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Absolute idealism is a supposedly ontologically monistic philosophy attributed to G. W. F. Hegel, although it really doesn’t qualify as ontology (thought about the metaphysical foundation or nature of “being”). Hegel taught that in order for a thinking “subject” (called “consciousness,” a human mind) to comprehend any perceived material “object,” subject must realize the essential identity of subject and object. Though both are superficially different particulars, the two particulars and all other objects in the universe (including all humans and their minds) comprise a “universal” called Spirit. Spirit is their hidden inner essence. Subject and object, though existentially separate, are essentially identical. This identity explains the Hegelian concept of “subject-object identity.” In short, Spirit is a universe (a general concept) composed of particulars, one composed of many.
To conceal his atheism, Hegel occasionally calls Spirit “God” and treats it as a living organism, but both “God” and Spirit’s “life” are metaphors, not to be taken literally. Spirit is just an atheistic redefinition of God, a creature invented by Hegel for philosophical purposes, not something Hegel believed in. There is nothing metaphysical or otherwise supernatural about Spirit; it is simply “all reality” plus the collective mind of humanity. And there is nothing truly ontological, nothing metaphysical, about Hegel’s thought. By giving Spirit a Mind that often seems to resemble the transcendent mind of the God of theism (a mind existing apart from or above the physical universe), Hegel tries to create the impression that Spirit, if not actually the God of Christianity, is at least a panentheistic entity. Panentheism (spelled with that en in the middle) combines (a) a nonmaterial metaphysical (hence supernatural) “essence” said to exist within every material object and (b) a transcendent mind resembling that of the God of theism.
The absolute idealist position was dominant in the nineteenth century in Germany, Britain, and, much less so, the United States. The absolute idealist position should be distinguished from the subjective idealism of Berkeley, the transcendental idealism of Kant, or the idealisms of Fichte and Schelling.
When he wrote his magnum opus, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), “Hegel was desperate for a position [professorship], and to get a position, he needed a book.” Writing a book openly espousing atheism, however, would have been professional suicide. Solomon writes: “Hegel really did have a secret, and . . . it has been well kept. The secret, abruptly stated, is that Hegel was an atheist. His ‘Christianity’ is nothing but nominal, an elaborate subterfuge to protect his professional ambitions in the most religiously conservative country in northern Europe.” Solomon elaborates: “Hegel had seen Spinoza’s Ethics condemned in Germany. He had seen Kant, whom he considered to be unquestioningly orthodox, censured and censored by the narrow-minded regime of Frederick William II. He had seen Fichte dismissed from the University of Jena [where Hegel was teaching when he wrote The Phenomenology of Spirit] for views that were (incorrectly) construed as atheistic.” So Hegel concealed the true substance of his thought by using (1) ambiguous, often undecipherable obscurantist language, (2) cleverly concealed thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics, and (3) an almost inscrutable creature of his own creation called Spirit.
Hegel defines Spirit as “all reality.” In essence, Spirit is simply humanity, but its structure is more complicated. Spirit has a physical side and a mental side, each of which has a general aspect and a particular aspect. On the physical side, Spirit is the material universe (general) and consists of all natural and artificial objects (particulars) that constitute the universe or “world.” On the mental side, Spirit is the collective Mind of mankind (general) and consists of all of the human minds (particulars) on earth – and nothing else, nothing supernatural. Since man is the most important part of the physical universe, and since man’s mind is identical to Spirit’s mind, Spirit or “God” is essentially humanity. Tucker can thus write that Hegel “gives us a picture of a self-glorifying humanity striving compulsively, and at the end successfully, to rise to divinity.”.
Tucker interprets: “From the standpoint of the Hebraic-Christian theology, which places God above and beyond nature . . . , this [Hegel’s concept of Spirit or “God”] would of course have to be qualified as ‘atheism’.” Findlay writes: “Hegel often speaks the language of a metaphysical theology, but such language, it is plain, is a mere concession to the pictorial mode of religious expression. As a philosopher, Hegel believes in no God and no Absolute.” Solomon similarly concludes that Hegel does not “believe anything a thorough-going atheistic humanist cannot believe.” Beiser agrees, stating that Hegel’s metaphysics “has nothing to do with the supernatural.” Pinkard likewise rejects the idea that Spirit is a supernatural entity. So does Westphal. And Wheat writes: “All humans become part of Spirit. Man becomes God. This is atheism, pure and simple.” It is true that other interpreters, apparently seduced by Hegel’s use of “God” and a rare “He” as a synonym for Spirit and by Spirit’s having a mind, have given Spirit pantheistic and panentheistic interpretations. But as Kaufmann states, Hegel’s description of Spirit “should have caused no misunderstanding, had it not been for Hegel’s occasional references to God.” Kaufmann adds: “To put it in our own words: there is no supreme being beyond.”
