Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy

Negative AspectPositive AspectConcrete Universal

Section Two: Period of the Thinking Understanding
Chapter II. — Transition Period
C. French Philosophy

We pass onto the French philosophy; the relation it bears to metaphysics is this, that while man as a metaphysician stands to himself in the attitude of a layman or outsider, French philosophy does away with the lay or outside position in regard alike to politics, religion, and philosophy. Two forms have to be mentioned which are of the greatest importance in respect to culture — French philosophy and the Aufklärung. With the English we saw a certain idealism only: this was either formal, as the mere general translation of Being into Being-for-another, i.e., into perceptibility, or else what is implicit in this perceptibility, instincts, impulses, habits, &c. — blind determinate forces; a return into self-consciousness, which itself appears as a physical thing. In that first idealism the whole finitude and extension of appearances, of sensations, and likewise of thoughts and determinate fixed conceptions, remain just what they are in the unphilosophic consciousness. The scepticism of Hume makes all that is universal sink into habits and instincts, i.e., it consists in a more simple synthesis of the phenomenal world; but these simpler elements, these instincts, impulses, and forces, are just as much a fixed present existence in self-consciousness, unspiritual, and without movement. The French philosophy has more life, more movement, more spirit; it would perhaps be more correct to describe it as full of life and spirit. It is the absolute Notion, which revolts against the whole reigning system of prevalent conceptions and established ideas, which overthrows all that has settled into fixity, and acquires the consciousness of perfect liberty. At the root of this idealistic activity lies the certainty that whatever is, whatever counts for anything in itself, is all a matter of self-consciousness; and as to Notions (individual and isolated existences ruling actual self-consciousness), such as the Notions of good and evil, of power and riches, and the fixed conceptions regarding faith in God and His relation to the world, His mode of government and, further, the duties of self-consciousness towards Him — that all these are not truths in themselves, having validity beyond the bounds of self-consciousness. All these forms, the real implicitude of the actual world and also of the supersensuous world, are therefore set aside in this spirit conscious of itself. It does not trouble itself seriously about those who admit the validity of these conceptions just as they are, and accept them as true, respecting them as independent and free apart from self-consciousness, but it speaks of such conceptions with intelligence and spirit, that is to say, it asserts that self-consciousness by its activity is the first to make anything of them, and to make that a something very different from what they profess to be; for the self-conscious spirit only intellectual relations, these processes of formation and movement by means of its self-consciousness, possess validity and interest. This is the character of the Notion in its actuality; what has reality for this all-perceiving and all-comprehending consciousness is held to be valid.

We must now consider what form existence takes for this absolutely comprehending self- consciousness. In the first place this Notion is fixed as the negative movement of the Notion only; the positive and simple, or existence, falls outside of this movement. There remains to the Notion no distinction, no content; for all determinate content is lost in that negativity. This empty existence is for us pure thought generally, what the French call être suprême, or if represented objectively as existent, and as in opposition to consciousness, it is matter. Absolute Being is therefore determined as matter, as empty objectivity, through a Notion which destroys all content and determination, and has as its object this universal alone. It is a Notion which acts only destructively, and does not again construct itself out of this matter or pure thought or pure substantiality. We here see so-called materialism and atheism freely emerge, as the necessary result of the pure comprehending self-consciousness. From one point of view there perishes in this negative movement all determination which represents spirit as something beyond self-consciousness, and more especially all determinations within the spirit, and also those which express it as spirit, indeed all the conceptions formed of it by faith, for which it has validity as an existent self-consciousness beyond self-consciousness — in short, all that is traditional or imposed by authority. There remains only a present, actual Being, for self-consciousness recognizes implicit existence only in the form which it has for self-consciousness, and in which it is actually known to itself; in matter, and matter as actively extending and realizing itself in multiplicity, i.e., as nature. In the present I am conscious to myself of my reality, and consequently self-consciousness finds itself as matter, finds the soul to be material, and conceptions to be movements and changes in the inner organ of the brain, which result from external impressions on the senses. Thought is therefore a mode of the existence of matter. The One Substance of Spinoza, to which French materialism as naturalism is parallel, really finds its accomplishment here in this object as in all respects the ultimate; but while in Spinoza this category is a possession which we find ready to hand, here it appears as the result of the abstraction of the understanding proceeding from empiricism.

