In the Spirit of Hegel: Post-Kantian Subjectivity, the Phenomenology Of Spirit, and Absolute Idealism
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In the Spirit of Hegel:
Post-Kantian Subjectivity, the Phenomenology Of Spirit, and Absolute Idealism

The greatest philosopher of the modern experience, G. W. F. Hegel, was deeply rooted in Plato, Aristotle, and Spinoza, and he synthesized the riches of Kantian and post-Kantian idealism. He put dynamic panentheism into play in modern theology, and in some way he inspired nearly every great philosophical idea and movement of the past two centuries. Yet no thinker is as routinely misconstrued as Hegel, partly because his greatest work, the Phenomenology of Spirit, defies categorization and is notoriously hard to understand.

In the mid-1790s, while Immanuel Kant was elderly and fading and J. G. Fichte was prominent for amplifying Kant’s subjective ethical idealism, a group of youthful post-Kantian idealists in Berlin, Jena, and Frankfurt began to talk about the absolute. F. W. J. Schelling, Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis), Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Hölderlin, and August Ludwig Hülsen were promising figures in this group, all smacking of genius. Hegel, showing no sign of genius, was an insider to this discussion by virtue of his friendships with Schelling and Hölderlin.1

The absolute was a variation on Spinoza’s doctrine of substance. For Spinoza, the key to substance was its independent or self-sufficient essence, something that does not depend on anything else. Substance had to be infinite, because anything less than the whole of all things would depend on something outside [End Page 200] itself. Schelling called it “the unconditioned,” the “in-itself,” or, interchangeably, the absolute, a usage that Hegel and the absolute idealists adopted.2

To the absolute idealists, the transcendental idealism of Kant and Fichte failed to explain the reality of the external world, and it turned nature into a mere instrument or medium of moral action. Nature, instead of being an end in itself worthy of spiritual appreciation, was subordinated to the striving of a moral subject, deriving its value from ethical ends imposed upon it. Schelling, a boy genius and Romantic, was the most brilliant of the post-Kantians and the most productive, until he flamed out. Hegel, a slow starter and only briefly a Romantic, made the strongest bid that any thinker has ever made to be the Protestant Thomas Aquinas.

Schelling and Hegel, working together in the early 1800s, argued that Kant wrongly dichotomized between form and content, which yielded a strangely abstract philosophy that knew only appearances, not reality. Kant described a real problem, but he fixated on a relatively primitive mode of self-consciousness in which form and content were separate, which led to a dualistic theory of knowledge predicated on the dichotomy between a knowing subject and its objects of consciousness. Admittedly, they sometimes acknowledged, there were passages in Kant’s first and third Critiques that worked against this outcome—suggestions of an objective idealism that overcame Kant’s dualism by positing universal forms of experience. Schelling and Hegel contended that the only way to ensure the possibility of knowledge was to take the objective idealist option more seriously than Kant, reconstructing Kant’s principle of subject-object identity.

This principle is not about the self-knowledge of a finite subject, Schelling and Hegel argued. It is about the self-knowledge of the absolute within a finite subject. Instead of trapping subject-object identity inside the circle of its own representations, the answer is to lift subject-object identity outside this circle by equating the self-knowledge of a knowing subject with the self-knowledge of the absolute.3 [End Page 201]

Absolute idealism was a reworking of Spinoza in dynamic form, a renewal of the Platonic doctrine that all knowledge participates in divine self-knowledge, and an amplification of the objective idealist strand of Kant’s idealism. My knowledge is not merely something that I know from my own consciousness. It is knowledge of the absolute through the object itself. Schelling put it vividly: “Not I know, but the all knows in me, if the knowledge that I call mine is an actual and true knowledge.”4

We do not know the absolute; it is only the absolute that knows itself, through...