Situating Hegel: From Transcendental Philosophy to a Phenomenology of Spirit

Part of the Palgrave Handbooks in German Idealism book series (PHGI)


This chapter contextualizes G.W.F. Hegel’s work by tracing the pathway of thought from Immanuel Kant’s transcendental philosophy, through G.E. Schulze’s post-Kantian skepticism, through J.G. Fichte’s “Bold philosophy of freedom,” and then finally to the Spinozistic thinking of F.W.J. Schelling and Hegel himself. In the early 1790s, Schulze argued that Kant’s “transcendental” account of the a priori conditions of knowing had failed to live up to the principles of Kant’s own philosophy. According to Schulze, Kant made illicit use of the concept of “substance” by supposing that the human mind is a kind of “substrate” which, though unknowable “in itself,” somehow underlies and makes possible our knowledge of objects of experience. Relatedly, critics argued that Kant made illicit use of the concept of “cause” by implying that the human mind (unlike God’s mind) does not create everything that it knows but depends on the givenness of an independent “transcendental object” which, though unknowable “in itself,” somehow affects human knowing and renders it finite. In response to such criticisms, Fichte argued that it is possible to defend the Kantian system, but only if one recognizes that our activity as knowers is rooted in our radical freedom as agents and therefore can never become an object that one experiences or represents to oneself, and indeed can never become an object of any theoretical knowing at all. For Fichte, the knower’s radical ability to doubt (that is, its non-representational awareness that no given content can ever be the determining cause of one’s own knowing) is an indicator of the knower’s radical freedom as an agent. In the 1790s, the young Schelling and Hegel became avid proponents of Fichte’s philosophy of freedom; but, like their friend Friedrich Hölderlin, they had doubts about whether Fichte had adequately explained how human knowing is free (that is, unbounded by anything simply “given” to it from the outside) yet also finite (that is, distinguishable from divine knowing). Relying on the work of Spinoza, they argued that freedom (or the “I” or “mind”) and nature (or the “not-I” or “world”) are not simply discontinuous with one another, but are really just two aspects of one and the same unbounded whole. This unbounded whole, Schelling argued, can be apprehended only through art which alone can serve as philosophy’s true organ. Resisting Schelling’s romantic tendencies, Hegel argued that this unbounded whole could be apprehended through philosophical, speculative reason, but only by means of the indirect, stepwise approach of “determinate negation” as shown in the Phenomenology of Spirit.


Kant Fichte Schelling Spinoza Transcendental philosophy Skepticism Freedom Determinate negation Thing-in-itself 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Fordham UniversityNew YorkUSA

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