(The article below is reproduced at hegel.net with the kind permission of its author, Stephen Cowley. It first appeared 1/2012 on the hegel.net Hegel mailing list and was then published 6/2012 as article with the pictures below on his blog ‘Hegelian News & Reviews’)

Here is a further summary of my reading of Karl Rosenkranz's Life of Hegel (1844), the first biography of Hegel from whom later biographers draw extensively. This post covers the start of chapter 19 of Part One, by far the longest chapter in the book describing Hegel's philosophical system and philosophy of nature prior to publication of the Phenomenology of Spirit in 1807.

“Hegels Leben”, Book 1 (continued), chapter 19

The System


This is one of the longest chapters in Rosenkranz’s book. However, it has a lot of interesting information from the standpoint of understanding Hegel. Unfortunately, Rosenkranz places this chapter prior to the one on Hegel’s  father’s death, although it deals with Hegel’s early system after his move to Jena around 1800 which was only permitted by his inheritance from his father. In other words, Rosenkranz has misdated Hegel’s Jena manuscripts to the earlier Frankfurt period. Rudolf Haym made the same  mistake in 1857. This of course, presupposes that the Jena dating now  accepted is correct. Osmo the French translator refers to an article by Kimmerle in  Hegel-Studien 4 for the evidence for this conclusion.

The material concerned has since been published in English in the USA (System of Ethical Life, Jena Logic and Metaphysics). However, as I previously mentioned, it is significant for Hegel-reception that nineteenth century writers already had access to it through Rosenkranz and this – frankly speaking – in a much more accessible form than the modern English translations. In addition, as far as I know, the early philosophy of nature has not been translated into English.

There is also some biographical and general interpretative material in this chapter. Rosenkranz says that the ‘desire for system’ (which Haym later condemned in Hegel) grew in him only slowly. Rosenkranz says he started from concrete facts and only then sought principles.

Whilst in Frankfurt,Hegele bought books by Schelling, Plato and Sextus Empiricus. The relations of Hegel and Schelling are well known, though it is interesting to have evidence of Hegel’s continued engagement prior to 1800. Hegel’s lectures on Plato are well known, but I find the interest in Sextus Empiricus particularly interesting for the light it sheds on Hegel’s concept of dialectic. There is certainly dialectic in Plato, but it is less of a science than in Sextus as in Plato it emerges ready-made from Socrates’ mouth and you never quite know if Socrates is showing all his cards as he steers his dialogues. In his writings (Against the Logicians, Against the Physicists, Against the Musicians, etc) Sextus distinguishes dogmatists (e.g. Aristotle) who think they know, those who think knowledge impossible and thus do not enquire, from sceptics proper, who think they do not know in fact, but continue to enquire on the grounds that knowledge may be possible. Kant uses something of this at the start of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and it is clear that the Germans knew scepticism quite well (there was a book on the subject in 1794). It is worth knowing this as many English-language writers seem to overlook Sextus in describing the sources of Hegel’s thought. Hegel made use of his knowledge of him in his early essay On Ancient and Modern Scepticism. Sextus describes numerous ‘tropes’ (turns) or arguments against the reality of knowledge (e.g. that it involves an infinite regress of unexamined assumptions) and these bear some resemblance to features of Hegel’s mature dialectic.

Rosenkranz observes that Hegel sought precision of expression more than Schelling, trying to keep logic and mind apart conceptually and relating them to nature. Hegel’s philosophy is not a critique based on a logic at odds with common sense (a Neoplatonic theology with ‘the Concept’ as prime mover). In fact, it is a philosophy of mind in the sense that this is necessary for the emergence of a concept of nature and of the idea as logical (the idea in this jargon being the content of philosophy). Hence the young Hegel was not occupied with bringing facts under a logical scheme. Instead, we find him interested in everything, but focused on history as the work of the mind and religion as the most universal expression of the mind’s concept of its essence.

