Unsere philosophische Revolution ist beeindigt. Hegel hat ihren grossen Kreis geschlossen. Wir sehen seitdem nur Entwicklung und Ausbildung der naturphilosophischen Lehre.
The concern of this book has been to call attention to, analyze, and evaluate the significance of Hegel’s centrally important but little-studied doctrine of epistemological circularity. In the course of this discussion, stress has been placed on a number of themes, including the significance of the Differenzschrift for an understanding of Hegel’s thought, the importance of the difference in his approach in that text to the views of Reinhold and Fichte concerning the further development of the critical philosophy, the systematic and historical aspects of the doctrine of circularity in Hegel’s mature thought, and the link in Hegel’s mature thought between the doctrine of circularity and the problem of the relation of thought and being.
As concerns the Differenzschrift, the suggestion has been made that this neglected text is indeed central to an appreciation of Hegel’s mature thought. For one finds here the initial statement of the position from which the mature view only later emerges, not through basic change but through a deepening of the leading ideas. That is especially the case for the doctrine of circularity, which in later texts is indeed developed but not fundamentally altered. It was further shown that Hegel here views the essential philosophical task as the completion of the critical philosophy in the direction taken by Fichte. That is an indication that the origins of Hegel’s position lie not in his meditation on ancient philosophy, which came only later, in the further development of his thought, but rather in the attempt to come to grips with the contemporary discussion. And it is further an indication that, despite efforts to understand Hegel’s view as simply in opposition to Kant’s, Hegel’s objections are directed to the letter, but not to the spirit, of the critical philosophy.
This text further demonstrates the origin of Hegel’s interest in circularity as a positive epistemological doctrine. As concerns the proposed reconstruction of the critical philosophy, Hegel follows Fichte’s antifoundationalism in opposition to Reinhold’s quasi-rationalist, grounded system. But whereas the early Fichte employs the concept of circularity to question the possibility of knowledge in the full, or traditional, philosophic sense, Hegel makes use of the identical concept to suggest that theory justifies itself despite the lack of a foundation.
Within the context of the Differenzschrift, the doctrine of circularity is eccentric to the main themes, which are the normative concept of philosophy and its relation to the contemporary discussion. But in Hegel’s mature thought, this doctrine becomes central to the position and is expanded significantly. What was initially merely a response in the context of the post-Kantian reformulation of the critical philosophy to a contemporary form of nonphilosophy now is generalized as the result of the Platonic view of philosophy as intrinsically presuppositionless, and therefore circular. At the same time, the initial thesis of circular justification is expanded to include claims for the circularity of the epistemological object, the various sciences, and philosophy, as well as a necessarily circular relation between theory and experience.
Hegel’s mature expansion of the original doctrine of circularity is clearly linked to his mature, wider reading of the history of philosophy. Even in the mature thought, the central emphasis remains fixed on the modern tradition and Kant’s role within it. But that reading is now doubly expanded: in the view of the critical philosophy as a further development of the Cartesian discovery of independent thought, which Hegel holds is the basic insight in modern philosophy, and in the further view that these and other positions are successive approaches to the ancient problem, which traverses the entire philosophical tradition, of the relation of thought and being.
Insight into the link in Hegel’s mature position between the doctrine of circularity and the problem of the relation of thought and being opens the way for an evaluation of that doctrine within Hegel’s position and for philosophy in general. Hegel is correct to hold that thought can have no foundation, but that theory can justify itself in a nonlinear, circular manner through the relation of the results obtained to its beginning. And although it is usual to regard Hegel’s thought as dependent on the selective appropriation of Aristotelian themes, as concerns circularity we can note a denial of the widely influential Aristotelian stress on linearity in the form of a qualified return to a pre-Socratic doctrine. In this way, Hegel thinks through to the end the problem of the possibility of a fully critical philosophy, which unavoidably must address the question of the relation of thought and being. And since later thought immediately forgot this central insight, Hegel in this respect remains in advance of those who followed, and for whom the problem of knowledge no longer concerns this relation.
Hegel’s triumph is, however, incomplete in a significant sense. It is not enough, as he points out, to focus on the relation of thought and being, since their identity must be demonstrated, although he is manifestly unable to do so. For if, as Fichte and others before him already knew, thought is necessarily circular, then knowledge in the fully traditional sense, which Descartes correctly identifies as in principle unrevisable, cannot be had. Hegel’s failure to provide the required demonstration further undermines his critique of Fichte and Kant, inspired by Schelling, as philosophers of subjectivity, since the implied transition from subjectivity to objectivity, which is the basis of the objection, cannot be carried out. In other words, knowledge of objectivity from the perspective of subjectivity, but not of objectivity as such, is revealed as the outer epistemological limit.
Hegel’s inability to demonstrate the required unity of thought and being in terms of circularity, and hence his failure to solve the problem of knowledge, does not diminish the interest of that doctrine. Although that is not his intention, his discussion of circularity reveals a profound tension between the normative concept of philosophy as devoid of presuppositions and its goal of knowledge. For if philosophy is presuppositionless, it cannot yield knowledge in the full sense. Yet if knowledge is apodictic, it cannot result from presuppositionless theory.
