Fichte greatly admired the coherence of the quasi-mathematically structured “system” of Spinoza’s Ethics, even though he strenuously objected to Spinoza’s determinism. In his early work, he announces the objective of constructing a “system of freedom” that would be some sort of inverse of Spinoza’s. Rather than following Spinoza’s quasi-mathematical method of presentation, Fichte proceeded more informally. He was influenced by the early Kant interpreter K. L. Reinhold’s claim that philosophy should be derived from a single principle, and aimed to put this into practice with his notion of the universal “I” as the principle.
Schelling inherited the rhetorical emphasis on a system from Fichte (e.g., one of the works of his early period was entitled Presentation of My Own System), but in general was a less rigorous thinker.
Hegel also inherited the rhetorical emphasis on a system, but aimed to be more rigorous than Fichte. At the same time he expands upon Kant’s criticism of the quasi-mathematical presentation in Spinoza, and explicitly rejects Reinhold’s view that philosophy should be derived from a single principle. So, there is a serious question what “system” really means for Hegel.
It is clear from his explicit remarks that he put an extraordinarily high value on the coherence of philosophical thought. The advance of studies of Hegel, especially since the later 20th century, has confirmed that he largely succeeded in putting this into practice. Both his overall thought and his detailed arguments are increasingly recognized as highly coherent.
The historic negative reception of Hegel has consisted largely in caricatures of his systematic ambitions. I call them caricatures because they rely on attributing to Hegel notions of “system” that were not his.
Hegel’s rhetorical emphasis on system, I want to suggest, is a red herring. What really matters in his thought is not “system” but coherence.
The notion of systems originates in mathematics, and there it has unambiguous meaning. Systems in mathematics do have great utility, because you can’t mathematically prove anything independent of a particular presentation, but this makes mathematical systems intrinsically presentation-dependent. That is to say, the particular terms and order with which the content is developed and presented are essential to making it a system for the same reasons that they are essential to proof. Mathematicians recognize that there may be multiple equivalent formulations, presentations, and systematizations of the “same” content.
I don’t find any of the attempts to present non-mathematical “systems” very helpful or convincing as such. (The common talk about real-world “systems” in engineering and science — which does also have utility — I take to be grounded in a kind of transference from the mathematical concept of a system. It is really the mathematics that describes the things or behavior of interest that may be expressible as a system.)
On the other hand, I want to say that the notion of coherence is more universal than that of a system or systems — systems are presentation-dependent, and coherence is not. The rhetorical stance of the German idealists seems to me to have assumed that the only way to achieve coherence is through the uniform presentation of a system. Certainly it is the most straightforward way, but that does not mean it is the only way.
Coherence in Hegel, I want to suggest, is “development-dependent” but not presentation-dependent. Robert Pippin points out that none of Hegel’s works is structured in a deductive order — rather, they all follow a “developmental” order that more resembles the telling of a story or an account of a history.
Hegel’s notorious idiosyncratic and paradoxical straining of language to talk about “identities” that preserve distinctions is helpfully explainable in terms of the notion of narrative identity developed by Paul Ricoeur. Aristotle’s articulation of things “said in many ways” and his more subtle development of “substance” in the Metaphysics are relevant background for this. (See Aristotelian Identity; Univocity.)
Ricoeur is the main developer to date of a synthesis of Kant and Aristotle independent of Hegel’s. Mediation is as central to his thought as it is to Hegel’s, and he explicitly recognized the convergence. However, he strongly rejected the “system” aspect of Hegel, and his development also doesn’t explicitly include anything resembling the Hegelian absolute, even in the deflationary form in which I think Hegel really meant it.