At the end of Phenomenology, Spirit graduates to the status of Absolute Spirit; before the end Spirit is simply Spirit, not yet absolute. Spirit’s transformation into Absolute Spirit is the last stage of a metaphorical – not literal – “life of the Spirit.” This “life” is a three-stage dialectical process. The three stages are (1) an unconscious thesis stage, (2) a conscious antithesis stage, and (3) a synthesis stage in which Spirit achieves self-consciousness, also called self-awareness or self-realization. The dialectic follows Hegel’s principal dialectical format, which consists of a two-concept thesis, a two-concept antithesis, and a two-concept synthesis that combines the best concept from the thesis with the best from the antithesis. The “divine life” dialectic is this:
- Thesis: unconscious + union
- Antithesis: conscious + separation
- Synthesis: conscious + union (“conscious” from the antithesis, “union” from the thesis)
Spirit’s life begins in a state of unconsciousness. Although writing long before Darwin, Hegel knew that humans had not always existed: “After the creation of nature appears man.” In the absence of humans, Spirit had no Mind: its late-arriving Mind was the collective minds of humans. And without a Mind, Spirit was unconscious. So Hegel could write: “The first stage [thesis] is the immersion of Spirit in natural life, the second [antithesis] is its stepping out into . . . consciousness.” And Pinkard can write: “God, as Spirit, is already metaphorically asleep [unconscious] in nature, and the divine principle of ‘spirit’ comes to fruition only as humans appear on the planet and create religions.” Then “spirit, as it were, wakes up from its natural slumber and becomes conscious of itself.” But before it awakens, the mindless Spirit is incapable of perceiving the multitude of material “objects” that constitute itself and that it will later mistakenly interpret as "alien," or things apart from or separate from itself. So it is unconsciously unified.
When man arrives (antithesis stage), Spirit acquires its entirely human mind and becomes conscious. When this happens, Spirit’s previous state of union dissolves into a state of separation, called self-estrangement or self-alienation (selbstentfremdung). “Consciousness” (individual human minds, hence Spirit’s mind too) perceives all sorts of external “objects” that it regards as “alien,” things apart from itself. Spirit (the humans who constitute Spirit’s Mind) is unaware that the objects are really itself: Spirit “does not recognize itself in that reflected object”; the object is viewed as “something alien.”
Here we have the beginnings of the dialectical concept of “separation and return.” Tillich points out: “Obviously – and it was so intended by Hegel – his dialectics are the religious symbols of estrangement and reconciliation.” In the gospel of John, God is initially one unified being residing in heaven. Then God separates from himself by coming to earth as God-incarnate, even though he also continues to reside in heaven. God is now separated from himself. Finally, after the God-man Jesus is crucified and resurrected, God returns to himself in heaven, where he (according to the Apostles' Creed) “sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty.” “Return” means going back to a place or state previously occupied. So when Hegel writes that “Spirit becomes . . . . alienated from itself and then returns to itself from this alienation,” he is unmistakably implying that the state of separation or alienation is not the state where Spirit’s “life” began; it is a state that follows an earlier state of nonalienation or unity that Spirit returns to. Hence “Consciousness [Spirit] . . . . is only, to begin with, the universal, which is a long way yet from being Spirit that knows itself as Spirit [Absolute Spirit].”
Finally Hegel, the most important element of Spirit’s mind, arrives on earth. Hegel, unlike all the humans who preceded him, suddenly “realizes” (but has really known all along) that the external objects he perceives are not really “alien” but are himself, because everything is essentially Spirit. Tucker elaborates: “Hegel . . . conceived himself as the particular man in whom God [Spirit] – the absolute self – finally achieves full actualization.” This achievement is Spirit’s act of self-realization, through which Spirit attains true self-consciousness (contrasted with its previous state of mere consciousness). And through this act of self-realization, Spirit returns (the “separation and return” concept) to its original state of union. But this is union with a difference. Spirit’s original (thesis stage) state of union was unconscious; Spirit’s final state of union (synthesis stage) is conscious union.
