Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy


THERE are various aspects under which the History of Philosophy may possess interest. We shall find the central point of this interest in the essential connection existing between what is apparently past and the present stage reached by Philosophy. That this connection is not one of the external considerations which may be taken into account in the history of Philosophy, but really expresses its inner character: that the events of this history, while they perpetuate themselves in their effects like all other events, yet produce their results in a special way-this it is which is here to be more clearly expounded.

What the history of Philosophy shows us is a succession of noble minds, a gallery of heroes of thought, who, by the power of Reason, have penetrated into the being of things, of nature and of spirit, into the Being of God, and have won for us by their labours the highest treasure, the treasure of reasoned knowledge.

The events and actions of this history are therefore such that personality and individual character do not enter to any large degree into its content and matter. In this respect the history of Philosophy contrasts with political history, in which the individual, according to the peculiarity of his disposition, talents, affections, the strength or weakness of his character, and in general, according to that through which he is this individual, is the subject of actions and events. In Philosophy, the less deserts and merits are accorded to the particular individual, the better is the history; and the more it deals with thought as free, with the universal character of man as man, the more this thought, which is devoid of special characteristic, is itself shown to be the producing subject.

The acts of thought appear at first to be a matter of history, and, therefore, things of the past and outside our real existence. But in reality we are what we are through history: or, more accurately, as in the history of Thought, what has passed away is only one side, so in the present, what we have as a permanent possession is essentially bound up with our place in history. The possession of self-conscious reason, which belongs to us of the present world, did not arise suddenly, nor did it grow only from the soil of the present. This possession must be regarded as previously present, as an inheritance, and as the result of labour-the labour of all past generations of men. Just as the arts of outward life, the accumulated skill and invention, the customs and arrangements of social and political life, are the result of the thought, care, and needs, of the want and the misery, of the ingenuity, the plans and achievements of those who preceded us in history, so, likewise, in science, and specially in Philosophy, do we owe what we are to the tradition which, as Herder has put it (1) like a holy chain, runs through all that was transient, and has therefore passed away. Thus has been preserved and transmitted to us what antiquity produced.

But this tradition is not only a stewardess who simply guards faithfully that which she has received, and thus delivers it unchanged to posterity, just as the course of nature in the infinite change and activity of its forms ever remains constant to its original laws and makes no step in advance. Such tradition is no motionless statue, but is alive, and swells like a mighty river, which increases in size the further it advances from its source. The content of this tradition is that which the intellectual world has brought forth, and the universal Mind does not remain stationary. But it is just the universal kind with which we have to do. It may certainly be the case with a single nation that its culture, art, science-its intellectual activities as a whole-are at a standstill. This appears, perhaps, to be the case with the Chinese, for example, who may have been as far advanced in every respect two thousand years ago as now. But the world-spirit does not sink into this rest of indifference; this follows from its very nature, for its activity, is its life. This activity presupposes a material already present, on which it acts, and which it does not merely augment by the addition of new matter, but completely fashions and transforms. Thus that which each generation has produced in science and in intellectual activity, is an heirloom to which all the past generations have added their savings, a temple in which all races of men thankfully and cheerfully deposit that which rendered aid to them through life, and which they had won from the depths of Nature and of Mind. To receive this inheritance is also to enter upon its use. It constitutes the soul of each successive generation, the intellectual substance of the time; its principles, prejudices, and possessions; and this legacy is degraded to a material which becomes metamorphosed by Mind. In this manner that which is received is changed, and the material worked upon is both enriched and preserved at the same time.

This is the function of our own and of every age: to grasp the knowledge which is already existing, to make it our own, and in so doing to develop it still further and to raise it to a higher level. In thus appropriating it to ourselves we make it into something different from what it was before. On the presupposition of an already existing intellectual world which is transformed in our appropriation of it, depends the fact that Philosophy can only arise in connection with previous Philosophy, from which of necessity it has arisen. The course of history does not show us the Becoming of things foreign to us, but the Becoming of ourselves and of our own knowledge.

The ideas and questions which may be present to our mind regarding the character and ends of the history of Philosophy, depend on the nature of the relationship here given. In this lies the explanation of the fact that the study of the history of Philosophy is an introduction to Philosophy itself. The guiding principles for the formation of this history are given in this fact, the further discussion of which must thus be the main object of this introduction. We must also, however, keep in mind, as being of fundamental importance, the conception of the aim of Philosophy. And since, as already mentioned, the systematic exposition of this conception cannot here find a place, such discussion as we can now undertake, can only propose to deal with the subject provisionally and not to give a thorough and conclusive account of the nature of the Becoming of Philosophy.

