This introductory chapter explains in a preliminary way why an analysis of Hegel’s doctrine of circularity is necessary, and it provides the context for such an analysis. For even if, according to Hegel, the proper way to begin is to begin, several tasks require attention prior to direct study of the concept of circularity. And although such tasks indeed belong to the inquiry itself, from which they cannot be isolated as transcendental conditions thereof, they nevertheless must be attended to as conditions of the discussion to follow.
Four preliminary tasks are prerequisites for the study of the Hegelian view of circularity. The first is the establishment of a preliminary understanding of the term circularity. Second, an account is needed of the nature and extent of Hegel’s concern with this concept. Third, a sketch must be provided of its prior discussion in the Hegel literature. Finally, the historical background must be reconstructed against which Hegel was led to formulate his doctrine of circularity. In view of its length and complexity, the fourth task will be taken up separately in chapter 2.
An obvious way to define circularity is by an appeal to geometry. Clearly, the concept has a geometrical source. It is equally well known that circle can be defined as “that plane figure for which every point on its circumference is equidistant from its center.” But even if circularity indeed is invoked in these and similar terms by many writers, including Hegel, the philosophical interest of this concept certainly is not limited to its possible mathematical role. For this specific geometrical figure often has been invoked in an epistemological context to justify claims to know.1
The association of geometry and epistemology is obvious. At least since Plato’s definition of philosophy as the science of sciences, geometry has enjoyed a special role within philosophy, disproportionate to its intrinsic mathematical importance. From the geometrical perspective, circularity and linearity can be contrasted as two major forms of epistemological justification; that is, arguments can be said to be either circular or linear.
Both forms of argument are well represented in the history of philosophy.2 An example of a linear form of argument is Descartes’s position. Its linear character is apparent in the claim that an Archimedean point can be identified, whose truth can be established without recourse to presuppositions, and which is rich enough to permit the deduction of all further true propositions. This argument and others like it are linear, since propositions which occur later in the chain of justification are regarded as true in virtue of their relation to preceding propositions, and not conversely. Such an argument can be said to be “linear” regardless of whether it can be held to meet strict mathematical criteria of linearity.
Circular arguments differ from linear in that an argument can be said to be “circular” if earlier propositions in the chain of reasoning are justified by their relation to later propositions, which in some sense follow from them. Such an argument can be said to be “circular” whether or not it can be held to meet strict mathematical criteria of circularity.
In the sense understood here, circular arguments are widely represented in the history of philosophy, virtually since the origins of the tradition in ancient Greece. Heraclitus mentions circularity repeatedly, for instance in Fragment 60, where the way up and the way down are described as the same,3 and in Fragment 103, where it is said that on the circumference of the circle the beginning and the end come together.4 It is unclear whether a clearly epistemological function can be attributed to circularity in Heraclitus’s thought. But the beginnings of an argument of this kind are associated early on with claims for knowledge by other contemporary pre-Socratics. An example is the association of a view of circularity with the doctrine that like knows like. In Parmenides’ poem, the way of truth is described as circular, and the way of opinion is characterized as linear. The result is to ascribe epistemological functions to circularity and linearity, which are correlated with knowledge and opinion.
A similar view is restated by Plato in the Timaeus.5 Plato there suggests that the sphere is the most perfect of all figures (33 B-C), that the world is spherical, and that the soul comes to know through circular motion (37 A-C), in short through what may be called the correspondence of epistemological circularity to cosmological circularity.
