The critique of subjective idealism – Georg Lukacs

HEGEL’s first published works in Jena are essentially polemical in nature. The passion with which they are imbued springs from his conviction that the philosophical revolution he is proclaiming is but the intellectual expression of a great general revolution. The defeat of subjective idealism at the hands of objective idealism is not merely the narrow parochial concern of a few philosophers but the intellectual apex of a great socio-historical transformation. This explains the recurrence in these writings of images which establish precisely this connection between the changes in philosophy and the emergence of a new world: We have already given one example. (p. 249.) The following quotation is perhaps even more characteristic of his mood in this first period in Jena.

‘The lawgivers of Athens prescribed the death-sentence for political abstention at times of political unrest. Philosophical abstention, the decision not to defend one’s own position but to resolve in advance to submit to whomever fate crowns with victory and general acclaim, is the decision to condemn oneself to the death of one’s speculative reason.’

The weapons he employs are already specifically Hegelian. His refutation of subjective idealism does not confine itself simply to demonstrating its limitations and defects. His method is less direct, but far more radical than that. He regards subjective idealism not simply as a false direction in philosophy, but as a trend which necessarily came into being and whose errors also bear the stamp of necessity. His demonstration that subjective idealism is false shows the logic both of this necessity and of the limitations it entailed. Now as later he uses both historical and systematic arguments, and ultimately the two are inseparable. Historically, he shows that subjective idealism necessarily arose out of the deepest problems of the present and that this was its historical justification and its permanent achievement. Yet at the same time he shows that subjective idealism cannot possibly do more than present the problems posed by the age and translate them into the language of speculative philosophy. Subjective idealism, however, has no answer to these problems: this is its failure.

Thus by confronting subjective idealism with objective idealism he fixes the historical position of both in the history of philosophy and indeed of mankind. He thereby elevates the discussion to a level not dreamed of by Fichte and Schelling in their correspondence on the subject. Moreover Hegel’s historical grasp of the problem represents an enormous advance in his own development, one which clearly points to the mature Hegel of the future. Of course, having studied his Berne and Frankfurt fragments in detail we can see the long preparation that preceded this. For Hegel philosophy was always connected intimately with the general, socio-political and cultural problems of the present; it would provide the final intellectual solution for all the problems of the past pressing upon the present.

Thus the ‘sudden’ emergence of an historical approach in such a perfected form is not hard to explain. In Berne and Frankfurt Hegel had attempted to tackle the great problems of society head on and even though he advanced to the point where he had to deal with some of the central problems of dialectics he was not able to bring his views together in an overall system. Moreover although he was in continuous contact with developments in philosophy throughout this period (above all in Frankfurt), he only took issue with them when it became unavoidable and then only on particular problems. Only when he came to Jena did he feel the necessity of coming to terms with contemporary philosophy as such. It was his profound and comprehensive grasp of the problems of the present, his ability to relate them to a single problem: the turning-point from subjective to objective idealism, that ‘suddenly’ produced the fully-fledged historical approach.

In his polemical writings the historical method is inseparable from the systematic one. We repeat: Hegel is not concerned to refute subjective idealism from ‘outside’, but by unravelling internal contradictions which remained hidden from Fichte. The internal dialectic of these contradictions, the solution which the movement of the contradictions brings about, is what will demonstrate the necessity for objective idealism. Since Hegel regards these contradictions as the products of events and processes in society we witness the emergence here in these early polemics of that inner organic unity of philosophy and history so typical of his maturity.

Thus Hegel’s approach is historical and systematic at the same time. He raises the question of the need for philosophy in the present. From our knowledge of the Frankfurt Fragment of a System it cannot surprise us to learn that Hegel sought the source of this need for philosophy in fragmentation and disunity. This enabled him to deduce what he regarded as the crucial weakness of non-dialectical thought, viz. that it simply reflected this fragmentation through its separation of the categories of reason from the living and moving totality of the world, the absolute. He says:

‘If we look more closely at the particular form of a philosophy we can see how it springs on the one hand from the living originality of a mind which has created and actively shaped a fragmented harmony; and on the other hand, it springs from the particular form of disunity from which the system arises. Disunity is the source of the need for philosophy and as the (Bildung) of the age it is its unfree, predetermined aspect. In manifestations of the absolute have become isolated from the absolute and have become fixed as autonomous things.’

This description of the present as an age of once more reminds us of the close links between Hegel’s philosophy and the classical period of Goethe and Schiller. Indeed, at first glance it almost looks like a philosophical statement of the aspirations formulated in Schiller’s aesthetic essays and especially in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. But the term ‘’ has a different emphasis in Hegel. He stresses the disharmonies and contradictions which make such a dramatic appearance at this stage of human history. When we come to discuss The Phenomenology of Mind we shall see that the age of is in Hegel’s eyes the age when dialectics is reborn in its final and most perfect form, i.e. that the convulsions and struggles of this fragmented and disharmonious age are the birthpangs of the final harmony of Hegel’s absolute spirit.

The distinction is important but is nevertheless just a matter of emphasis, involving a different evaluation of the preceding periods of transition and especially of the Enlightenment. Goethe and Hegel always agree in seeing themselves as the successors of the Enlightenment, as its consummation; their critique of Enlightenment never reaches the point of rejecting its heritage outright as do the Romantics. (The modern swindle in Goethe and Hegel studies depends on obscuring precisely this circumstance and it thrives on isolated quotations wrenched from their contexts.) In this area a typical example of the way in which Goethe and Hegel see eye to eye is to be found in Goethe’s discovery of the manuscript of Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau early in the nineteenth century. He immediately translated it and published it with a commentary while Hegel no less eagerly made use of it to define the particular form of dialectics operative in the Enlightenment. The characters depicted by Diderot are assigned a crucial role in the most important chapter in The Phenomenology of Mind.

