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The dialectic of the absolute-Hegel's critique of transcendent metaphysics.

Heidegger famously criticized Hegel's philosophy for being an ontotheological system. The snag Heidegger finds in ontotheology is that it hypostatizes a first principle on which, to quote from Aristotle, "the universe and nature depend" (Meta. 1072b13-14). According to Heidegger, Hegel presupposes an absolute in the form of an absolute subjectivity from the very outset of his system; an absolute principle, which accounts for the teleology in the various histories Hegel subsequently reconstructs. Heidegger attacks Hegel because he believes that Hegel draws on a determinate version of the ontological difference which, eventually, defines being as an absolute, self-transparent Geist, and beings as its spiritual manifestations. (1) If Heidegger were right in his interpretation of Hegel, Hegel would actually be defining being as Spirit and would, therefore, be determining it as a peculiar kind of thing instead of understanding it as the process of alterations within the ontological difference that Heidegger envisages with his concept of Being.

In order to reassess this criticism one needs to first look at Hegel's concept of the absolute. In what follows, I shall argue that Hegel's conception of the absolute is based on a detailed exposition of the dialectical failure of transcendent metaphysics. Hegel denies that there is an absolute beyond or behind the world of appearance. The world we inhabit is not the appearance of a hidden reality utterly inaccessible to our conceptual capacities. But this claim does not entail any kind of omniscience on the part of the philosopher, as many have suspected. It rather yields the standpoint of immanent metaphysics without any first principle on which totality depends. Moreover, Hegel does not claim to finish the business of philosophy once and for all; on the contrary, his conception of the absolute entails that philosophy is awarded the infinite task of comprehending one's own time in thought. Hegel himself conceives of the absolute as of a process which makes various forms of conceptualizing totality possible.

Unlike Heidegger, I do not believe that the concept of the absolute in Post-Kantian Idealism entails a denial of the finitude that looms large in Kant's own system, as Heidegger acknowledges in his Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. (2) One possible way of interpreting the overall internal development of Post-Kantian Idealism is to regard it as an extended commentary on Kant's concept of the "unconditioned" in the First Critique. In fact one could easily argue that the whole Post-Kantian movement ought to be understood as a development of the Kantian exposition of the "transcendental ideal of pure reason". (3) The epistemological and metaphysical enterprise that is awakened by Kant's analysis of the dialectical consequences of the transcendental ideal primarily depends on a theory of determinacy.

However, given that determination cannot be restricted to being a property of concepts qua mental contents or qua tools of sapient creatures like us, such a theory of determinacy must be both logical and ontological. Determination must be in some way out there, in the things themselves, because even if we denied the determinacy of the world, this would still presuppose its intelligibility qua undetermined or unmarked something. Indeed being an unmarked something is as much a determinate predicate as being a particular something. (4) There is no way to oppose mind (concepts, consciousness and what have you) and the world without, at the same time, relating them to one another. Both, mind and world, i.e. the logical and the ontological order have to be determined, at least over against their respective other. In this sense, they depend on each other, a principle Putnam explicitly concedes to Hegel in claiming that "the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world." (5) The logical in which mind and world are both distinguished and interdependent can be called the "unconditioned", the "absolute", or the "infinite". It is in this respect that we can consider Post-Kantian Idealism to be a commentary on the Kantian "unconditioned". Nevertheless, this does not in itself entail that the process of revealing-concealing that Heidegger envisages with his paradoxical notion of truth as unconcealedness is concealed by the concept of the absolute.

A more or less Kantian theory of determinacy is the key to the development of Fichte's, Schelling's and Hegel's thought ever since their Jena period. One of the characteristic moves in the Post-Kantian critical evaluation of Kant's system at that time was the standard claim that Kant did not clearly identify the principle upon which the whole architectonic of his system was based. In the eyes of the Post-Kantian idealists, the alleged absence of methodological self-consciousness led Kant to his misconception of the thing-in-itself as a hidden reality behind or beyond the appearances. Post-Kantian idealists believe that Kant himself drew a distinction between mind and world, form and content or in their words: between the for-us and the in-itself. But such a distinction is for-us and therefore, the in-itself is in some yet to be determined sense in-itself-for-us. This dialectic lies at the basis of Hegel's dialectic of the absolute. As we shall see, the Hegelian absolute is not incompatible with finitude and immanence, as Heidegger suspects. It even renders finitude intelligible and unavoidable, including the finitude of any determinate conception of the absolute as a determinate principle.

If we were to search for the absolute in Kant, there would be many candidates: the transcendental apperception in the Transcendental Deduction, the Categorical Imperative, the ethico-teleological unification of theoretical and practical reason in the Third Critique.

This spurned the later Fichte's criticism according to which Kant postulated three absolutes without ever identifying their common ground as the real absolute which would have to be the monistic principle of disjunction in its three manifestations. (6) Hegel makes a similar observation in the Difference Essay, where he attributes a "subjective subject-object" (TWA, 2, 93 sqq. (7)), i.e. a subjective absolute to Kant and Fichte, which he claims was later corrected by Schelling's "objective subject-object" (ibid.) in his Naturphilosophie, and finally synthesized in Hegel's master-concept of "identity of identity and difference" (ibid., 2, 95).

If we ask the question: "what corresponds to the absolute in Hegel's mature system?", we will barely get a clear-cut answer. Is it absolute knowing, the absolute idea, or absolute spirit?