The other form of the Aufklärung is, on the contrary, when absolute Being is set forth as something beyond self-consciousness, so that of itself, of its implicit Being, nothing whatever can be known. It bears the empty name of God. For though God may be determined in any way whatever, all these determinations fall away; He is, like x, the altogether unknown quantity. This view is not therefore to be termed atheism, in the first place because it still employs the empty, meaningless name, and in the second place because it expresses the necessary relations of self-consciousness, duties, &c., not as necessary in an absolute sense, but as necessary through relation to another, namely to the unknown — although there can be no positive relation to an unknown except by abrogating the self as particular. Yet it is not matter, because this simple and empty something is negatively defined as non-existent for self-consciousness. This all comes to the same thing, however, for matter is the universal, and is Being-for-self represented as abrogated. But the true reflection on that unknown is this, that it exists for self-consciousness simply as a negative of the same, i.e., as matter, reality, the present; it is this negative for me, this is its Notion. The difference distinguishing this from what appears to be in its entirety something “other,” and in which any one side is not permitted to say that what it thinks is such is that particular thing, is the difference which rests on this last abstraction.

Since then the Notion is present only in its negative form, positive extension remains without a Notion; it has the form of nature, of an existent, both in the physical and in the moral sphere. The knowledge of nature remains the ordinary, scientifically unspeculative knowledge, and as to its essence, in so far as it claims to be philosophy, it is a general way of speaking that plays with the words, “forces, relations, manifold connections,” but arrives at nothing definite. Similarly, in the spiritual sphere, it is so far true that the metaphysic of the spirit is of such a nature that it is nothing more nor less than a particular organization by means of which the powers which are termed sensation, perception, &c., come into existence; but this is a wearisome way of talking, which can make nothing intelligible, which accepts appearances and perceptions and reasons about them, but none the less reduces their implicit existence to certain determinate forces, of the inward nature of which we know nothing further. The determination and knowledge of the moral sphere has similarly for its object to bring man back to his so-called natural promptings; its essence has the form of a natural impulse, and this natural impulse is termed self-love, selfishness, or benevolence. It is required that man should live in conformity with nature; but this nature does not reach further than general expressions and descriptions, such as the state of nature we find depicted by Rousseau. What is called the metaphysic of ordinary conceptions is the empiricism of Locke, which seeks to show their origin, to be in consciousness, in as far as it is individual consciousness; which, when born into the world, emerges out of unconsciousness in order to acquire knowledge as sensuous consciousness. This external origin they confound with the Becoming and Notion of the matter in point. If one were to ask vaguely what is the origin and genesis of water, and the answer were to be given that it comes from the mountains or from rain, this would be a reply in the spirit of the above philosophy. In short, it is only the negative aspect that is interesting, and as for this positive French philosophy, it is out of the question. But even the negative side of it belongs properly to culture mainly, with which we have here nothing to do, and the Aufklärung likewise belongs to the same. In the French philosophic writings, which in this respect are of importance, what is worthy of admiration is the astonishing energy and force of the Notion as directed against existence, against faith, against all the power of authority that had held sway for thousands of years. On the one hand we cannot help remarking the feeling of utter rebellion against the whole state of affairs at present prevailing, a state which is alien to self-consciousness, which would fain dispense with it, and in which self-consciousness does not find itself; there is a certainty of the truth of reason, which challenges the whole intellectual world as it stands aloof, and is confident of destroying it. French atheism, materialism, or naturalism has overcome all prejudices, and has been victorious over the senseless hypotheses and assumptions of the positive element in religion, which is associated with habits, manners, opinions, determinations as to law and morality and civil institutions. With the healthy human understanding and earnestness of spirit, and not with frivolous declamations, it has rebelled against the condition of the world as legally established, against the constitution of the state, the administration of justice, the mode of government, political authority, and likewise against art.