Now Hegel thinks of his age as the point in time when the disintegration of has reached its peak and the possibility of a reversal of the trend and the emergence of a new harmony is very real.

‘The more progress there is in and the more various the manifestations of life exposed to fragmentation, the greater the power of fragmentation becomes …’

But this fragmentation holds out the possibility of new harmony and its appointed agent is philosophy itself..

‘When the power of unification vanishes from the lives of men and opposing tendencies lose their ability to interact with each other and become autonomous, the need for philosophy is born.’

These statements are enough to persuade us that Hegel is pursuing ideas he had conceived in Frankfurt in a more explicit and conscious fashion, above all, the notion that all the contradictions and conflicts that arise in philosophy can be reduced to conflicts and contradictions in life that they are rooted in society itself. This idea is not only the source of Hegel’s historicism but it also defines his particular approach to contradictions and their elimination. It is made quite explicit in the programmatic introduction to the first of the polemical essays written at this period.

‘To do away with such rigid antagonisms is the exclusive task of philosophy. This does not mean that it is opposed to opposition and limitation as such; for a necessary disunity is a factor of life itself which develops through an eternal process of oppositions and the totality can only be reconstructed in all its vitality from a state of the greatest possible division. However, reason is opposed to the absolute fixation of disunity by the understanding, all the more when absolute opposites have sprung from reason itself.’

Thus in Hegel’s view disunity is a feature of life itself, the philosophy of is not in the wrong because it gives it philosophical expression; on the contrary, that is its achievement. Its defect lies in its inability to discover the unifying principle which lies objectively at the base of all disunity and its consequent failure to find the path back to harmony.

Such considerations elevate the conflict between Fichte and Schelling, between subjective and objective idealism, to the plane of a decisive polarity in history itself. Fichte’s philosophy appears in it as the highest intellectual expression of disunity, as its systematic philosophical statement. However, it is unaware of its own origins, its analysis of the problem is in fact spurious and its claims to offer a solution are specious. Criticism must demonstrate the philosophical and historical justification and necessity for the problems while showing that Fichte’s solutions only appear as such to the superficial glance while in reality they merely formulate unsolved and on this plane insoluble problems in terms of rigid polarities. Objective idealism will provide the solution to these problems, it is the philosophy which arises from the living contradictions of the age and its thought: in the language of Hegel’s later philosophy, objective idealism is ‘the truth of subjective idealism’.

The view expressed in these early writings already stamps Hegel as the founder of a new scientific method in the history of philosophy. He is the first thinker to have refused to content himself with the mere collation of facts or abstract criticisms. His new approach is attempted quite consciously in theDifference. He launches an attack there against the view that philosophy and its history

‘is a sort of craft which can be improved by the constant development of “tricks of the trade”.’

At the same time he turns against thinkers who would deal with the subject from a ‘particular point of view’. In this he can see nothing but a bad subjectivity.

‘Anyone who is trapped in a particular point of view can only see peculiarities in others.’

His position is that philosophy is a great, unified historical process whose content is the dialectical unfolding of reason in its unity.

Needless to say Hegel was not the first to attempt to give the study of the history of philosophy a scientific foundation. Kant had made a plea for such a study and so had all the important figures in classical philosophy. But his predecessors here had never gone beyond the stage of programmatic declarations. Hegel was the first person to tackle the problem in all seriousness and to try to produce a comprehensive history of philosophy and to provide it with a methodological basis which would show how it unfolds logically by virtue of the inner dialectic of thought, of human progress. We could only know how far Hegel had advanced with this programme if we still had the text of his lectures on the history of philosophy from the year 1806. His editors did possess them but the printed version only indicates in a few isolated places which passages date from the 1806 lectures. A really conclusive statement on this issue is therefore no longer possible.

Nevertheless, we can attempt an approximate reconstruction of Hegel’s view of the history of philosophy in his Jena period, because even though his polemics against subjective idealism concentrate on the historical necessity both of its emergence and its demise, they do not limit themselves to this theme in any narrow or one-sided way. On the contrary, in order to present the problem from as many points of view as possible and to document it as fully as he can, he takes the opportunity to discuss a wide variety of problems. Since it lies to one side of our main arguments we must confine ourselves to a list of some of the more important of the excursi he makes in the course of his polemics. In his essay on Schulze he makes a detailed comparison between scepticism in antiquity and the modern world. In the essay on natural law he contrasts the social philosophies of Plato and Aristotle with the moderns and compares the views of important representatives of the Enlightenment such as Hobbes and Montesquieu on the subject of law, the state and society, with the views of Kant and Fichte. In his attack on Jacobi he sets Spinoza’s authentic dialectic against Jacobi’s vulgarized version of it and in his discussion of teleology he opposes Voltaire’s ideas to those of Kant and Fichte.

However, we must consider one problem – Hegel’s position vis-à-vis the Enlightenment – a little more fully, since it is closely bound up with Hegel’s approach to dialectics and is a crucial factor in the disagreements which led to the breach with Schelling. The main thrust of classical German philosophy was a struggle against philosophical materialism. The struggle became sharper as German philosophy gained in strength and assurance. Schelling’s occasional lapses into a sort of materialism were merely episodes that did not affect the main trend any more than Kant’s well-known hesitations. As far as Hegel is concerned, we know that he never had any hesitations at all; he was always consciously an idealist and a declared opponent of materialism.

