reason immediate knowledge, belief [Glaube]” (E 123; VIII, par. 63, 150). A similar association of religion and cognitive, or rational, truth is also stated in various ways in other paragraphs in this work, e.g., paragraphs 445, 554, and 573.
A second, related doctrine is found in the analysis of social ethics [Sittlichkeit], in the discussion of objective spirit. Hegel here identifies knowing and trusting [Vertrauen], which is the ethical equivalent of believing [Glauben], when he writes:
The social disposition [Gesinnung] of individuals is the knowing of substance and of the identity of all their interests with the whole, and that the other individuals on the other side know themselves only in this identity and are actual is trusting [Vertrauen],—the true ethical disposition. [PM254; X, par. 515, 318-9]
Third, specifically epistemological relation between reason and belief apparently is identified only in the following passage, in the account of cognizing [Erkennen], under the wider rubric of the idea. Here Hegel insists on the inseparability of belief and reason due to the constitutive role of belief for reason:
Reason comes to the world with the absolute belief of postulating the identity and being able to raise its certainty to truth, and with the drive to postulate the for-itself futile [nichtig] centradiction as futile. [E 363; VIII, par. 224, 378]
Of the various relations between reason and belief, only the third one is directly relevant to the present discussion. This passage is of extraordinary importance for an understanding of how Hegel holds that the transition from certainty to truth, which is explicitly evoked here, can be effected through the capacity of a form of thought, or reason, to know being. Hegel’s answer as to how that is possible, which nowhere is stated more clearly in his corpus, is that belief is necessary for, indeed constitutive of, reason’s capacity to know. In other words, Hegel’s solution for the problems of the unity of thought and being, and hence his proposed transition from certainty to truth, lies in the assertion that we inevitably must believe that thought can indeed know being.
Since it might be objected that this doctrine is not characteristic of Hegel’s position, it is not without interest that this point is stated equally clearly on occasion elsewhere. An example is provided in the following passage in the preface to the Phenomenology, where, after a brief discussion of phenomenology as the science of the experience of consciousness, Hegel remarks: “The beginning of philosophy makes the presupposition or demand [Forderung], that consciousness be [sich befinde] in this element” (P 14; III, 29). In other words, the assumption which conditions the process of the unfolding of science is precisely that the unity to be described is already present at the beginning.
It is important to be clear about the claim which is ascribed here to Hegel. He is not making a traditional, quasi-Thomistic point about the nonconflictual relation of faith and reason. Nor is he, like Kant, asserting that belief can continue to hold sway in the conceptual interstices of reason, where it cannot legitimately penetrate and where knowledge is impossible. If there is an anticipation of Hegel’s understanding of reason in the history of philosophy, it is perhaps in the Augustinian doctrine of fides quaerens intellectum, even if it would be incorrect to consider Augustine as other than a theologian with philosophical tendencies. More precisely, Hegel’s view can be stated as the anti-Enlightenment claim that faith and reason are inseparable, since reason requires, and indeed rests on, faith, that is, faith in reason.
Several general conclusions can now be formulated. As concerns the problem of the unity of thought and being, it is apparent that Hegel’s solution can count as one only in a quasi-Kantian, transcendental sense. It is well known that in his moral philosophy, Kant indicates the need for, but the impossibility to provide, a demonstration of freedom, or, in Kantian terms, the transition from pure practical reason to practical reason. Similarly, Hegel shows that if thought is to know being, we must presuppose a prior unity between thought and being. Hegel’s philosophical solution to this enduring problem hence is based on the need to have faith in the ability of reason to know, although that is neither demonstrated nor demonstrable, but merely necessary. Accordingly, in an important sense Hegel can be held in fact to reject, or rather to show the inadequacy of, the belief in self-subsistent reason, which he regards as typical of modern times, since reason no longer is recognized by him as wholly self-sustaining.
To put this same point in the context of the Cartesian view, Hegel is not able to do more than point to the conditions of the transition from certainty to truth, as distinguished from a demonstration that the conditions are met in practice. Although Hegel thinks the problem through to the end and shows the way to escape from subjectivity through a transition to objectivity, because this escape is based on a mere presupposition it is unacceptable. He is, like his predecessors, still trapped within subjectivity. In Kantian terms, the scandal of philosophy’s inability to prove the existence of the external world remains a scandal.
As concerns the concept of circularity, Hegel’s need to assume that thought can know being violates the basic stricture that philosophy differs from all other sciences in that it can assume nothing. But since the appeal to circularity follows only from the need to make no presuppositions, the examination of the concept of circularity gives rise to a curious result: although philosophy is indeed presuppositionless, and hence circular, its ability to provide knowledge is based on the presupposition that it does so. For reason cannot ground itself in circular science, although no other strategy is possible, since we never can know that we know. Or, to put the point in other words, although we know the theoretical conditions of knowledge, we do not know that in practice they are met in and through the circular development of the object of knowledge in consciousness; and we hence cannot conclude positively as to the epistemic value of the ever-greater closure of the circle of philosophical science.
This chapter indicates that the function of circularity is to demonstrate the unity of thought and being within the general framework provided by the Cartesian principles of independent reason and subjectivity. But the discussion has further revealed that the concept of reason cannot be divorced from the belief in reason, upon which it depends, and which hence functions as a necessary presupposition. It follows that although Hegel is indeed correct to suggest that theory is presuppositionless, and therefore circular, he is not able, within the context of his own position, to justify the claim that as the circle closes, the theory progressively justifies itself. He is unable to prove, but must merely suppose, that thought can know being. In other words, although in virtue of the fact that it can presuppose nothing philosophy is necessarily circular, in virtue of its circularity it at best can justify the certainty of certainty, but not the transition to truth. But since circular philosophy is inadequate to demonstrate the unity of thought and being, it is inadequate to provide the solution of the problem which is its central task.