Hegel 1803

On the Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, on its Place in Practical Philosophy,
and its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Right.[1]

Written: 1802-1803;
Translated: H. B. Nisbet, 1999;
Transcribed: Kwame Genov (youtube.com/kwamegenovv), 2017.

Table of Contents


It is true that the science of natural law, like other sciences such as mechanics and physics, has long been recognized as an essentially philosophical science and – since philosophy must have parts – as an essential part of philosophy.[2] But it has shared the fate of the other sciences in that the philosophical element in philosophy has been assigned exclusively to metaphysics, and the sciences have been allowed little share in it; instead, they have been kept completely independent of the Idea, within their own special principle. The sciences cited as examples have finally been compelled more or less to confess their remoteness from philosophy. They consequently acknowledge as their scientific principle what is commonly called experience, thereby renouncing their claim to be genuine sciences; they are content to consist of a collection of empirical knowledge [Kenntnisse] and to make use of the concepts of the understanding as postulates [bittweise], without claiming to make any objective assertion.[3] If whatever has called itself a philosophical science has been excluded from philosophy and from the category of science in general, at first against its will but in eventual acceptance of this situation, the reason for this exclusion is not that these so-called sciences did not originate in philosophy itself and did not maintain a conscious connection with it. For every part of philosophy is individually capable of being an independent science and attaining complete inner necessity, because it is the absolute which makes it a genuine science. In this shape, the absolute is the distinctive principle which stands above the sphere of that science’s cognition and freedom, and in relation to which the science partakes of an external necessity. But the Idea itself remains free from the determinacy and can reflect itself in this determinate science just as purely as absolute life expresses itself in every living thing – although the scientific element in such a science, or its inner rationality, does not come to light [within this science] in the pure form of the Idea, which is the essence of every science and exists [ist] as this pure Idea in philosophy, as the absolute science. Geometry furnishes a brilliant example, envied by the other sciences, of this distinctive [eigenen] yet free scientific development of a science. Nor is it [i.e. the reason why the sciences were excluded from philosophy] because sciences of the kind mentioned above must be denied all reality on the grounds that they are in fact empirical. For just as each part of aspect of philosophy is capable of being a self-sufficient science, so in consequence is each [of these sciences] also in an immediate sense [unmittelbar] a self-sufficient and complete image; and in the shape of an image, it can be registered and represented by a pure and felicitous intuition which avoids contamination by fixed concepts.

But the completion of a science demands not only that intuition and image be combined with the logical [dimension] and taken up into the purely ideal [realm]; the separate (though genuine) science must also be divested of its singularity [Einzelheit], and its principle must be recognized in its higher context and necessity and thereby itself be completely freed. Only by this means is it possible to recognize the limits of the science, and without this principle, the science must remain ignorant of its limits, because it would otherwise have to stand above itself and recognize in the absolute form the nature of its principle in its determinacy; for form this knowledge [Erkenntnis], it would directly obtain the knowledge and certainty of the extent to which its various determinacies were equal. But as matters stand, it can take only an empirical attitude towards its limits, and must at one moment make misplaced attempts to overcome them, and at another suppose them to be narrower than they are, and consequently experience quite unexpected enlargements [of its horizons], just as geometry (which is able to demonstrate, for example, the incommensurability of the diameter [i.e. diagonal] and side of a square, but not that of the diameter and circumference of a circle),*[4] or even more so arithmetic, and most of all the combination of the two, afford the greatest examples of science groping in the dark at its [outer] limits.

