Posts Tagged ‘Hegel’

“Philosophy is the thinking spirit in world history.”

Hegel’s rejection of a doxographical approach to the history of philosophy is rejecting that the history of philosophy can be described as a summary of opinions. The history of philosophy can be said to have started with the doxographical work of Diogenes Laertius who wrote biographical work on Greek philosophers. It is specifically this approach that Hegel is arguing against. He argues that the history of philosophy should be taken logically and not chronologically.

Doxography is a collection of thoughts or Ideas and similar matters of past philosophers. Philosophy embodies the spirit of reason of the philosopher from which further ideas are developed. Philosophy aims to try to uncover the truth but philosophy is enriched in a historical perspective. Historical literature is a point of reference from that “which has at one time existed”. There cannot be a number of truths which are all true, truth is eternal and the philosophers of times past have all tried to establish truth through reason. This paradox is criticised by Hegel who claims that each philosopher is speaking in terms of their historical perspective, that is, they are embodying history.

Truth is not something established in philosophical literature, truth is an endless succession of philosophies claiming what they believe to be the truth. It is impossible to overcome the historical context in which philosophical literature is saturated. As such, we can look at philosophical literature in a new way.

The history of philosophy shows a succession of thought and reason which wholly speaks of Truth, reasoned knowledge and other matters. Personality and character are not of importance in the historical context for Hegel. For Hegel an Idea exists in and for itself. This essay aims at showing Hegel’s overcoming of the doxographical approach to the history of philosophy and discusses the various problems with studying the history of philosophy.

Hegel’s Philosophy of History is based on world history. Hegel thought that world history represents the development of consciousness, the development of spirit’s consciousness of its freedom and the actualisation produced by that consciousness.

Hegel believed that all historical developments have three basic characteristics. First, they follow a course that is necessary, that is, they could not have happened in any other way. To understand a historical development in any area of human thought or activity, we must see why it happened as it did. Second, each historical development represents not only change but also development. Third, Hegel argued that one phase of any historical development tends to be confronted and replaced by its opposite.

Through the literature of philosophy we can see an “unfolding” of spirit. He describes Ideas in philosophy as the “spinning” of one opinion out of another. An opinion is subjective and it is also universal. Philosophy contains no opinions. “Philosophy is the objective science of truth, it is science of necessity, conceiving knowledge and neither opinion nor the spinning out of opinions.” Hegel speaks of conviction being opinion. Personal conviction is the “ultimate and absolute essential which reason and its philosophy, from a subjective point of view, demand in knowledge.” He distinguishes conviction further in that it may rest on personal feelings, speculations and perceptions. These are purely subjective and Hegel sees them as opinions. Conviction can also refer to the particular nature of the subject, “and when it rests on thought proceeding from acquaintance with the Notion and nature of the thing.” In everyday life we create opinions but there is a matter of universality of those opinions in context. Hegel describes this is a matter of the universal categories of the spirit.

There is no question in one’s opinion, it is what it is, it is about the things which we find around us. “The universal spirit develops within itself in accordance with its own necessity; its opinion is simply the truth.” History considers singulars and philosophy considers universals.

Hegel’s view was that the world was in the process of development. The philosopher has thousand years of literature to draw from. This inevitably broadens ones world view and is seen clearly, or inconspicuously embedded in their thought and development. Ideas such as liberty and equality can be seen in philosophies developed during the French Revolution. Hegel saw the philosophers of the time embodying or being manifestations of the world spirit or the Absolute. There can only be one philosophy according to Hegel, we must consider the relation of different philosophies to the one philosophy. We can look at the development of the different aspects of the one philosophy, but in essence it is the one philosophy whether it speaks of God, nature, language or revolution. The different philosophies come into consciousness of themselves thus it is in succession and development out of one another. We can see how: “Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late… when philosophy points grey on grey then has a shape of life growing old. Philosophy grey on grey cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl on Minerva spreads its wings only with the telling of the dusk.”