As concerns circular and linear forms of justification, a turning point occurs in Aristotle’s thought. Aristotle maintains the cosmological view of circularity even as he rejects the associated epistemological claim. He praises the circle as the most perfect geometrical form (Meta. V, 6, 1016b 17–18) and, it is widely known, emphasizes circular motion in his doctrine of the unmoved mover. But he forcefully criticizes circular thought on at least two occasions (Prior. Ana. 57b 18, and Post. Ana. I, 3, 72b 25–73a 20). He also specifically attacks the Platonic view of the soul as developed in the Timaeus.6
In virtue of Aristotle’s criticism, later thinkers appeal less frequently to circular than to linear forms of justification. But circularity is by no means absent in the post-Aristotelian philosophical tradition. It is represented in the skeptical tradition by several thinkers, including Carneades.7 It is especially prominent in neo-Platonic thought, e.g., in Proclus.8 It later appears in St. Thomas’s view of reflection.9 A restatement of the Greek doctrine that like knows like occurs in the idealist view that we know only what we make, anticipated by Vico10 and present in the writings of Kant,11 Fichte, and Marx.12 Circularity is further present in Nietzsche’s reaction against idealism, and in later Italian neo-Hegelianism,13 especially in the positions of Gentile and Croce. And it is prominent in recent hermeneutical philosophy in the views of Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, and others.
The discussion so far has shown that circularity and linearity are two forms of epistemological justification well represented in the history of philosophy. What now must be determined is the manner in which this concept is present in Hegel’s position. This phase of the discussion will include three segments: a brief mention of Hegel’s terminology, a sketch of his appeal to circularity in his writings, and a brief examination of an epistemological appeal to this concept in the context of the justification of claims to know. Although the terminology Hegel employs supports the approach to this doctrine as basically epistemological, inspection of his writings reveals its occurrence in a wide variety of forms and contexts, some of which clearly are unrelated to the problem of knowledge.
Even before we sketch the range of allusions to circularity in Hegel’s writings, it will be useful to glance at his terminology for a clue as to his understanding of the concept. It is Hegel’s practice not to forge a series of neologisms or to create his own special terms, but rather to rely on the standard German language, which he employs with a precision and consistency unsurpassed by other German thinkers. Although German is rich in vocabulary, in particular in synonyms and near-synonyms, it should be noted that Hegel consistently employs only one of the available ordinary German words to refer to circularity, which, in consequence, takes on the status of a technical term in his writings. It seems likely, in the absence of contrary indications, that his consistent utilization of the word circle [Kreis] reflects a deliberate choice to isolate that word in the German language which best reflects the meaning he wished thereby to isolate.
Other words, with closely related meanings, were available to Hegel had he wished to make use of them. Perhaps the closest synonyms are provided by the terms Zirkel and Ring, each of which, as does Kreis, has a plurality of meanings associated with it. If, to simplify, we restrict ourselves merely to the main denotations, the difference between these terms is easily specified. Ring primarily denotes “a round or spiral form, as for instance a ring.” The primary meaning of Zirkel is “the instrument with which circles are drawn, namely a compass.” The word Kreis is defined as “a curved line, especially as the geometrical figure of the circle.” Since the denotations of these words have not shifted notably over the past two centuries, Hegel’s insistence on the word Kreis suggests that in the first instance he had in mind the geometrical figure, that is, a curved line which departs in terms of its curvature from linearity and which further curves back upon itself.
This point is helpful in the present discussion. Hegel’s choice of terminology would seem to suggest that he appeals to the concept of circularity in the context of the rejection of linearity as an appropriate form of argument. From this same perspective, it further could be inferred that Hegel’s appeal to circularity is meant to recall the pre-Socratic doctrine that like knows like. For circular thought is precisely adapted to know its object, since it mimics the motion of the real, which is itself circular in form. But when we turn our attention from Hegel’s choice of terminology to the range of allusions to circularity in his writings, we find that although they are a persistent theme throughout his thought, they occur in numerous ways and in different contexts, some of which, such as the discussion of Newton’s sling, are unconcerned with epistemological justification.