Contrasting with this barren content there is the other and fertile side. The positive is in its turn constituted by so-called immediately enlightening truths of the healthy human understanding, which contains nothing except this truth and the claim to find itself, and beyond this form does not pass. But in so doing there arises the endeavour to grasp the absolute as something present, and at the same time as an object of thought and as absolute unity: an endeavour which, as it implies denial of the conception of design both in the natural and in the spiritual sphere — the former involving the idea of life, and the latter that of spirit and freedom — only reaches to the abstraction of a nature undetermined in itself, to sensation, mechanism, self-seeking, and utility. It is this then that we shall have to make evident in the positive side of French philosophy. In their political constitutions the French have, it is true, started from abstractions, but they have done so as from universal thoughts, which are the negative of reality; the English, on the other hand, proceed from concrete reality, from the unwieldy structure of their constitution; just as their writers even have not attained to universal principles. What Luther began in the heart only and in the feelings — the freedom of spirit which, unconscious of its simple root, does not comprehend itself, and yet is the very universal itself, for which all content disappears in the thought, that fills itself with itself — these universal determinations and thoughts the French asserted and steadfastly adhered to: they are universal principles, in the form of the conviction of the individual in himself. Freedom becomes the condition of the world, connects itself with the world's history and forms epochs in the same; it is the concrete freedom of the spirit, a concrete universality; fundamental principles as regards the concrete now take the place of the abstract metaphysic of Descartes. Among the Germans we find mere chatter; they would have liked to offer explanations also, but all they have to give is in the form of miserable phenomena and individualism. The French, from their starting-point of the thought of universality, and the German liberty of conscience starting from the conscience which teaches us to “Prove all things,” to “hold fast that which is good,” have, however, joined hands with one another, or they follow the same path. Only the French, as though they were without conscience, have made short work of everything, and have systematically adhered to a definite thought — the physiocratic system; while the Germans wish to leave themselves a free retreat, and examine from the standpoint of conscience whether a certain course is permissible. The French warred against the speculative Notion with the spirit, the Germans did so with the understanding. We find in the French a deep all-embracing philosophic need, different from anything in the English and Scotch and even in the Germans, and full of vitality: it is a universal concrete view of all that exists, with entire independence both of all authority and of all abstract metaphysics. The method employed is that of development from perception, from the heart; it is a comprehensive view of the entire matter, which keeps the whole ever in sight, and seeks to uphold and attain to it.

This healthy human understanding, this sound reason, with its content taken from the human breast, from natural feeling, has directed itself against the religious side of things in various moments: on the one hand and first of all, as French philosophy, it did so against the Catholic religion, the fetters of superstition and of the hierarchy; on the other hand, in less pronounced form, as the German “illumination,” against the Protestant religion, in as far as it has a content which it has derived from revelation, from ecclesiastical authority in general. On the one hand the form of authority in general was challenged, and on the other hand its matter. The content can be easily enough disposed of by this form of thought, which is not what we understand by reason, but which must be termed understanding; it is easy for the understanding to show objections to the ultimate principles of what can be comprehended only by means of speculation. The understanding has thus tried the content of religion by its standard, and has condemned it; the understanding proceeds in the same way against a concrete philosophy. What of religion has in many theologies been very commonly left remaining is what is termed theism, faith in general; this is the same content which is found also in Mohammedanism. But along with this attack upon religion on the part of the reasoning understanding there has been also a movement towards materialism, atheism and naturalism. It is true that we should not make the charge of atheism lightly, for it is a very common occurrence that an individual whose ideas about God differ from those of other people is charged with lack of religion, or even with atheism. But here it really is the case that this philosophy has developed into atheism, and has defined matter, nature, &c., as that which is to be taken as the ultimate, the active, and the efficient. Some Frenchmen, Rousseau for instance, are not, however, to be included with the rest; one of this author's works, “The Confession of Faith of a Vicar,” (1) contains the very same theism which is found in German theologians. Thus French metaphysics finds a parallel not only in Spinoza (supra, p. 382) but also in the German metaphysics of Wolff. Other Frenchmen have confessedly gone over to naturalism; among them is specially to be mentioned Mirabaud, to whom the Système de la Nature is attributed.

In what has been termed French philosophy, represented by Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, d'Alembert, Diderot, and in what subsequently appeared in Germany as the Aufklärung, and has been also stigmatized as atheism, we may now distinguish three aspects, first, the negative side, to which most exception has been taken; secondly, the positive side; thirdly, the philosophical, metaphysical side.


