Friday, 15 March 2013

In what sense is Hegel an Idealist?

In what sense is Hegel an Idealist?

In his book, Hegel and Idealism, Karl Americks’ writes that there is no ‘accurate, substantive, and appealing sense in which Hegel should be regarded as an idealist’1And he further argues that claims to regard him as such are ‘extravagant’ and ‘trivial’.
Robert Pippin, on the other hand, writes that: ‘Hegel followed Kant in attempting to deduce the categories from the conditions of self-consciousness, to ground them in the “I”’2.  Pippin here provides a reading that interprets Hegel as a kind of Transcendental Idealist; that is, someone who places priority on the appearances of the world.
This paper aims to refute both claims by arguing in defence for an interpretation of Hegel as an Absolute Idealist.  In the first part of the essay an interpretation of Hegel as an Absolute Idealist will be put forward, and in the second part, it will address both Americks and Pippins criticisms.


Hegel’s Philosophy is, mainly, a reaction to Kant’s dualistic Philosophy.  For Kant, the world is a construct of cognition: that is, what we see as the world is a perception of the mind and not the underlying reality.  But Hegel disagrees that the world in it self is ultimately unknowable, claiming it to be an ‘empty beyond’, since it raises the problem of how such raw data provides us with our general sensations in the first place.
Hegel wants to resist such a division and instead attempt to reconcile ‘concept with reality3’ or as Solomon states: ‘unify man and nature’4.  Thus, Hegel’s quest is absolute knowledge. 
In his Encyclopaedia, Hegel acknowledged that the absolute is the ‘task of Philosophy’5The goal is to come to know the world as it is in it self.  Thus, Hegel is attempting to do metaphysics by pure reason – something Kant would have claimed impossible; but for Hegel Absolute Idealism provides us with such a possibility. 
Hegel defines Absolute Idealism as ‘the doctrine that things are appearances of the universal divine idea’ (EPW §24A)6.  This reading suggests the absolute as a kind of God, a spirit in which everything is incorporated, and from which everything emanates.  Therefore, it can be argued that Hegel adopts a monistic form of idealism in which everything in the world, including the world itself, is seen as belonging to the essence of an absolute mind-like substance –namely, to Godi.  Indeed, Hegel often stated that the: ‘subject matter of philosophy is God and God alone’7. Viewed in these terms, Schelling was wrong to assert that subject and object are one and the same thing.  Instead, they are wholly different yet share the same inherent essence.  As Hegel stated in his Differenzchrift, it is the principal of subject-object identity that expresses the very spirit of ‘authentic idealism’ (D, II 9-10/79-80)8.  Thus, he is essentially saying that both subject and object are manifestations of the same thing – that is to say, they share an identity that binds them to the absolute spirit.

How are we to interpret this form of idealism? Like Kant, Hegel places priority over mind as the fundamental corner stone to knowledge, but Hegel’s Absolute Idealism differs from this.  It differs in the sense that:

‘consciousness must have related itself to the object in accordance with the totality of the latter’s determinations and have thus grasped it from the standpoint of each of them.  This totality of its determinations establishes the object as an implicitly spiritual being ’(PS §788)9.

The idea here is that subject and object are intrinsically related to each other; they are both mind-like in essence, and such a connection between the two is implicitly spiritual.  This way Hegel is attempting to merge subject and object together. 
If we follow Hegel’s dialectic - our consciousness striving to progress and develop toward freedom and perfection - then eventually we will come to the point where mind is at one with both it self and reality.
Hence, absolute knowing can be summed up as a ‘spirit that knows itself in the shape of spirit’(PS §798)10, or, in other words, mind coming to know itself as a form of mind.  The progress of our consciousness comes to an end when we discover that the meaning of life lies within an Absolute Spirit that is the totality of human consciousness – the Absolute Idea.


Karl Americks, as we have seen, would charge such a view of idealism, or any view of idealism for that matter, as extravagant and trivial.  This is a very strong and, I think, rather inconsiderate criticism.  If Hegel is not an idealist then, equally, he cannot be a realist or a materialist in any sense because Hegel’s Philosophy is, in my opinion, absolutely anti-realist in the sense that he sees the universe as mind-like.  He is a monist along similar lines to Spinoza, as Hegel often refers to spirit or a God as essence in which everything comes to existence.  Things in the world don’t necessarily exist as separate things to us, only the Absolute Idea exists.  Surely such a concept is sound for interpreting Hegel as an idealist.  Because of his monism, it’s arguable that this mind-like substance is the Absolute Idea.
The point, however, is that Hegel’s enquiry is, fundamentally, human thought.  He is attempting to amalgamate human consciousness with an abstract conception of absolute as consciousness or spirit.  Both these are idealistic notions; one of the inner subject and the other as an abstract form of idealism created by his idealism. Contemplating an end of a, potentially, infinite regress appears troublesome, indeed it seems nigh on impossible, but surely we must not criticize Hegel for such thinking as absurd or, as Americks puts it, ‘extravagant’.  Such thinking can only come from an idealist in the first place.  But as Robert Stern mentions, why can’t ideas in philosophy be so extravagant? Surely conceptualising something extravagant requires an extravagant form of thinking, something which Hegel fits the bill, and it is such thinking which makes him an Absolute Idealist.
This interpretation may not be appealing to all, or even correct; but in answering the initial question, this isn’t to say that he is not an idealist in any sense.

