Hegel and the Problem of Language

Griffin, Daniel
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University of Guelph

Despite the popular proposal that 20th century philosophy is characterized by a decisive “linguistic turn,” language features prominently in G. W. F. Hegel’s writings on the philosophy of mind nearly a century earlier. Yet Hegel devoted no book, essay, or set of lectures to the topic of language. Rather, in the effort to build a systematic philosophy, he discusses language only in a piecemeal fashion across different texts, tying certain characteristics of language to its role in addressing and overcoming epistemic problems, which the mind experiences in its drive to understand itself and the world. This dissertation presents a new interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy of language by dialectically linking his discussions of language. I argue that Hegel shows how language, in resolving epistemic problems, functions as a key tool for enabling us to become free thinkers and knowers. Part I examines language in Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, particularly his philosophy of “subjective mind,” where language appears as a system of signs produced by subjects to overcome the given form of our intuitive experiences. Part II analyzes and links discussions of language in the Philosophy of Right, where as a means of communication it serves to create and make recognizable particular social relationships, which both inform our own sense of self and enable us to surpass the subjective character of our knowledge. Part III analyzes Hegel’s account of “speculative” uses of language, where philosophers express their own practice of freely gathering and traversing the concepts constitutive of their own epistemic activity. By critically engaging the literature on Hegel and language over the past 70 years, this interpretation shows not only the significance of language in Hegel’s philosophy but also its role in freeing us from entrenched, habitual, and otherwise limited ways of understanding ourselves and the world.

Hegel, Philosophy, Language