Justice must be done even to this negative side, as to everything else; what is substantial in it is the attack of the reasoning instinct against a condition of degeneracy, I may even say of utter and universal falsehood; for instance, against the positive side of a religion that has become wooden and lifeless. What we call religion is firm faith, conviction that there is a God; if this is faith in the doctrines of Christianity, it is more or less abstracted from. But in this attack against religion we have to think of something quite different from the above; in what we find here, the positive of religion is the negative of reason. If we would understand the feeling of indignation to which these writers give utterance, we must keep before our eyes the state of religion in those days, with its might and magnificence, the corruption of its manners, its avarice, its ambition, its luxury, for which nevertheless reverence was claimed — a state of contradiction present and existent. We perceive into what a frightful condition of formalism and deadness positive religion had sunk, as had the bonds of society as well, the means employed for the administration of justice, the power of the state. This French philosophy also attacked the state; it assailed prejudices and superstition, especially the depravity of civic life, of court manners and of Government officials; it laid hold of and brought to light the evil, the ridiculous, the base, and exposed the whole tissue of hypocrisy and unjust power to the derision, the contempt and the hatred of the world at large, and thus brought men's minds and hearts into a state of indifference to the idols of the world and indignation against them. Old institutions, which in the sense of self-conscious freedom and humanity that had developed, no longer found a place, and which had formerly been founded and upheld by mutual good feeling and the obtuseness of a consciousness unconscious of self, institutions which were no longer in harmony with the spirit that had established them, and now, in consequence of the advance that had been made in scientific culture, were bound to make good to reason their claim to be sacred and just, — this was the formalism that those philosophers overthrew. In making their attacks, they wrote sometimes with reasoned argument, sometimes satirically, sometimes in the language of plain common-sense, and they did not wage war on what we call religion; that, was left quite unharmed, and its claims were urged with words of choicest eloquence. Those who enforced these views were therefore agents of destruction against that alone which was in itself already destroyed. We place it to our credit when we reproach the French for their attacks upon religion and on the state. We must represent to ourselves the horrible state of society, the misery and degradation in France, in order to appreciate the services that these writers rendered. Hypocrisy and cant, imbecility of mind and the tyranny which sees itself robbed of its prey, may say that attacks were made on religion, on the state, and on manners. But what a religion! Not the religion that Luther purified, but the most wretched superstition, priestly domination, stupidity, degradation of mind, and more especially the squandering of riches and the revelling in temporal possessions in the midst of public misery. And what a state! The blindest tyranny of ministers and their mistresses, wives and chamberlains so that a vast army of petty tyrants and idlers looked upon it as a right divinely given them to plunder the revenues of the state and lay hands upon the product of the nation's sweat. The shamelessness, the dishonesty were past belief, and morals were simply in keeping with the corruptness of the institutions. We see the law defied by individuals in respect to civil and political life; we see it likewise set at nought in respect to conscience and thought.

In regard to practical politics, the writers in question never even thought of a revolution, but desired and demanded reforms alone, and that these should be subjective mainly; they called on the Government to sweep away abuses, and appoint honourable men as ministers. The positive recommendations made by them as to the course to be pursued were, for example, that the royal children should receive a good upbringing, that princes should be of frugal habits, &c. The French Revolution was forced on by the stiff-necked obstinacy of prejudices, by haughtiness, utter want of thought, and avarice. The philosophers of whom we are speaking were able to give only a general idea of what ought to be done; they could not indicate the mode in which the reforms were to be carried out. It was the Government's business to make arrangements and carry out reforms in concrete shape; but it did not perceive this. What the philosophers brought forward and maintained as a remedy for this horrible state of disorder was, speaking generally, that men should no longer be in the position of laymen, either with regard to religion or to law; so that in religious matters there should not be a hierarchy, a limited and selected number of priests, and in the same way that there should not be in legal matters an exclusive caste and society (not even a class of professional lawyers), in whom should reside, and to whom should be restricted, the knowledge of what is eternal, divine, true, and right, and by whom other men should be commanded and directed; but that human reason should have the right of giving its assent and its opinion. To treat barbarians as laymen is quite as it should be — barbarians are nothing but laymen; but to treat thinking men as laymen is very hard. This great claim made by man to subjective freedom, perception and conviction, the philosophers in question contended for heroically and with splendid genius, with warmth and fire, with spirit and courage, maintaining that a man's own self, the human spirit, is the source from which is derived all that is to be respected by him. There thus manifests itself in them the fanaticism of abstract thought. We Germans were passive at first with regard to the existing state of affairs, we endured it; in the second place, when that state of affairs was overthrown, we were just as passive: it was overthrown by the efforts of others, we let it be taken away from us, we suffered it all to happen.