This Becoming is not merely a passive movement, as we suppose movements such as those of the sun and moon to be. It is no mere movement in the unresisting medium of space and time. What we must represent to ourselves is the activity of free thought; we have to present the history of the world of thought as it has arisen and produced itself.

There is an old tradition that it is the faculty of thought which separates men from beasts; and to this tradition we shall adhere. In accordance with this, what man has, as being nobler than a beast, he has through thinking. Everything which is human, however it may appear, is so only because the thought contained in it works and has worked. But thought, although it is thus the essential, substantial, and effectual, has many other elements. We must, however, consider it best when Thought does not pursue anything else, but is occupied only with itself - with what is noblest - when it has sought and found itself. The history which we have before us is the history of Thought finding itself, and it is the case with Thought that it only finds itself in producing itself; indeed, that it only exists and is actual in finding itself. These productions are the philosophic systems; and the series of discoveries on which Thought sets out in order to discover itself, forms a work which has lasted twenty-five hundred years.

If the Thought which is essentially Thought, is in and for itself and eternal, and that which is true is contained in Thought alone, how, then, does this intellectual world come to have a history? In history what appears is transient, has disappeared in the night of the past and is no more. But true, necessary thought - and it is only with such that we have to do - is capable of no change. The question here raised constitutes one of those matters first to be brought under our consideration. But in the second place, there are also many most important things outside of Philosophy, which are yet the work of Thought, and which are left unconsidered. Such are Religion, Political History, forms of Government, and the Arts and Sciences. The question arises as to how these operations differ from the subject of consideration, and how they are related in history? As regards these two points of view, it is desirable to show in what sense the history of Philosophy is here taken, in order to see clearly what we are about. Moreover, in the third place, we must first take a general survey before we descend to particulars, else the whole is not seen for the mere details-the wood is not seen for the trees, nor Philosophy for mere philosophies. We require to have a general idea of the nature and aim of the whole in order to know what to look for. Just as we first desire to obtain a general idea of a country, which we should no longer see in going into detail, so we desire to see the relation which single philosophies bear to the whole; for in reality, the high value of the detail lies in its relation to the whole. This is nowhere more the case than with Philosophy, and also with its history. In the case of a history, indeed, the establishment of the Universal seems to be less needful than in that of one of the sciences proper. For history seems at first to be a succession of chance events, in which each fact stands isolated by itself, which has Time alone as a connecting-link. But even in political history we are not satisfied with this. We see, or at least divine in it, that essential connection in which the individual events have their place and relation to an end or aim, and in this way obtain significance. For the significant in history is such only through its relation to and connection with a Universal. To perceive this Universal is thus to apprehend the significance.

There are, therefore, the following points with which I wish to deal in this introduction.

The first of these will be to investigate the character of the history of Philosophy, its significance, its nature, and its aim, from which will follow inferences as to its treatment. In particular, we shall get an insight into the relation of the history of Philosophy to the science of Philosophy, and this will be the most interesting point of all. That is to say, this history represents, not merely the external, accidental, events contained within it, but it shows how the content, or that which appears to belong to mere history, really belongs to the science of Philosophy. The history of Philosophy is itself scientific, and thus essentially becomes the science of Philosophy.

In the second place, the Notion of Philosophy must be more adequately determined, and from it must be deduced what should be excluded from the history of Philosophy out of the infinite material and the manifold aspects of the intellectual culture of the nations. Religion, certainly, and the thoughts contained in and regarding it, particularly when these are in the form of mythology, are, on account of their matter, and the sciences with their ideas on the state, duties and laws, on account of their form, so near Philosophy that the history of the science of Philosophy threatens to become quite indefinite in extent. It might be supposed that the history of Philosophy should take account of all these ideas. Has not everything been called Philosophy and philosophising? On the one hand, the close connection has to be further considered in which Philosophy stands with its allied subjects, religion, art, the other sciences, and likewise with political history. On the other hand, when the province of Philosophy has been correctly defined, we reach, with the determination of what Philosophy is and what pertains to it, the starting-point of its history, which must be distinguished from the commencements of religious ideas and mere thoughtful conjectures.

From the idea of the subject which is contained in these first two points of view, it is necessary to pass on to the consideration of the third point, to the general review of this history and to the division of its progress into natural periods-such an arrangement to exhibit it as an organic, progressive whole, as a rational connection through which this history attains the dignity of a science. And I will not occupy further space with reflections on the use of the history of Philosophy, and other methods of treating it. The use is evident. But, in conclusion, I wish to consider the sources of the history of Philosophy, for this is customary.

Introduction to the History of Philosophy (Quentin Lauer translation)
A. Notion of the History of Philosophy (next section) — Contents

1.  Zur Philosophie und Geschichte.  Pt. V pp. 184-186.  (Edition of 1828, in 12 vols.)

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