Charles Taylor comments on Hegel: “Contemporaries…earn a right to enter the dialogue because they happen to offer good formulations of one or another position which is worthy of a hearing.” He says that philosophy and the history of philosophy is one and the same thing, as believed by Hegel. You cannot do philosophy without doing the second. “It is essential to an adequate understanding of certain problems, questions, issues, that one understands them genetically.”

By doing philosophy, we inevitably recover previous philosophies, “precisely the ones we need to give an account of the origins of our present thoughts, beliefs, assumptions and actions.”

Hegel gives a coherent narrative to a historical approach to the history of philosophy although it may not be legitimate. Hegel gives structure to the history of philosophy and connects philosophy and the history of philosophy. He also speaks of who to include in the history of philosophy. However, Hegel has been criticised as being too deterministic and too formulistic. His system was viewed as being the “end” both of history and of philosophy. There is no possibility of going back to material in historical texts for they are redundant. We have evolved from them and if they were fundamentally wrong, they do not qualify as Reason for it is only through Reason that we can try to uncover Truth. Hegel is also criticised as being too dependent on the notion of spirit.

In Coppleston’s On the History of Philosophy, we see a description of “outstanding” philosophers whose succession may be unnecessary for the description of their philosophy. This does not have an impact on individual’s living outside of the thinker’s age or culture. Coppleston suggests it is because such thinkers expressed possible ways of seeing the world and man’s place in it and it is not relevant to individuals living outside it. Hegel described the end of history as the final reconciliation of the Idea with its self, that is, that the history that knows its self. History is understood by Hegel as the movement of spirit toward the attainment of self-consciousness. To comprehend world history as a progress of the consciousness of spirit, it is necessary to get at a conceptual grasp of the three constitutive elements, that of Idea of spirit; the means of actualization; the state as the final and perfect embodiment of spirit. Reason guides history and is singular. Reason is a humanistic approach and the “divine element of man”. Philosophy is reason apprehending itself in thinking, bringing itself into consciousness so that it becomes an object in itself or knows itself in the form of thought. There is only one way of thinking, one reason and therefore one philosophy. He comments on a lot of attempts of philosophy being insignificant in the whole of philosophy, as there are few thinkers who truly philosophize and are worthy of mention.

Philosophy at one time had been religiously orientated. This religious orientation has an impact on our understanding of truth and we must make the distinction between religion and philosophy. That being said, it is incredibly difficult to define religion. The fact that a document is considered “religious” is irrelevant if it presents a conclusion to a philosophical argument it is necessary. We can define what is “religiously oriented philosophy” which is essentially philosophy and “religious beliefs which are the expression of faith” resting on what is deemed to be “divine revelation.” This is inconsistent as the historian respects the ideas of philosophy current at the time at which he is writing. The parting of mathematics from philosophy has not brought about the failure of mathematics; in fact it is nothing of the sort. As such, history for Hegel must be separated from philosophy, not to say that the historian cannot account for philosophy. The subject-matter of the historian of philosophy should be the historical development of philosophical thought. This implies that the doxographical approach is defective rather than valueless. The reference to philosopher’s intentions may be relevant to understanding their thought, although culture and personal details of their lives are not necessarily the best depictions of their intentions. If we look at De Beauvoir and Sartre – their personal lives have no ground for undermining their philosophical thought, especially De Beauvoir’s work on feminist theory. Kierkegaard attacked the Hegelian system of philosophy but that does not mean he is not a philosopher. Likewise, we do not need to know anything about Wittgenstein to read and evaluate his Tractatus, nor Spinoza’s Ethics. However the historical situation of the philosophers can be considered. The French enlightenment period and the French revolution have been linked. We can see conflicts between scientific and religions approaches in philosophical literature in the middle ages, but we do so in a prolonged manner. We can argue back and forth in an endless discussion. Take for example Descartes – he has been said to develop traditional concepts, however he gave them new meaning. An “ideal history” may reveal all the factors relevant to the development of philosophy but it is at the historian’s discretion. The historian is free to interpret what is relevant in our understanding of philosophical literature which is itself determined by the historical perspective. The historian chooses what is important enough and Hegel remarks that only a certain number of philosophers argue their point to be worthy of inclusion in the “succession of noble minds” that add up to what is philosophy. Hegel himself is an integral part of a philosophical movement taking this approach; that of absolute idealism. Diogenes Laertius chose to include anecdotes and stories of philosophers, stating various opinions of philosophers relying on secondary sources for information and interpretation. This for Hegel does not constitute the history of philosophy. Hegel claims that there is no past in philosophy, only present. Those who adhered to this was worthy of mention for Hegel. Descartes was mentioned in the history of philosophy. It can be said that it was his rejection of past philosophies that enabled this. There is no consensus about philosophies past and future accomplishments.

