At the tail end of Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason Gardner discusses Kant's influence on his successors. He claims---and I'm paraphrasing here---Hegel wanted his metaphysics to be scientific, i.e., to all unfold from a single principle. Kant's work does not descend from a single principle, but instead draws from actual experience to get us, for instance, inner and outer sense, and the specific categories.

This rings true. There are certainly a number of times when Kant seems to throw his hands in the air and say that things just are. Hegel's response, quoth Gardner, was to try and make a new system, which would surpass Kant's, and all unfold from a single principle.

Is this actually Hegel's definition of a science? I couldn't find anything online that would confirm it.

I've only read PR and some of PS; I can't say much about Hegel's metaphysics. But in PR Hegel explicitly states that philosophy is a circle. Of course a circle has no point of origin. Did Hegel think his system did indeed unfold from a single point? How did he explain this, given the whole "philosophy is a circle" thing?

  • 2
    I don't know much about Hegel, but I wonder if there might be some confusion from the fact that the German word "Wissenschaft" is translated into English as "Science", even though it means something more general than that. – Alexander S King Aug 28 '17 at 21:35
  • I'd like to answer your question, but I need to clarification on two things: (1) is the question that you want answered: Does Hegel think philosophy is a science or does Hegel think philosophy descends from a single principle (as a definition of science)? (2) By PR do you mean Philosophy of Right and by PS Phenomenology of Spirit? – virmaior Aug 28 '17 at 21:51
  • 1. I'm pretty confident Hegel thinks (his) philosophy is scientific, so I'll go with does Hegel think philosophy descends from a single principle...? (Though if I'm wrong on that, please, tell me!) 2. You have my abbreviations correct. – Canyon Aug 28 '17 at 21:56
  • Where have you seen Kant "seem to throw his hands in the air and say that things just are"? – Ram Tobolski Aug 28 '17 at 23:06
  • That's from me. The thing that comes most readily to mind is on why sensibility is divided into inner and outer sense, but I can come up with more. – Canyon Aug 28 '17 at 23:35

I think (and I broadly agree here with Eckart Förster, whose book The Twenty-Five Years of Philosophy will be quoted here for reference) that Hegel roughly follows Kant's understanding of science. Therefore, clarifying what Kant wrote about science may help to elucidate how this intertwines with the idea of a single principle.

Kant himself on science

Kant thought that science is, as opposed to a modern understanding, a set of constructible, certain sentences. Certain, however, they can only be if the way they are obtained itself is certain, which for him means by and from principles that are themselves certain. Förster draws on these two main aspects:

First, according to Kant science is not merely a rhapsodic collection of propositions, but a totality of knowledge ordered according to principles and hence systematic. Systematicity is only a necessary condition for science, however, not a sufficient condition. For if those principles are merely empirical in nature, what we have is a systematic doctrine, but not a science in the proper sense. Secondly, therefore, the principles must be associated with a “consciousness of their necessity” (4:468). Hence they cannot be principles discovered on the basis of induction, mere generalizations from experience; they must be capable of being known a priori. “All proper natural science therefore requires a pure part, on which the apodictic certainty that reason seeks therein can be based” (4:469). (Förster, 2012:67, bolded mine)

Science proper here only consists in the pure part. That is why in his introduction to the Anthropology, he dismisses psychology as not being a science proper in any way, missing this pure part.

Kant on philosophy as science

It is the main point of the whole critical endevour of Kant to bring metaphysics (or philosophy as such) back on the "secure course of a science":

Metaphysics - a wholly isolated speculative cognition of reason that elevates itself entirely above all instruction from experience, and that through mere concepts (not, like mathematics, through the application of concepts to intuition), where reason thus is supposed to be its own pupil - has up to now not been so favored by fate as to have been able to enter upon the secure course of a science, even though it is older than all other sciences, and would remain even if all the others were swallowed up by an all-consuming barbarism. (Kant, CPR, B xiv)


Now the concern of this critique of pure speculative reason consists in that attempt to transform the accepted procedure of metaphysics, undertaking an entire revolution according to the example of the geometers and natural scientists. It is a treatise on the method, not a system of the science itself; but it catalogs the entire outline of the science of metaphysics, both in respect of its boundaries and in respect of its entire internal structure. (Kant, CPR, B xxii)

From Kant to Hegel

Förster has some four chapters on that, and I cannot refer to all the content discussed. The main core points of Kant prevailed, and it had been a major criticism that he presented several principles (for each faculty of knowledge one), trying to show how these can stand side by side without contradiction.

Most critics argued that there has to be a single, unifying principle. Basically, the idea why a systematic Wissenschaft has to be derived from a single principle is easy: Say we have two a priori certain principles, to take the easiest case. Now, if we want to apply them, they are either materially identical (single principle), or we will have to decide which principle is to be applied. For deciding that, we would need to have a third principle, which would need a justification of its own. The main idea of this dilemma can be found in my answer here as well.