Before we can even try to answer the question concerning the absolute in Hegel, we shall have to fix a criterion for singling it out. In full awareness of this problem, Hegel himself presents his Science of Logic as a sequence of "definitions of the absolute" (SL, 74 (8)). Yet, none of the definitions make the grade but one. In this sense the whole enterprise of the Logic can be read as an attempt to define the absolute, an attempt whose success cannot be guaranteed from the outset. (9) And the essential outcome is that the absolute cannot be defined, lest it were understood as a distinct and distinctive object. As we shall see, the absolute can only be attained as a process of manifestation which Hegel calls (among other things) "actuality" (Wirklichkeit). This process manifests itself as a history of being a la Heidegger, i.e. as a history of transcendental signifieds which transform the absence of the absolute into the presence of its manifestations in various disguises.

In what follows I shall first argue (I.) that this is the result of the dialectic of the absolute in the chapter on "the Absolute" in the Doctrine of Essence. I shall reconstruct the argument of the chapter in some detail in order to show that Hegel unveils the underlying dialectic of all concepts that define the absolute in opposition to the relative. I shall thereby show how Hegel rejects every theory of the absolute that tries to define it within the range of the inaccessible in-itself or the beyond. Secondly (II.), I shall sketch an interpretation of the relation between the absolute idea, which I understand as the very process of elucidation and hence as the Science of Logic itself, and the absolute spirit at the end of the Encyclopedia.

I. The dialectic of the absolute in the Doctrine of Essence

The general aim of the Doctrine of Essence is to spell out the ontological difference between appearance and being insofar as this difference is constitutive of any metaphysical system that defines its principle, its absolute, in opposition to a world of appearances. (10) It is obvious that the primary target of Hegel's dialectical analysis of the absolute is Platonist metaphysics broadly construed. (11) As Hegel puts it, Platonism draws a distinction between "two worlds" (SL, 529). In its classical versions, the realm or world of forms, which are objects of the intellect, is opposed to the realm or world of the sensible objects, which are objects of perception, an idea essential to Plato's epistemological remarks in the analogy of the divided line. (12) The relation between the two worlds is interpreted as an asymmetrical relation of participation such that every item in the sensible world is what it is only insofar as it is the deficient appearance of an item in the intelligible world. In this sense, the two worlds add up to "two totalities of the content, one of which is determined as reflected into itself, the other as reflected into an other." (SL, 529)

This relation is essential in Hegel's terminology: It is a relation of appearing, where one relatum is defined as being and the other as appearance, one as eternal and unchangeable, the other as finite and mutable. However, Platonism is not aware of the role reflection plays in the constitution of this ontological difference characteristic of classical metaphysics from the time of the Presocratics onwards. The relation of appearing is blind with regard to the reflection that motivates its formulation. Every metaphysical system that draws a distinction between two worlds is forgetful of this very operation of reflection and hypostatizes it in the "form determination" (SL, 529) of two worlds which build but "one absolute totality" (SL, 529), namely the totality of metaphysical reflection. The two worlds only come to be opposed in metaphysical reflection, which is not reflected in Platonism. Therefore, the ontological difference between the world as it is in itself and the world as it appears to us amounts only to a simple negation which has to be supplemented by the negation of the negation implicit in metaphysical reflection. The simple negation which establishes an essential relation between the two worlds must become the object of a further reflection in order to make its dialectic explicit. (13)

This movement of the negation of negation is precisely what takes place in the chapter on "The Absolute" in the Logic, the introduction and first subchapter (A.) of which proceed in three steps. First (1.): the absolute is determined as absolute transcendence, or as absolute identity which outstrips our conceptual capacities. It can only be paradoxically determined by the negation of all predicates. Second (2.): this movement, which is a movement of reflection, is made transparent as reflection. In order to steer clear of the problem of absolute transcendence, the finite is determined as an image of the absolute, which has being far more than any finite being due to its pure positivity, a position Hegel ascribes to Spinoza. However, this threatens to dissolve the finite into the absolute. Third (3.): this whole movement is presented as a process by which we eventually arrive at the form determination of the absolute form, where form and content of reflection coincide in the "self-exposition" of the absolute, i.e., in the reflection of reflection.

Before we can approach the text in the light of this sequence, it is important to bear in mind that "the absolute" is a concept that is used to define the totality of relations of determinacy and, hence, all actual and possible worlds, as worlds, i.e. as relational networks. According to the famous principle of determination, namely that determination is negation, the world as world can only be posited if we determine it by negation. The absolute is, therefore, introduced as the negation of the world, of the world we try to determine as such. This is why any given totality of relations refers us to something that is not part of the relational network in the same way that the relata are. The world is defined in its opposition to the absolute precisely because the absolute functions as a concept of contrast: We come to see the world as world only if we define some unmoved mover, some fixed point towards which everything aspires and on which everything depends. (14) Whatever the absolute is, it serves as a foil for making us aware of the conditioning of our conceptualizing the world as such.

