Hegel: The Letters

We have been living in a post-Hegelian and thus, in a sense, post-philosophical age since the middle of the last century. Comte then proclaimed the coming age of positive science to eclipse the previous metaphysical age, Kierkegaard publicly recorded the bankruptcy of reason, and Marx called for a revolutionary praxis to change the world in place of philosophies resigned merely to interpreting it.

Then, on the European continent, it would seem Western culture lost its philosophical nerve-an event that has proved largely fateful for our century. American pragmatism and British analytic philosophy were twentieth-century reverberations of what had already occurred in the Continental nineteenth century. It is not accidental, however, that the decline of philosophy in the West coincided with that of the Hegelian school.

For if Hegel persuaded his critics of anything, it was that he was a philosopher, i.e., that his philosophy was paradigmatic for philosophy generally. Yet the various post-Hegelianisms have failed to achieve consensus on just how to go beyond Hegel. The whole process by which in the last century Hegel was “transcended” is today being reenacted slowly, examining each step along the way. This is surely one of the most important reasons for being interested in Hegel today. It is also an important reason for making his letters available in English.

Unlike Descartes or Leibniz, Hegel never used letters as an important vehicle of philosophical exposition. What Goethe once surmised about Hegel-namely that he was a scholarly organizer of existing knowledge more than an original investigator or creator of new knowledge-Hegel had long since, in a letter to von Sinclair, admitted himself. Hegel wrote that his life work was to make philosophy teachable, to strive to give it scientific form much as Euclid had done for geometry. It is thus only natural that he should have looked upon tomes, more than letters, as his principal vehicle. As early as 1818 one of his students, Richard Roth, surmised that he was the Aristotle of modern philosophy…

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