But this hostility should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the philosophy of the Enlightenment left an indelible imprint on Hegel’s development and throughout the Jena period he considered himself as its heir. That the Enlightenment was the point of departure for his own philosophy and that he was profoundly influenced by it in his youth is nothing out of the ordinary; the same could be said of almost all his contemporaries. What is important is that unlike the majority of them – with Goethe almost the only exception, – he did not renounce the Enlightenment. Schelling and the Romantics became more and more opposed to the Enlightenment and expressed their hostility in increasingly sharp terms. It is not without significance that they tended to identify the Enlightenment with the second-rate mediocrities prominent at the end of the eighteenth century in Germany. In the eyes of many Germans the real greatness of the Enlightenment was obscured by such caricatures as Nicolai. Hegel’s attitude was quite distinct from this. The broad cosmopolitan outlook which we have already observed in his attitude to the French Revolution and English economics proved its worth here too. In his Jena diaries we find the following very revealing cornments on the issue.

‘In Germany people are always rushing to defend healthy common sense from what are thought of as the arrogant attacks of philosophy. It’s all wasted effort since even if philosophy were to concede everything it would be of no service to them – since they have no common sense. Genuine common sense is not peasant coarseness but something in the educated world which freely and forcefully confronts the fetishes of with the truth; or it may appear in the form of a Rousseauesque paradox which formulates principles to express its objections both to and its fetishes; or else in the form of experience, reasoning, wit, as in Voltaire or Helvétius.’

Hegel regards objective idealism as the highest and indeed the final form of philosophy. In his polemics against Kant and Fichte he elaborates its claims. But he sees the direct antecedents of his own philosophy not just in subjective idealism but also in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. In the process of settling accounts with the past we frequently come across situations where he puts the views of the Enlightenment or of particular Enlightenment thinkers on the same plane as those of Kant or Fichte or even praises the former at the expense of the latter. This is a matter we shall return to in our treatment of the particular issues where we shall see how these comparisons and contrasts constantly recur. We shall also have occasion to observe that his view of the Enlightenment is intimately bound up with his entire view of history and as such it has a decisive impact on The Phenomenology of Mind.

All that need be said here is that Hegel’s general repudiation of philosophical materialism does not restrain him from assigning a prominent place in the history of philosophy to its most important representatives Holbach and Helvétius. In the Difference Hegel takes issue with the Kantian thinker Reinhold and his superficial and purely negative view of materialism as a mere ‘aberration’ ‘alien to Germany’. Reinhold sees nothing of its authentic philosophical desire to abolish the dualism of mind and matter.

‘If the Western locality of the which produced this system prevents the system from migrating to another country we may inquire whether this enforced separation does not stem from the opposite cultural one-sidedness. Even if its scientific value were negligible we cannot but see that e.g. in [Holbach’s] Système de la nature a mind estranged from its age reproduces itself in scientific form. We cannot but see how the sorrow at the universal deceit of the age, the thorough-going of nature, the endless lies that go by the name of truth and law – how this sorrow which permeates the entire work still has the energy, the philosophical need and the passion for speculation to construct into a science the absolute that has vanished from life. And the form that science takes is that of objectivity, just as German often without any speculative power at all makes its home in subjectivity (to which faith and love also belong.)’

The defects of Hegel’s arguments here are plain to see. He believes that objective idealism will provide the principle that will overcome both one-sided attitudes: those of subjective idealism and philosophical materialism. What is more interesting is that he places Holbach’s materialism on the same planeas the philosophy of Kant and Fichte. No doubt, he greatly exaggerates the ‘desperation’ contained in the social criticism and the general philosophy of the eighteenth-century materialists. He overlooks the optimistic, self-confident mood in which they anticipate the coming transformation of society, the approaching rule of the bourgeoisie. This misconception has its roots in his general view of history. He views the French Revolution as the climactic point of a crisis which will lead to a new age of the spirit. Hence the French materialists are regarded exclusively as the intellectual spokesmen of this crisis. Hence he is as right about the materialists as he is about the Revolution, and where he goes wrong about the Revolution we can also perceive the limitations of his view of Holbach and Helvétius. What is important, however, is that he sees Kant and Fichte as products of the same crisis. That is to say, he places Holbach on the same philosophical plane as Kant and Fichte and high above the subjective idealists whose philosophy ends in mere feeling and declamatory statement. The last sentence of the passage just quoted is an energetic dig at the whole school of sentimental philosophy and of Romanticism, and not just at Kantians like Reinhold.

This parallel between subjective idealism and materialism is not an isolated incident in Hegel’s polemical essays. He keeps returning to it and always with the intention of showing how their complementary limitation can be overcome by objective idealism. For example, in the course of an argument against superficial conceptions of ‘common sense’.

‘The matter of the materialists or the Ego of the idealists – the former is no longer the dead matter which turns out to have life of its own in opposing and shaping; the latter is no longer the empirical consciousness, that as a limited thing finds itself forced to posit infinities outside itself.’

Hegel’s early critique of subjective idealism differs from his later views. The celebrated criticism of the thing-in-itself which both Engels and Lenin praised so highly is not yet present in Hegel’s objections to Kant. Such criticism was only possible after the full development of the system of objective idealism. Of course, when we come to examine Hegel’s discussions of ‘externalization’ in the Phenomenology the attentive reader will readily see that his view of this concept implicitly contains his critique of subjective idealism. Hegel’s later criticism is retrospective and conclusive. It takes the line that subjective idealism has been completely superseded. But at the time under consideration we are still witnessing the birth of absolute idealism. Hence the connections between the two philosophies are sometimes more apparent than their opposition, since the new philosophy emerges as the necessary solution to the unresolved contradictions in the old. In consequence the young Hegel tends to focus attention on Fichte. Not simply because the disagreement between Fichte and Schelling provided a suitable point of departure, but because it was Fichte who had successfully completed the Kantian system and who thereby became Hegel’s chief target. Hegel’s attitude to Fichte never changed throughout his life. But in the great debates in the Logic and theEncyclopaedia there was a shift in emphasis and Kant as the founder and the greatest exponent of subjective idealism became the chief object of Hegel’s attack. This change in emphasis reflected Hegel’s greater maturity and a surer grasp of the history of philosophy than he could have had in the heat of the debate during his youth.

