- One Coming before the Other?On Jean Wahl and Jacques Derrida
After the discovery of Hegel’s early theological writings, which were subsequently published in 1907 by a student of Wilhelm Dilthey—Herman Nohl—Dilthey remarks in Die Jugendgeschichte Hegels (1905) that not only has Hegel “not written anything more beautiful” than these theological and historical fragments, but that in them “the whole historical genius of Hegel reveals itself in its prime vigor [ersten Frische], and still free from the fetters of the system” (Dilthey 1921, 68). The very beauty of Hegel’s early writings and their vital freshness is a function of their unfinishedness and of their fragmentary, rather than systematic, nature. These early writings by Hegel serve Dilthey to forcefully make the case that “in the intellectual history of Hegel clearly distinguishable stages must be separated from one another” (Dilthey 1921, 3).
It has been noted that Dilthey, indeed, was the first to make a distinction between an early and a late Hegel, thus laying the groundwork for a “historical development [Entwicklungsgeschichte]” of his thought (Pillen 2003, 58). As [End Page 1] Dilthey avers, how, precisely, “the ideas of the period that he has covered [in his study] have determined the development toward the final system” (Dilthey 1921, 4) can, of course, only be elucidated by way of a description of Hegel’s subsequent development. But his distinction of Hegel’s thought in the historical and theological writings from its mature stages, where it submits to the “fetters of the system,” not only shows his conception of the history of the development of a thinker’s thought to be modeled after the biological schema of the life cycle of a human being, this approach also suggests the possibility of entirely separating both stages from one another and of eventually setting Hegel’s early thought entirely apart from the alleged calcifications that it undergoes in his later thought.
In Le malheur de la conscience dans la philosophie de Hegel—that is, Jean Wahl’s highly influential book from 1929 for the reception of Hegel’s thought in France that was based on an exclusive familiarity with Hegel’s later systematic work, particularly the Encyclopedia—Dilthey’s distinction between an early and late Hegel is Wahl’s starting point. The aim of his study consists in exacerbating the difference between Hegel’s early theological and historical thought and later mature systematic work to such an extent that the unity of Hegel’s work is radically put into question. Furthermore, Wahl considers Hegel’s early writings to be much richer than what the thinker accomplished in his mature work. He remarks that however rich the Hegelian system in its definite shape may be, “it is not rich enough to comprehend within the multiplicity of its thoughts, the imaginations, hopes, and despairs of the young Hegel” (Wahl 1991, vii). With the early German Romantics in view, Wahl’s assessment of the richness of Hegel’s youthful writings is the result of what he qualifies as their fragmentary nature. But Hegel’s theological political writings are not fragments like those published in the Athenaeum by the early Romantics. They are just drafts of parts of a still incomplete whole. Some of them are even of considerable length.
Scholars are in full agreement that Wahl’s study represents a crucial turning point in the reception of Hegel in France. Bernard Bourgeois notes that “with Jean Wahl…Hegel gained a real and permanent acceptance in the French university of the 20th century” (Bourgeois 2007, 77). But to characterize the real impact that Wahl’s study had at the time, I turn to Jean Hyppolite, [End Page 2] who, in his own interpretation of Hegel (in particular, “of absolute knowledge as the ‘disquiet of life’”) can be seen to follow Wahl.1 Hyppolite recalls that the latter’s book “was bewildering to us [bouleversante]. It revealed to us a Romantic Hegel precisely at the time we imagined Hegel as a manufacturer of systems” (Hyppolite 1971, 233). Indeed, as the title of Wahl’s book from 1929 already indicates, the Hegel that is being presented here, on the basis of Nohl’s...