The earliest allusion to circularity that I have been able to discover antedates the recognizable philosophical formulation of a specific doctrine in a systematic context, which does not occur before the Differenzschrift (= The Difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy). The allusion occurs in the so-called “Systemfragment von 1800,” a small portion of a larger manuscript presumably completed towards the middle of September of that year. Hegel, or possibly Schelling, there differentiates between religion, which is concerned with the elevation of man from the finite to the infinite life, and reflection, which, on a lower plane, is occupied with the transition from the finite to the infinite. He then describes the activity of reason as being directed towards a middle point [einen objektiven Mittelpunkt] (II, 423) before adding, in Kantian language, which perhaps reflects the influence of Schiller, that pure spatial activity can be thought of as providing a similar point of union [Vereinigungspunkt] (II, 424).
The doctrine towards which Hegel was groping here is an early form of the concept of the absolute, which still bears the imprint of Schelling’s thought, in which a point of rest [Ruhepunkt] is attained through the union of the finite and the infinite in a central point, especially as provided in the work of art. In the Habilitationsschrift, De orbitis planetarum, there are several passages in which Hegel specifically discusses the alleged geometrical circularity of planetary orbits in connection with the analysis of Kepler’s laws, for instance in the following passage: “In circolo formali aequalis distantiae notio a puncto peripheriam efficit: et primitivus ejus character est, ut neque ulla diameter neque ullus peripheriae locus reliquis infinite multis excellat.”14
As noted, this theme initially occurs in a systematic philosophic context in the Differenzschrift, where Hegel attempts to take the measure of contemporary German philosophy, in the course of his account of Reinhold’s effort to preserve the systematic claim of the critical philosophy through a reduction of philosophy to logic. In a passage which will be analyzed in detail below, Hegel objects to the endeavor to ground knowledge in an initial principle for the reason that a philosophic system constitutes a whole in which every element is equidistant from the center.
From this text onwards, the theme of circularity becomes a permanent feature of Hegel’s discussion. It recurs in Faith and Knowledge in the discussion of Jacobi, who is considered in relation to Reinhold. At nearly the same time, Hegel provides specific discussion of circularity in a historical context in an article on skepticism published in the Kritisches Journal der Philosophie, entitled “Relation of Skepticism to Philosophy: Presentation of Its Different Modifications and Comparison of the Newest with the Old” (“Verhältnis des Skepticismus zur Philosophie. Darstellung seiner verschiedener Modifikationen und Vergleichung des neuesten mit dem alten,” 1802). Although circularity is mentioned there explicitly in the account of the skeptical tropes, there is no mention of Hegel’s own doctrine. Finally, one can note a passage in Hegel’s “Wastebook” (1803–1806) where he restates the view, already alluded to in connection with the account of circularity in the Differenzschrift, that the fundamental principle of a position is its result, not its beginning (II, 550).
In the later writings, beginning with the Phenomenology, the view of circularity is in constant evidence, both in the works published by Hegel and in the series of notes edited by others after his death. Within the Phenomenology, this theme occurs on several distinct planes, including the criticism of dogmatism as exemplified in mathematics in the famous preface, and in the body of the work in relation to truth (P 71, 465; III 98, 559), spirit (P 464; III, 558), the concept (P 488: III, 585), and human activity within the context of the discussion of reason (P 218–220, 237, 240; III, 272–73, 293–94, 297). Especially noteworthy in the latter account of human activity is the manner in which Hegel follows Aristotle’s view (Meta. Theta, 1048b 18–35) in insisting that human development is a teleological process in which the difference between subjectivity and objectivity is ultimately a distinction within unity. Circularity lies in the relation between the subject as potential, which acts upon the object in order to realize itself, and the subject as fully actual.
In the Science of Logic (Wissenschaft der Logik, 1812, 1816), this theme occurs often. Examples include the description of the whole of science as a circle (SL 71; V, 70), the discussion of scientific progress as circular (SL 71–72; V, 71), the image of the true infinity (SL 148; V, 163–64), the mention of the geometrical circle (SL 205; V, 234), and reference to the circle as the symbol of true eternity (SL 215; V, 247–48). In the second volume, this concept occurs above all in the discussion of absolute knowledge, in which forward progress is described as a return to the beginning (SL 838, 841; VI, 567, 570), and in the characterization of philosophy as the circle of circles (SL 842; VI, 571).