At the centre of his analysis is his demonstration that Fichte was unable to carry out his intention of proving that the Ego is an identical subject-object and so resolving the Kantian dualism of consciousness and things-in-themselves. We observe that the Schelling-Hegel critique of Fichte is the reverse of Kant’s. Both, however, throw light on the half-hearted way in which Fichte attempts to supersede Kant. Fichte’s inadequacy lies in the fact that he aims to overcome Kantian dualism with the aid of a concept which in reality takes the agnostic and subjectivist tendencies in Kant to an extreme by transforming the entire world into consciousness whilst at the same time requiring that the Ego should possess an objectivity which goes well beyond the limits assigned to consciousness by Kant. Kant in his criticism of Fichte emphasized that from the standpoint of consciousness it is not possible to overcome the dualism of consciousness and external world, Hegel starts at the other end: he acknowledges Fichte’s purpose of providing an idealist solution to the problem of the objectivity of the world by discovering an identical subject-object, but maintains that Fichte does not get beyond postulating this solution. In Hegel’s own words:

‘Thus the Ego does not itself become the subject-object within the system. The subjective does indeed become the subject-object, but not the objective; and so the subject is not equal to the object.’

It is easy to see the historical necessity underlying these formulations. Kant provided the agnosticism of subjective idealism with its most advanced theoretical statement. At the same time it became apparent that the materialism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was utterly unable even to formulate let alone resolve the problems of dialectics thrown up by the advances in the natural sciences and the progress of society. In view of the prevailing conditions of society and hence of scientific thought the road from metaphysics to dialectics had to go through idealism. Now from an idealist point of view a dialectics of objective reality can only be achieved on the basis of the identical subject-object.

There can only be an objective-idealist dialectics (a) if we may assume the existence of something that goes beyond the consciousness of individuals but is still subject-like, a kind of consciousness, (b) if amidst the dialectical movement of the objects idealism can discern a development which moves towards a consciousness of itself in this subject, and so (c) if the movement of the world of objects achieves an objective and subjective, real and conscious union with knowledge. Thus the identical subject-object is the central pillar of objective idealism just as the reflection in human consciousness of an objective reality subsisting independently of consciousness is the crux of materialist epistemology.

The great economic and social upheavals at the turn of the century and the upsurge of the natural sciences laid bare the limitations of the old materialism which Lenin defines in the following terms:

‘the fundamental misfortune of [“metaphysical” materialism] is its inability to apply dialectics to the theory of reflection [Bildertheorie], to the process and development of knowledge’.

The development of society had thrust the problem of dialectics to the centre of the stage so vigorously that Kant’s agnosticism had made its appearance in dialectical form (in sharp contrast to that of Berkeley and Hume), but at the same time dialectical materialism was neither socially nor theoretically possible. In this situation only two roads were open to further philosophical development. Either one could hold fast to Kantian positions or one could go on to invent the identical subject-object and arrive at a dialectics of objective reality by means of a detour through philosophical mystification. It is with this in mind that Lenin goes on to say after the passage just quoted:

‘Philosophical idealism is only nonsense from the standpoint of crude, simple, metaphysical materialism. From the standpoint of adialectical materialism, on the other hand, philosophical idealism is a one-sided, exaggerated, überschwenglich (Dietzgen) development (inflation, distention) of one of the features, aspects, facets of knowledge into an absolute, divorced from matter, from nature, apotheosised. Idealism is clerical obscurantism.’

With his usual precision Lenin points to both sides of the problem. He makes it quite clear that the idealist approach necessarily entails religious, clerical overtones. We shall see later on the profound social reasons which prevented Hegel from emancipating himself from religion. Naturally enough, the identical subject-object which was itself born on religious soil nourished his religious beliefs and strengthened them still further. A proper study of the history of classical idealism in Germany will have to come to terms with both the aspects stressed by Lenin and to explore their dialectical interrelations.

Looked at from this point of view Fichte’s philosophy is an odd mixture of logic and inconsistency. When he insists on the purely subjective and conscious character of the Ego he is more logical than his successors. And when he attacks Schelling’s illusions and inconsistencies from this vantage-point he has a certain amount of right on his side. (Of course, using that logic, Kant is no less justified in the strictures he makes about Fichte from his point of view.) If Fichte were to be truly consistent he would necessarily end up in a Berkeleyan position. By conferring the quality of an identical subject-object on his Ego he involves himself in inconsistency – even from the standpoint on an immanent idealism. Nevertheless, by stopping half-way he arrives at a position pregnant with consequences of the most fruitful kind for the development of idealist dialectics in Germany.

Hegel’s critique is directed exclusively at this latter failing. His and Schelling’s search for an objective-idealist dialectic forces them to take the mystification of an identical subject-object really seriously. He therefore subjects Fichte’s thought to a quite ruthless scrutiny. As we have seen, he proceeds from the premise that the Fichtean Ego really ought to be an identical subject-object, but that it cannot fulfil this function because of Fichte’s own illogicality.

‘Absolute identity is indeed the principle of speculation, but like his phrase M it remains no more than the rule whose infinite fulfilment is postulated but never carried out in the system.’