In Germany, Frederick II. allied himself with this culture, a rare example in those days. French court manners, operas, gardens, dresses, were widely adopted in Germany, but not French philosophy; yet in the form of wit and jest much of it found its way into this upper world, and much that was evil and barbarous was driven away. Frederick II., without having been brought up on melancholy psalms, without having had to learn one or two of them every day by heart, without the barbarous metaphysics and logic of Wolff (for what did he find to admire in Germany except Gellert?), was well acquainted with the great, although formal and abstract principles of religion and the state, and governed in accordance therewith, as far as circumstances allowed. Nothing else was at that time required in his nation; one cannot ask that he should have reformed and revolutionised it, since not a single person yet demanded representative government and the publicity of courts of justice. He introduced what there was need of, religious tolerance, legislation, improvements in the administration of justice, economy in the revenues of state; of the wretched German law there remained no longer in his states even the merest phantom. He showed what was the object and purpose of the state, and at the same time cast down all privileges, the private rights which pertained to Germans, and arbitrary statute laws. It is foolish when cant and German pseudo-patriotism pounce down upon him now, and try to disparage the greatness of a man whose influence was so enormous, and would even detract from his fame by a charge of vanity and wickedness. What German patriotism aims at should be reasonable.


The affirmative content of this philosophy certainly does not satisfy the requirements of profundity. A leading characteristic of its teaching, which is found also with the Scottish philosophers and with ourselves, is the assumption of primitive feelings of justice which man has in himself, as for example benevolence and social instincts which should be cultivated. The positive source of knowledge and of justice is placed in human reason and the common consciousness of mankind, in the healthy human reason, and not in the form of the Notion. It is certainly wonderful to find truths expressed in the form of universal thoughts, respecting which it is of infinite importance that they should be assumptions present in the human mind: that man has in his heart the feeling of right, of love to his fellow-creatures: that religion and faith are not matters of compulsion; that merit, talent, virtue are the true nobility, &c. An important question, especially among the Germans, was what is the end and character of man, by which was meant the nature of his mind and spirit, and certainly, as far as the spiritual is concerned, it is to this point that we must return. But in order to find the nature of spirit, to discover what this determination is, a return was made to perception, observation, experience, to the existence of certain impulses. These are certainly determinations in ourselves, but we have not known them in their necessity. Such an impulse is besides taken as natural, and thus it is here indeterminate in itself, it has its limitation only as a moment of the whole. In regard to knowledge, very abstract thoughts are to be found — though of a truth they are quite as good as ours, and more ingenious — which according to their content ought to be concrete, and also were so. But so superficially were they comprehended that they soon showed themselves far from sufficient for what had to be derived from them. They said, for instance, that Nature is a whole, that all is determined by laws, through a combination of different movements, through a chain of causes and effects, and so on; the various properties, materials, connections of things bring everything to pass. Those are general phrases, with which one can fill whole books.


To this philosophy belongs the Système de la Nature, the leading work on the subject, written in Paris by a German, Baron von Hollbach, who was the central figure of all those philosophers. Montesquieu, d'Alembert, Rousseau, were for a time in his circle; however much these men were moved to indignation at the existing state of things, they were yet in other respects very different from one another. The Système de la Nature may very easily be found tiresome to read, because it treats discursively of general conceptions, which are often repeated; it is not a French book, for vivacity is lacking and the mode of presentation is dull.

The great Whole of Nature (le grand tout de la nature) is the ultimate: “The universe displays nothing but an immense collection of matter and motion” (as with Descartes), “an unbroken chain of causes and effects, of which causes some directly affect our senses, while others are unknown to us, because their effects, which we perceive, are too remote from their causes. The different qualities of these materials, their manifold connections, and the effects which result therefrom, constitute essences for us. From the diversity of these essences arise the different orders, species, systems, under which things fall, and whose sum total, the great whole, is what we call Nature.”(2) It is like what Aristotle (vide Vol. I. p. 241) says of Xenophanes, that he gazed into the blue, i.e. into Being. According to Hollbach all is movement, matter moves itself: beer ferments, the soul is moved by its passions.(3) “The manifold variety of natural phenomena, and their incessant rise and disappearance, have their sole ground in the variety of motions and of their material.” Through different combinations and modifications, through a different arrangement, another thing is originated. “Material substances have either a tendency to combine with one another, or else they are incapable of so combining. Upon this are based by physical scientists the forces of attraction and repulsion, sympathy and antipathy, affinity and relation; and the moralists base thereon hatred and love, friendship and enmity.” Spirit, the incorporeal, contradicts or opposes itself to motion, to a change of the relations of a body in space.(4)