In the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften), the circle is a persistent theme throughout. Allusions to circularity can be detected in more than 20 of the 577 numbered paragraphs. If we follow the division of the book, the distribution of the references to circularity by numbered paragraph is as follows: In the introduction, philosophy in general is described as a circle of circles (15) and as presuppositionless since it returns into itself (17). In the Logic, the initial part of the account of philosophy, there are references to the circle in the discussions of the essence [Wesen] and the concept [Begriff]. In the former, attention is drawn to the distinction between a circle and its concept (119); and the circle which, Hegel pretends, arises from the interrelation of cause and effect (154). In the discussion of the concept, we are told that syllogistic conclusions follow from a circle in which opposing elements are mediated; and the speculative idea, which, Hegel suggests, follows syllogistically, is described as circular (235).
In the second part of the work, the “Philosophy of Nature,” the circle arises in several, less clearly philosophical contexts. In the discussion of mechanics, mention is made of the circular movement of the sling in Newton’s analysis of forces (266), and of Newton’s rejection of the circle in favor of the ellipse in his account of planetary motion (ibid.). In the account of physics, chemical processes in general are described as a circle of particular processes (329). And in the account of organic physics, which in contemporary terminology would fall under the heading of biology, the development of the body is characterized as a circular process related to itself (337, 346). There is further an allusion to the surrounding [Umkreis] provided by general inorganic nature (361).
Finally, in the “Philosophy of Spirit,” the last main division of the Encyclopedia, in the account of subjective spirit we learn that development is a circular process which occurs only on the individual level (387). In the discussion of the absolute idea, the three main divisions of philosophy (logic, nature, and spirit) are held to be interrelated in circular fashion through a series of syllogistic conclusions, in which each is the conclusion provided by the employment of the other two as respectively major and minor premises (574–577).
A similar concern with circularity is also in evidence in those writings which appeared only posthumously. In the Lectures on the Philosophy of History (Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte), the development of nature is characterized as circular (XII, 74). In the Lectures on Aesthetics (Vorlesungen über die Aesthetik), all parts of science are described as constituting a circle which moves both backwards and forwards (XIII, 43), and the circle is evoked as the image of eternity (XIII, 395); in the second volume, the relation between linearity and circularity is mentioned (XIV, 312), and the use of circularity in Romantic architecture is evoked (XIV, 335). In the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion), we are told that the relation of the natural and spiritual realms to religion forms a circle (XVI, 108).
Finally, in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy (Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie), there are a number of references to circularity. They include the circular development of spirit (HP I, 27; XVIII, 51), another evocation of the circle as the symbol of eternity (HP I, 88; XVIII, 109), and again in reference to nature as forming a circle in a discussion of Heraclitus (HP I, 289; XVIII, 333), and the further allusion to ideas as circular (HP I, 346; XVIII, 400). In the second volume, there is further reference to circularity in the Timaeus (HP II, 78; XIX, 93), and to the concept of essence as circular in Aristotle’s thought (HP II, 145; XIX, 160 ff.)
That ends our brief survey of the discussion of circularity in Hegel’s wider corpus. The aim of this survey was to point to a persistent interest in this concept throughout the entire Hegelian corpus, including the Nachlass, as well as to indicate the different forms and situations in which it appears. It is apparent even from this rapid consideration that in many cases Hegel’s references to circularity either are not clearly epistemological or are even clearly non-epistemological. An example of the latter kind is the allusion to Romantic architecture in the discussion of aesthetics. Since there is more than one kind of circularity at work in Hegel’s thought, it would be interesting to explore the relation among the various forms. But I shall resist this temptation, in order to turn now to the relation between the concept of circularity and epistemological justification suggested by Hegel’s choice of terminology.
