Models for System in Idealist Encyclopedics: The Circle, The Line, and the Body

The Eighteenth Century has been called the “age of the encyclopedia,” but the understanding of that word is very different in the encyclopedias of Chambers and Diderot on the one hand, and on the other hand the German Idealist tradition variously exemplified by Hegel’s Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Schelling’s On University Studies, and Novalis’ Romantic Encyclopedia. In Kant’s terms, the first provides an aggregate of knowledge, whereas the second attempts a system that entails an architectonic. Focusing on Hegel’s desire to unify all the sciences through the meta-discipline of philosophy, this paper explores the increasing complication of his architectonic by the very figures he uses to safeguard it: namely the circle, the line, and the body. Tracing the supplementary relationship between the first and the second, I argue that the body with its multiple subsystems brings to a head the collapse of the “smooth” system Hegel intended into a “tangled’” system: a productive collapse, because instead of being a forced unification of knowledge, the encyclopedia becomes a thought-environment for transferences between disciplines and potentially the emergence of new disciplines. Or, in effect, it becomes a form of “Theory” avant la lettre.