This lead to various attempts of finding a single principle. Förster writes on Fichte:

For Fichte characterized his philosophy, which he now referred to as Wissenschaftslehre, as the discipline which philosophically grounds the possibility of every other science. Since every science must have a systematic form, and since such form can only be derived from a first principle, the Wissenschaftslehre must at the same time establish principles for every other science. Those principles must, if they are truly to be principles, be incapable of further proof: “All those propositions which serve as first principles of the various particular sciences are, at the same time, propositions indigenous to the Wissenschaftslehre. Thus one and the same proposition has to be considered from two points of view” (GA I,2:128; W 1:56) (Förster, 2012:175).

This "one and the same proposition" was A=A, the proposition of identity. This has led to criticism by e.g. Hölderlin, who was highly influential on Hegel, his former fellow student in Tübingen and very good friend (they met 1797 in Heidelberg and discussed these things a lot).

Hegel himself

I will quote secondary literature here, as this is easier than carving it out of Hegel's text and give interpretation and context. Hegel saw philosophy as a science:

For Hegel, it is the “scientific” in the sense of the theoretical whole [he links Hegel's understanding of science with 'totality' just before] that determines not the empirical but the ontological truth of a sentence. He knew very well the difference between physics and philosophy, for example, although he often opened himself to ridicule by attempting to express the philosophical significance of physics. But this was precisely his intention: to provide a philosophical explanation of philosophy as an expression of the totality of the human spirit. Hegel accepts the scientific nature of philosophy, but he distinguishes philosophical from natural science. (Stanley Rosen, *The Idea of Hegel's "Science of Logic", pp. 5-6)

Rosen is quite explicit about that Hegel is looking for something like a fist principle:

Like Hegel, Fichte is obsessed with the need to arrive at a presuppositionless beginning, in order to transform philosophy into a deductive or systematic science. He begins his search for the “first, strictly unconditioned principle” with a distinction between thinking as activity and the principle as an expression of that activity (Stanley Rosen, *The Idea of Hegel's "Science of Logic", p.196)

Regarding the nature of this single principle, this case is clear to some extent if you know Hegel, but hard to track down in a single quote: It is (Absolute) Geist, the all-encompassing conscience. The closest I could find to verify that is the following, effectively describing Geist as ultimate condition of the unity of object and subject, which can only be grasped by looking at the whole of history:

It is Hegel’s goal to bring together understanding and reason in such a way as to show that the ideals of the latter are achieved or fully manifested in the structure of the former. This in turn depends upon the transformation of the synthetic unity of apperception from a logical condition of consciousness to a principle of subjectivity, namely, the principle that underlies the unity of subject and object (Stanley Rosen, *The Idea of Hegel's "Science of Logic", p.22, emphasis mine)


The understanding of what it means to be Wissenschaft, i.e. something that through its methods literally translated creates knowledge [Wissen = knowledge; schaffen = to create], had been quite different. Hume's skepticism led to the understanding that all phenomenal, empirical data is not reliable enough to constitute knowledge in this very peculiar sense.

And what Hegel thought to have accomplished is to present a method that, through its application, is able to get rid of empirical illusions, leading to an understanding of how reality actually is, i.e. to knowledge. Therefore, in this sense, it is Wissenschaft. And it is Wissenschaft der Logik as the knowledge is gained through a very specific methodology he calls logic, although this may differ a lot from contemporary understandings.

Long story short: If terms in historical philosophy do not make any sense, try to look up their historical and, in philosophy, often times technical meaning.

  • I'm close to accepting this, but I have a few things to clarify: does Hegel think science must come from a single principle? If so, what does he think it is? – Canyon Aug 30 '17 at 17:55
  • @Canyon: Hope my new section helps? – Philip Klöcking Aug 30 '17 at 18:23
  • Quite a bit. But we reach absolute knowing at the end of the dialectic, I thought. Isn't the unifying principle the place to start? – Canyon Aug 30 '17 at 18:30
  • 4
    @Canyon: That's the thing about Hegel - He thinks formal philosophy is the wrong way and instead of having a starting and deducing, one must methodically engage a dialectic in order to grasp the totality of Being. Btw. added a nice quote on Hegel looking for single principle – Philip Klöcking Aug 30 '17 at 18:35

In Wissenschaft der Logik (variously translated as The Science of Logic or The Acquirement of Logic) Hegel states that his dialectical method is "the only true method" of scholarly and scientific exposition.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy -

Hegel believes these characteristics make his dialectical method genuinely scientific. As he says, “the dialectical constitutes the moving soul of scientific progression” (EL Remark to §81). He acknowledges that a description of the method can be more or less complete and detailed, but because the method or progression is driven only by the subject matter itself, this dialectical method is the “only true method” (SL-M 54; SL-dG 33).