The relation of epistemological circularity to epistemological justification in Hegel’s thought could be explored in several ways, including through a study of his view of knowledge or of a series of passages in different writings in order to determine the use to which circularity is put. But it would be premature to discuss in detail the role of this concept within the theory of knowledge before a relation to it has been established. I shall now establish this relation through the analysis of a single passage in which circularity plays an epistemological role. Although other texts could have been chosen, it will be sufficient to concentrate on a passage in the Phenomenology in which Hegel criticizes mathematical reasoning as a form of dogmatism.
In the preface to the Phenomenology, immediately after his discussion of consciousness, Hegel examines the relation of truth and falsity, which are described as belonging to particular, motionless thought (P 22; III, 40). In that regard, dogmatism is described as the conviction that truth can be captured in a permanent result or directly known (P 23; III, 41). This insight then is applied to mathematics (P 24–27; III, 42–46). The results of mathematics in the form of a theorem are, Hegel says, merely a true insight, which relates to the subject, yet which in virtue of its generality is unrelated to the object. “In mathematical cognition, “Hegel writes, “insight is an activity external to the thing” (P 25; II, 43).
In his criticism of mathematics, Hegel has two related points in mind. On the one hand, he wants to show the intrinsic limits of mathematics as a possible source of knowledge. On the other, he desires to indicate the superiority of philosophy to mathematics as an epistemological source. Both points rest on the deeper claim that mathematics, in virtue of its generality, is unable to grasp the truth of reality in motion. “The True,” Hegel now states in a felicitous phrase, “is thus the Bacchanalian revel in which no member is not drunk” (P 27; III, 46).
It seems unnecessary here to undertake a defense of Hegel’s controversial view of mathematics. But it would be a mistake to argue that if that view can be refuted, which has not been shown, the position as a whole could be rejected. For whatever the fate of the critique of mathematics, it is no more than an illustration of the more general point that a form of thought which is divorced from the movement of reality, and hence feeds only on itself, is necessarily one-sided and abstract, or linear.
The criticism of the linear character of abstract, mathematical thought points towards a more adequate, circular standard, a form of philosophy that Hegel here describes as “the process which begets [erzeugt] and traverses its own moments, and this whole movement constitutes what is positive and its truth” (P 27; III, 46). In other words, in order for thought to know reality that, as alive, is in movement, it must be like its object.
Accordingly, Hegel describes the process of understanding, that great power of the negative which so impressed Marx, as “the circle [Kreis], that remains self-enclosed, and like substance, holds its moments.... “(P 18; III, 36). Truth is similarly described as circular: “It [i.e., the True—T.R.] is the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes the end as its goal, has it at its beginning, and is only actual through development and through its end” (P 10; III, 23). And thought is further described as circular: “Through this movement the pure thoughts become Notions [Begriffe] and are only then what they are in truth, self-movement, circles, what its substance is, spiritual essence” (P 20; III, 37).
It is evident that Hegel regards the circularity of thought, which grasps the circular movement of reality, as an acceptable alternative to that form of dogmatism illustrated by mathematics. The latter, as deductive and abstract, or linear, fails to relate to any object. This criticism recalls the pre-Socratic doctrine of the adequacy of thought to its object, in which each is circular, as a condition of knowledge. But there is another, specifically modern dimension to Hegel’s discussion, which is presupposed here, and which is not apparent without reference to the modern philosophical tradition. It would not be useful to indicate in detail that aspect of Hegel’s position before an account of the discussion to which it responds. But it will be helpful at least to make a general point about the implications for knowledge of Hegel’s rejection here of linear modes of thought in favor of circularity.
