Hegel and Metaphysics

What does Hegel mean by metaphysics?

Any reader of German Idealism knows that metaphysics, once the “queen of the sciences”, fell into disrepute after the publication of Kant’s monumental Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Metaphysics, unfortunately, is a vague and slippery word, perhaps like “spiritual”, that by now means so much that it means nothing in particular. For example, “metaphysics” can designate an ontology which speculates on the property of being, or what is. It can designate a theology which studies the highest being, or that which grounds being. Or, it could designate a cosmology, a study of the first principles and forces of nature. According to Beiser, Hegel refuses to adopt this term and, when he does use the term, it’s almost always negative, referring to the pre-Kantian philosophy of the rationalist tradition: Descartes, Wolff, and Leibniz. This mode of engaging metaphysics as stated above was completely discredited by Kant’s critical philosophy. So, given these circumstances, Hegel knows that to revive pre-kantian metaphysics would be impossible without invoking negative connotations. However, despite this, Beiser argues, even if Hegel didn’t use the term to describe his philosophy, retains a foundational element of pre-Kantian metaphysics, viz. the attempt to know the unconditioned through pure reason.


What does Hegel mean by the Absolute?

If we claim that Hegel does indeed engage in a practice which could be called metaphysical, despite its pronounced negativity, insofar as he retains the belief that pure reason can attain knowledge of the Absolute, we must now articulate what exactly Hegel understands by this. It’s not surprising that Hegel himself doesn’t provide a clear and concise definition; however, thanks to Schelling, we’re not completely lost. According to Schelling, the absolute denotes that which depends on nothing else for its existence. As Beiser states, “both in its existence and essence, the absolute is independent of, or unconditioned by, all other things.” The absolute, then, we could say is causa sui, that whose essence necessarily involves existence.


Both Hegel and Schelling take their bearings from Spinoza’s arguments in his Ethics. That is, for all three thinkers, only one thing can fit the conditions of absolute, the universe as a whole. But, what does this mean? Hegel and Schelling seek to update Spinoza’s mechanistic view of Nature by coupling this idea with their interpretation of the results of contemporary science. That is, biology, mechanics, chemistry, etc. all confirm that matter is inherently vitalistic and not, as Spinoza and other believed, a merely mechanistic thing moved only when acted upon by external force. It’s not a stretch, I believe, to claim that Schelling’s vitalism conceives Nature as a self-organizational system according to which Mind and Body are merely different degrees of organizational complexity. The Absolute, then, as we’ve said, is that which has an independent essence and existence. However, I don’t quite understand how we’re entitled to view the Absolute organically or vitalistically. If the Absolute is the collection or whole of the individual parts of existence, then it seems the Absolute would be dependent on parts in order to be Whole. That is, without parts, can one have a Whole? (An empty set I presume). Furthermore, suppose one answer in the affirmative. By virtue of what is the Whole, construed as the empty set, organic? Hegel it is said goes along with Schelling on this point. However, he begins to have reservations with Schelling’s arguments when the latter begins to describe the Absolute in terms of subject-object identity. Hegel believes this formulation suffers from a serious difficulty. If we restrict our conception of the Absolute as ONLY subject-object identity then we must account for the apparent difference or distinction of these terms within everyday, ordinary experience. Hegel then by adopting Schelling’s organic conception of the Absolute critiques not so much Schelling but Spinoza through Schelling. That is, when Hegel claims that the absolute is not only substance but subject, his critique is levelled not at Schelling, but Spinoza.


Can we now understand to a more precise degree why both Hegel and Schelling felt justified in circumventing the en vogue critique of pre-Kantian metaphysics?

Hegel can circumvent kant’s critique of metaphysics through a reconception of metaphysics through a subtle Schellingian reformulation of the Absolute. Metaphysics prior to Kant operated according to a deistic theology, which conceived of the absolute as a supernatural entity existing beyond the sphere of nature. Hegel and Schelling both agree with kant that this brand of metaphysics had lost its appeal and validity.


4 responses to “Hegel and Metaphysics

  1. The evolution of Schelling’s thinking w/r/t to the Absolute is pretty profound, and, I think, is indicative of his ping-ponging between his competing allegiances to Spinoza & Fichte. He anticipates the Hegelian objections you describe here, this anticipation is basically what undermines his Der Weltalter project. I find myself agreeing with Zizek when he says that by the third draft Schelling has blunted his original insight: namely, that God (& the Absolute from which God is identified as such) are inextricably linked to dialectical history. Here, independence does not point toward a “before” the beginning of history, but the very “miraculous” excess of beginning at all. As I wrote somewhere, “in the beginning, the repression of the Absolute was also its creation” — its “creation” as Absolute. The equivocation there is key: for it highlights the simultaneity of the Absolute as both the subject who represses and the object repressed.

  2. Also . . . have you checked out J. L. Nancy & P. Lacoue-Labarthe’s The Literary Absolute. There’s not a ton about Schelling in there, if memory serves, but it’s definitely in line with some of your reflections here, and it draws in some of the too-often ignored Frühromantik elements like Novalis & Schlegel.

  3. Hey man…thanks for posting your comments. To admit up front, I’m not too terribly conversant with Schelling’s work. In fact, my familiarity doesn’t exceed the basic textbook description. However, I have spent some time in his later work, especially as it relates to his critique of Hegel. I find this particular part of his work important, both philosophically and historically, given the extent to which Schelling’s Hegel critique has influenced the direction of subsequent philosophy without receiving much attention in English-speaking philosophy. It appears then that Schelling got the last laugh. Or, did he? When reading his critique of Hegel I often wonder to what extent he reads Hegel accurately. Perhaps I open myself to attacks of naivete (see the Gabriel quote on my first post) but I don’t think Schelling’s critique is as devestating as his descendants have believed. I’m thinking specifically of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Derrida and Levinas. Hegel doesn’t share Schelling’s presupposition regarding thought’s inability to engage directly with being. That is, Schelling takes negative philosophy to be concerned with determining the nature of objects and, thus, the mere possibility of existence. (Until, of course, it encounters its limit: pure actuality whose nature is to exist necessarily.) So, to understand an object doesn’t commit one to endorsing that object’s existence. Schelling too anticipates most critiques of Hegel, esp. Heidegger, by claiming that the progression of Hegel’s system proceeds in a pre-determined manner. However, I don’t agree with this…I take seriously Hegel’s claims to proceed (more or less) presuppositionalessly and, therefore, he does NOT know where thought leads or will lead. Therefore, I would disagree with most of the post-structuralist critiques of Hegel, in particular Derrida, who read Hegel’s work as being, in some way, a progenitor of Capitalism: a system which bulls full speed ahead, appropriating any and everything exceptional within its “economy”. Much of this is underdeveloped here, obviously. But, perhaps we can exchange arguments in a way that increases our understanding of both Schelling and Hegel.

  4. Hi, I was trying to found the differences between Kant´s and Hegel´s Metaphysics, but I could. All this because I´m trying to find the meaning of a quote:
    In the development of metaphysics
    From Kant to Hegel
    Something was lost.

    Can you please help me, what does this mean, what was lost.

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