The critical philosophy has had the important negative effect on the theoretical sciences [firstly] of demonstrating that the scientific element within them is not something objective, but belongs to the intermediate realm between nothingness and reality, to am mixture of being and non-being, and [secondly] of inducing them to confess that they are [engaged] only in empirical conjecture [Meinen].[5] The positive effect of the critical philosophy has proved all the poorer from this point of view, and it has not succeeded in restoring these sciences to philosophy.[6] Conversely, it has placed the absolute wholly within practical philosophy, and in the latter [realm], it [i.e. the critical philosophy] is positive and dogmatic knowledge. We must regard the critical philosophy (which also describes itself as ‘transcendental idealism’) as the culminating point, both in a general sense and especially in natural law, of that opposition which – like rings on the surface of water which spread concentrically outwards from the point of disturbance until, in tiny movements, they love their connection with the center and become infinite – grew ever greater, from weaker beginnings in earlier scientific endeavors through the constraints of barbarism, until it came to understand itself in the critical philosophy by means of the absolute concept of infinity and, as infinity, is in turn superseded. Thus, the earlier ways of treating natural law, and what must be regarded as its various principles, must be denied all significance for the essential nature [das Wesen] of science. For although they are in [the realm of] opposition and negativity, they are not in [that of] absolute negativity or infinity, which alone is appropriate to science. On the contrary, they no more contain the purely positive than they do the purely negative, for they are mixtures of both. Only an interest based on curiosity concerning the history of science could swell on them, firstly in order to compare them with the absolute Idea and to perceive in their very deformation the necessity with which, distorted by a determinate principle, the moments of absolute form present themselves and, even under the aegis of a limited principle, nevertheless dominate these attempts [at self-representation] – and secondly, in order to see the empirical condition of the world reflected in the ideal mirror of science.

For as far as the second is concerned, it is indeed the case that both empirical existence [Dasein] and the condition of all the sciences will also express the condition of the world, given that all things are connected. But the condition of natural law will do so most directly [am nächsten], because natural law has immediate reference to the ethical [das Sittliche], the [prime] mover of all human things; and in so far as the science of the ethical has an existence [Dasein], natural law belongs to [the realm of] necessity. It must be at one with the ethical in its empirical shape, which is equally [grounded] in necessity, and, as a science, it must express this shape in the form of universality.[7]

As far as the first is concerned, the only true distinction that can be recognized as [constituting] the principle of a science is whether that science lies within the absolute, or outside absolute unity and [hence] in opposition. But in the latter case, it could not be a science at all unless its principle were some incomplete and relative unity, or the concept of a relation, even if this were only the empty abstraction of relation itself under the name of attractive force or the force of identity [des Einsseins]. Science whose principle is not a concept of relation, or is merely the empty force of identity, retain nothing ideal except the first ideal relation which differentiates the child from the world, namely the form of representational thought, in which such sciences present empirical qualities and can enumerate their variety; these would be described primarily as empirical sciences. But since practical sciences are by nature focused on something both real and universal, or on a unity which is a unity of differences, the feelings [Empfindungen] likewise, in practical empiricism, must embrace not pure qualities but relations, whether negative ones like the drive for self-preservation or positive ones like love and hate, sociability, and the like.[8] And the more scientific [kind of] empiricism is in general distinguished from this pure empiricism not by having relations rather than qualities as its object, but by fixing these relations in conceptual form and sticking to this negative absoluteness (though without separating this form of unity from its content). We shall call these the empirical sciences; and conversely, we shall describe as purely formal science that form of science in which the opposition [of form and content] is absolute, and pure unity (or infinity, the negative absolute) is completely divorced from the content and posited for itself.

Although we have thus identified a specific difference between the two inauthentic [unechten] ways of treating natural law scientifically – inasmuch as the principle of the first consists of relations and mixtures of empirical intuition with the universal, while that of the second is absolute opposition and absolute universality – it is nevertheless self-evident that the ingredients of both, namely empirical intuition and concept, are the same, and that formalism, as it moves from its pure negation to a [specific] content, can likewise arrive at nothing other than relations or relative identities; for the purely ideal, or the opposition, is posited as absolute, so that the absolute Idea and unity cannot be present. With the principle of absolute opposition or the absoluteness of the purely ideal, the absolute principle of empiricism is posited; thus, with reference to intuition, the syntheses – in so far as they are meant to have not just the negative meaning of canceling [der Aufhebung] of one side of the opposition, but also the positive meaning of intuition – represent only empirical intuitions.

In the first place, these two ways of treating natural law scientifically must be characterized more precisely, the first with reference to the manner in which the absolute Idea appears within it in accordance with the moments of absolute form, the second with regard to the way in which the infinite (or the negative absolute) vainly attempts to arrive at a positive organization. Our exposition of the latter attempt will lead directly to a consideration of the nature and relationship of the ethical sciences as philosophical sciences, and of their relationship to what is known as the positive science of right.[9] Although the latter holds itself apart from philosophy and, by voluntarily renouncing it, believes it can escape its criticism, it also claims to have an absolute subsistence and true reality; but this pretension is inadmissible.


