Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy

Section Two: Period of the Thinking Understanding
Chapter II. — Transition Period

The Germans were at this time quietly drifting along in their Leibnitzo-Wolffian philosophy, in its definitions, axioms and proofs. Then they were gradually breathed upon by the spirit of foreign lands, they made acquaintance with all the developments which there came to pass, and took very kindly to the empiricism of Locke; on the other hand they at the same time laid aside metaphysical investigations, turned their attention to the question of how truths can be grasped by the healthy human understanding, and plunged into the Aufklärung and into the consideration of the utility of all things - a point of view which they adopted from the French. Utility as the essence of existent things signifies that they are determined as not being in themselves, but for another: this is a necessary moment, but not the only one. The German Aufklärung warred against ideas, with the principle of utility as its weapon. Philosophic investigations on this subject had degenerated into a feeble popular treatment of it which was incapable of going deeper; they displayed a rigid pedantry and an earnestness of the understanding, but were unspiritual. The Germans are busy bees who do justice to all nations, they are old-clothesmen for whom anything is good enough, and who carry on their haggling with everyone. Picked up as it was from foreign nations, all this had lost the wit and life, the energy and originality which with the French had made the content to be lost sight of in the form. The Germans, who honestly sift a matter to its root, and who would put rational arguments in the place of wit and vivacity, since wit and vivacity really prove nothing, in this way reached a content which was utterly empty, so much so that nothing could be more wearisome than this profound mode of treatment; such was the case with Eberhard, Tetens, and those like them.

Others, like Nicolai, Sulzer and their fellows, were excellent in their speculations on questions of taste and the liberal sciences; for literature and art were also to flourish among the Germans. But with all this they only arrived at a most trivial treatment of æsthetics - Lessing(1) called it shallow chatter. As a matter of fact, indeed, the poems of Gellert, Weisse and Lessing sank almost, if not quite as much into the same poetic feebleness. Moreover, previous to the philosophy of Kant, the general principle was really the theory of happiness, which we have already met with in the philosophy of the Cyrenaics (Vol. I. p. 477), and the point of view of pleasant or unpleasant sensations held good among the philosophers of that time as an ultimate and essential determination. Of this manner of philosophizing I will quote an example which Nicolai gives in the account of a conversation which he had with Mendelssohn: what is in question is the pleasure in tragic subjects which is held to be awakened even by means of the unpleasant emotions depicted in a tragedy:

HERR MOSES. "The power of having an inclination for perfections and of shunning imperfections is a reality. Therefore the exercise of this power brings a pleasure with it, which, however, is in nature comparatively less than the displeasure which arises from the contemplation of the object.

I. Yet even then, when the violence of passion causes us unpleasant sensations, the movement (what else is this movement than the power of loving perfections, &c.?) which it brings with it has still delights for us. It is the strength of the movement which we enjoy, even in spite of the painful sensations which oppose what is pleasant in the passion, and in a short time obtain the victory.

HERR MOSES. In a stage play, on the contrary, as the imperfect object is absent, pleasure must gain the upper hand and eclipse the small degree of displeasure.

I. A passion therefore which is not followed by these results must be altogether pleasant. Of this sort are the imitations of the passions which the tragedy affords."(2)

With such vapid and meaningless drivel they rambled on. In addition to these, the eternity of punishment in hell, the salvation of the heathen, the difference between uprightness and godliness, were philosophic matters on which much labour was expended among the Germans, while the French troubled themselves little about them. Finite determinations were made to hold good against the infinite; against the Trinity it was asserted that One cannot be Three; against original sin, that each must bear his own guilt, must have done his own deeds of himself, and must answer for them; in the same way against redemption, that another cannot take upon himself punishment that is due; against forgiveness of sin, that what is done cannot be rendered undone; to sum up generally, the incommensurability of the human nature with the divine. On the one side we see healthy human understanding, experience, facts of consciousness, but on the other side there was still in vogue the Wolffian metaphysics of the dry, dead understanding; thus we see Mendelssohn take his stand by the healthy human understanding, and make it his rule.

