Before Auguste Comte, Hegel had an equal concern to make the apology of systems, by showing that their diversity is not opposed to the unity of the spirit: “The history of philosophy, says he, makes manifest, in the various philosophies which appear, that there is only one philosophy in various stages of development, and also, that the particular principles on which a system is based are but branches of one and the same together. The latest philosophy is the result of all the preceding philosophies and must contain the principles of all these philosophies.” This is neither the sectarianism which excommunicates nor the skepticism which takes advantage of the divergences of systems to dismiss them all; sectarianism and skepticism suppose that there are several philosophies; history posits that there is only one. “To justify the contempt of philosophy, one admits that there are different philosophies, each of which is a philosophy and not the philosophy, – as if there were cherries which were not also fruit “. The history of philosophy is the development of a “single living spirit” taking possession of itself; it only exposes in time what philosophy itself, “liberated from external historical circumstances, exposes in a pure state in the element of thought”.
Unity of the human spirit and continuity of its development, such are the a priori certainties which, imposing themselves on the historian even before he has begun his research, put in his hands the thread which will allow him to orient himself. What this thesis presupposes is the existence of a kind of historical a priori, an a priori which consists in the nature of the mind and whose knowledge is not at all justiciable from the historical methods. The history of philosophy is the history of the manifestations of the spirit; as such, it is rid of contingencies and accidents; the historian is sure to find a dialectical link between the successive systems.
With Hegel and Comte, we are at the opposite extreme of the situation where the Renaissance had left the history of philosophy; the past no longer opposes the present; it conditions it and, justified by it, it only unfolds the unity of a systematic and preconceived plan. The whole development of the history of philosophy up to the present day rests on a discussion of this postulate.
Indeed the knowledge of the law immanent to this development is not the result of historical observation and induction. The unity of philosophy, in Hegel, is not an observation, but a postulate. It is a postulate that can only be accepted with the philosophy of which it is a part. Is this how history appears to the unprejudiced view? “Any man of ordinary judgment who is brought face to face with the spectacle offered by the history of philosophy will immediately form an idea of it singularly different from what the sophism of Hegelian philosophy would like.” Renouvier, who formulates this opinion, goes back in fact, beyond French eclecticism, beyond Hegel and Diderot, to this tradition of sectarianism, against which the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had risen, because it did not answer not to the passionate desire for the unity of the human spirit. According to Renouvier, the division of philosophers into opposing sects is not a historical accident, resulting from temporary prejudices that the “enlightenment” will make disappear, but a normal phenomenon which is due to the constitution of the human mind. “For twenty-five centuries, in the West, the greatest oppositions have been maintained between philosophers. Undoubtedly, the controversy and the progress of positive knowledge have been able to eliminate certain questions and suppress certain dissidences, but the majority and the most serious of all have only receded or been transported elsewhere.” The human mind is antithetical in nature; the dominant controversy is that which exists between the doctrine of freedom and that of determinism; to this controversy are reduced, according to Renouvier, all the others, and we can systematically classify all the systems, by making each of them fit into one or the other of these two doctrines. Or, it is not to be expected that one part will ever be able to convince the other by compelling reasons. This explains and justifies the existence of sects. The fault of eclecticism and Hegelianism is to have seen in sects only sometimes an arbitrary product of fantasy, sometimes a necessary but entirely provisional moment in the development of thought.
From Renouvier’s point of view, the history of philosophy thus freezes in a timeless dialogue between two contradictory and always resurgent theses; from one era to another, there are no philosophically important differences; the “variations of terminology, the diversity of the relations under which each problem can be envisaged” and which make it possible “to give a form and new expressions to opinions which are such; on the other hand, it has permanent frameworks, those which allow “the systematic classification of doctrines”; but these frameworks are necessities of thought and not historical facts. The only initiative which remains permitted to the human mind is not the construction of systems which are essentially predetermined (just as with Gérando or Cousin), but the free adoption of one of the two only possible directions. Originality is not, as was believed, in the intellectual invention of a system, but in the attitude of the will towards preformed systems.
Renouvier’s point of view already marks the abandonment of the doctrine of an alleged historical necessity. His very era and even more ours, give us the spectacle of a sort of disintegration of the great historical syntheses; our time has a manifest revulsion for great constructions, whether Hegelian or positivist. The external signs of this state of mind are that the outstanding works in the history of philosophy are no longer general histories, but works limited to a period such as the Philosophy of the Greeks by Édouard Zeller , or to a nation, or to a problem, like the System of the World from Plato to Copernicus by Duhem, or philological collections like the Fragments of the Presocratics and the Greek Doxographs of H. Diels, or monographs like those of Hamelin on the System of Aristotle or the System of Descartes. The general histories of philosophy themselves have a more analytical than synthetic method and aim more to collect the results of the work used in the monographs than to discover an immanent law of development; such under this aspect, Renouvier’s Analytical Philosophy of History; such as the History of European Philosophy by Weber, the History of Philosophy by Problems by Janet and Séailles, and more obviously still the great History of Philosophy by Ueberweg, which aims only to keep the reader up to date with the original work on each question.
The causes of this situation, which is new, are of two kinds. The first is the immense philological labor which, since about 1850, thanks to critical editions, discoveries of texts, collections of fragments, has, at the same time as clarifying and enriching our information, made it difficult or even impossible these overviews that the historians of yesteryear prided themselves on having. This must be so if we think of the conditions of the philological method: from his point of view, in fact, the periods of history are distinguished less by positive events which would mark their beginning and their end than by the nature and condition of the sources which make them known; to take only a rough example, how different is the state of our sources relating to ancient philosophy, with its rare original works, and the state of the sources of medieval or modern philosophy, whose abundance frightens the imagination. The work of criticism and interpretation of the texts must follow in the two cases different methods and it even implies habits of mind distinct enough that one cannot boast of possessing them at the same time; but the same should be said of much shorter periods; Stoicism and Epicureanism, for example, known from shreds of texts, cannot be studied in the same way as Aristotle’s system, whose teaching is fully preserved.
On the other hand, the conclusions of the philologist, when it comes to interpreting a thought and grasping its meaning, are often provisional and at the mercy of a new discovery or a new rapprochement; the interpretations of ancient systems like Platonism, or even of modern doctrines, like those of Descartes or Kant, are innumerable; how to find there a solid point of support for a synthetic construction?
To the requirements of the philological method is added a second reason, even more important for us to determine us to describe the whole of the philosophical past. Comte and Hegel, and even Renouvier deal with philosophy and not with philosophers. Whether they consider these representations of the universe, which they study, as eternal frameworks imposed by the very nature of reason, or as kinds of collective representations, themselves evolving collectively, and transforming with society, they make philosophy something impersonal, or, at least, the personal expression that a philosopher gives of the thoughts of his time is only the accident; the essential is elsewhere, in this rational or social dictamen, a sort of deity, to which individual consciences naturally submit — be they those of a Plato or of a Descartes.
Source: Émile Bréhier, Histoire de la philosophie – Tome premier: L’Antiquité et le Moyen âge, Librairie Félix Alcan, Paris, 1928. Tanslation and adaptation by Nicolae Sfetcu © 2022 Multimedia Publishing