Self-realization transforms Spirit from mere Spirit into Absolute Spirit. Spirit has rejected its former belief in the “picture-thinking” (imaginary) God of theism and replaced that supernatural God with a natural God, mankind, the essence of Spirit. Hegel’s absolute can therefore be defined as humanity, or perhaps as the concept that humanity is a metaphorical God. And “Absolute Knowledge,” the title of the last chapter of Phenomenology, becomes the “knowledge” – really just Hegel’s arbitrary redefinition of God – that humanity constitutes the true God and that no supernatural God exists. This knowledge gives Spirit “freedom” Freedom is release from bondage – bondage to God, to religion, and to religious superstition. Spirit’s freedom is anticipated in Hegel’s earlier (and famous) master and slave parable. There the slave ultimately gains freedom in the form of release from bondage to the master. In this parable, the master symbolizes God, the slave symbolizes man, and the slave’s gaining his freedom symbolizes man’s (hence Spirit’s) gaining freedom from bondage to God.
Hegel’s “absolute,” in other words, is not an absolute in the philosophical sense of an insight regarding the fundamental nature of “being” or reality. It is just a personal value or opinion, something that Hegel regards as more important than anything else. As such, it is simply a replacement for the belief that a supernatural God is the highest value in the universe. You could even say that Hegel has no absolute and that he uses the word "absolute" only to convey his belief that God doesn’t exist.
The preceding version of this article, the version replaced here, begins: “Absolute idealism is an ontologically monistic philosophy attributed to G. W. F. Hegel. It is Hegel's account of how being [the absolute of monistic ontology] is ultimately comprehensible as an all-inclusive whole.” Those two sentences incorrectly imply that Hegel endorsed classical monism, the idea that a single (monistic rather than pluralistic) metaphysical something or other underlies and gives meaning to all reality or “being.” But as Beiser points out, “The term ‘metaphysics’ had fallen into disrepute by the early 1800s, as Hegel himself noted, so reviving it would have been impossible without invoking negative connotations.” Similarly, Solomon describes as “reactionary” the idea that Hegel is playing with ontology. Stanley Rosen had written a book about Hegel’s philosophy in which Rosen said “the emergence of being is for Hegel altogether intelligible” but that Hegel might have overlooked “the ‘ontological difference’ between the Absolute and its finite manifestations.” Solomon describes Rosen’s book as “an intelligent but reactionary book” that “tries to resolve a series of ontological puzzles left unresolved by the ancient Greeks.” Hegel was not an ontologist or in any other sense a supernaturalist. His absolute was not the absolute of monistic ontology.
It refers mainly to the doctrines of an idealist school of philosophers that were prominent in Great Britain and in the United States between 1870 and 1920. The name is also sometimes applied to cover other philosophies of the period that were Hegelian in inspiration—for instance, those of Benedetto Croce and of Giovanni Gentile.
Hegelianism after Hegel
In the philosophy of religion, Hegel's influence soon became very powerful in the English-speaking world. The British school, called British idealism and partly Hegelian in inspiration, included Thomas Hill Green, William Wallace, F.H. Bradley and Edward Caird. It was primarily directed towards political philosophy.
America saw the development of a school of Hegelian thought move toward pragmatism.
German twentieth-century neo-Hegelians
In Germany there was a neo-Hegelianism (Neuhegelianismus) of the early twentieth century, partly developing out of the Neo-Kantians. Richard Kroner wrote one of its leading works, a history of German idealism from a Hegelian point of view.
Other notable neo-Hegelians
- Francis Herbert Bradley (1846–1924), a British absolute idealist who adapted Hegel's Metaphysics.
- Josiah Royce (1855–1916), an American defender of absolute idealism.
- Benedetto Croce (1866–1952), an Italian philosopher who defended Hegel's account on how we understand history. Croce wrote primarily on topics of Aesthetics, such as artistic inspiration/intuition and personal expression.
- Giovanni Gentile (1875–1944), important philosopher within the fascist movement. Ghost-wrote "The Doctrine of Fascism"
- Alexandre Kojève (1902–1968), gave rise to a new understanding of Hegel in France during the 1930s.
Exponents of analytic philosophy, which has been the dominant form of Anglo-American philosophy for most of the last century, have criticised Hegel's work as hopelessly obscure. Existentialists also criticise Hegel for ultimately choosing an essentialistic whole over the particularity of existence. Epistemologically, one of the main problems plaguing Hegel's system is how these thought determinations have bearing on reality as such. A perennial problem of his metaphysics seems to be the question of how spirit externalises itself and how the concepts it generates can say anything true about nature. At the same time, they will have to, because otherwise Hegel's system concepts would say nothing about something that is not itself a concept and the system would come down to being only an intricate game involving vacuous concepts.
