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.