Another work of importance is the still more “dangerous” treatise, De la Nature, by Robinet. In it there reigns quite a different and a deeper spirit; one is frequently struck by the depth of earnestness which the writer displays. He begins thus: “There is a God, i.e., a cause of the phenomena of that Whole which we call Nature. Who is God? We know not, and we are so constituted that we can never know in what order of things we have been placed. We cannot know God perfectly, because the means of doing so will always be lacking to us. We too might write over the doors of our temples the words which were to be read upon the altar which the Areopagite raised, 'To the unknown God.'” The very same thing is said nowadays: there can be no transition from the finite to the infinite. “The order which reigns in the universe is just as little the visible type of His wisdom, as our weak mind is the image of His intelligence.” But this First Cause, God, is according to Robinet a creative God, He has brought Nature into existence; so that for him the only possible knowledge is that of Nature. “There is only One Cause. The eternal Cause, who so to speak had sown (engrainé) events one in the other, in order that they might without fail follow one upon another as He chose, in the beginning set in motion the endless chain of things. Through this permanent impression the Universe goes on living, moving and perpetuating itself. From the unity of cause there follows the unity of activity, for even it does not appear as something to be more or less admitted. By virtue of this single act all things come to pass. Since man has made Nature his study, he has found no isolated phenomenon, and no independent truth, because there are not and cannot be such. The whole sustains itself through the mutual correspondence of its parts.”(5) The activity of Nature is one, as God is One.

This activity, more particularly regarded, signifies that germs unfold themselves in everything: everywhere there are organic Beings which produce themselves; nothing is isolated, everything is combined and connected and in harmony. Robinet here goes through the plants, the animals, and also the metals, the elements, air, fire, water, &c.; and seeks from them to demonstrate the existence of the germ in whatever has life, and also how metals are organised in themselves. “The example of the polypus is convincing as to the animal nature (animalité) of the smallest portions of organised matter; for the polypus is a group of associated polypi, each of which is as much a true polypus as the first. It stands proved that from the same point of view the living consists only of the living, the animals of minute animals, every animal in particular of minute animals of the same kind, a dog of dog-germs, man of human germs.” In proof of this Robinet states in a “Recapitulation” that “animal sperm swarms with spermatic animalcules.” Since he then connects every propagation properly so-called with the co-operation of both sexes, he alleges that every individual is inwardly or also in the external organs a hermaphrodite. Of the minerals he says: “Are we not compelled to regard as organic bodies all those in which we meet with an inward structure such as this? It presupposes throughout a seed, seed-granules, germs, of which they are the development.” In the same way the air must have its germ, which does not come to reality until it is nourished by water, fire, &c. “The air, as principle, is only the germ of the air; as it impregnates or saturates itself in varying degrees with water and fire, it will gradually pass through different stages of growth: it will become first embryo, then perfect air.”(6) Robinet gives the name of germ to the simple form in itself, the substantial form, the Notion. Although he seeks to prove this too much from the sensuous side, he yet proceeds from principles in themselves concrete, from the form in itself.

He speaks also of the evil and good in the world. The result of his observation is that good and evil balance each other; this equilibrium constitutes the beauty of the world. In order to refute the assertion that there is more good than evil in the world, he says that everything to which we reduce the good consists only in an enjoyment, a pleasure, a satisfaction; but this must be preceded by a want, a lack, a pain, the removal of which constitutes satisfaction.(7) This is not only a correct thought empirically, but it also hints at the deeper idea that there is no activity except through contradiction.