Schopenhauer noted that Hegel created his absolute idealism after Kant had discredited all proofs of God's existence. The Absolute is a non-personal substitute for the concept of God. It is the one subject that perceives the universe as one object. Individuals share in parts of this perception. Since the universe exists as an idea in the mind of the Absolute, absolute idealism copies Spinoza's pantheism in which everything is in God or Nature.
Moore and Russell
Famously, G.E. Moore’s rebellion against absolutism found expression in his defense of common sense against the radically counter-intuitive conclusions of absolutism (e.g. time is unreal, change is unreal, separateness is unreal, imperfection is unreal, etc.). G.E. Moore also pioneered the use of logical analysis against the absolutists, which Bertrand Russell promulgated and began the entire tradition of analytic philosophy with its use against the philosophies of his direct predecessors. In recounting his own mental development Russell reports, "For some years after throwing over [absolutism] I had an optimistic riot of opposite beliefs. I thought that whatever Hegel had denied must be true." (Russell in Barrett and Adkins 1962, p. 477) Also:
G.E. Moore took the lead in the rebellion, and I followed, with a sense of emancipation. [Absolutism] argued that everything common sense believes in is mere appearance. We reverted to the opposite extreme, and thought that everything is real that common sense, uninfluenced by philosophy or theology, supposes real.
— Bertrand Russell; as quoted in Klemke 2000, p.28
Particularly the works of William James and F.C.S. Schiller, both founding members of pragmatism, made lifelong assaults on Absolute Idealism. James was particularly concerned with the monism that Absolute Idealism engenders, and the consequences this has for the problem of evil, free will, and moral action. Schiller, on the other hand, attacked Absolute Idealism for being too disconnected with our practical lives, and argued that its proponents failed to realize that thought is merely a tool for action rather than for making discoveries about an abstract world that fails to have any impact on us.
Absolute idealism has greatly altered the philosophical landscape. Paradoxically, (though, from a Hegelian point of view, maybe not paradoxically at all) this influence is mostly felt in the strong opposition it engendered. Both logical positivism and grew out of a rebellion against Hegelianism prevalent in England during the 19th century. Continental phenomenology, existentialism and post-modernism also seek to 'free themselves from Hegel's thought'. Martin Heidegger, one of the leading figures of Continental philosophy in the 20th century, sought to distance himself from Hegel's work. One of Heidegger's philosophical themes was "overcoming metaphysics".
- Terry Pinkard, Hegel: A Biography (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 224.
- Robert C. Solomon, From Hegel to Existentialism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 57.
- Robert C. Solomon, In the Spirit of Hegel (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 582.
- G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), 232, 233, 235, 394, 438.
- Robert Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 66.
- Tucker, 47.
- J. N. Findlay, The Philosophy of Hegel: An Introduction and Re-Examination (New York: Collier, 1958), 353.
- Solomon, Spirit of Hegel, 630.
- Frederick C. Beiser, Hegel (New York: Routledge, 2005), 5.
- Terry Pinkard, Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 8-9.
- Merold Westphal, History & Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology, 3rd ed. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press,1998), 211.
- Leonard F. Wheat, Hegel’s Undiscovered Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Dialectics: What Only Marx and Tillich Understood (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012), 97.
- Walter Kaufmann, Hegel: A Reinterpretation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1966), 273.
- Kaufmann, 147-48.
- Hegel, Phenomenology, para. 77.
- Wheat, 119-29.
- G. W. F. Hegel, “Lectures on the Philosophy of History,” in Reason in History, trans. Robert S. Hartman (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953), 78.
- Hegel, “Philosophy of History,” 70.
- Terry Pinkard, Hegel: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 580.
- Hegel, Phenomenology, para. 132; cf. paras. 374, 771.
- Hegel, Phenomenology, para. 771.
- Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 329.
- Bible, John 1:1, 1:14.
- Hegel, Phenomenology, para. 36.
- Hegel, Phenomenology, para. 673.
- Tucker, 43.
- Hegel, Phenomenology, paras. 805, 806, 807.
- Frederick C. Beiser, "Introduction: Hegel and the Problem of Metaphysics," in Beiser, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 4.
- Stanley Rosen, G. W. F. Hegel: An Introduction to the Science of Wisdom (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s, 2000), 34 (first published in 1974 by Yale University Press).
- Solomon, Spirit of Hegel, 8n.
- Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Garfield)
- Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Blackburn)
- A History of Christian Thought (Tillich)
- From Socrates to Sartre (Lavine)
- Hegel: Een inleiding (ed. Ad Verbrugge, et al.)
- Hegels Idealism, The Satisfactions of Self Consciousness (Pippin)
- Endings, Questions of Memory in Hegel and Heidegger (Ed. Mc Cumber, Comay)