This book concerns a basic concept in Hegel’s thought. Hegel often has been held not to be interested in, or to have gone beyond, epistemology. Although it is correct that he was not interested in a certain form of epistemology, most widely represented in modern philosophy after Descartes and prior to Kant and more recently in contemporary analytic thought, it would be hasty to conclude that he was not interested in epistemology.
On the contrary, Hegel was deeply concerned with the problem of knowledge, which he approached through his frequently mentioned, rarely studied, and poorly understood doctrine of circularity. Accordingly, the aim of this work is to study this Hegelian doctrine, its relation to Hegel’s understanding of the problem of knowledge, and, beyond Hegel, its importance for epistemology in general. Even were circularity not a central concept in Hegel’s thought, it would be important to elucidate it as part of the general task of comprehending and evaluating a major philosophical theory.
The importance of the concept of circular epistemology for Hegel’s thought, although not yet for the problem of knowledge in general, is grasped more easily than is his understanding of it. Although his writings provide numerous allusions to circularity, he never discussed the problem in detail. Not only for this reason has there been little attention devoted to this aspect of his thought. In order to discuss it, it is necessary to infer the general outlines of the doctrine, the problem for which it is intended, its relation to that problem, and its usefulness to that end. But even prior to such discussion, it is not difficult to indicate the importance of circularity within Hegel’s position. For if, as Hegel suggests, philosophy is intrinsically circular, then his entire position can be said to rest upon this concept, which accordingly is central to it.
In order to develop this point, I will discuss in some detail the doctrine of circularity everywhere presupposed, but only imperfectly described, in Hegel’s writings. However, the aim of this study is not confined to elucidating or evaluating this doctrine, as important as that task may be. It is, rather, a means to a further, more significant end, which is to utilize this aspect of Hegel’s thought to illuminate the wider problem of knowledge. Whatever interest there might be in a study of Hegel’s position for its own sake clearly is outweighed by the manner in which it can be said to surpass the boundaries of its own historical moment through its continuing relevance.
This inquiry differs from much of the current Hegel discussion in that it focuses on a particular concern. In practice, that means that although, as Hegel would have it, the truth is the whole, I do not intend to consider the entire Hegelian position, surely an enormous task. Yet that is not necessarily a handicap, nor is it unfair to Hegel to apply to his own position those standards which he routinely reserved for others. For only in rare instances did he approach other views in detail, and he frequently focused his attention on one or another facet of the position under review.
Thus, the present study is not intended as yet another massive tome on the entire Hegelian corpus. It does not concentrate on one of the major writings in order to produce a detailed commentary, nor will it provide a detailed analysis of selected early manuscripts. In addition, there will be little of the quasi-philological study of a single text or manuscript, or even a fragment thereof, which has become increasingly popular. Instead, all the relevant techniques will be applied in a manner appropriate to the task at hand.
Another departure from the usual practice is the degree of attention to the historical background. The reason for that is both general and specific to Hegel’s view. Ever since the inception of the philosophical tradition, it has been urged that genuine thought is somehow automatically protected from the ravages of time, in which it occurs but by which it is not limited. This belief is more an instance of philosophical hope than a description of what obtains. More recently, this belief has taken the form of a distinction between historical and systematic forms of discussion. A typical instance is Quine’s reported distinction between those persons interested in the history of philosophy and those interested in philosophy.1 The implicit conclusion, widely accepted in contemporary thought, is that if only we can begin afresh in total abstraction from, and even bereft of knowledge regarding, the history of philosophy, we can avoid its errors.
This suggestion is unacceptable, since the appeal to system as the criterion cannot be defended without reference to the history of philosophy in respect to which the concept of system is meaningful. It should further be noted that the distinction between system and history has its own history, which tends to undermine the allusion to merely systematic forms of thought. Kant, who drew this distinction clearly (see B864), also clearly failed to respect it in his own position, which depended upon his reading of other views. This distinction would be justified only if a position or doctrine could reasonably be grasped and evaluated without reference to the discussion in which it emerges and in terms of whose problems it is meaningful. But thought is never independent of social being, if only because ideas inevitably are intended to respond to concerns already raised by others, in relations to which they must be assessed.
The following is predicated upon the belief that philosophy and its history cannot be disjoined. This point can be sharpened with respect to Hegel, whose thought, more than that of any other philosopher since Aristotle, is the product of a conscious desire to come to grips with preceding philosophy in all its forms. It would not be necessary to recall this well-known Hegelian point here if it were not, to use Hegelian terminology, more often recognized than grasped.
