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Hegel on Historical Meaning: For Example, The Enlightenment

  • Robert B Pippin (a1)


Reading the morning paper is a kind of realistic morning prayer

Hegel's best known treatment of the European Enlightenment (in his Phänomenologie des Geistes) singles out the problem of religious faith, or the new, modern struggle between insight and faith, between enlightenment and what its defenders saw as mere “superstition”.

This treatment is distinctive and on the face of it highly controversial. For one thing, while the topic is simply announced as die Aufklärung, Hegel makes no attempt at a comprehensive survey. Bacon, Swift, Smith and the British seem to play no discernable role; oddly, neither do Lessing or Mendelssohn or the German, “Berlin” Enlightenment. If there is a focus in these highly typological and categorial distinctions, it is clearly le siècle du lumière, not die Aufklärung or the Battle of the Books; if there is a representative figure, it is unquestionably Diderot; if there is a theme, it is ethical and broadly normative, not scientific or even political.



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1 Hegel, G W F, “Aphorismen aus der Jenenser Zeit,” no 31 in Dokumente zu Hegels Entwicklung, ed Hoffmeister, Johannes, 2nd ed (1936; repr Stuttgart-Bad Canstatt: Frommann, 1974), p 360 .

2 Hegel, G W F, Phänomenologie des Geistes, ed by Bonsiepen, Wolfgang and Heede, Reinhard (Volume 9 of the Gesammelte Werke, published by the Rheinisch-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenscahften) (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1980) (PhG hereafter), p 292 . All translations in the text are my own and will be followed by the page number of this edition, then the page number of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, trans by Miller, A V (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), (PhS hereafter) p 328 .

3 For a full and, I believe, accurate account of the “sociality of norms” and the importance of this theme in the Phenomenology of Spirit, see Pinkard, Terry, Hegel's Phenomenology (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1994).

4 PhG, p 18: PhS, p 10.

5 Hegel's own gloss on these claims: “What has just been said can be expressed by saying that Reason is purposive activity. [zwechmäßige Tun]. PhG, p 22. PhS, p 12. The importance of coming to terms in the right way with the meaning of his “substance as subject” framework can easily be underscored by noting its ubiquitous relevance to the Enlightenment discussion. The general framework for the analysis of all the various dualisms invoked by Hegel to account for the great instability in early modern European society – state power and wealth; Good and Bad; Noble and Ignoble; The Honest Consciousness and the Torn Apart (zerissene) consciousness; Faith and Pure Insight - is either explicitly an argument for the necessity that any reliance on some stable and external substantiality be understood as the work of subjectivity, or is likewise expressed in similar terms (like “essence” and “self-consciousness”)

6 PhG, p 297; PhS, p 334. Equally striking are his concluding remarks about faith and enlightenment: both agree that any putative Absolute cannot be predicated of, that it must be “unknown and unknowable.” Only the Enlightenment is “satisfied Enlightenment” thereby; faith “unsatisfied Enlightenment.” PhG, p 310; PhS, p 349.

7 “The Master is recognized by one whom he does not recognize”; Observing Reason's combination of “the high and the low” is like Nature's combination of the “organ of generation with the organ of urination”; or “The heartthrob for the welfare of humanity therefore passes into the ravings of an insane self-conceit”; or “The truth about this honesty however is that it is not as honest as it seems” and so forth.

8 This problem already plays a discernable role in Hegel's account of the nature of the conflict between “der Glaube” and “die reine Einsicht”. Faith is said only to “have” thoughts, not to “think” them, or does not know that they are thoughts; so, for his, rather unusual reason, its thinkings are “representings.” [“…hat das Bewußtsein nur diese Gedanken, aber es denkt sie noch nicht oder weiß nicht, daß es Gedanken sind; sondern sie sind fur es in der Form der Vorstellung.” PhG, p 286; PhS, p 321.

9 There are all sorts of good reasons for why this could not be the case. See Brandom, Robert, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), pp 626–7, and in general on the various fatal problems in what he calls “regularism.” How the latter is to be distinguished from his own “normative phenomenalism” is a problem the complexity of which is worthy of Hegel himself; and in fact is a Hegelian problem, like the ones addressed here with respect to the Enlightenment.

10 This Kantian ring is unmistakable in Hegel but admittedly is greatly complicated by a necessary concession. Hegel's account aspires to be historically phenomenological “all the way down” as it were. Any view about normativity and its conditions, even a putatively transcendental one, is itself a moment of the self-expression of Geist, an appearance or itself the result of a particular sort of conceptual change. It is itself concretely normative; the expression of a position we all ought (now) to believe and which Hegel can be entitled to believe only given the phenomenological account it, supposedly, itself justifies and makes necessary. For the moment, I would like to put that large meta-issue aside and concentrate on the account of normativity itself, however ultimately it is to be understood.

11 Hegel's ambitions are obviously greater. He obviously thinks that any of these moderate forms of historical rationality themselves must depend on some implicit telos, that the notions of better or sufficiency or really “farther” along than ancestors, at least implies that we presume to be understanding better what it is for us to improve on the past and transform the present. But we have enough of such a teleological framework to return briefly to the account of the Enlightenment.

12 PhG, p 284; PhS, p 318.

13 There is ample justification for focusing on this section in particular: “Die Sprache der Zerissenheit aber ist die vollkommene Sprache und der wahre existierende Geist dieser ganzen Welt der Bildung.” PhG, p 282; PhS, p 316.

14 PhG, p 286; PhS, p 320.

15 Ibid.

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Hegel Bulletin
  • ISSN: 2051-5367
  • EISSN: 2051-5375
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