Hegel goes on to show us the systematic aspect of the view already familiar to us that metaphysical materialism belongs on the same plane as subjective idealism. He pursues the comparison as follows:

‘The existence of pure consciousness in the empirical world cannot be proved or disproved any more than can the thing-in-itself of the dogmatist (i.e. the materialist – G.L.) Neither the subjective nor the objective alone constitutes consciousness; the purely subjective is just as abstract as the purely objective; dogmatic idealism posits the subjective as the real ground of the objective, dogmatic realism posits the objective as the real ground of the subjective…. But just as idealism asserts the unity of consciousness, realism can with no less validity insist on its duality. The unity of consciousness presupposes a duality, a relation of opposition. The proposition I = I is confronted by an equally absolute proposition: The subject is not identical with the object. Both statements have the same status.’

Thus Fichte’s Ego is no identical subject-object of the sort that could produce and guarantee the dialectics of objective reality.

‘Amid the infinite progress of existence it endlessly produces parts of itself, but it will not produce itself as subject-object in an eternity of self-contemplation.’

In Hegel’s view this defect in Fichte’s concept is revealed most strikingly in the relationship of the Ego to nature. Here too Hegel underlines Fichte’s failure to overcome materialist metaphysics.

‘The dogmatic postulate of an absolute object becomes transformed in this idealism into a self-limitation utterly opposed to free activity.’

Fichte’s negative attitude here converts nature into a lifeless thing incapable of possessing any dialectical movement of its own. Hegel pursues the implications of this for the rest of Fichte’s philosophy. He shows that Fichte fails to provide firm foundations for the unity of subject and object, Ego and nature, in nature, so that they are in fact torn apart and frozen in a rigid duality.

However, it is above all in the relation between man and society that Fichte fails most signally, in Hegel’s view, to overcome the Kantian dualism which he in fact merely reproduces on a higher plane. We shall shortly consider the moral and social views of subjective idealism in greater detail. All we need do here is outline the chief area of disagreement between Fichte and Hegel. Hegel points out that in Fichte’s philosophy society constitutes just such a limitation of man’s freedom as nature had done. The main lines of this argument are already familiar to us from the Frankfurt critiques of Kantian philosophy (cf. p. 128). Hegel’s present objections are quite in harmony with his earlier arguments:

‘If the community of rational beings really constituted a limitation of true freedom, it would in fact amount to the highest form of tyranny.’

Thus Hegel demonstrates that Fichte is still a long way from removing the dualism of Kantianism. He levels at him the criticism with which he would always attack subjective idealism, viz. that it is unable to go beyond the abstract ‘ought’.

‘This impossibility, namely that the Ego should reconstruct itself from the opposition of subjectivity and the X that arises in the process of unconscious production and that it should become one with its manifestation, is expressed in such a manner that the highest synthesis of which the system is capable is an “ought”. I=I is transformed into: I ought to equal I: the end of the system does not return to its beginning.’

And this brings us back to Kant’s (essentially agnostic) infinite progress which according to Hegel simply reiterates the problem in philosophical terms.

‘The bad infinity’, Hegel remarks in the Jena Logic

‘is the last resort of that failed attempt to synthesize and transcend the contradiction in a conclusive manner since it merely stipulates the need for this synthesis, and contents itself with the description of this need, instead of putting it into practice …’

The account given of objective idealism in the Difference is essentially that of Schelling; in fact Hegel simply adopts Schelling’s first, primitive formulation of objective idealism in which the parallel existence and equal status of the philosophy of nature and transcendental philosophy are put forward as a solution to the difficulties of subjective idealism. Like Schelling, Hegel’s starting-point is the proposition in Spinoza:

‘The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things’.

Of course, the statement has a somewhat different meaning for Hegel and Schelling. In Spinoza it had been an expression of his materialist tendencies. Schelling and Hegel aim to transform it into a constituent of objective idealism. From the materialist standpoint the strength of the statement had been its anticipation of the materialist theory of reflection, but this becomes a defect in the context of idealism. Schelling never goes beyond the idea of a parallel between inner and outer, subjective and objective. Hegel alone attempts to overcome this vestige of dualism, and then not for a number of years. In theDifference he still accepts Schelling’s view of two mutually complementary aspects that ultimately form a synthesis. This synthesis is supposed to occur through a sort of merging, but this is merely proclaimed and never demonstrated systematically. Such a merging process would according to Hegel’s later views (of which the seeds are already present) provide a real guarantee that the two sciences of nature and consciousness really can subsist side by side, in a mutually complementary fashion without either of them gaining primacy over the other, a primacy that would destroy the synthesis to the advantage of either materialism or subjective idealism. Schelling’s views are reflected further in Hegel’s employment, without even a hint of criticism, of his most important concepts like ‘unconscious production’ and ‘intellectual intuition’.

Thus far Hegel seems content merely to advance Schelling’s views, though he goes much further than Schelling himself in their defence. But even in the early Jena period independent elements of the Hegelian dialectic are already active, elements that will later lead to a parting of the ways. Thus Hegel defends Schelling’s attempt to co-ordinate transcendental and nature philosophy. But even as early as 1803 in the essay on Natural Law which appeared in the Kritisches Journal Hegel also defends a very characteristic later doctrine, though without polemicizing against Schelling. This is the idea that spirit stands higher than nature.

‘If the absolute is what contemplates itself and sees itself for what it is, and if that absolute contemplation and self-recognition, that infinite expansion and no less infinite retraction within the self, are but one and the same, then if both aspects are real, spirit stands higher than nature.’

Here then, on a crucial point, Hegel has completely freed himself from Schelling’s position. It is typical of both men at the time, however, that although differences of opinion emerge at various points they are not treated as such by either. Outwardly all is harmony, a harmony which then ‘suddenly’ breaks down when the differences have crystallized out into conscious principles.

