Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy

Prefatory Note

IN the History of Philosophy the observation is immediately forced upon us that it certainly presents great interest if its subject is regarded from a favourable point of view, but that it would still possess interest even if its end were regarded as opposite to what it is. Indeed, this interest may seem to increase in the degree in which the ordinary conception of Philosophy, and of the end which its history serves, is reversed; for from the History of Philosophy a proof of the futility of the science is mainly derived.

The demand that a history, whatever the subject may be, should state the facts without prejudice and without any particular object or end to be gained by its means, must be regarded as a fair one. But with a commonplace demand like this, we do not get far; for the history of a subject is necessarily intimately connected with the conception which is formed of it. In accordance with this what is important in it is determined, and the relation of the events to the end regulated the selection of facts to be recorded, the mode of comprehending them, and the point of view under which they are regarded. It may happen from the ideas formed of what a State really is, that a reader of the political history of a country may find therein nothing of what he looks for. Still more may this be the case in the history of Philosophy, and representations of this history may be instanced in which everything, excepting what was supposed to be Philosophy, appears to be found.

In other histories we have a clear conception of their subjects, at least so far as their principal points are concerned; we know whether they concern a particular land, people or race, or whether their subject is the science of mathematics, physics, &c., or an art, such as painting. The science of Philosophy has, however, this distinguishing feature, and, if you will, this disadvantage as compared with other sciences, that we find the most varied points of view as regards its Notion, and regarding that which it ought to and can accomplish. If this first assumption, the conception of the subject of the history, is not established, the history itself is necessarily made vacillating, and it only obtains consistency when it sets forth a definite conception but then in view of the various ways of regarding its subject, it easily draws upon itself the reproach of one-sidedness.

That drawback relates, however, only to an external consideration of this narrative; there is another and greater disadvantage allied to it. If there are different Notions of the science of Philosophy, it is the true Notion alone that puts us in a position to understand the writings of philosophers who have worked in the knowledge of it. For in thought, and particularly in speculative thought, comprehension means something quite different from understanding the grammatical sense of the words alone, and also from understanding them in the region of ordinary conception only. Hence we may possess a knowledge of the assertions, propositions, or of the opinions of philosophers; we may have occupied ourselves largely with the grounds of and deductions from these opinions, and the main point in all that we have done may be wanting-the comprehension of the propositions. There is hence no lack of voluminous and even learned histories of Philosophy in which the knowledge of the matter itself about which so much ado has been made, is absent. The authors of such histories may be compared to animals which have listened to all the tones in some music, but to whose senses the unison, the harmony of their tones, has not penetrated.

The circumstance mentioned makes it in no science so necessary as in the history of Philosophy to commence with an Introduction, and in it correctly to define, in the first place, the subject of the history about to be related. For it may be said, How should we begin to treat a subject, the name of which is certainly mentioned often enough, but of whose nature we as yet know nothing? In treating the history of Philosophy thus, we could have no other guidance than that of seeking out and taking up whatever has received the name of Philosophy, anywhere or any time. But in fact, when the Notion of Philosophy is established, not arbitrarily but in a scientific way, such treatment becomes the science of Philosophy itself. For in this science the peculiar characteristic is that its Notion forms the beginning in appearance merely, and it is only the whole treatment of the science that is the proof, and indeed we may say the finding of its Notion; and this is really a result of that treatment.

In this Introduction the Notion of the science of Philosophy, of the subject of its history, has thus likewise to be set forth. At the same time, though this Introduction professes to relate to the history of Philosophy only, what has just been said of Philosophy on the whole, also holds good. What can be said in this Introduction is not so much something which may be stated beforehand, as what can be justified or proved in the treatment of the history. These preparatory explanations are for this reason only, not to be placed in the category of arbitrary assumptions. But to begin with stating what in their justification are really results, can only have the interest which may be possessed by a summary, given in advance, of the most general contents of a science. It must serve to set aside many questions and demands which might, from our ordinary prejudices, arise in such a history.

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