Various forms of defining this absolute have been recorded. One of the most general ways to distinguish metaphysical systems is to divide them up into transcendent and immanent metaphysics. Transcendent metaphysics defines the absolute as entirely different from totality and therefore as transcendent. The absolute is categorically not part of this world. Immanent metaphysics, on the contrary, understands the absolute as a totality differentiating itself. Neo-Platonism is perhaps the most prominent example of transcendent metaphysics, whereas Spinoza and Hegel are the most resolute defenders of immanent metaphysics. This is why Hegel joins Spinoza against transcendent metaphysics in the chapter on the absolute, aiming however, at the same time, to surpass Spinoza in his methodology. (15)

(1.) Given that transcendent metaphysics conceives the absolute as the entirely other that transcends the totality of determinations, it cannot characterize it through any positive predicate.16 For this reason, the transcendent absolute is traditionally dealt with in terms of an absolute oneness or absolute identity which cannot positively be described, as this would make it something determinate and, hence, part of the world, part of the network of determinate beings. "The simple substantial identity of the absolute is indeterminate, or rather in it every determinateness of essence and Existence, or of being in general, as well as of reflection, has dissolved itself. Accordingly, the process of determining what the absolute is has a negative outcome, and the absolute itself appears only as the negation of all predicates and as the void." (SL, 530)

It is obvious that the negation of all predicates cannot be a reflection performed by the negative absolute itself. Otherwise we would have to ascribe some sort of self-determining activity to it which would contradict its alleged absolute identity. Hence, it is our own reflection that accomplishes the negation of all predicates. However, this entails that the absolute is already determined in opposition to our reflection as that which does not accomplish the negation itself. This in turn implies that our reflection has merely been an "external reflection" (SL, 530) up to this point. Reflection opposes itself by positing an absolute: It posits the absolute as if it were not posited by reflection. Yet it is, hereby, already determined by reflection. (17) This motivates a counter-move.

(2.) If it makes sense to talk about the absolute at all, we cannot define it in opposition to reflection. Reflection must not "stand over against the absolute identity of the absolute" (SL, 531). This is why the absolute needs to be understood as the "ground" (SL, 532) of totality. The correct determination of the absolute has to be "the absolute form" (SL, 531) which is in and for itself "the absolute content" (SL, 531), as Hegel puts it. Such an absolute can only be the movement of pure thought performed by the Science of Logic itself. The Logic itself is the unfolding, the exposition of the absolute. The absolute is both the form and content of the Logic and is, hence, not something prior to its manifestation in logical thought.

No transcendent absolute could possibly satisfy the logical demands of an absolute form as long as it is opposed to reflection. But the negation of all predicates which is the method of the classical negative dialectics of the One, is already a process of reflection. According to Hegel this implies that the absolute is posited as the positivity out of reach, the "beyond" (SL, 531) of the movement of negativity revealed as the movement of reflection. The second, "positive side" (SL, 532) of the dialectic of the absolute is, thus, triggered by the insight that the absolute is pure positivity, the ground of the movement of negation, an insight which reflection had somehow in view without ever having been able to attain it.

This motivates another standard move of transcendent metaphysics: Everything, every determinate being is related to the absolute. The absolute is the absolute substance, that which does not change because it transcends time and finitude altogether. In order to avoid the trap of absolute transcendence, the transcendent metaphysician introduces the further determination that every determinate being is only a partial manifestation of the absolute which constantly withdraws in this very manifestation to the beyond. Finitude is thus determined as an appearance of the infinite. But again: If we determine the infinite as the pure void, as the negation of all predicates, the only thing we come to grasp in determining finitude in opposition to the negative absolute is: nothing. If the totality of being which is our world is determined as "illusory being" (SL, 532), it is ipso facto related to the absolute by being its reflection, its appearance. "This positive exposition thus arrests the finite before it vanishes and contemplates it as an expression and image of the absolute." (SL, 532)

The strategic withdrawal to positivity does not solve the initial problem of transcendence. If we circumvent the trap of transcendence which posits an unattainable absolute beyond our conceptual grasp, an indeterminable something-nothing beyond logical space, we do not make any progress in relating the finite to this vacuity. By relating the finite to the unspecifiable transcendent absolute we rather destroy the finite. Everything vanishes into nothing once it returns to its origin, the absolute Oneness which is nothing determinate at all. "The transparency of the finite, which only lets the absolute be glimpsed through it, ends by completely vanishing; for there is nothing in the finite which could preserve for it a distinction against the absolute; it is a medium which is absorbed by that which is reflected through it." (SL, 532)

The apparent positivity gained by determining the finite as an image of the absolute vanishes once we realize that we have transposed the negation of all predicates from the absolute to the content manifested in finite determinations. Those determinations cannot preserve any determination against the absolute. The determination which now determines the absolute as pure positivity beyond our conceptual grasp and the finite as its inane manifestation stays once more "external to the absolute" (SL, 532). The absolute, "which is only arrived at" (SL, 533) in the movement of reflection remains essentially "imperfect" (SL, 533). For, "the absolute that is only an absolute identity, is only the absolute of an external reflection. It is therefore not the absolute absolute but the absolute in a determinateness, or it is the attribute." (SL, 533)

(3.) Hegel's dialectical critique of transcendent metaphysics results in the necessity of Spinozistic monism and, hence, of an entirely immanent metaphysics. The absolute determines itself as attribute in Spinoza's sense, i.e. as one of the infinite manifestations of the absolute positivity of substance.

In subchapters B. and C. Hegel sketches the dialectic of the absolute in Spinozistic immanent metaphysics. Immanent metaphysics sets out to determine the absolute identity in its manifestation. Spinoza famously argues that the two Cartesian substances are in fact nothing but aspects of the one substance which has infinitely many attributes, only two of which are (contingently) known to us: thought and extension. (18) Again, the totality of manifestations or attributes is only conjoined in one absolute, in the one substance, by a "reflective movement" (SL, 535). This reflective movement is the very thought which relates the substance to its infinitely many manifestations as ground of their unity. The opposites themselves-say extension and thought-are in themselves "without the return into itself [i.e. into the absolute, M.G.]" (SL, 535). They remain external to the absolute and are never fully identical with it. In this sense, they do not return to the absolute. They are only related to it in our reflection, which is a reflection in the mode but not in the attribute.