We may mention just one of these important differences of opinion here. For Schelling philosophy in the Jena period culminates in art. Following theCritique of Judgment Schelling discovers the immediate unity of subject and object, of conscious and unconscious production in art alone. Hence art provides the philosopher with a guarantee that there really is such a thing as intellectual intuition and that conscious and unconscious production really do merge in reality, in nature and history. Not until he was in Würzburg did religion begin to usurp the place that art had held in his system. Hegel’s development is diametrically opposed to this. In the Frankfurt Fragment of a System (p. 213ff.) philosophy culminates in religion, religion is the highest level of thought. In Jena this view quickly yields to others. We cannot pursue all the changes that take place here, all the less since in our discussion of The Phenomenology of Mind we shall have to consider Hegel’s views on religion in detail. All we need say here is that in the Difference there are both vestiges of the Frankfurt standpoint (admittedly mainly in terms of emphasis and tone) and also radically new attitudes. Thus at one point Hegel refers to art, philosophy and religion as ‘divine worship’ (Gottesdienst) and on the other hand in his important programmatic introduction he remarks that religion stands to one side of the great march of .

‘As has advanced it has quarrelled with religion and placed religion beside itself, or itself beside religion. …’

In all essentials this is the view of The Phenomenology of Mind, or at least, since this too is contradictory, its most important component.

We must however discuss in greater detail one matter on which Hegel diverges significantly from Schelling. For a number of years Hegel accepted Schelling’s terminology on the subject of contradiction. He speaks constantly of ‘the point of indifference’, ‘intellectual intuition’ etc. But at the same time, without any attempt at mediation we also find him taking up the view of contradiction contained in the Fragment of a System (p. 217f). Moreover this is not confined to isolated remarks, but it occurs so frequently and in such important passages that it becomes clear that Hegel never really abandoned his own standpoint on this issue, even though he was prepared to experiment quite seriously with Schelling’s ideas. Thus in the Jena Logic Hegel says quite explicitly that opposites are not completely annulled or extinguished in the absolute (which was the crux of Schelling’s position).

‘Opposition is the decisive element here and since there is nothing outside the absolute, it is itself absolute and only because it is absolute does it annul itself, and the absolute resting in the peaceful state of annulment is just as absolutely the movement of being or annulment of absolute opposition. The absolute state of opposition, or if one prefers, the state of opposition in the absolute itself …’

this is what constitutes the absolute in Hegel’s eyes. He reiterates the point in another passage:

‘The very concept of infinity shows that it is not the simple annulment of opposition, it is not the state of annulment; the latter is the emptiness to which opposition is itself opposed.’

The distinction is particularly striking in the Difference where Hegel formulates the matter as follows:

‘Just as identity must be made to prevail, so too must division. To the extent to which identity and division are opposed to each other, each is absolute; and if identity is to be maintained by annihilating duality, then they remain opposed to each other. Philosophy must allow division in subject and object its due; however, by postulating it to be as absolute as the identity opposed to division, it postulates it as relative: just as such an identity can only be relative – since it is premised on the of opposition. For that reason, however, the absolute is the identity of identity and non-identity; both opposition and unity dwell in it at one and the same time.’

This is a clear continuation of the view contained in the Fragment of a System and so it is important to stress that Hegel would never again depart from the view of contradiction given here. I need refer only to the well-known passage in the Logic where Hegel affirms the equality of identity and contradiction, adding that if either of the two is to receive preference then contradiction is the more profound and the more important. Lenin particularly drew attention to this passage in his study of Hegel.

It is of the greatest importance that we should understand what is involved for Hegel in his view of contradiction and annulment. We have just seen how in the Jena Logic Hegel even opposes annulment to the state of annulment and his aim there is to ensure that the preservation of division, duality, difference, non-identity in the ultimate philosophical unity is seen as a movement, a movement which is continuously renewed since its moments are constantly postulated and annulled. This view of annulment is stated most clearly in The Phenomenology of Mind. Here too Hegel returns to the discussion of identity and non-identity and he says that whichever side one stands on, whichever of the two concepts is held to be fixed and true, one is nevertheless both in the right and in the wrong.

‘Neither the one or the other has the truth, their truth is their movement.’

This formulation of dialectical contradiction and its annulment makes Hegel’s view of it perfectly clear. From it we can understand why materialist dialectics could make use of Hegel’s version but not of any other existing models. The union of opposites dates back to classical times. From Nicholas of Cusa to Schelling the ‘coincidentia oppositorum’ recurs repeatedly. But nowhere is a theoretical solution to the problem of the relations between the act of annulment and the state of having been annulled to be found. Among idealist dialecticians the state of annulment always triumphs over the movement. The religious impulses present either explicitly or just beneath the surface in almost all of them strengthen this tendency still further. For if God is to be the point at which all the contradictions are resolved, the victory of stasis over movement is almost a forgone conclusion. As we shall see the urge to make the state of annulment into an absolute is also present in Hegel and where it makes itself felt it drags him down to the level of his predecessors.

Despite such frequent and unavoidable lapses which have a lot to do with the general limitations of idealist dialectics, this view of dialectics represents an enormous step forward. For it alone can adequately reproduce and reflect the unbroken movement of contradictions with its regular rhythm of creation and annulment. Of course, Hegel’s brilliant idea has to be turned the right way up, materialistically, if it is really to do justice to reality, i.e. what is necessary is the clear recognition that the dialectical movement is an objective law governing things in the world, independently of consciousness. Only then will this constantly self-renewing movement remain a movement, rather than a pseudo-movement which ultimately comes to rest in God or a ‘spirit’. We may cite a single (albeit very important) discussion of dialectical annulment by Marx so that the reader may see both how materialist dialectics are linked to Hegel’s and how at the same time a materialist view works in quite a different way from Hegel’s prefiguration of it, however brilliant that may have been. In CapitalMarx has occasion to discuss the contradictions that emerge in the course of commodity exchange. He goes on to say:

‘The differentiation of commodities into commodities and money does not sweep away these inconsistencies, but develops a modus vivendi, a form in which they can exist side by side. This is generally the way in which real contradictions are reconciled. For instance, it is a contradiction to depict one body as constantly falling towards another, and as, at the same time, constantly flying away from it. The ellipse is a form of motion which, while allowing this contradiction to go on, at the same time reconciles it?’