Even were it not the case on other grounds, a rigid distinction between historical and systematic approaches is obviously uncongenial to Hegel’s own position, which expressly is meant to combine them in a way which forbids their being dissevered. The rarely acknowledged practical consequence is that study of his position must necessarily, and not only incidentally, make use of his reception of other views in order to understand the intent, nature, and significance of his thought. For the system that Hegel constructed on the basis of his reading of other positions cannot be studied fairly in isolation from them.
In order to understand the Hegelian doctrine of circularity and the reason for which it is introduced, it will be necessary to consider in some detail the relation of Hegel’s thought to modern German philosophy. It is not known widely enough that Hegel’s original position arose not in relation to the Greek philosophical tradition, to which it only later was extended, but through meditation on the post-Kantian philosophical moment. In particular, Hegel’s concept of circularity was the result of his interest in the ongoing concern to reformulate the critical philosophy in fully systematic form. This endeavor, which was of signal importance for the evolution of the entire post-Kantian idealist movement in German philosophy, is now largely ignored. Certainly, a number of its major participants have since receded into the history of philosophy. But these thinkers were well known to Hegel, who often responded in some detail to views which influenced the elaboration of his own, especially as concerns circularity.
In order to understand the intent of that doctrine, it will be necessary to reconstruct in some detail this facet of the reception of the critical philosophy. Indeed, this reconstruction is unavoidable; the pre-Hegelian background of this doctrine is significant in itself, certainly significant for Hegel’s thought, and largely unknown. Anything less than a detailed treatment of this period would fail to provide an element essential for the appreciation of Hegel’s doctrine of circularity and of wider use for the study of the position as a whole.
In practice, there will be some close discussion of a number of figures in the history of philosophy, not all of whom are usually mentioned in accounts of Hegel. His own thought, of course, depends on extensive knowledge of the entire history of philosophy. Not surprisingly, students of Hegel rarely approach his command of historical sources. In part for this reason, discussion of his position, when it refers to others, most often concerns a selected group of major philosophers, including Kant, Aristotle, and Schelling.
On the contrary, the present discussion will stress Kant, Reinhold, to a lesser extent Bardili, and certainly Fichte. With the exception of Kant and Fichte, these names do not figure prominently in the Hegel literature, and are not of basic importance in the history of philosophy. But if we recall that the doctrine of circularity was formulated in response to the restatement of the critical philosophy in the form of a grounded system, the need to dwell on these particular, often minor, figures, is apparent: Reinhold initiated the discussion in question; the form of his position to which Hegel responded arose under the influence of Bardili; and Fichte provided the first clear formulation in the German idealist tradition of the doctrine of epistemological circularity, although not its first formulation, in a form Hegel made his own.
Discussion of Hegel’s position will follow the proposed reconstruction of its background. Such discussion depends for its success upon the proper choice of texts. Interestingly, consideration of Hegel’s thought in different languages and literatures tends to consider different sources as primary. Romance- and English-language discussions have concerned themselves mainly with the Phenomenology of Spirit, with some attention to the Science of Logic. German-language discussions have for some time emphasized the latter, turning only more recently to early manuscripts, including the Jenaer Schriften and the Philosophy of Right. Although these choices can be defended in various ways, for present purposes it will be useful to focus our inquiry on the Differenzschrift and the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences.
The appropriateness of the Differenzschrift is almost self-evident. It is Hegel’s initial philosophical publication, and the place in his corpus where the doctrine of circularity is initially formulated. The relevance of the Encyclopedia is equally evident; since Hegel explicitly designated this work as the official statement of his thought and provided no fewer than three versions of it, there is no reasonable alternative to it as the source of the mature view, including the mature doctrine of circularity.
A word also should be said about terminology. Hegel’s doctrine of circularity leads to an antifoundationalist epistemology. The use of the terms foundationalism and antifoundationalism may appear out of place, even an egregious projection of contemporary terminology onto an older theory. It would seem that the latter term has emerged only within the last decade in analytic philosophy. But despite the analytic emphasis on language, ideas frequently precede the terms in which they are described. However much analytic philosophy and Hegel’s thought differ, they share in part, with phenomenology, as well, the concern to resolve the form of the problem of knowledge bequeathed by Descartes to the later philosophical tradition.
This shared concern justifies the description of Hegel’s thought through terminology which emerges only later in the modern tradition. Such terminology also provides an indication of a family resemblance, despite differences due to a change in perspective, between Hegel’s own rejection of foundationalist epistemology and later forms of phenomenology and analytic thought. The use of such terminology in the present context is helpful in that, by calling attention to the relation of Hegel’s epistemological view to later epistemological theories, it suggests a standard for the evaluation of the Hegelian approach.