Hence, the absolute identity of the absolute is contingent on its manifestations which are related to the absolute in our act of reflection. But this reflection only takes place in the mode of the absolute, i.e. in our thought which conjoins the manifestations and returns them to their unity. Totality is established in thought. This fact is not reflected in Spinoza's theory of the absolute, for Spinoza's substance is characterized by "an immediate subsistence of its own" (SL, 533): It is what it is by simply being what it is. In Def. 6 of the first part of his Ethics Spinoza unmistakably asserts that God's absolute infinity "does not involve any negation [negationem nullam involvit]." (19) Hegel's trouble with this explanation is that it cannot account for the particularization of the finite so long as negation is not intrinsic to the very totality, i.e. God or Nature. (20) If negation is external to the absolute, then why is there anything finite at all?

The supposed immediacy of substance is only determined as "simply affirmative" (SL, 533) over against the "reflected immediacy" (SL, 533) of reflection. It is the very essence of substance to be what it is independently of its accidental determinations. But this opposition between substance and accidents is an essential relation established in reflection. Therefore, the substance depends on the reflective movement shining through in its mode, in our thought. It is the reflecting subject which posits the absolute in opposition to its positing it. This very act of "determining" (SL, 536) is what retroactively generates the absolute substance. The substance, therefore, is a presupposition of the reflective movement in the terminological sense of the Doctrine of Essence: It is a presupposing which posits the substance as that which is grasped in the reflection of the absolute. (21) Contrary to the merely negative approach to the absolute other of transcendence, immanent metaphysics resorts to "a determining which would make it [sc. the absolute] not an other but only that which it already is, the transparent externality which is the manifestation of itself, a movement out of itself" (SL, 536).

At this point, Hegel makes use of Spinoza's construction of the amor dei intellectualis which he interprets from a dialectical vantage point. (22) The intellectual striving to see everything sub specie aeternitatis is the absolute's movement itself and not a process of external reflection. The absolute determines itself in our determining it. Every dialectically consistent form of determining the absolute has to be compatible with this self-referential insight which reflects on the conditions of possibility for grasping the absolute. Hegel's label for this self-referential structure is "absolute form", a form which is the content of itself. The content of the exposition of the absolute is, thus, the exposition itself. There is nothing beyond this exposition, beyond this manifestation. Hence, form and content coincide in the absolute. "Or the content of the absolute is just this, to manifest itself. The absolute is the absolute form which, as the diremption of itself is utterly identical with itself, the negative as negative [...]. The content, therefore, is only the exposition itself." (SL, 536) The absolute does not manifest anything which outruns our conceptual capacities. It is nothing but the sheer manifestation, the fact that there is something rather than nothing. The "absolute is manifestation not of an inner, nor over against an other, but it is only as the absolute manifestation of itself for itself. As such it is actuality" (SL, 536), or as Hegel sometimes puts it, "self-manifestation" (SL, 541).

The absolute is, to be exact: the manifestation that something is manifest, that there is something rather than nothing. Without pursuing this correspondence here, one could even argue that the absolute's self-manifestation corresponds to Heidegger's concept of ontological truth, i.e. of the facts' unconcealedness (Unverborgenheit), which necessarily antecedes propositional truth. For Hegel, the absolute is a means of reflection in a twofold sense. On the one hand, it is a moment of the movement of speculative metaphysical reflection. On the other, it functions like a mirror (speculum) which reflects our fundamental ways of conceptualizing totality vis-a-vis the unconditioned. All of this means that the absolute is an indispensable notion of metaphysical reflection. But it must not be interpreted as any special sort of object or as a transcendent being. Hegel's absolute is a rather deflationary concept, a harmless, yet necessary presupposition of metaphysical reflection insofar as it aspires to unfold the concept of totality implicit in the important and utterly indispensable notion of the world.

We do not need to go into Hegel's further development of actuality here, the line of reasoning issuing from the thought that the distinction between form and content collapses into the immediacy of actuality, which generates another opposition, namely possibility. We do not have to follow Hegel's whole dialectical path to the Doctrine of the Notion. In order to give an answer to the delicate question concerning what the absolute in Hegel's system is, after all, it is sufficient to state the important fact that it has to satisfy the conditions of absolute form without collapsing into an immediate unity of form and content. Given the exposition of the concept of the absolute so far, it is evident that the absolute can only be the totality of the self-exposition of the Notion as it appears at the very end of the Logic. There is but one dialectically consistent definition of the absolute, which is the Science of Logic itself.

II. Absolute Idea and Absolute Spirit

There are at least three prominent candidates for a closure of the Hegelian system and which correspond to the three possibilities of the Hegelian absolute: absolute knowing, the absolute idea and absolute spirit. Apart from the intricate historical question regarding the degree to which Hegel might simply have changed his view in his development, I believe that for systematic reasons, the absolute idea qua "absolute method" (SL, 829) has to be the adequate candidate for the Hegelian absolute. While absolute knowing implodes, as it were, into the indeterminate being of the beginning of the Logic, absolute spirit is after all the self-referential insight that the whole of nature and spirit is an exposition of the self-determination, the Urteil of the absolute idea. (23) The absolute idea, therefore, discloses itself in absolute spirit which is not a "super-mind" endowed with the power of omniscience. Absolute spirit is, rather, the concrete, realized self-awareness of the absolute idea in its actuality, i.e. philosophy.