The result of the French philosophy is that it insisted on maintaining a general unity, not abstract, but concrete. Thus Robinet now propounded the theory of a universal organic life, and a uniform mode of origination; this concrete system he called Nature, over which God was set, but as the unknowable; all predicates which could be expressed of Him contained something inapplicable. We must admit that grand conceptions of concrete unity are to be found here, as opposed to the abstract metaphysical determinations of the understanding, e.g., the fruitfulness of Nature. But, on the other hand, the point of most importance with these philosophers is that what is to be accepted as valid must have presence, and that man in all knowledge must be himself the knower; for, as we may see, those philosophers made war on all external authority of state and church, and in particular on abstract thought which has no present meaning in us. Two determinations found in all philosophy are the concretion of the Idea and the presence of the spirit in the same; my content must at the same time be something concrete, present. This concrete was termed Reason, and for it the more noble of those men contended with the greatest enthusiasm and warmth. Thought was raised like a standard among the nations, liberty of conviction and of conscience in me. They said to mankind, “In this sign thou shalt conquer,” for they had before their eyes what had been done in the name of the cross alone, what had been made a matter of faith and law and religion — they saw how the sign of the cross had been degraded. For in the sign of the cross lying and deceit had been victorious, under this seal institutions had become fossilised, and had sunk into all manner of degradation, so that this sign came to be represented as the epitome and root of all evil. Thus in another form they completed the Reformation that Luther began. This concrete had manifold forms; social instincts in the practical sphere, laws of nature in the theoretical. There is present the absolute impulse to find a compass immanent in themselves, i.e. in the human mind. For the human mind it is imperative to have a fixed point such as this, if, indeed, it is to be within itself, if it is to be free in its own world at least. But this striving after really present vitality took forms which as by-paths were themselves one-sided. In this striving after unity, which was, however, concrete unity, the further varieties of the content likewise lie.

On the theoretic side of their philosophy, therefore, the French proceeded to materialism or naturalism, because the requirements of the understanding, as abstract thought, which from a firmly fixed principle allows the most monstrous consequences to be drawn, drove them to set up one principle as ultimate, and that a principle which had at the same time to be present and to lie quite close to experience. Hence they accept sensation and matter as the only truth, to which must be reduced all thought, all morality, as a mere modification of sensation. The unities which the French propounded were in this way one-sided.


To this one-sidedness belongs the opposition between sentir and penser, or else, if you like, their identity, making the latter only a result of the former; there is not, however, any speculative reconciliation of this opposition in God, such as we find in Spinoza and Malebranche. This reduction of all thought to sensation, which in certain respects took place with Locke, becomes a widely extended theory. Robinet (De la Nature, T. I. P. IV. chap. iii. pp. 257-259) lights also on this opposition, beyond which he does not get, that mind and body are not separate, but that the manner in which they are united is inexplicable. The Système de la Nature (T. I. chap. x. p. 177) is marked by an especially plain reduction of thought to sensation. The leading thought is this: “Abstract thoughts are only modes in which our inmost organ views its own modifications. The words goodness, beauty, order, intelligence, virtue, &c., have no meaning for us if we do not refer and apply them to objects which our senses have shown to be capable of these qualities, or to modes of being and acting which are known to us.” Thus even psychology passed into materialism, as for instance we may find in La Mettrie's work L'homme Machine: All thought and all conception have meaning only if they are apprehended as material; matter alone exists.


Other great writers have opposed to the above the feeling in the breast, the instinct of self-preservation, benevolent dispositions towards others, the impulse to fellowship, which last Puffendorf also made the foundation of his system of law (supra, p. 321). From this point of view much that is excellent has been said. Thus Montesquieu, in his charming book, L'Esprit des Lois, of which Voltaire said it was an esprit sur les lois, regarded the nations from this important point of view, that their constitution, their religion, in short, everything that is to be found in a state, constitutes a totality.


This reduction of thought to feeling in the case of Helvetius takes the form that if in man as a moral being a single principle is sought, this ought to be called self-love, and he endeavoured to demonstrate by ingenious analysis that whatever we term virtue, all activity and law and right, has as its foundation nothing but self-love or selfishness, and is resolvable thereinto.(8) This principle is one-sided, although the “I myself” is an essential moment. What I will, the noblest, the holiest, is my aim; I must take part in it, I must agree to it, I must approve of it. With all self-sacrifice there is always conjoined some satisfaction, some finding of self; this element of self, subjective liberty, must always be present. If this is taken in a one-sided sense, there may be consequences drawn from it which overthrow all that is sacred; but it is found in equal degree in a morality as noble as any possibly can be.


In connection with the practical side of things this particular must also be noted, that when the feeling of right, the concrete practical mind, and, speaking generally, humanity and happiness were made the principle, this principle, universally conceived, had certainly the form of thought; but in the case of such concrete content derived from our impulse or inward intuition, even though that content were religious, the thought itself was not the content. But now this further phase appeared, that pure thought was set up as the principle and content, even if again there was lacking to this content the true consciousness of its peculiar form for it was not recognised that this principle was thought. We see it emerge in the sphere of will, of the practical, of the just, and so apprehended that the inner-most principle of man, his unity with himself, is set forth as fundamental and brought into consciousness, so that man in himself acquired an infinite strength. It is this that Rousseau from one point of view said about the state. He investigated its absolute justification, and inquired as to its foundation. The right of ruling and associating, of the relation of order, of governing and being governed, he apprehends from his own point of view, so that it is made to rest historically on power, compulsion, conquest, private property, &c.(9)

