Through History Toward Meaning

Through History Toward Meaning: Statue

It is important to note in the context of discussing some differences between Hegel’s and Kant’s approach to space that, unlike Kant, Hegel is not much interested in discussing the quality of space, i.e., its relatedness to our intuition or the way we perceive spatiality, but rather in its meaning.

As in his general approach, Hegel takes space for granted, letting it be what it is and not questioning its nature, whether subjective or objective. He starts from the premise that space is a given reality. Whether space is pure intuition – i.e., only a subjective content – or a universal recipient for all external, objective things, is meaningless. His approach, expounded in his Phenomenology of Spirit, is directed toward showing the evolution of our knowledge, i.e., of its contents. 

Now, since he assumes, in his Philosophy of Nature, that our concepts, taken as categories, are intellectual expressions of external ways of being, he can proceed here again phenomenologically to some extent. First, he starts from a given understanding of space and highlights its main features.

Then, in the next step, he shows that other features add to those initial ones, and these new features no longer belong to space but are still very elementary and belong to time. And so forth, to other, increasingly more different features defining newer and newer aspects of reality. 

Of course, in his philosophy of nature, Hegel does not present the evolution of our knowledge regarding nature. Thus, it is not in this sense, that this philosophy continues the phenomenological approach from Phenomenology.

But he continues that approach by showing that to encompass reality as we understand and know it now, the initial aspect discussed is not enough. We must look each time for the following element that contributes a new set of features to make reality, on the next level, more intelligible to us. 

Thus, the Hegelian philosophy of nature, like any other part of this monumental philosophical system, always has the present condition of our knowledge as the true benchmark of its proper philosophical inquiry. Placed in such a framework, it endeavors then to explain the past as an evolution from the most elementary aspects of the corresponding real domain to its present-day understanding. 

Hegel’s philosophy of history – centered on the concept of freedom – and his philosophy of right – centered on the concept of the state – follow the same path. They show how history brought us to present-day realities from the initial conceptual seeds corresponding to those knowledge domains. 

But in this context, it is imperative to emphasize that history is, for Hegel, not a factual or material process in which events cause each other but the logical succession of the main structures of the past, in which the meaning of one structure makes possible the meaning of the next structure. Thus, historical knowledge is not a causal explanation, as is usual in common historical research, but rather a formal one, peculiar to what nowadays is called the history of ideas. 

Here is the peculiarity of the Hegelian type of philosophy: it constantly approaches real objects from the perspective of our understanding, yet, without considering them either as products of our understanding or just as objects of knowledge to be analyzed as phenomena within the framework of that knowledge. 

In his philosophy, the criteria of our capacity of making things intelligible are criteria of the being of things themselves. And still, his philosophy is not a transcendental idealism of the Kantian kind because he states the correspondence between the human mind and objective reality.

But unlike other philosophical approaches of the past belonging to the substantialist stream of thought, he does not center his research on an extra-human perspective, on God’s view of things, but on the human focal point and then makes the latter a benchmark for the rational aspect of God’s view. 

Discussing things only from a divine angle cannot encompass them in a system. In other words, it cannot establish an order among the ‘secondary’ substances, i.e., among the different universal features of things. Neither the Platonic Ideas nor the Aristotelian secondary substances were seen as logically interrelated entities. They were like separate statues within a museum. 

Human knowledge was not thought of yet as facing an infinite reality, as happened later in Modernity. Therefore, it did not need a perspective from which to establish the order. Modernity brought infinity into the philosophical discourse through the need of thinking the human being – with all its features – in relation to an infinite God, the Creator of an infinite reality. 

The single way to cope with infinity for a finite creature is to create its own filter, its own perspective, thus limiting and setting boundaries to the infinite reality. Therefore, the philosophical approach had to transform into a transcendental approach, which understands things in themselves as phenomena. 

This is why, to a certain extent, Hegel’s philosophy cannot be either detached from or understood apart from the Kantian approach. However, unlike the latter, Hegelian theoretical metaphysics is based on the event of Christianity.

In other words, the appearance of Jesus, the God-Man in human history, and His message, are, in Hegel, proofs of the identity between the human mind and God’s mind. This is why, later, Heidegger called this Hegelian approach, together with other important philosophical theories of Modernity, an onto-theology.

Still, this identity means not a quantitative identity, i.e., the possibility given to man to encompass with his knowledge the infinity of reality. It means rather a qualitative identity, namely sharing with God the fundamental structures of reality, its categories.

Thus, in Hegel, human reason is, with respect to its fundamental structures, the same as in Kant. Like Kant, Hegel considers that knowing this reason is a historical process in which errors are intertwined with the truth. But this historicity is a logical historicity, i.e., one in which the logical components of our knowledge – or the Concept – are taken into account and not its event-like nature. 

This is why human reason’s history can overlap with reality’s history: both display how the fundamental concepts of human reason were actualized as structures of reality and structures of the mind.    

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