The “endless conversation” of philosophy helps us approach philosophy in an exciting way. Hegel clearly makes the distinction between philosophy and the philosophy of history. It makes philosophy a worthwhile discipline essential for development of human reason. He may be too deterministic in his approach but its merits outweigh its shortcomings. Philosophy being concerned with Thought which comprehends itself is concrete and is the self-comprehension of Reason. Reason tries to give existence a further determinacy. The concrete conceptions of reason transcend thought to philosophy, whereas opinions do not necessarily make it through this process and therefore do not merit mention in philosophy. This enables philosophy to rise above the history of philosophy as the history of philosophy discards nothing and is concerned with opinions. What it states at the beginning is still taken into account at the present; therefore it is nothing more than noting the succession of opinions of man. The history of philosophy is no less concerned with the present than the past.

We can take no interest in what is “dead and gone,” but we must understand what motivates the human spirit because without it there would be no discipline. Every philosophy must have appeared out of necessity. “All of them have comprehended the spirit of their own time in thought.”  Therefore earlier philosophies are unrepeated but we can see the “spinning” out of one Idea from another. Philosophy is not the succession of these ideas but the overall spirit of necessity of development – every philosophy is at least philosophy. We will see them as being very different to one another but the truth in them is the one in all of them. When we look in more detail we will see the merits in them but the differences arise by putting them in opposition to one another. Man consists of both universal and particular, thought and feeling. Truth is in both but they appear one after another in opposition to one another. We need to identify the principles of philosophical systems and to realise that each principle is necessary – because it is necessary it arises in its time as the highest principle. As such, the earlier principle is only an ingredient in the newer and further determined principle but it is not discarded, it is taken up into the new one. Whatever advances in Reason simply advances in Reason’s unity. Past or historical material is redundant, for we have developed from them. Hegel does not state that the study of history is of any less importance as studying any other discipline. If we are to study the history of philosophy in a meaningful way, we must be supportive of philosophy in understanding the development of the position of philosophical argument. Truth lies not in knowledge but in “presenting it with our own spirit.” It is only through thought that we can get an understanding of what is meant by Truth.


  • Coppleston, F. On the History of Philosophy, Search Press Ltd. London, 1979
  • Hegel, G. Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy, trans. T. M. Knox and A. V.
  • Miller, Oxford University Press, New York, 1985.
  • Hegel, G. Philosophy of Right. Oxford University Press, New York, trans. T. M. Knox. 1967
  • Houlgate, S. The Hegel Reader, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Oxford, 1998
  • Kelley D. R. History and/or Philosophy, in J. B. Schneewind (ed.), Teaching New Histories of Philosophy (Princeton N. J.: University Centre for Human Values, 2004), 345–59.
  • Lepenies W. Interesting Questions in the History of Philosophy and elsewhere, Philosophy in History: Essays on the historiography of philosophy, ed. Rorty, Schreewind and Skinner, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1984 p. 141-171.
  • Lewis, J. History of Philosophy, English Universities Press, London, 1962.
  • Mash, R. How Important for Philosophers is the History of Philosophy? History and Theory, Vol. 26, No. 3 Oct., 1987, pp. 287-299.
  • Taylor, C. Philosophy and its History, Philosophy in History: Essays on the historiography of philosophy, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1984. p. 17-48.

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