By his own account, Hegel makes a “completely fresh start” in what he calls logic (Science of Logic, di Giovanni trans., 1st preface, p. 9). Robert Pippin points out that insofar as it has precursors, the principal debts of Hegel’s effort are to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Judgment and to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, none of which are ordinarily viewed as works of “logic”. Translator George di Giovanni calls it a “discourse about discourse” (p. xxxv). Fundamentally, it is about meaning, and the conditions for anything to be intelligible.
“[A]n altogether new concept… is at work here…. [Philosophy] cannot borrow its method from a subordinate science, such as mathematics, any more than it can remain satisfied with categorical assurances of inner intuition, or can make use of argumentation based on external reflection. On the contrary, it can only be the nature of the content which is responsible for movement in scientific knowledge, for it is the content’s own reflection that first posits and generates what that content is” (pp. 9-10).
He emphasizes “the nature of the content” (which is to say meaning), and “content’s own reflection”. That reflection, moreover, “first posits and generates what that content is“. Meaning’s own reflection “posits and generates” what it means. We are not far from Aristotle’s thought thinking itself that is the cause of the what-it-is of things. Hegel shares with Kant and Aristotle a discursively reflective view of thought and meaning.
I still prefer to speak of “knowledge” rather than “science” in a philosophical context. But Hegel just means a disciplined form of knowledge. The German word for science (Wissenschaft) literally means something like the art of knowing (wissen). Our word “science” comes from Latin scientia (knowledge in a strong sense). According to di Giovanni, wissen for Hegel “signifies the product or the origin, rather than the process, of reason” (p. lxx). It is distinguished from Erkenntnis (confusingly also rendered by some translators as “knowledge”), which starts from a root meaning of acquaintance or recognition, and comes to refer to the process of reason.
“The forms of thought are first set out and stored in human language…. In everything that the human being has interiorized, in everything that in some way or another has become for him a representation, in whatever he has made his own, there has language penetrated, and everything that he transforms into language and expresses in it contains a category, whether concealed, mixed, or well defined. So much is logic natural to the human being, [it] is indeed his very nature. If we however contrast nature as such, as the realm of the physical, with the realm of the spiritual, then we must say that logic is the supernatural element that permeates all his natural behavior, his ways of sensing, intuiting, desiring, his needs and impulses; and it thereby makes them into something truly human, even though only formally human — makes them into representations and purposes” (2nd preface, p. 12).
Our involvement with linguistic meaning is “our very nature”, or is the “supernatural” element in our natural behavior that makes us truly human. As one reading of Aristotle puts it, what makes us human is that we are talking animals.
“But even when logical matters and their expressions are common coin in a culture, still, as I have said elsewhere, what is familiar is for that reason not known…. To indicate the general features of the course that cognition goes through as it leaves familiar acquaintance behind, the essential moments in the relationship of scientific thought to this natural thought, this is the purpose of the present preface” (p. 13).
“First of all, it must be regarded as an infinite step forward that the forms of thought have been freed from the material in which they are submerged in self-conscious intuition, in representation, as well as in our desires and volitions or, more accurately, in ideational desiring and willing (and there is no human desire or volition without ideation); a step forward that these universalities have been brought to light and made the subject of study on their own, as was done by Plato, and after him by Aristotle especially” (pp. 13-14).
He credits Plato and Aristotle with first clearly articulating notions of thought and meaning in a way that is independent of particular subjectivity. Next he cautions against the illusion of mastery.
“We do not indeed say of our feelings, impulses, interests, that they serve us; on the contrary, they count as independent forces and powers, so that to have this particular feeling, to desire and to will this particular thing, to make this our interest — just this, is what we are. And it is more likely that we become conscious of obeying our feelings, impulses, passions, interests, not to mention our habits, than of having them in our possession, still less, in view of our intimate union with them, of their being means at our disposal. Such determinations of mind and spirit, when contrasted with the universality which we are conscious of being and in which we have our freedom, quickly show themselves to be particulars, and we rather regard ourselves to be caught up in their particularities and to be dominated by them. It is all the less plausible, therefore, to believe that the thought determinations that pervade all our representations — whether these are purely theoretical or hold a material belonging to sensation, impulse, will — that such thought determinations are at our service; that it is we who have them in our possession and not they who have us in theirs” (p. 15).
We are masters neither of our feelings nor of our thought.
“[W]hen the content that motivates a subject to action is drawn out of its immediate unity with the subject and is made to stand before it as an object, then it is that the freedom of spirit begins” (p. 17).
True freedom of spirit is the very opposite of following one’s arbitrary will or impulse.
“The most important point for the nature of spirit is the relation, not only of what it implicitly is in itself to what it actually is, but of what it knows itself to be to what it actually is” (ibid).
Here he already raises the Aristotelian theme of the priority of actuality.
“As impulses the categories do their work only instinctively; they are brought to consciousness one by one and so are variable and mutually confusing, thus affording to spirit only fragmentary and uncertain actuality. To purify these categories and in them to elevate spirit to truth and freedom, this is therefore the loftier business of logic” (ibid).
Hegel’s logic thus serves a profound ethical purpose.
“It is soon evident that what in ordinary reflection is, as content, at first separated from the form cannot in fact be formless, … that it rather possesses form in it; indeed that it receives soul and substance from the form alone and that it is this form itself which is transformed into only the semblance of a content…. By thus introducing content into logical consideration, it is not the things, but rather the fact [Sache], the concept of the things, that becomes the subject matter” (pp. 18-19).
What the moderns call “content” is a special case of what Plato and Aristotle call form. Hegel calls it a “semblance” of content. But its role in his logic is pivotal. Logic is concerned not with things as such but with meanings, Aristotelian forms, the what-it-is of things. What the translator calls “fact” seems rather different from ordinary English usage.