1. On the Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law was published in Hegel’s and Schelling’s Critical Journal of Philosophy in two parts between December 1802 and May 1803. At the time, Hegel was an unknown thinker who, before assuming a teaching position at the University of Jena in 1801, had not actually written, let alone published, anything philosophical. By contrast, Schelling, Hegel’s old friend from his university days at Tübingen, had already won acclaim as a philosopher. Given their respective reputations, Hegel was perceived as the junior editor of the Critical Journal of Philosophy. Despite the difference in their achievements, they shared a common religious vision at this time. In fact, as H. S. Harris has observed (1985: pp. 252-3), the Critical Journal of Philosophy was established to disseminate that vision. For both thinkers, the vision included developing a new religio-philosophical theory of Sittlichkeit. For a detailed account of the Critical Journal of Philosophy as a philosophical enterprise, see Harris (1985).

2. The opening sentence is really a declaration. As will become evident in the essay, Hegel wishes to keep natural law within the domain of philosophy while, at the same time, giving philosophy a method that separates it from methodologies used in the natural sciences. Overall, his intention is to develop a philosophical framework for natural law in which the natural rights of individuals are de-emphasized in favor of the universal interest of society. Hyppolite (1996: p. 36) calls this an ‘organic’ conception of rights and (mistakenly, in our opinion) traces it to Romanticism.

3. Since at least 1793, Hegel had viewed the concept of ‘understanding’ with suspicion. Shortly after publishing On the Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, he confirmed that suspicion again in Faith and Knowledge, which was also published in the Critical Journal of Philosophy in 1802. In both of the essays, his point is that a philosophical science founded on understanding will never yield more than subjective ways of thinking.

* Note by Hegel. In the introduction to his Natural Law, Fichte prides himself somewhat on the simplicity of his insight into the reason for this latter incommensurability, declaring in all seriousness that curved is not [the same thing as] straight. The superficiality of this reason is self-evidence, and it is also directly refuted by the former incommensurability of the diameter [i.e. diagonal] and side of a square, both of which are straight lines, and by the quadrature of the parabola. As for the help which he seeks in the same context from ‘sound common sense’ in the face of the mathematical infinite, [arguing] that a polygon of infinitely many sides cannot be measured, precisely because it is a polygon of infinitely many sides, the same help should be available in dealing with the infinite progression in which the absolute Idea is supposed to be realized. Besides, this gives us no means of determining the main point at issue, namely whether positive infinity, which is not an infinite quantity but rather an identity, should be posited – which amounts to saying that nothing less has been determined with regard to either commensurability or incommensurability.

4. Hegel’s note refers to J. G. Fichte’s Grundlage des Naturrechts nach Prinzipien des Wissenschaftslehre (1796/97), which can be found in Fichte’s Werke, vol. 1/3 (Stuttgart, 1966). For our purposes, the most relevant sections are 14-16, pp. 425-60. This work has been translated into English as The Science of Rights.

5. In Faith and Knowledge it is made clear that ‘critical philosophy’ signifies a philosophy of understanding which is Kantian in nature.

6. It is, of course, Hegel’s task to restore ‘these sciences to philosophy.’ This will eventually involve moving the science of natural law from its Kantian base in Moralität to Hegelian Sittlichkeit.

7. The point of this complicated passage is to establish two successive foci for the study of natural law. Although both approaches to natural law are grounded in necessity, each operates in its own realm – in the empirical and the universal, respectively. The key, however, is to realize that the two realms derive from the same subject – from the particular and universal aspects of human nature. Hegel’s challenge in this essay is to redefine natural law so that the focus of natural-law thinking shifts from particularity to universality.

8. The reference to ‘relations’, and in the preceding sentence to the ‘science’ of such relations, allows Hegel to locate self-regarding and other-regarding drives in one and the same individual. As a result, love of self and love of others need not be formulated in terms of an opposition between the individual and society. A spectacular discussion of this theme can be found in Georg Simmel (1950: pp. 58-85).

9. Implicit in this paragraph s Hegel’s life-long commitment to the separation of Moralität and Sittlichkeit as philosophical ways of viewing man’s relationship to the world, and especially to his fellows. He associates the former with the ‘science of right’ and faults it for its inability to establish a ‘positive’ basis for the organization of communal life. The world ‘positive’ here should not, however, be confused with the critique of ‘positivity’ that Hegel develops in many of his other writings.