Later philosophers have characterised Hegel's method as the thesis, antithesis, synthesis triad. It is this method that Hegel used to develop his philosophical theories.

Finally, here is an image illustrating the relative demands of understanding Hegel's philosophy :


  • Fabulous image! A classic. I find it best to extract his key ideas from a dictionary and not read his explanations of them. This could be called poor scholarship but I haven't noticed that scholars are any less confused about him than myself, and it seems to flatter him since I'm a fan and mostly agree with his metaphysics. I just think other people explain it a lot better. – PeterJ Aug 29 '17 at 15:11
  • @PeterJ The image was included in a tweet from a physicist at CERN some years ago. It is good for a chuckle. – Nick R Aug 29 '17 at 16:32
  • can you explain the image? Thanks – Ooker Jun 1 '18 at 15:00
  • @Ooker Think of the image as a bar chart expressing the relative difficulty (complexity) of understanding the labelled subject. Hegel is off the chart. – Nick R Jun 1 '18 at 16:36
  • oh, so the black top and bottom rectangles don't represent anything? I thought that it is the background of the universe or something :). I wonder why they are in the image – Ooker Jun 1 '18 at 18:12

I think he said (or meant) 'a science of logic'. I share his view that metaphysics is a science of logic but this is a slightly different use of 'science' than some people would accept. The point being that it is in a sense empirical. For instance, where a theory gives rise to contradictions this is verifiable by inter-subjective analysis and is not a matter of opinion.

I'd also agree that metaphysics should start from a single point, the initial axiom-set, but wouldn't see this as making it scientific so much as just systematic. As the world would be a product of Mind its own logic would determine the shape of its evolution and so the dialectic would be the correct way to backwards-engineer it. His Absolute Idealism is therefore in line with the perennial philosophy since it rests on an axiom that is prior to the dialectic and gives rise to it, just as it would give rise to the world.

It would be this prior 'phenomenon' that Kant says we cannot know and Hegel says we can. So where Kant's view is a little unscientific since it rests on an non-empirical foundation, Hegel makes no appeal to the unknown.

In his book Mind of God the physicist Paul Davies discusses the idea that we can know the universe in its entirety and concludes it may be possible for the esoteric practitioner, implying an endorsement of Hegel rather than Kant, and it does seem a more 'scientific' approach.

The point about circles may be (I'm speculating) that when we unpack our axiom-set and develop its implications we should end-up back where we started. For instance, our first assumption has to be the reasonableness of the universe and if we develop a successful theory then we will end-up justifying this axiom. He may also mean that our metaphysical investigations always begin and end with ourselves and our own nature.

Quibbles about language aside, I feel that Hegel is correct to say that approached properly metaphysics is a science. Far too many philosophers see it as a matter of opinion and conjecture and almost all scientists. The result is not progress but a discipline in utter confusion.


I think Hegel's characterisation of philosophy as science has to do with several things: as mentioned in the comments, the German word for science is literally "knowledge" - this points to the project of responding to Kant's idea that knowledge of the thing in itself is never properly achievable ... I believe Hegel's perspective is that philosophy is knowledge of the thing in itself, and it proper mode is movement through history - the method of philosophy is analogous to the method of science in discovering facts about nature, except the method of philosophy is itself the movement of history. The meaning of the whole of nature is realised through the formulations of philosophy - the whole of nature is like an "experiment" of science, and the formulations of philosophy are the means through which the absolute idea recognises itself - philosophy is the mirror through which the world spirit recognises its own form - the world spirit is the "in itself", which is the ultimate object of all knowledge and also the knower of itself. The extent of how philosophers can participate in this process is through observing the progress of the world spirit's knowledge of itself through the movement of history - I think Hegel was preoccupied with the idea that Napoleon was evidence of the movement of history, and the recognition of the "in itself" by the world spirit


Science and Wissenschaft

Hegel's own term is Wissenschaft, which is conventionally translated as 'science' even though 'science' now has misleading associations. It is perfectly all right to say that Wissenschaft means 'science' (for convenience) even though (more precisely understood) it doesn't.

The following passage might help clarify and distinguish the two terms :

Intriguingly, although the German term Wissenschaft is routinely remarked upon as different from the English term for science, the specific difference between the two is not in fact commonly discussed. From a philosophical perspective, what is more significant is that ... we lack any reflection upon what the difference between Wissenschaft and science might signify for (Anglophone) philosophy of science and the studies proper to the German discipline usually thought to render the former, i.e., Wissenschaftstheorie or Wissenschaftsphilosophie. This is not the occasion to do more than emphasize the importance of pursuing this substantive question further but in what follows, I briefly note the differences between Wissenschaft and science. Every word carries within its own linguistic sphere its own penumbra of derivations and its own set of associations, metaphoric as well as metonymic... ((Babette E. Babich, '"The Problem of Science" in Nietzsche and Heidegger', Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia, T. 63, Fasc. 1/3, Filosofia e Ciência / Science in Philosophy (Jan. - Sep., 2007), pp. 205-237 : 210-11.)