For Hegel philosophy was a whole (as in Plato) and this was the origin of the idea of system. A theosophic starting point was soon torn apart by dialectic. By the end of the Swiss period, we find extracts from the Rhenish mystic Meister Eckhardt and others amongst his papers. Hegel moves from symbolism of triangles and squares to the Christian Trinity as a fundamental aspect of Christianity. (If I might interject here, this sounds like Hegel moving away from his earlier Life of Jesus in which Jesus is a sort of Kantian prophet towards a more orthodox understanding of the Gospels. The concept of mind requires outward representation and the ideas of love and mind itself vie in the manuscript material as forms of representation. That is what I draw from the rather vague semi-theosophical musings of Rosenkranz here at any rate.)

I now turn to Rosenkranz's presentation of Hegel’s manuscripts, which are of great interest.

The content of the manuscripts


The manuscripts that Rosenkranz now describes are on:

However, the first of these includes some philosophy of nature. Hegel identifies philosophy with the self-knowledge of the Absolute which he distinguishes into Pure Idea, its realisation in nature and the return to greater self-knowledge in mind. I did not note of any justification for this identification when reading this chapter, so I will simply set it aside as a putative piece of knowledge and note that it affects the vocabulary of the following sections. My view is that knowledge is in the first place an aspect of practical creaturely activity. At this time, Hegel mixes phenomenological elements with his expositions. He only tried to separate them with publication of the Phenomenology.

Nature is thus conceived by Hegel at this point as the Other of Mind. the reading of meaning into Nature is a kind of self-overcoming of Mind at a theological level on the model of the German mystics. Mind realises itself in Nature, but does not do so as mind. It realises itself as life, but only comes to self-knowledge through history. There is a certain amount more in this vein that I pass over.

Logic and Metaphysics


Hegel begins his text with the Logical Idea. At this time he distinguished a logic of understanding (Aristotle) from a logic of reason, which he calls Metaphysics. In this latter metaphysical logic, he distinguishes:

  1. Categories of being
  2. Relation
  3. Proportion (of thought and being)

1. His notion of Being includes quality (determinacy/indeterminacy), limitation and quantity. Rosenkranz relates this to Plato’s Philebus, in which the limited and unlimited give rise to measure. There is also an influence of Kant here, though Hegel places quality before quantity and undertakes to deduce quantity from quality, whilst in Kant they are taken to be elementary categories existing side-by-side. An opposition of ideal and real at this point would produce the idea of limit in which the Idea is present only as a beyond or Ought.

2. Moving on to relation, Hegel discusses substance, causality and reciprocal action in a discussion that draws on Kant, Fichte and Schelling’s responses to Hume. He does not take the notions of subject and predicate for granted, as does ordinary logic. He sees in reciprocity a link between the ontological and the logical. Whilst Spinoza began with substance and applied categories of understanding in an external manner, for Hegel substance is subject. There is a kind of contest of subject and predicate. There is a notorious ambiguity of logical and psychological subject here.

3. Moving on to proportion, Hegel writes here of method, in which he includes definition, division and proof. I warmed slightly to this, as these subjects are neglected in the logic I learned and are better presented in Aristotle in their practical bearings.

Rosenkranz states that Hegel operates with an idea of Absolute or Supreme being as something by which finite judgements are found wanting. However, he admits that the wording of the text is “very obscure”. I have to say, I read the English translation of the text Rosenkranz is summarising about twenty years ago and understood virtually nothing of it beyond individual words and what was borrowed from Kant, so to get anything at all out of these texts is an achievement of Rosenkranz.