Rousseau makes free-will the principle of this justification, and without reference to the positive right of states he made answer to the above question (chap. iv. p. 12), that man has free-will, because “liberty is the distinguishing feature of man. To renounce his liberty signifies to renounce his manhood. Not to be free is therefore a renunciation of a man's rights as a human being, and even of his duties.” The slave has neither rights nor duties. Rousseau therefore says (chap. vi. p. 21): “The fundamental task is to find a form of association which will shield and protect with the power of the whole commonwealth combined the person and property of every one of its members, and in which each individual, while joining this association, obeys himself only, and thus remains as free as before. The solution is given by the Social Contract;” this is the association of which each is a member by his own will. These principles, thus abstractly stated, we must allow to be correct, yet the ambiguity in them soon begins to be felt. Man is free, this is certainly the substantial nature of man; and not only is this liberty not relinquished in the state, but it is actually in the state that it is first realised. The freedom of nature, the gift of freedom, is not anything real; for the state is the first realisation of freedom.

The misunderstanding as to the universal will proceeds from this, that the Notion of freedom must not be taken in the sense of the arbitrary caprice of an individual, but in the sense of the rational will, of the will in and for itself. The universal will is not to be looked on as compounded of definitively individual wills, so that these remain absolute; otherwise the saying would be correct: “Where the minority must obey the majority, there is no freedom.” The universal will must really be the rational will, even if we are not conscious of the fact; the state is therefore not an association which is decreed by the arbitrary will of individuals. The wrong apprehension of these principles does not concern us. What does concern us is this, that thereby there should come into consciousness as content the sense that man has liberty in his spirit as the altogether absolute, that free-will is the Notion of man. Freedom is just thought itself; he who casts thought aside and speaks of freedom knows not what he is talking of. The unity of thought with itself is freedom, the free will. Thought, as volition merely, is the impulse to abrogate one's subjectivity, the relation to present existence, the realising of oneself, since in that I am endeavouring to place myself as existent on an equality with myself as thinking. It is only as having the power of thinking that the will is free. The principle of freedom emerged in Rousseau, and gave to man, who apprehends himself as infinite, this infinite strength. This furnishes the transition to the Kantian philosophy, which, theoretically considered, made this principle its foundation; knowledge aimed at freedom, and at a concrete content which it possesses in consciousness.

German Enlightenment (next section) — Contents

1. Emile ou de l'éducation, T. II. (Paris, 1813, él. stéréotype), Book IV., Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard, p. 215 seq.
2. Buhle: Lehrbuch der Geschichte der Philosophie, Pt. VIII. pp. 62, 63: Système de la Nature par Mirabaud (Londres, 1770), T. I. chap. i. p. 10; chap. ii. p 28.
3. Buhle: Lehrbuch der Geschichte der Philosophie, Pt. VIII. pp. 63, 64. Système de la Nature, T. I. chap. ii. pp. 18, 16, 21, et 15.
4. Buhle, ibidem, pp. 64, 65, 70; Système de la Nature, T. I. chap. ii, pp. 30, 31; chap. iii, pp. 39, 40; chap. iv. pp. 45, 46; chap. vii, pp. 90, 91.
5. Robinet: De la Nature (Troisième édition, Amsterdam, 1766), T.I.P.I. chap. iii. iv. pp. 16, 17.
6. Robinet: De la Nature, T.I.P.II. chap. ii. pp. 156, 157; chap. vii. pp. 166, 168; chap. ix.-xi.; chap. xv. pp. 202, 203; chap. xix. p. 217.
7. Robinet: De la Nature, T.I.P.I. chap. xxviii. p. 138; chap. xiii. p. 70.
8. Helvetius: De l'esprit (Oeuvres complètes, T. II. Deux-Ponts, 1784), T. I. Discours II. chap. i. pp. 62-64; chap. ii. pp. 65, 68, 69; chap. iv. p. 90; chap. v. p. 91; chap. viii. p. 114; chap. xxiv. pp. 256, 257.
9. Rousseau: Du contrat social (Lyon, 1790), Book I. chap. iii. pp. 8, 9; chap. iv. pp. 10, 11, 13-16.

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