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Pithy Account Of The Nature Of Philosophy

Hegel’s own pithy account of the nature of philosophy given in the “Preface” to his Elements of the Philosophy of Right captures a characteristic tension in his philosophical approach and, in particular, in his approach to the nature and limits of human cognition. “Philosophy”, he says there, “is its own time raised to the level of thought”.

On the one hand we can clearly see in the phrase “its own time” the suggestion of a historical or cultural conditionedness and variability which applies even to the highest form of human cognition, philosophy itself — the contents of philosophical knowledge, we might suspect, will come from the historically changing contents of contemporary culture. On the other, there is the hint that with such contents being “raised” to some higher level, presumably higher than the more everyday levels of cognitive functioning — those based in everyday perceptual experience, for example.

This higher level takes the form of “thought” — a type of cognition commonly taken as capable of having “eternal” contents (think of Plato and Frege, for example). This antithetical combination within human cognition of the temporally-conditioned and the eternal, a combination which reflects a broader conception of the human being as what Hegel describes elsewhere as a “finite-infinite”, has led to Hegel being regarded in different ways by different types of philosophical readers.

For example, towards the end of our century, an historically-minded ” anti-realist” like Richard Rorty, distrustful of all claims or aspirations to the “God’s-eye view”, could praise Hegel as a philosopher who had introduced this historically reflective dimension into philosophy (and setting it on the characteristically “hermeneutic” path which has predominated in modern continental philosophy) but who had unfortunately still become bogged down in the remnants of the Platonistic idea of the search for ahistorical truths.

Those adopting such an approach to Hegel tend to have in mind the (relatively) young author of the Phenomenology of Spirit and have tended to dismiss as “metaphysical” later and more systematic works like the Science of Logic. In contrast, the British Hegelian movement at the end of the nineteenth century, for example, tended to ignore the Phenomenology and the more historicist dimensions of his thought, and found in Hegel a systematic metaphysician whose Logic provided a systematic and definitive philosophical ontology of an idealist type.

This latter traditional, “metaphysical” view of Hegel had dominated Hegel reception for most of this century, but has over the last few decades been contested by many Hegel scholars who have offered an alternative, “post-Kantian” view of Hegel.

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