Some movement was brought into this authority, which had settled into perfect peace and security and let no dreams of other matters cross its path, by the chance dispute of Mendelssohn with Jacobi, first as to whether Lessing had been a disciple of Spinoza, and then regarding the doctrines of Spinoza himself. On this occasion it came to light how much Spinoza was really forgotten, and in what horror Spinozism was held. But while Jacobi in this way once more unexpectedly brought to remembrance in connection with Spinozism a quite different content of philosophy, faith, i.e., the simply immediate certainty of external, finite things, as well as of the divine (which faith in the divine he called reason) was certainly placed by him, as an independent thinker, in opposition to mediating knowledge, which he apprehended as mere understanding. This continued until Kant gave a new impulse in Germany to philosophy, which had died out in the rest of Europe.

As far as the transition to modern German philosophy is concerned, it is from Hume and Rousseau, as we have said (pp. 369, 374, 402), that it took its start. Descartes opposes extension to thought, as what is simply one with itself. He is charged with dualism, but, like Spinoza and Leibnitz, he did away with the independence of the two sides, and made supreme their unity, God. But, as this unity, God is first of all only the Third; and He is further determined in such a way that no determination pertains to Him. Wolff's understanding of the finite, his school metaphysics generally, his science of the understanding, and his divergence into the observation of nature, after it has grown strong in its conformity with law and in its finite knowledge, turns against the infinite and the concrete determinations of religion, and comes to a standstill with abstractions in his theologia naturalis; for the determinate is his domain. But from this time an utterly different point of view is introduced. The infinite is transported into abstraction or incomprehensibility. This is an incomprehensible position to adopt. Nowadays it is looked on as most pious, most justifiable. But as we see the third, the unity of difference, defined as something which cannot be thought or known, this unity is not one of thought, for it is above all thought, and God is not simply thought. Nevertheless this unity is defined as the absolutely concrete, i.e., as the unity of thought and Being. Now we have come so far that this unity is a unity simply in thought, and pertaining to consciousness, so that the objectivity of thought - reason - comes forth as One and All. This is dimly conceived by the French. Whether the highest Being, this Being divested of all determination, is elevated above nature, or whether nature or matter is the highest unity, there is always present the establishing of something concrete, which at the same time belongs to thought. Since the liberty of man has been set up as an absolutely ultimate principle, thought itself has been set up as a principle. The principle of liberty is not only in thought but the root of thought; this principle of liberty is also something in itself concrete, at least in principle it is implicitly concrete. Thus far have general culture and philosophic culture advanced. Since what is knowable has now been placed entirely within the sphere of consciousness, and since the liberty of the spirit has been apprehended as absolute, this may be understood to mean that knowledge has entered altogether into the realm of the finite. The standpoint of the finite was at the same time taken as ultimate, and God as a Beyond outside consciousness; duties, rights, knowledge of nature, are finite. Man has thereby formed for himself a kingdom of truth, from which God is excluded; it is the kingdom of finite truth. The form of finitude may here be termed the subjective form; liberty, self-consciousness [Ichheit] of the mind, known as the absolute, is essentially subjective - in fact it is the subjectivity of thought. The more the human reason has grasped itself in itself, the more has it come down from God and the more has it increased the field of the finite. Reason is One and All, which is at the same time the totality of the finite; reason under these conditions is finite knowledge and knowledge of the finite. The question is, since it is this concrete that is established (and not metaphysical abstractions), how it constitutes itself in itself; and then, how it returns to objectivity, or abrogates its subjectivity, i.e., how by means of thought God is to be again brought about, who at an earlier time and at the beginning of this period was recognized as alone the true. This is what we have to consider in the last period, in dealing with Kant, Fichte, and Schelling.


1. Sämmtliche Schriften, Vol. XXXIX. (Berlin u. Stettin, 1828), pp. 111, 112.
2. Lessing's Sämmtliche Schriften, Vol. XXIX. pp. 122, 123.

Hegel-by-HyperText Home Page @ marxists.org