Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2004
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

3. The development of the system: the Jena writings

The work of Hegel’s Jena period (1801–6) can be divided into critical and systematic writings. Among the critical writings are his first philosophical publication, The Difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s Systems of Philosophy, and most of the essays which he published during the years 1802–3 in the Critical Journal of Philosophy. In these essays, Hegel reveals himself as a critic of the philosophy of his age, especially of the positions of Kant, Jacobi and Fichte whom he accuses of practising a ‘reflective philosophy of subjectivity’ as he calls it in the sub-title of his essay Faith and Knowledge (1802). For Hegel, reflective philosophy is initially an expression of an age or historical situation. Such an age is subject to the dichotomies of culture (Bildung), which are the products of the understanding and whose activity is regarded as divisive and isolatory. Being subject to those dichotomies, it is impossible for such an age to overcome them and restore the harmony which the understanding has destroyed. A philosophy committed to such an age shares its fate, being also unable to remove, at least in theory, the conflicts which appear as the concrete forms of dichotomy. For even when philosophy strives to overcome these conflicts - according to Hegel, ‘the only interest of reason’ - and thus makes reference to a particular idea of unity or harmony, even then it remains committed to the conditions of its age and will achieve nothing except newer and even more acute conflicts. According to Hegel, we can characterize the general form underlying the various conflicts as the conflict between subjectivity and objectivity. The attempts of reflective philosophy to overcome them fail, in Hegel’s view, because they are largely abstract: that is, they fail to take into account either the subjective or the objective component of the conflict, and declare it to be resolved by neglecting or abstracting from either of these components. In abstracting from subjectivity, objectivity (in Hegel’s terminology) is posited as absolute, which leads to the subordination of subjectivity. This way of reconciling the conflict between subjectivity and objectivity is characteristic of all religions describable as positive by Hegel’s definition. If, on the other hand, abstraction is made from objectivity, and subjectivity is thus posited as absolute, then objectivity is regarded as being dependent on subjectivity. This one-sided absolutization of subjectivity is Hegel’s objection to the philosophies of Kant, Jacobi and Fichte and the reason he describes their theories as forms of a reflective philosophy of subjectivity.

During his early years in Jena, in contrast to the philosophical attitudes which he criticized, Hegel assumes along with Schelling that the described conflict between subjectivity and objectivity can only be overcome by a philosophy of identity. A philosophy of identity is characterized by the preconditions (1) that for each opposition there is a unity which must be regarded as a unity of the opposing factors, and (2) that the opposing factors are nothing more than their unity under the description or in the form of the opposing factors. These preconditions suggest that one should understand the overcoming of the opposition between subjectivity and objectivity as a single process which reconstructs the unity underlying the opposing factors and makes them possible in the first place. Following the conceptual assumptions favoured by Hegel at the time, the unity to be reconstructed in a philosophy of identity is defined as the ‘subject-object’, and the subject and object themselves are characterized as ‘subjective subject-object’ or ‘objective subject-object’ respectively. The process of reconstruction of the subject-object by means of the assumptions of the philosophy of identity consists of recognizing the subjective and objective subject-object in their specific one-sidedness or opposition to each other, and thus gaining an insight into the internal structure of the subject-object as the unity which underlies the two conflicting factors and makes them possible in the first place. Although Hegel did not persist in using this terminology for long, for most of his time in Jena he nevertheless remained faithful to the project of the development of a unity which he considered to be comprehensive and which consists of its internal opposing elements. The various attempts at a formal description of a process which was aimed at a unity led Hegel to various system models. All of them contained - albeit with variations of terminology and detail - a discipline initially defined by Hegel as ‘logic and metaphysics’ as well as a so-called ‘real philosophy’ (Real-Philosophie), in other words a ‘philosophy of nature’ as well as what he later called a ‘philosophy of spirit’.

The systematic works of the Jena period, apart from the Phenomenology of Spirit, principally include the three Jena Drafts of a Philosophical System. Of these (in some cases) comprehensive fragments, mainly the sections dealing with the philosophy of nature and of spirit are extant. As regards the philosophy of nature, in all the Jena versions of this part of Hegel’s system the description of all natural phenomena, the analysis of their processes and their interrelationships is achieved by recourse to two essential factors, which Hegel calls ‘Ether’ and ‘Matter’ (Materie). ‘Ether’ describes something like a materialized absolute, which expresses and develops itself within the realm of space and time. This entity is now introduced by Hegel in connection with the development of the determinations of nature as absolute matter or alternatively as absolute being, and the task of philosophy of nature lies in interpreting the various natural phenomena - from the solar system and the laws governing its movements to illness and death of animal organisms - as different manifestations of this absolute matter. Hegel is concerned not merely to show that any particular natural phenomenon is in its peculiar way a specific expression of absolute matter. Above all, he is concerned to prove that nature is a unity ordered in a particular manner. As a specific expression of absolute matter, each natural phenomenon represents an element in the ordered succession of natural phenomena. The position of a natural phenomenon in the order of nature is laid down by the specific way in which absolute matter is expressed in it. A consequence of this approach is that here the natural order is understood as determined by certain postulates which result from the structural conditions of the absolute matter and the methodological maxims of the complete description of these conditions. Differences between the Jena versions of Hegel‘sphilosophy of nature mainly result from the inclusion of new facts made available by current science; but they leave his basic assumptions untouched.

Things are different in the case of the Jena writings on the second part of real philosophy - the philosophy of spirit - initially still described by Hegel as the ‘philosophy of ethical life’ (Philosophie der Sittlichkeit). They reveal many changes, all linked to modifications of his conception of spirit. Initially, he presents his philosophy of spirit as a theory of ethical life, which he then transforms into a theory of consciousness. For reasons linked to a renewed preoccupation with Fichte and certain new insights into the logical structure of self-consciousness, towards the end of his Jena period Hegel found himself obliged to present an approach which had occupied him since at least 1804–5. This approach enabled him to liberate the philosophy of spirit from its narrow systematic links to a conception of ethical life based on assumptions incompatible with his new conception of spirit. It assumes that only the formal structure of self-consciousness, which consists in its being a unity of generality and singularity, can provide the framework within which the logical-metaphysical determinations, the natural world and psychosocial phenomena unite to form a meaningful systematic context. For the philosophy of spirit this means in particular that as far as method is concerned it is better equipped for the implementation of its systematic task of being the representation of the processes of self-realization of what Hegel calls ‘reason’. This insight into the formal structure of self-consciousness is the final achievement of his Jena period, and one which he never subsequently abandoned.

Citing this article:
Horstmann, Rolf-peter. The development of the system: the Jena writings. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831), 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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