As to the Question of System in Hegel

1. Hegel’s Encyclopaedia is the archetype of a philosophical system. It is a single whole, and in his own words a “circle of circles” and he refers to it as “philosophy.” Although it has parts, at whatever level of analysis, the parts are always the moments of a concept of the whole, from the work as a whole, down to each of the 800-odd numbered paragraphs.

2. The Encyclopaedia changes over time. Its first complete elaboration was published in 1817, but its general form is first seen in his 1808 Philosophical Propadeutic, lecture notes made while Rector at the Gymnasium at Nuremburg. The third course for the upper class given as (1) the Logic and (2) the Encyclopaedia. From 1808 to 1830, the Encyclopaedia evolves, but already in 1808, its basic outlines were clearly marked out. The Science of Logic, an exhaustive exposition of the Logic was published in three books during 1812-1816.

3. The system evolved from Hegel’s first attempt to produce a system in Jena in 1802 with the System of Ethical Life. This work has three phases: Absolute Ethical Life, The Negative of Freedom and Ethical Life. Already we see the basic triadic form of a single concept, Ethical Life. The work is an exposition of how concept and intuition can each in turn subsume the other – clearly an attempt to formulate a holist philosophy and break from the parts of philosophy which had persisted since antiquity: Theology, Logic, Natural Philosophy, Epistemology and Ontology, which had formerly been seen as distinct disciplines.

4. The second attempt was the Philosophy of Spirit, delivered as a series of lectures in Jena. This work was unified by the concept of Recognition. Throughout his life, Hegel also wrote polemical and political articles of various kinds which are outside the framework of his philosophical system.

5. In 1807, Hegel published his first work, The Phenomenology of Spirit, which he intended as an introduction to his soon-to-be-published system of philosophy. It cleverly introduced his philosophy by charting the path whereby humanity in fact has come to philosophy: first as a naïve person who begins to reflect about philosophy, secondly through our historical construction of objective thought forms, i.e., constitutions or ethical ways of life, and thirdly through religious attempts to grasp the whole. In itself, though the works has a structure, it is a very chaotic structure and has the form of a progress towards philosophy, not a system in itself.

6. All of Hegel’s books were published with a Preface and/or Introduction which is clearly distinct from the system which makes up the body of the work. Its function is to lead the reader into the work and prepare him or her to grasp the systemic whole which is to follow. The typical Hegel book is: Preface, Introduction. Immediate part; Negative part; Absolute part. The Phenomenology has its own Preface, but the work is also itself a Preface, and not part of the system itself.

7. When the Encyclopaedia was eventually published, and as remained the case in further editions, a new Introduction replaced the Phenomenology, written more than a decade earlier. This introduction is structured, but again, not a system as such. It says, after a short introduction, that hitherto philosophy has at first failed to see a subject-object relation at all, then had either claimed that the relation between subject and object is mediated, or that the relation between subject and object is immediate. In fact, according to Hegel, the relation between subject and object is both mediated and immediate. This is a mature characterisation of the history of philosophy, dealt with somewhat chaotically in the earlier work.

8. It is not surprising that there never was a second edition or even a second printing of the Phenomenology, or any of his earlier works, as they were simply steps along the road to the writing of the Encyclopaedia, and the various self-standing works that “spun off” from the Encyclopaedia later on, and his Philosophy of History and his History of Philosophy made the content of the Phenomenology of Spirit redundant. He saw all his earlier works, including the Phenomenology, as of historical interest only.

9. By the time of Hegel’s death, the possibility of developing the sciences through successive versions of an Encyclopaedia were over. Science could only progress through the independent labours of thousands of investigations, each pursuing a special problem. Only perhaps a century later would it become possible for new systematic expositions of science be conceivable. Criticism of writers of this period need to take this into account and cannot be judged by the standard of Hegel.

10. Systematicity has a particular form in Hegel’s philosophy. This systematicity is exhibited in the Logic and explained in the penultimate section of the Logic on cognition. A science begins with some phenomenon which is generally apprehended by natural consciousness as some kind of abstraction such as Being, Space, Freedom, Art, etc. The introductory phase of the science is to clarify this abstraction by critical analysis. The aim of this introductory analytical phase is to identify the One, a concrete simple something, the germ cell, which is given to natural cognition but is determinate and concrete, i.e., internally contradictory, such as the One, the Point, Private Property or a work of art, etc. This initial phase itself is not necessarily systematic since it begins from an abstraction of natural cognition, not the universal.

11. The synthetic form of cognition which unfolds from the identification of that simple something, the One, is what is systematic in Hegel’s work, and every exhibition of it explicitly takes the form of a triad. This is called systematic dialectic.

Andy Blunden
17 November 2021