Thus despite the limitations of idealism Hegel’s dialectic never ceases to insist that the independence of the partial moments is preserved even when they are annulled. The elevation of particular objects and relations into the absolute entails not the extinction but the preservation of their concrete nature right down to and including the empirical features of objects and their interrelations. Hegel affirms this shortly after the passage cited earlier from the first polemic against Fichte:

‘When philosophy separates things it cannot posit the things separated without positing them in the absolute … This relation to the absolute does not entail annulling both … but they are to subsist as separate things and retain this quality as long as they are posited in the absolute or the absolute in them.’

This view has two important closely linked consequences for Hegelian philosophy. (1) In the first place this definition creates great scope for empirical research within an objective dialectics, i e. for the unconstrained discovery of all that is to be found in the external world, in nature and society. Because Schelling’s view of annulment ends in the immediacy of ‘intellectual intuition’ it extinguishes the empirical world and one consequence of this is that Schelling’s philosophical constructs become increasingly formalistic and arbitrary. The methods of philosophy are directly and bluntly opposed to those of empirical research. The philosopher constructing his system from the lofty heights of ‘intellectual intuition’ feels increasingly disdainful of the need to respect the facts of empirical reality. Of course, there are counter-pressures here, especially in the case of Schelling himself, and far weaker ones in his disciples. These are related to his fitful moods of materialism, his efforts to see nature as it really is (and the connection with Goethe is important in this context). But his philosophical method does nothing to buttress these healthy instincts. On the contrary, the supremacy of speculative constructs that operate in terms of analogies which become increasingly formalistic and superficial as time passes, leads him further and further away from real empirical research. When later on he does make ‘experiments’ his philosophical method is no defence against mystical and reactionary swindles. Very typical in this respect are the letters that Schelling wrote to Hegel in the years 1806/7, the period just before he received a copy of The Phenomenology of the Mind. He describes in great detail the experiments he is making with a divining rod and he also refers to highly important and allegedly empirical discoveries in the realm of magic.

Hegel’s dialectic, by contrast, is a method by means of which the thinker can educate himself to acquire the true stuff of knowledge. We shall see later that sometimes Hegel even goes too far in this direction and loses himself in a plethora of empirical facts. This is connected with inadequacies in his concept of dialectics which as Marx observed has the double defect of an ‘uncritical positivism’ and an ‘equally uncritical idealism’.

But even this Marxian criticism suggests that Hegel had far more scope for really objective research than Schelling. Marx and Engels frequently drew attention to Hegel’s encyclopaedic knowledge in contrast to the formalistic and arrogantly inflated ignorance of the Young Hegelians. This knowledge should not be thought of as an incidental personal virtue of Hegel’s but as something intimately bound up with his specific conception of dialectics.

(2) The second important motif we must mention relates to the real dialectical interaction of the various categories and in particular the need to respect the autonomy and the particular nature of the so-called ‘lower’ categories that are closer to the empirical world. The more Schelling severs the links between absolute and relative knowledge the more he tends to treat the lower spheres in an arbitrary, undialectical and negligent manner. There is a great amount of documentary material which enables us to chart Schelling’s course from a dialectic based on instinct to an entirely decadent, formalistic system in which grandiose intellectual structures are based on the most tenuous analogies. At the same time we see the opposite tendency emerging more and more clearly in Hegel. Fichte’s point of departure had been the absolute (the Ego) from which he had gradually descended proceeding deductively to the empirical world. Schelling too had often lapsed into this mode of thought. Hegel employed a different method: beginning with the empirical categories he develops their internal dialectic and advances gradually to higher, more complex determinations. The Phenomenology of Mind provides the key instance of this method, as we shall show in due course, together with the limitations of Hegel’s approach.

But even apart from the question of the structure of his philosophical system, the distinction between his approach and Schelling’s has one other extremely important consequence. Hegel is compelled to relativize the dialectical transitions between absolute and non-absolute, infinite and finite, reason and understanding thus constructing an ever richer and more complex system of mediations. In contrast to this, as Schelling advances along the road of ‘intellectual intuition’ postulating first an aesthetic and later a religious genius as the prerequisite of philosophical insight, he increasingly opens up an abyss between the ‘common understanding’ and his philosophy. Thus he finds it harder and harder to discover any real mediations, and real dialectical bonds linking the categories of the understanding and of reason, finite and infinite, absolute and relative.

Here we see the systematic, methodological implications of the different approaches of the two thinkers to the history of philosophy. Schelling’s contempt for the philosophy of the Enlightenment is grounded in his contempt for the categories of ‘common’ thought which are not allowed to have any truck with the absolute. Hegel’s quest for transitions and mediations, however, leads him to regard the philosophers of the Enlightenment as among the forerunners of his own dialectics. Thus while Schelling’s formalism drives him further and further into an historical and even anti-historical position, the development of Hegel’s system runs parallel in his growing appreciation of the problems of history.