Pippin’s criticism is, however, a little more damaging than Americks.  He sees Hegel as, basically, a Transcendental Idealist, one who grounds the experiences through the “I”.
Indeed, such a reading is not prima facie misleading.  Hegel begins his phenomenology by placing consciousness as the starting point of knowledge, so, in a sense, progress must be a condition of what the mind sees.
But the difficulty with such a reading begins with, as we have seen, Hegel’s rejection of the Kantian realm of the thing in it self or the empty beyond.  Indeed to claim Hegel as a Transcendental Idealist implies that Hegel is restricted to the world of his own mind and that such raw data transcend from his notion of the ‘empty beyond’ which he initially wanted to get rid of.  However, in reply, it could be argued that since the world as it is in it self is not knowable within the confines of human experience, then Hegel’s conduct of metaphysics is utilized in a transcendental manner, since we can’t escape our minds eye.  In saying that, it could also be argued that philosophizing about the world as it appears to be, implies an unknowable world providing us with the appearances in the first place.  So why can’t we say that we are experiencing and knowing the world as it really is instead? This is, in essence, Hegel’s argument for the Absolute.  We do know the world as it really is because our mind comes to realize that it is the builder of reality, and that the source of our mind and everything else comes from the Absolute mind in which everything is connected with implicitly.  Therefore, although there are perceptive differences and different levels of conscious awareness amongst human and animal, we share one underlying ‘cosmic conscious’11 – the absolute idea.  For example, a cup may look different to each of us, but most people would agree that there are inherent similarities that we all share about the cup; for example its use.  Likewise, with animals there are similarities we have in common such as hunger, emotional needs and an intimate sense of connection; for example, with particular pets we share a mutual level of understanding.  Although the level of consciousness varies, the connection between consciousness is absolute mind.
Therefore there must be something universal that provides us with such a bond.  For Hegel then, both subjects and objects are grounded within the inherent spirit of the Absolute in which everything is a part of; his Absolute Idealism allows us to become implicitly aware of such a bond.  Hence things are not strictly grounded in Pippin’s loosely defined notion of the “I”.
Hegel, thus, is an Absolute Idealist because he allows his mind to progress in an unlimited way.  A way in which other forms of idealism does not allow.

If such an interpretation of Hegel as an Absolute Idealist is accepted, then surely this leaves a metaphysical enquiry into the nature of the absolute, but Hegel states:

 ‘the terminus [of the absolute] is at that point where knowledge is no longer compelled to go beyond itself’ (PS §80)12

So, such thoughts, whatever they be, are already within the absolute.  The terminus is true knowledge of everything as a complete whole in which, at that point, we can’t venture beyond it because there is no obligation to.  But the difficulty is that we just can’t imagine this!
Perhaps the problem with Hegel’s idea is his insistence that we can ‘know’ the world as it really is, for this implies that we are explicitly certain about it; but clearly this is not the case.  Instead we re compelled to know it implicitly.
But, as Schleiermacher mentioned, knowledge of the Absolute is more a ‘matter of feeling’13 or hunch that there is something unconditionally knowable that we and everything else are an essential part.
A Wittgensteinian may argue that this is a matter of language going on holiday (PI §38)14, but this would be to impose that the problem is with our own thinking, and that there is no meaning to the universe.  Indeed there might not be any meaning in an anthropomorphic sense, but because we can’t justify meaning humanly, is not to say that there is no meaning at all.

To summarize the argument, Hegel is an Absolute Idealist in the sense that he incorporates subject and object as mind-like.  That our consciousness is essentially the creator of reality and that such reality is conditioned upon the Absolute Idea which is unconditioned.
He is not an idealist in a subjective nor transcendental sense as he finds these as heavily one sided. 
Although Pippin argues that he follows on from Kant’s metaphysics, a more accurate interpretation shows that even though Hegel incorporates it as part of his quest for Absolute knowledge, essentially he reacts to it as an incomplete system.
As Americks doesn’t interpret Hegel as an idealist in any sense, it is more unlikely that he is either a realist or materialist in any sense, since he is very much adamant about an underlying essence from which everything becomes into being.
Effectively, therefore, Hegel jumps from a limited form of thinking to an unlimited one, and it is this leap that makes him an Absolute Idealist.

© 2011 Roberto Nacci All Rights Reserved


i This is very similar to Spinoza’s Idea of God.

1 Karl Americks, Hegel and Idealism, The Monist, 74 (1991) , pp. 386-402 p.397
2 Robert B. Pippin, Hegel’s Idealism: The satisfaction of Self-consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 7.
3 G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, In Robert. C Solomon, In the Spirit of Hegel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p, 176
4 Robert. C. Solomon, In the Spirit of Hegel, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 23
5 Frederick Beiser, Hegel (Oxon: Routledge, 2005), p. 54
6 G.W.F. Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, Part I of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, In Beiser (2005), p. 57
7Beiser, op. cit., p.54.
8Beiser, op. cit., p. 62
9 G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1977)
10 ibid.  p
11 Peter Singer, Hegel, In Roger Scruton, Peter Singer, Christopher Janaway, and Michale Tanner, German Philosophers. Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche ( Oxford: Oxford University Press (1997) p. 177
12 G.W.F. Hegel op. cit, §80
13 Solomon, op. cit., p.85
14 G.E.M. Anscombe and R.Rhees (1953), Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell

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