“The Letter Kills, but the Spirit Gives Life”: Letters on the Spirit and the Letter of Hegel's Philosophy

Critical Horizons 24 (3):266-281 (2023)
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This essay traces Hegel's conceptualisation of “the spirit and the letter”, from the period of his early theological writings to that of the Science of Logic, with particular reference to his correspondence. This dialectic, for Hegel, concerns the realisation of the truth or “spirit” of something from the specificity and fixity of its particular details – its “letter”. It also concerns, then, the freedom to interpret the spirit of something in spite of the apparent authority of any supposed original meanings or authorial intentions. We find him using the phrase in a variety of contexts, with reference to politics, Biblical hermeneutics, textual criticism, the history of philosophy and education. While originally derived from St Paul's dictum – “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6) – Hegel's early invocations of “the spirit and the letter” are inspired by Fichte, who sought to distinguish the spirit from the letter of Kant's philosophy. However, while Fichte conceives of the “spirit” as an “aesthetic sense” with which to take creative liberties with the letter, the later Hegel finds that it is only by tarrying with the contradictions of the dead letter that the spirit might be brought to life.



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The phenomenology of spirit.G. W. F. Hegel, H. C. Brockmeyer & W. T. Harris - 1868 - Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2 (3):165 - 171.
Faith and Knowledge.G. W. F. Hegel, Walter Cerf & H. S. Harris - 1981 - International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 12 (1):63-64.
The Difference between Fichte's and Schelling's System of Philosophy.G. W. F. Hegel, H. S. Harris & Walter Cerf - 1977. - International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 11 (2):138-138.

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