Dating from the fourteenth century, the word Wissenschaft was coined for the needs of a theological and mystical context in order to translate sciens, scientia which is likewise rendered by the English word science, with its further roots in the Latin, scire, to know, and related to scindere, to cut, divide ... ((Babette E. Babich, '"The Problem of Science" in Nietzsche and Heidegger', Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia, T. 63, Fasc. 1/3, Filosofia e Ciência / Science in Philosophy (Jan. - Sep., 2007), pp. 205-237 : 212.)

[It] is only since the eighteenth century that science has its current meaning in contrast to the arts, such that terms that had been substitutable one for the other, art and science are now opposed. Although scholars remind us that the two terms, science and Wissenschaft, are increas- ingly identical, it remains essential to recall the play of meanings and usage I referred to above as a word's penumbra. (Babette E. Babich, '"The Problem of Science" in Nietzsche and Heidegger', Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia, T. 63, Fasc. 1/3, Filosofia e Ciência / Science in Philosophy (Jan. - Sep., 2007), pp. 205-237 : 213-4.)

We recall that Wildhagen-Héraucourt German-English Dictionary refers first to natural science before listing the extended definition of Wissenschaft as 'learning, scholarship, erudition, and knowledge'. Although as first coined, Wissenschaft originally referred only to simple knowledge - as Die kleine Pauly notes Goethe's davon hab' ich kein Wissenschaft - today it typically corresponds to the collective pursuit of knowledge kinds. The collectivity is in turn the meaning of -schaft, analogous to the -ship in scholarship. In distinguishing between science and Wissenschaft in English and German usage, with important consequences for the philosophical discipline of the philosophy of science in particular, this complex difference continues to make all the difference, as it were. The Wahrig dictionary thus defines Wissenschaft as geordnetes, folgerichtig aufegebautes, zusammenhangendes Gebiet von Erkenntnissen , while by contrast the shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines science as 'the state or fact of knowing; knowledge or cognizance of something specified or implied' and features a separate definition, explicitly citing Wissenschaft as '(The systematic pursuit of) knowledge, science, learning, scholarship'. Wissenschaft defined in terms of an ordered, systematic and coherent disciplinary arena of knowledge corresponds only to the last sub-entry in the OED: 'The kind of organized knowledge or intellectual activity of which the various branches of learning are examples'. As the noun corresponding to wissen, Wissenschaft thus retains the connotations of the 'ways' or conduits of knowing, ways that can still be heard in English with the archaic wis (to show the way, to instruct) or wist, (know), and is not limited to "knowledge" [Erkenntis] alone. (Babette E. Babich, '"The Problem of Science" in Nietzsche and Heidegger', Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia, T. 63, Fasc. 1/3, Filosofia e Ciência / Science in Philosophy (Jan. - Sep., 2007), pp. 205-237 : 214.)

More relevant than etymology and definitions is the applicable scope of disciplines that can be called Wissenschaften as compared with "science" and this is especially relevant for philosophizing on science be it Nietzsche's aesthetic science, Kuhn's sociology of science, or history or gene or rocket science. Hence it is important to underscore the breadth of professional Wissenschaften, just to the degree that these are more numerous than those. gathered under the rubric of science. This means, in part, that although Nietzsche's identification of himself as a 'scientific' practitioner strikes a contemporary English speaker as eccentric (an impression which routinely elicits a footnote from analytic philosophers anxious to depict Nietzsche as science- friendly rather than science critical), calling himself a scientist wouldn't have been out of place in his day and his identification of his interests as scientific remains accurate - and that means unremarkable - in contemporary German. (Babette E. Babich, '"The Problem of Science" in Nietzsche and Heidegger', Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia, T. 63, Fasc. 1/3, Filosofia e Ciência / Science in Philosophy (Jan. - Sep., 2007), pp. 205-237 : 214-5.)

In just the same way Hegel's reference to philosophy as Wissenschaft only sounds odd and extravagant when we translate Wissenschaft as 'science' and think of science primarily in terms of the natural sciences. Philosophy is Wissenschaft for Hegel because it is, or he regards it as, and not unreasonably, an orderly, systematic and coherent intellectual inquiry. And whether it is or not, he is not claiming that it is a science on the model of physics or chemistry. (Not that he was uninterested in, or hostile to, the two latter.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.