If we try to address the problem of the relation between the absolute idea and the totality of nature and spirit, we must not undermine the logical standards of the Science of Logic. One violation of those logical standards would be the neo-platonic conception of emanation, which Hegel explicitly rejects in the chapter on the "Absolute idea": "the advance is not a kind of superfluity; this it would be if that with which the beginning is made were in truth already the absolute; the advance consists rather in the universal determining itself and being for itself the universal, that is, equally an individual and a subject. Only in its consummation is it the absolute." (SL, 829) This consummation ultimately takes place in absolute spirit which is present as the individual subject thinking logical thoughts. Only, this subject has to become aware of its position in the concrete totality of nature and spirit in order to exhibit the absolute idea because its exhibition can only consist in its self-awareness in finite thinkers. (24)

Absolute spirit is, after all, the unification of subjective and objective spirit: Individual subjects have to perform the reconstruction of the absolute idea. But they can only do so in the wider context of objective spirit and its virtual reality (i.e. mutual recognition and, hence, normativity) which transcends natural immediacy. This again presupposes the existence of nature as the backdrop for the self-establishment of the realm of freedom. This whole story is told from the standpoint of absolute spirit, which grasps its own activity in the medium of the absolute form. The self-referential comprehension of the absolute idea qua concrete individual reconstructing its position in totality can only be realized if we attempt to determine the absolute as such. But, as we have seen, this act should not be one of external reflection. The determination of the absolute as absolute must be its self-constitution, a constitution which displays itself in the process of the exposition of the absolute. This exposition is carried out by individual thinkers reconstructing the conditions of their being there at all. However, this reflection is bound by historical conditions. Therefore, it could not occur that the exhibition of the absolute ever came to an end in such a manner that there were no further content of its actuality transparent to finite thinkers. Even the Science of Logic has to be its "time comprehended in thought." (25) Yet, if the absolute idea "contains all determinateness within it" (SL, 824), we have to give up determining the absolute "only as a sought-for beyond and an unattainable goal" (SL, 824). The Hegelian absolute is rather always already with us insofar as we determine it in reflection. It is reflection's determining itself. If the absolute idea is the unfolding of logical space, and if the Science of Logic displays this evolution, there can be no absolute beyond the absolute idea. (26) Hence, nature and spirit "are in general different modes of displaying its being there" (SL, 8 24). (27) The absolute idea does not exist outside of its finite manifestations as a given logical order ready to be discovered by finite thinkers who aim to reunite with their origin. This is the very essence of Hegel's absolute idealism and of his thorough-going anti-representationalism.

The relation between the absolute idea as absolute form and its exposition, its being there in the modes of nature and spirit, cannot be an essential relation, to wit a metaphysical relation of being and appearance. Therefore, nature and spirit are not mere appearances of the absolute idea but rather modes of its exposition. The "emergence of real difference, judgment, the process of determining in general" (SL, 830) is not an external manifestation of some hidden metaphysical realm of forms but a self-exposition of actuality. There is nothing beyond or behind the manifestation of the absolute in its attributes: nature and spirit, and its modes, i.e. in finite beings. In this sense, Hegel is a Spinozist of absolute subjectivity. Whereas Spinoza determines nature and spirit as attributes of the una substantia, Hegel sees them as form determinations of the absolute idea which is absolute subjectivity or as Hegel says: "pure personality" (SL, 841). (28)

The crucial point of Hegel's dialectic of the absolute is that metaphysical reflection must not be external reflection. We cannot determine the absolute as absolute substance ontologically anteceding our conceptualization of it. Otherwise we would fall victim to the dialectic of the absolute in the Doctrine of Essence. Therefore, reflection has to become absolute, i.e. self-referential. Only in the mode of self-reference can we determine the act of determination as self-constitution. For this reason, the relation between the Logic and the Realphilosophie has to be a conceptual relation, namely the relation of judgment captured by the notorious German wordplay on "Urteil", which Hegel famously 'translates' as "the original division of the original unity" (SL, 625, Miller's translation slightly corrected).

The absolute idea is only grasped in the context of a theory of self-constitution of logical space, i.e. of the concept in an eminent singular. This is why Hegel is perhaps the most astute critic of any variety of Neo-Platonism. Neo-Platonism posits some paradoxical nothing, a pure unity beyond being without reflecting on this very act of positing it. Its absolute is posited as if it were not posited, a dialectical contradiction exposed by Hegel whence emerges his conception of the absolute as a result of metaphysical enquiry. (29) Hence, even if there were transcendence it could and should not be shaped by any determining reflection or, in Hegel's terminology, by external reflection. (30) "The answer, therefore, to the question: how does the infinite become finite? is this: that there is not an infinite which is first of all infinite and only subsequently has need to become finite, to go forth into [herausgehen] finitude; on the contrary, it is on its own account just as much finite as infinite." (SL, 153)

Hegel's point about infinity is basically the same as the one employed in the overall dialectic of the absolute: the true infinite must not be determined over against the finite. (31) If the question is "how ... the infinite become[s] finite" (SL, 152), then this question cannot be answered by presupposing an infinite which is in-and-for-itself, i.e. always already the infinite, for such infinity would be indeterminate and as such determined over against the determinacy of totality. For this reason, Hegel conceives the infinite or absolute as an ongoing process of self-constitution which is not determined over against anything external to this very process. (32)

The overall end of the Hegelian system in the Encyclopedia is the absolute idea in its actuality, that is, the reflected connection of the absolute idea in its yet to be determined universality with its manifestation, its being there. "This notion of philosophy is the self-thinking Idea, the truth aware of itself ([section] 236) - the logical system, but with the signification that it is universality approved and certified in concrete content as in its actuality." (Enc. [section]574) It is crucial, for any reading of Hegel, to recognize that the self-thinking idea needs approval by concrete content. Otherwise it would be reduced to the abstract structure of logical space, the "realm of shadows" (SL, 58), as Hegel calls it thereby inverting the Platonic hierarchical order. In order to attain actuality, the idea is strictly speaking dependent on nature and spirit. It has to form a system, which can only occur in the historically bound situation of finite thinkers. In this manner, Hegel avoids determining the abstract structure of logical space over against the totality of realized determinations. Logic is not opposed to concrete content, since it is not a purely formal business. For if we oppose form and content, we already invoke a logical distinction in Hegel's sense: namely the distinction between form and content which is itself one of the categories of Hegel's Science of Logic.