The result is neither to surpass nor to abandon epistemology, except in an uncritical sense; it is rather to acknowledge, in a quasi-Kantian manner, intrinsic epistemological limits. Idealism has often been mistakenly equated with rationalism as holding that knowledge is infinite in scope, since there are no bounds which cannot be surpassed. Yet that is merely a simplistic caricature, since even for Kant the stress on knowledge as unlimited is inextricably related to an equal stress on its bounded character.
That Hegel may have been held to deny any form of this Kantian claim rests on a misunderstanding of his view of reason. For although knowledge arises in the relation between thought and being, thought is not sovereign but dependent upon being. That is not to assert a form of Pythagorean relativism, or to argue for a kind of epistemological anarchy. Nor is it to suggest the propriety of skepticism about knowledge in view of its impossibility. It is, rather, to say that knowledge in the full, or traditional, sense, which is completely unconstrained, cannot be had in the relation between thought and being. For the relation itself is inherently circular. Even if the rest of Hegel’s thought were to be swept away by the later history of philosophy, which seems unlikely, this point would remain as an essential insight.
But there is no reason to believe that later epistemological discussion has negated or weakened Hegel’s point. Indeed, in so many ways, as philosophy has taken leave from conscious consideration of its past, the problem with which Hegel was concerned, the relation of thought and being, no longer is even directly raised. Philosophy was never a tragedy; but it indeed becomes a comedy when it ceases to acknowledge the historical nature of its enterprise.
Despite the relation of philosophy to time, on occasion insights of permanent value emerge within the philosophical tradition. Hegel’s merit is to have shown, although unintentionally, the inevitable tension between the inherent circularity of philosophy, indeed all forms of knowledge, and the need to demonstrate the unity of thought and being. It is indeed the case that thought must assume a self-reflective, systematic form and test itself against being, as revealed in experience, the standard for any knowledge claim. Conversely, this standard is not absolute but relative, since through the confrontation of thought with the experience of being it never can be shown that being is known by thought.
Interpreted in this way, Hegel’s result can be expressed in a negative manner. For it is not only after idealism that there could only be pragmatism. Rather, idealism in Hegel’s case, and others, as well, is form of pragmatism. Since, as the doctrine of circularity shows, the demand for total justification cannot be satisfied a priori, we must turn for knowledge to the uneasy relation between thought and being as revealed in experience. Neither element can be renounced, since knowledge can come only from their relation. But at the same time it must be stressed that this relation itself cannot be shown to yield knowledge of being in thought, since it must be presupposed to do so as the condition of experiential knowledge. That is indeed an absolute limitation of what can be known, as Hegel was clearly aware.
Yet if, as Hegel says, philosophy is presuppositionless, and therefore circular, the age-old dream of the demonstration that thought knows being, indeed the resolution of the problem of knowledge, ends in Hegel’s position in an awareness that that is merely a dream, the dream of reason which would be self-subsistent in emancipating itself. Although epistemology has as its task the demonstration of the claim of reason to know, Hegel demonstrates that we can know only that reason ends in belief or hope. Epistemology, Hegel shows us, terminates either in morality, the claim that reason must know, or in religion, the hope that it can.
This point can be sharpened in terms of the problem of the end of philosophy, frequently evoked since Hegel’s death in relation to his thought. Hegel’s position often has been held—by both its enthusiasts and its critics, but for different reasons—to mark the end of philosophy.2 Obviously, the claim admits of more than one interpretation. Heine, who provided a classic formulation of it, had in mind the completion of the movement of independent thought set in motion by Luther’s revolt against religious dogmatism and continued in Kantian and post-Kantian thought. Heine’s intention was to note that philosophy stagnated and failed to advance after Hegel’s death. Marxists, on the contrary, since Engels, have held that philosophy in any meaningful sense actually ends in the Hegelian synthesis.
This latter view is inconsistent, to say the least, since it presupposes that Hegel is successful in taking up in his thought all that is of value in the preceding tradition at the same time as it negates the claim for philosophy to be meaningful. Indeed, neither of these claims can be accepted as formulated. It is not correct that all later views are forms of Naturphilosophie; nor can it accurately be held that philosophy as a whole has continued to stagnate, even if it has not often reached a Hegelian level since Hegel; nor again is it the case that philosophy as such terminates in Hegel’s thought, since there are numerous later philosophers, including (as Marxists for their own reasons fail to acknowledge) Marx. But it seems possible to formulate the claim that Hegel brings philosophy to an end in another perhaps more persuasive, manner.
Hegel clearly does not bring to an end philosophy in all its forms; nor is there reason to believe that that was his intention. The perhaps unwitting lesson of his discussion of knowledge as necessarily circular is to reveal the limit intrinsic to any form of epistemology based on reason. The assumption of the inquiry into knowledge has always been that thought knows being, although as Hegel knew, this assumption never has been demonstrated. Hegel’s own attempt to provide this demonstration fails, since as we have seen, it is in tension with his view that philosophy is necessarily presuppositionless, therefore circular, and accordingly unable to escape from the circle of thought and being.
It is perhaps paradoxical, but unquestionably the case, that a striking consequence of Hegel’s endeavor to demonstrate that reason can be self-subsistent, that thought is identical with being, is to show that this result cannot be established through reason. Hegel, the archrationalist, unwittingly but definitively puts an end to the rationalist form of the epistemological enterprise as concerns the full emancipation of reason. For he shows the necessity of assuming the indemonstrable validity of the claim of thought to know being as an unavoidable presupposition of all epistemology.