This point can be made in terms of alternative epistemological strategies for the relation of thought to being. Three general strategies can be distinguished, which can be designated as the Greek intuitionist approach, modern Cartesian rationalism, and the circular form of theory associated here with Hegel. In the Greek approach, employed, for example, by Plato at the highest level of the divided line, knowledge in the full sense is based on direct intuition of reality. But this strategy must be abandoned as soon as the naive Greek view of ontology is denied. In modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes, there is a return to the mathematical model indicated in the discussion of the divided line, with the important difference that the initial principle from which the theory follows, in quasi-geometrical fashion, is known to be true. The claim for knowledge depends, then, on the deductive relation of the remainder of the theory to an initial principle whose truth is known.
Hegel’s specific rejection of the latter form of argument commits him to the search for an epistemological alternative. The strategy he proposes, and which builds upon an antecedent in the post-Kantian tradition, can fairly be regarded as an inversion of the rationalist model. In his denial that an initial principle, in virtue of its relation to the theory that follows from it, can be demonstrated a priori, Hegel is obligated to demonstrate it in another manner. In his alternative analysis, the initial point of the theory is demonstrable only a posteriori in terms of the explanatory capacity of the framework to which it gives rise, in fact the relation of thought to its object, or being. Clearly this kind of epistemological strategy is circular, although not in a vicious sense, since the appropriateness of the beginning of the explanatory framework, and accordingly the claim to know, is demonstrated in terms of the result upon which it then depends, instead of making the result depend on its relation to the starting point of the theory.
This circular form of epistemological argument can be regarded as an alternative to the linear strategy widespread in the post-Aristotelian tradition in the form of a qualified return to the pre-Socratic approach. The presence in Hegel’s position of a theory of knowledge based on a doctrine of circularity is of evident interest, both for its own sake and because it often has been suggested that he is not concerned with epistemology and that his own view of knowledge is at best naive. If Hegel does propose a theory of knowledge, it is important to determine its nature and limits.
It seems useful now to survey, albeit briefly, previous discussion of circularity in the Hegel literature. There is precedent for this kind of survey, for instance in Fulda’s helpful summary of the relevant prior discussion in his own inquiry into the problem of the beginning of the Science of Logic.15 More generally, a survey of this kind is indicated since if each commentator is not to start anew, the present inquiry, if it is necessary at all, must build upon and justify itself in terms of the earlier discussion.
It is not, of course, possible to survey here the entire Hegel literature; nor is it clear that such a survey is still possible. Certainly its dimensions now would seem to preclude more than a selective acquaintance by even the most industrious scholar. Fortunately, an exhaustive account is not necessary. A selective, brief review of some items among the current Hegel bibliography will suffice to indicate that there is at present no adequate study of this concept, especially its epistemological variant.
It is no secret that, in this age of the computer search, bibliographic research has made rapid progress. The single most complete bibliography of the international reception of Hegel’s thought of which I am aware lists more than 12,000 titles in the time span 1802–1975 in all languages.16 It is significant that in the keyword index [Stichwortregister], which encompasses more than 120 closely printed, double-column pages, there is not a single reference to a study of any kind of Hegel’s view of circularity. Now, even if one cannot expect this enormous bibliography to be exhaustive, it is nonetheless plausible to presume that it represents an adequate indication of the present state of the Hegel discussion, at least in that period to which it refers. Accordingly, the complete lack of allusion to this aspect of Hegel’s thought is indicative of the degree of attention it has received in the Hegel literature.
One ought not, however, to attribute too much importance to any bibliography, since a mere list of titles or series of comments never can replace direct acquaintance with the works enumerated. Most studies of Hegel either mention in passing or fail entirely to evoke his doctrine of circularity. To take just one representative instance, Nicolai Hartmann’s older work, Die Philosophie des deutschen Idealismus, II Teil. Hegel,17 which appeared more than half a century ago, remains one of the better general surveys of the entire position. Yet it contains only three rapid references to circularity in more than 330 closely printed pages, in which the author alludes to, but does not demonstrate, the manner in which the system forms a circle (410), which can begin at any point (427) and which terminates in the concept of essence (455).