Hegel orients this whole line of thought towards his notoriously obscure doctrine of the three syllogisms of philosophy. (33) Without pursuing the technical question of which syllogisms underlie the three syllogisms of philosophy, I suggest that Hegel's use of syllogism should be understood in the literal sense of a gathering together, of a ZusammenschluB. The three terms of the syllogisms correspond to the three parts of the system: Logic, nature and spirit. The simplest way of understanding the form of the three syllogisms renders them as follows:

(1) Logic, Nature, Mind.

(2) Nature, Mind, Logic.

(3) Mind, Logic, Nature.

Setting aside exegetical questions, I suggest understanding the three syllogisms as follows.

(1) The first syllogism corresponds to the standard way of interpreting the sequence of Logic, Nature and Mind as a succession. It seems as though the logical, absolute idea in some way or other emanates into nature which then progresses towards mind.

(2) The second syllogism is already more reflective. It is based on the insight that the first syllogism is an activity of the mind penetrating nature with regard to its logical foundations, its being structured in an intelligible way. The mind becomes aware of the fact that it presupposes the logical categories as principles of the intelligiblity of natural processes.

(3) Eventually, the third syllogism draws on the self-referential insight that the very reflection of the second syllogism presupposes the logical form of the absolute idea, since this expresses the highest formal standard of metaphysical reflection according to the Logic. Therefore, it is the absolute idea which returns to itself in our penetrating nature with regard to its intelligibility. In this sense, nature and spirit are manifestations of the absolute idea.
   The self-judging of the Idea into its two appearances
   ([section][section]575, 576) characterizes both as its (the
   self-knowing reason's) manifestations: and in it there is a
   unification of the two aspects:-it is the nature of the fact, the
   notion, which causes the movement and development, yet this same
   movement is equally the action of cognition. The eternal Idea, in
   full fruition of its essence, eternally sets itself to work,
   engenders and enjoys itself as absolute spirit. (Enc. [section]577)

Here, absolute spirit does not refer to any transcendent entity or teleological guarantee concealed by the potentially misleading appearances. It is nothing but the activity of putting the system together. In other words, there is no absolute God-like mind in which finite thinkers might participate once they reach the status of enlightenment. Any neoplatonic story of this sort is incompatible with Hegel's dialectic of the absolute and his conception of absolute form, the truly infinite.

The idea behind the three syllogisms of philosophy is the absolute idea insofar as it is the absolute method. It is the method that construes itself in such a manner that it finally grasps itself as the actuality of the system, as that which does the job of conceptualizing totality. The activity of conceptualizing displays itself in the form of nature and spirit, i.e. in the form of the absolute idea's being there. According to Hegel everything that there is, is intelligible, for everything is determined in the overall conceptual network of logical space. (34) Since there can, in principle, be nothing outside of logical space, the reflection of logical space on itself is the only absolute available. Given that this absolute reflection takes place in the Science of Logic, Hegel can claim to expose the absolute, to make it explicit. The exposition of the absolute does not represent the absolute in the potentially distorting medium of language. On the contrary, it deconstructs language's reference to a given world order external to reflection. There is no absolute beyond the absolute form which is the form of language becoming aware of its speculative role. (35) Therefore, the system gathers together the totality of form determinations belonging to the absolute form which necessarily leads to a self-referential insight into this very activity. Hegel's claim to totality does not hypostatize the absolute. The absolute does not stand still but continues to manifest itself as that which performs the shifts from one determinate conception of the absolute to another. This very insight however does not change in the same way as the definitions of the absolute change. Hegel thus tries to secure the critical position of philosophy by, at the time, subjecting it to the patterns of change that it discovers in critical self-reflection.


(1) "Das Absolute ist fur Hegel der Geist: das in der GewiBheit des unbedingten Sichwissens bei sich selbst Anwesende. Das wirkliche Erkennen des Seienden als des Seienden ist jetzt das absolute Erkennen des Absoluten in seiner Absolutheit." Martin Heidegger,"Hegel's Begriff der Erfahrung", in Holzwege (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann 1950), p. 129. Heidegger even ascribes representationalism to Hegel (ibid., pp. 130-136) According to Heidegger the Science of Logic contains "die ontologische Theiologie des Absoluten" (ibid., p. 197) Cf. also Heidegger's lectures on German Idealism, Der deutsche Idealismus (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel) und die philosophische Problemlage der Gegenwart (Frankfurt/Main: Klostermann 1997). In my "Endlichkeit und absolutes Ich - Heideggers Fichtekritik" (forthcoming in: Fichte-Studien) I argue against Heidegger's claim that the whole post-Kantian movement amounts to a denial of finitude on the basis of a reading of Fichte's enterprise as an analytique of finitude.

(2) Heidegger, Martin: Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, trans. Richard Taft (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1997).