Philosophy of Nature

In discussing nature, Hegel tries to deduce it from mind, for he sees mind rather than the Idea as a concrete totality. Rosenkranz notes that Hegel struggles with words here. He cites texts where Hegel speaks of the mind as applying ideas such as causality, substance, reciprocity, quality, quantity, infinity to a being Other than itself – i.e. nature – and introduces the theme of life. He distinguishes a philosophical way of viewing nature from an ordinary way, but in highly abstract terms. Rosenkranz thinks Hegel is borrowing here from the Timaeus of Plato and that his thought has relatively little to do with Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, in fact only what is common ground with the empirical science of the day. Schelling focuses on dynamics and chemistry, but Hegel starts with the Whole and Mechanics. Absolute Mind presents itself as Ether (which Encke and Hansen conceived of as a constant medium). Hegel describes it instead as an infinite elasticity. This is a technical term from Newton.

The presentation begins with infinite space and homes in on earth. The stars are an infinite plurality. Hegel says:

"The contraction of the native purity of the ether is the first moment of a negative, of the point, the star, simple equality with itself suppressing all difference, light diffusing itself absolutely.The stars are only the formal expression of the concept of infinity, an absolute plurality, whilst their quantity is an unlimited movement towards the outside. Their infinity is a negative beyond, a plurality of unities without unity just as much as a quantity without totality. This infinity is in itself irrational, a sublimity, as empty as its marvelling contemplation is void of thought. [The stars] represent  in mute hieroglyphics an eternal past that has its present and its life only  in cognition of this writing."

This shows that Hegel’s antipathy to the false infinite arose fairly early in his life. At this time Hegel thus distinguished the Philosophy of Nature into:

The System of the Sun sees time and space as moments of motion. )If I might interject here, this seems to come from Aristotle’s idea that time is the measure of motion and it makes sense to me to see the origin of abstract ideas in more concrete phenomena. It is at least an intelligible intellectual project.) In the solar system, he discusses the sun, comets, moon and planets by their distinctive kinds of motion. He compares them to a syllogism with the sun as the universal middle term. The idea of the stars as other suns seems to be lacking.

In the system of the earth, Hegel distinguishes mechanical, physical and organic phenomena. Under mechanical, he discusses body, impact, fall and as kinds of motion, ballistics, the pendulum and the lever. This strikes me as admirably encyclopaedic, but it is not clear what the philosophical contemplation is supposed to add to an empirical classification. Under physical phenomena he applies the idea of a process. Within this general idea he discusses azote, phlogiston (which Rosenkranz explains is oxygen), hydrogen and carbonic gas. He invokes the Timaeus and Aristotle’s oppositions of air, fire, earth and water. The four elements also feature in discussions of sea, volcano, atmosphere and solid earth. He identifies oppositions in salt, sulphur, metal and clay. Rosenkranz describes this essay as " ardent, enthusiastic, audacious and poetic ", though less kind words might be as appropriate. He says:

"There is nothing more false than the idea of a Hegel who would base himself entirely on Schelling in the Philosophy of Nature."

Hegel became more prudent and precautionary in his later writings on nature. Rosenkranz cites Hegel’s description of the role of fire in the natural world to illustrate the power of his prose and his manner of attributing significance to natural phenomena. Fire emerges as an absolute dryness that goes beyond crystallisation to combustibility and Hegel invokes the comet, lightning, ordinary combustion and volcano as different instances and degrees and combinations of it. Rosenkranz sees in this a speculative elegance.

After this, from granite and clay emerges soil, which is the ground of organic life, in which metal, sulphur, salt and earth are present. He mentions chalk and flint. He interprets metals by their specific gravity and reaction to oxygen, as in rust. The earth as the combination and result of all these processes is a universal individual and it has a history (meaning geology presumably).

All in all, Hegel combines qualitative and quantitative concepts and the result of a kind of poetic speaking to empirical classifications and observations of natural phenomena, with some effort at a logical classification of the material. My feeling is that Hegel is blinkered in seeing the stars and their sublimity only from a subjective standpoint. There was in fact a debate in his day on the plurality of worlds that he might have taken up more creatively. These passages would be of interest to those interested in Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature as it shows his ideas in an earlier stage of development than in the later Encyclopaedia.

The manuscripts now turn to ethical life