A similar tendency either to omit all reference to circularity or at best to mention this concept only in passing is characteristic even in the more recent Hegel discussion.18 Several exceptions should be noted. To turn first to the English-language discussion, Walter Kaufmann cites several passages in which Hegel mentions circularity, and also furnishes a diagram, following Müller, in order to indicate that the Hegelian system was intended to form a circle.19 More helpful is a remark by Charles Taylor in the course of a discussion of the entire Hegelian corpus.20 After noting that Hegel’s aim is to reconcile the finite with the infinite, Taylor indicates that for Hegel the proper image of infinity is a circle (115). The merit of this suggestion is to imply that for Hegel both reality and the science adequate to know it are akin to the movement of Aristotle’s God, thereby relating Hegel’s thought to the preceding philosophical tradition through the concept of circularity. Regrettably, Taylor does not develop this topic further.
A slightly fuller, but still unfocused account of circularity is available in Stanley Rosen’s recent study.21 Like Taylor, Rosen notes that the Hegelian absolute is circular in virtue of its presuppositionlessness. But unfortunately, the nature of this fundamental Hegelian claim is not examined, nor does Rosen endeavor to bring together his scattered comments on circularity within the boundaries of a single, unified account.
In view of the relatively recent development of interest in Hegel within the English-language discussion, one ought not to make immoderate claims on its behalf. The European debate began earlier, during Hegel’s lifetime. But although continental scholars continue to maintain close contact with the sources of Hegel’s thought, and are often closer to the original texts, several examples will suffice to show that not enough has been done in even the continental discussion to understand Hegel’s doctrine of circularity.
There are only three works of which I am aware in the French-language Hegel discussion that even mention circularity. Hyppolite makes a single allusion to this concept, not in his masterly study of the Phenomenology but in a collection of studies on Marx and Hegel.22 More interesting is a series of allusions made by Alexandre Kojève in his well-known work on the Phenomenology.23 Hegel’s doctrine of circularity is described here as his single new epistemological element (287ff.). But the result is a vicious circle (468ff.), because of the impossibility of determining the end of history, which Kojève holds is Hegel’s aim, even if circularity is the sole criterion of truth (486ff.) and of philosophy (530ff.). From a very different perspective, Pierre-Jean Labarrière returns to this theme to understand the Phenomenology, whose specificity as a system depends on circularity.24
The German-language discussion of this concept is more frequent, but not necessarily more adequate. Theodor Litt suggests in passing that according to Hegel, philosophy is a circular process that realizes itself in the form of linear progress in time.25 Walter Schulz twice has attacked the circle as a fundamental aporia in Hegel’s system.26 He has been answered in part by Klaus Harlander, who suggests (incorrectly, I believe) that circularity has no decisive function in Hegel’s position.27 In a response to Fulda’s study, Horst Henning Ottmann draws a distinction between critical rationalism, hermeneutics which relies on circular reasoning, and Letzbegründung.28 In the course of his work, Ottmann often alludes to, but does not develop, the concept of circularity.
Others have given attention to the historical roots of Hegel’s view. In an excellent study of forms of thought, Hans Leisegang suggests that the origin of Hegel’s view of science as the circle of circles lies in Scotus Eriugena.29 Lacking is an indication of how or why Hegel’s thought is related to this source. More recently, Klaus Düsing has usefully drawn attention to the relation of Hegel’s doctrine of circularity to Fichte’s early thought, although he does not develop this point.30
With the exception of Ottmann, none of the writers mentioned so far in relation to the German-language discussion provides more than occasional mention of circularity in Hegel’s position. Two exceptions should now be discussed. W. R. Beyer has devoted a short monograph to the idea of circularity in the views of Hegel and Lenin.31 According to Beyer, both Hegel and Lenin defend reflection theories of knowledge [Abbild-Begriffe der Erkenntnis], which is surely false as concerns the former. Nor is it correct as regards Hegel that neither employs the image of the circle for systematic purposes. And it is further doubtful that Lenin’s own theory is merely a restatement of Hegel’s own concept of circularity in materialistic form.