(3) This corresponds to the later Schelling's interpretation of the Post-Kantian development. Cf. F.W.J. Schelling, Sammtliche Werke, hg. v. K.F.A. Schelling, (Stuttgart: Cotta 1856-1861), vol. XI, p. 283. On this topic cf. Markus Gabriel, Der Mensch im Mythos. Untersuchungen uber Ontotheologie, Anthropologie und SelbstbewuBtseinsgeschichte in Schellings <<Philosophie der Mythologie>>, (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter 2006), [section]5; Wolfram Hogrebe, Pradikation und Genesis. Metaphysik als Fundamentalheuristik im Ausgang von Schellings <<Die Weltalter>>, (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1989). The discussion of the transcendental ideal looms large in Hegel's defence of the ontological proof in his Lectures on the Proof of the Existence of God. For Hegel's interpretation of the Kantian reason qua faculty of the unconditioned see Beatrice Longuenesse, Hegel's Critique of Metaphysics (New York: Cambridge University Press 2007), p. 167-171.

(4) From a logical point of view the predicate of not having a predicate is an ordinary predicate which notoriously creates problems at the limits of expression and conception in the tradition of negative theology. A very illustrative exposition of the logical dimension of these problems can be found in Graham Priest, Beyond the Limits of Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995), in particular, pp. 23-25 and 61-64.

(5) Putnam, Hilary: Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1981) p. xi.

(6) J. G Fichte, Die Wissenschaftslehre. Zweiter Vortrag im Jahre 1804, ed. Reinhard Lauth and Joachim Widmann (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag 1986), p. 19-22.

(7) G.W.F Hegel, Werke in 20 Banden, ed. E. Moldenhauer and K. M. Michel (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1969-1971), henceforward quoted in the text in brackets as TWA, followed by the volume and the page number.

(8) G.W.F Hegel,Science of Logic, trans. by A.V. Miller (London: Allen and Unwin 1969), henceforward quoted in the text in brackets as SL, followed by the page number.

(9) I argue for this in more detail in my "Die metaphysische Wahrheit des Skeptizismus bei Schelling und Hegel", in: International Yearbook of German Idealism 5 (2007), pp. 126-156.

(10) As Hegel himself puts it in the Lesser Logic (G.W.F Hegel, The Encyclopaedia Logic (with the Zusatze); Part I of the "Encyclopaedia of philosophical science" with the Zusatze G. W. F. Hegel. A new transl. with introd. and notes by T. F. Geraets, Indianapolis: Hackett 1990, [section]114): "The theory of Essence is the most difficult branch of Logic. It includes the categories of metaphysic and of the sciences in general. These are the products of reflective understanding, which, while it assumes the differences to possess a footing of their own, and at the same time also expressly affirms their relativity, still combines the two statements, side by side, or one after the other, by an 'also', without bringing these thoughts into one, or unifying them into the notion."

(11) In Hegel's reading the Kantian distinction between the thing in itself and the appearances is a modern variety of Platonism. When Hegel attacks Platonism broadly construed he includes Kant's epistemology within the range of that concept. However, I agree with Fackenheim that Kant opened the path to Schelling's and Hegel's devastating criticism of transcendent metaphysics. Cf. Emil L Fackenheim, The Religious Dimension in Hegel's Thought (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press. 1967), p. 77: "Since Schelling, indeed since Kant, metaphysics can no longer recognize two worlds, of which one is its proper object. If possible at all, metaphysics rises above all standpoints for which there are two worlds, to an absolute standpoint for which there is one world, and that is not an object."

(12) Republic, 509d-513e

(13) It is important to insist that Hegel's recourse to the tradition of the ontological proof (and therefore to ontotheology) is not to be read as backslide into pre-critical metaphysics. On the contrary, it rather rests on a meta-critical move. Hegel believes that Kant's critique of metaphysics was not thorough enough precisely because Kant winds up with a set of dualisms without reflecting on the fact that they are only opposed in metaphysical reflection.

(14) Cf. Wolfram Hogrebe, "Das Absolute", in Echo des Nichtwissens (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag. 2006), p. 155-169; Markus Gabriel, Das Absolute und die Welt in Schellings Freiheitsschrift (Bonn: Bonn University Press 2006.) E. K. Emilsson makes a similar observation concerning the concept of the absolute in Plotinus. According to Emilsson, the concept of the absolute is necessary, because "an undifferentiated limitless totality that cannot be contrasted with anything is not a possible object of an intellectual grasp." Plotinus on Intellect (New York: Oxford University Press. 2007), p. 89

(15) On Hegel's critique of Neo-Platonism in this chapter cf. Markus Gabriel, "Hegel und Plotin" in Dietmar Heidemann and Christian H./Krijnen, eds., Hegel und die Geschichte der Philosophie (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. 2007,) p. 70-83.

(16) As far as I know, Plotinus first introduced the concept of the "entirely different (to pante diaphoron)" (Enneads V. 3, 10, 50).

(17) "But we have to exhibit what the absolute is; but this 'exhibiting' can be neither a determining nor an external reflection from which determinations of the absolute would result; on the contrary, it is the exposition, and in fact the self-exposition, of the absolute and only a display of what it is." (Ibid., p. 530)

(18) "As regards the attributes of which God consists, they are only infinite substances, each of which must of itself be infinitely perfect. That this must necessarily be so, we are convinced by clear and distinct reasons. It is true, however, that up to the present only two of all these infinites are known to us through their own essence; and these are thought and extension." Benedictus de Spinoza,, Short Treatise on God, Man, and his Well-Being, trans. and ed. A. Wolf,(New York: Russell & Russell Inc. 1963) p. 52.

(19) EId6exp

(20) Yirmiyahu Yovel, "The Infinite Mode and Natural Laws in Spinoza", in Yovel, ed, God and Nature. Spinoza's Metaphysics (Leiden/New York: Brill 1991), p. 79-96, here: p. 91.

(21) Hegel develops his concept of "presupposing" (Voraussetzen) in the subchapter on "Positing Reflection" (ibid. p. 400-402).

(22) Cf. G.W.F Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, ed. and trans. Peter C. Hodgson (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1988), p. 392: "God is self-consciousness; he knows himself in a consciousness that is distinct from him, which is implicitly the consciousness of God, but is also the divine consciousness explicitly since it knows its identity with God, an identity that is mediated, however, by the negation of finitude. It is this concept that constitutes the content of religion. We define God when we say that he distinguishes himself from himself and is an object for himself but that in this distinction he is purely identical with himself - that he is spirit." Cf. also G.W.F Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, trans. from the 1830 edition, together with Zusatze by W. Wallace and A.V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 2007), [section]564.

(23) Enc. [section]577. I generally agree with Angelica Nuzzo's solution of the problem in "The End of Hegel's Logic: Absolute Idea as Absolute Method", in: D. G. Carlson, ed., Hegel's Theory of the Subject (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2005), p. 187-205. "The term absolute for Hegel is no longer substantive but only adjectival, as such absoluteness is predicated of each one of the final moments of his system: absolute knowing (absolutes Wissen), absolute idea (absolute Idee), absolute spirit (absoluter Geist)," p. 188.

(24) Hegel explicitly acknowledges this fact in Annotations on Absolute Spirit, p. 36 (on [section]476 of the Heidelberg Encyclopedia): "Einzelne Individuen sind, welche philosophiren. Das Nacheinander des philos[ophischen] Inhalts gehort zu dieser Erscheinung".

(25) "As for the individual, every one is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time or jump over Rhodes." G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. S.W. Dyde (Kitchener: Batoche. 2001), p. 19.

(26) Cf. Anton Friedrich Koch's reading of the Science of Logic in terms of a "Evolutions-theorie des logischen Raums," "Die Selbstbeziehung der Negation in Hegels Logik", Zeitschrift fur philosophische Forschung, v. 53 (1999), p. 15.

(27) The translation is slightly corrected from "existence" (Miller) for "Dasein" to "being there". The German text reads: "Die Natur und der Geist sind uberhaupt unterschiedene Weisen, ihr Dasein darzustellen". I entirely agree with Angelica Nuzzo, "The End of Hegel's Logic: Absolute Idea as Absolute Method", in D. G. Carlson, ed., Hegel's Theory of the Subject, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2005), p. 187-205. "The absolute idea is no content but a mere form, purely self-referential expression with nothing to express except its own formality. This form, indeed an absolute one, is the first side of the method; the method as formal mode (Art und Weise), as modality or mode of being and knowledge at the same time. Thereby the claim that the absolute idea is method corrects Spinoza's metaphysical claim addressed in the logic of essence that the Absolute is mode," p. 195.

(28) For a reading of the whole enterprise of the Science of Logic in terms of a theory of absolute subjectivity cf. Klaus Dusing, Das Problem der Subjektivitat in Hegels Logik. Systematische und entwicklungsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zum Prinzip des Idealismus und zur Dialektik (Bonn: Bouvier. 1976).

(29) SL, 537: "But the absolute cannot be a first, an immediate; on the contrary, the absolute is essentially its result." Cf. also SL, 69 sq.

(30) For this very reason, Schelling develops an original conception of transcendence dispensing with external reflection. For more detail cf. Markus:Gabriel, Das Absolute und die Welt in Schellings Freiheitsschrift (Bonn: Bonn University Press. 2006)

(31) The false infinite, on the contrary, is defined over against the finite. Cf. SL, pp. 139 sq. where Hegel claims that the contradiction between the finite and the false infinite "occurs as a direct result of the circumstance that the finite remains as a determinate being opposed to the infinite, so that there are two determinatenesses; there are two worlds, one infinite and one finite, and in the relationship the infinite is only the limit of the finite and is thus only a determinate infinite, an infinite which is itself finite."

(32) An original discussion of Hegel's concept of the "true infinite" can be found in Bubner, Rudiger: "Hegels Losung eines Ratsels" in Francesca Menegoni and Luca Illeterati, eds., Das Endliche und das Unendliche in Hegels Denken (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta. 2004), p. 17-32. Cf. also Houlgate's excellent commentary in Opening of Hegel's Logic. From Being to Infinity (Indiana: Purdue University Press. 2006) p. 414-420.

(33) For illuminating discussions cf. Thomas Soren Hoffmann, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Eine Propadeutik (Wiesbaden: Marix-Verlag. 2004), p. 479-498, and Angelica Nuzzo, "Hegels Auffassung der Philosophie als System und die drei Schlusse der Enzyklopadie," in Hegels enzyklopadisches System der Philosophie, B. Tuschling, U. Volgel, eds. (Stuttgart: Frommann 34 Holzboog. 2004), p. 459-480.

(34) Cf. Beatrice Longuenesse, Hegel's Critique of Metaphysics (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2007), p. 110-159.

(35) Cf. Thomas Soren Hoffmann, Die absolute Form. Modalitat, Individualitat und das Prinzip der Philosophie nach Kant und Hegel (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter. 1991), who further develops the basic ideas of Josef Simon, Das Problem der Sprache bei Hegel (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer-Verlag. 1966).
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Title Annotation:Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Author:Gabriel, Markus
Publication:Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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