As concerns Hegel’s position, the single most extensive discussion of circularity of which I am aware is Friedrich Kümmel’s study of Plato and Hegel.32 This book is part of a never-completed larger study of the problem of epistemological circularity. According to the author, the positive evaluation of the hermeneutic circle, which occurs only in the nineteenth century, rests on the more general problem, apprehended in various ways in the history of philosophy, of the relation of the part and the whole. This problem, which initially arose under the heading of the one and the many, must be resolved in order to overcome skepticism.
The book includes a historical introduction, followed by two nearly unrelated discussions, entitled respectively “The Platonic Diaeresis and Its Ontological Presuppositions” and “Hegel’s Dialectic of Freedom as Objective Mediation.” The discussion of Plato makes use of a single hint in the Philebus to consider the entire corpus, with special attention to the later dialogues. At 15 C, Plato suggests that the aporia in the relation of the one and the many must be transformed into a euporia. Kümmel in turn proposes that this passage can be linked to others, including one in the Theaetetus at 209 D-Ε, in which the question of specific difference is posed. He remarks in this connection: “This definition includes all the aspects of a positive grounding of knowledge which can be grasped only in connection with its possible aporia (and the circle itself as such is the central aporia of sophistic logic and dialectic).”33 But although it is possible to construe the Platonic concern with the problem of the one and the many as a form of epistemological circularity, it is far more likely that the latter doctrine is the consequence of centuries of philosophical meditation on the limitations of the Platonic view of knowledge.
Kümmel’s discussion of Hegel is intended to meet an objection raised by Schulz concerning the intrinsic dualism in Hegel’s thought. Following Schulz, Kümmel regards the question of critical reflection as Hegel’s central problem. More precisely, if the absolute subject is to preserve a relation to objective being, the manner of the relation needs to be understood if thought is not to move on the plane of an unthinkable reality or on the level of the emptiness of negative self-reflection. In response, Kümmel suggests that if Hegel does not provide an answer, he at least provides a framework for its successful formulation. In other words, according to Kümmel Hegel was aware of the problem, and there are resources adequate within his position to resolve the ambiguity to which Schulz refers.
The positive achievement of Kümmel’s book is that it represents an effort to provide a study of aspects of the concept of circularity in Hegel’s position. But in this respect, Kümmel’s discussion is at best a mere beginning. Like the authors of so many other works on Hegel, Kümmel confines himself mainly to sympathetic exposition of the texts. There is no attempt to understand Hegel’s doctrine of circularity against the historical background and within the framework of the system as a whole. Nor, finally, despite Kümmel’s expressed optimism about the resources of the position, is there any effort to meet the criticisms raised against it, especially Schulz’s point, which, although apparently conceded by Kümmel, is fatal to the position.
The modest intent of this chapter was not to furnish an analysis of Hegel’s doctrine of circularity but to begin to clear the way for this analysis to be carried out. It was necessary to provide an initial characterization of this concept, to survey its treatment in Hegel’s corpus, and to summarize its reception in the Hegel literature.
The results of this discussion can be stated quickly. It has been shown that circularity and linearity are alternative approaches, well represented within the history of philosophy, to justify claims to know. It further has been shown that Hegel appeals to circularity, which he understands by analogy with the geometrical figure, and rejects linearity, for the same epistemological purpose, in writings from all portions of his corpus. It finally has been shown that although this concept is mentioned in the Hegel literature, perhaps most often with respect to the Phenomenology, there is as yet no adequate study of it within the Hegelian position. Indeed, to strengthen this latter point, there is at present no detailed account either of Hegel’s view of circularity or of its role within his theory of knowledge, which is the topic of the present study.