The most important issue here as far as we are concerned is Hegel’s treatment of the categories of the understanding, the so-called determinations of reflection. Together with Schelling Hegel combats the tendency present in both Kant and Fichte to stick fast at the determinations of reflection with their rigid antinomies. The latter remain openly unresolved in Kant, and Fichte can only resolve them with the aid of a specious logic. Schelling for his part soon falls into the opposite extreme: he takes refuge entirely in the categories of reason (Vernunft) where the contradictions are all eliminated, a procedure accomplished, as we have seen, with the aid of ‘intellectual intuition’. Hegel, however, sets out to combat Kant and Fichte on their own territory. That is to say, he acknowledges the relative validity and indeed the indispensability and necessity of the determinations of reflection. What he objects to is that Kant and Fichte artificially isolate them and thus lapse into the rigidities of metaphysics, whereas an attentive investigation of the internal dialectical movement of the determinations of reflection would necessarily lead beyond metaphysics to a knowledge of the absolute.

Thus while Schelling’s whole bent leads him gradually to the point where he utterly rejects the determinations of reflection (despite certain counter-tendencies and reversions to earlier positions which we must leave to one side in our search for the mainstream of his thought), Hegel comes to accept the necessity for a philosophical reflectivity as early as the Difference. In view of the importance of the whole issue for his entire system we must cite the relevant sections at greater length.

‘The absolute must be constructed for consciousness – that is the task of philosophy. But since both the production and the products of reflection are just limitations, a contradiction arises. The absolute must be reflected, postulated; but in this manner it is not postulated but annulled; for the very act of positing it, limits it.

Hegel then rebukes Kant and Fichte for remaining in this impasse.

‘Isolated reflection, viz. the postulating of opposites, annuls the absolute; it is the characteristic of being and limitation.’

But Kant and Fichte, no less than metaphysics as a whole, fail to observe that there is here an objective bond with the absolute, based on the general and comprehensive dialectical interactions between all objects both in thought and reality.

‘But as reason reflection is related to the absolute and reflection is reason through this relation alone. To that extent reflection annihilates itself and all being and limitation, by relating all to the absolute. But at the same time just through this relation to the absolute all that is limited has its being.’

Thus the task of philosophy is to make conscious the objective contradictory relations underlying reflectivity. This philosophical consciousness of the dialectical path traversed by the determinations of reflection, the perception of the barriers, apparently so insurmountable, of their immediate manifestation as the categories of the understanding, leads Hegel to the idea of philosophical reflectivity. Philosophical reflectivity is the most important driving force of the dialectic, of his system, it is the methodological foundation both of the dialectic and of his view of history as a moment of the dialectic.

‘When reflection turns its gaze upon itself its highest law, given to it by reason and making it a part of reason, is its annihilation. Like all else it subsists only in the absolute, but as reflectivity it is opposed to the absolute. So in order to exist it must make self- its law. The immanent law enabling it to make itself absolute through its own efforts is the law of contradiction; viz. that it be postulated and once postulated, that it subsist. In so doing it defines its products as absolutely opposed to the absolute and dooms itself to remain understanding for all time, and not to become reason, and to hold fast to its own works which, as opposed to the absolute, are nothing and so as something limited it remains opposed to the absolute.’

These arguments are evidently related to the Frankfurt writings about the dialectics of the absolute and the relative, but they provide a much clearer and more systematic foundation for the later Hegelian Logic.

That Hegel should still be experimenting with Schellingian concepts (such as ‘potency’) throughout this period will not come as any surprise after what we have already said. But it is no less evident that for all the undoubted influence of Schelling it would be as wrong to speak of a Schellingian period in Hegel’s thought now as it was to speak of a theological and mystical period earlier on. Hegel’s independence on a number of quite crucial dialectical problems is well established by now.

This independence is borne out still further when we compare his discussion of subjective idealism with the correspondence between Fichte and Schelling. Not only does he raise completely novel questions about the differences between subjective and objective idealism, questions that did not occur to either Fichte or Schelling, he also enters areas of philosophy where these differences become vital. In particular, we shall have to say a few words about the sphere of ‘practical reason’: ethics and the philosophy of law and the state.

On questions such as these Schelling was always a derivative thinker. His early and immature essay the New Deduction of Natural Law remained an insignificant episode which he failed to follow up. Of course, once he had embarked on a whole series of great systematic projects in Jena, he could not utterly ignore ethical and political problems. But his treatment of them always forms the weakest part of his philosophy, both in terms of originality and the factual material at his disposal. And not unexpectedly the reactionary elements in his thought emerged here much sooner and more explicitly than in his treatment of general problems of dialectics or the philosophy of nature. We have already drawn attention to the circumstance that Hegel never takes the trouble to criticize Schelling’s views on these subjects even though he regards the critique of Kant’s and Fichte’s ‘practical philosophy’ as crucial. He simply ignores Schelling’s ideas here altogether. For this reason we shall ourselves only discuss them to the extent to which it is necessary in order to lay bare some of the social pressures underlying the breach.

Before proceeding to Hegel’s critique of the ‘practical philosophy’ of subjective idealism we should perhaps just glance at the rich variety of Hegel’s discussions and the wealth of problems that he treats. When we do so we shall see that Fichte’s objections to Schelling’s philosophy of nature, to the existence of objective categories in our knowledge of nature, pale into insignificance.

Nevertheless, like all the facts in the highly complex history of idealism in Germany, even this question has two sides to it and they should not be utterly ignored. Up to now we have emphasized the positive aspects of Hegel’s distinctions between subjective and objective idealism, and our concluding discussion will emphasize this still further. But we should briefly note the negative side too.

Fichte passionately accuses Schelling of self-delusion, his ‘self-construction’ of the categories of nature is an illusion. When he insists on confining nature to ‘a small area of the mind’ he criticizes Schelling not just from the standpoint of subjective idealism, but from that of any possible idealism. For allidealism nature is in fact a region of consciousness, whether large or small makes no difference. If nature is not to be regarded thus the philosopher must demonstrate its existence outside consciousness. In the absence of this demonstration – and nothing could be further from the minds of either Schelling or Hegel – Fichte’s criticism remains valid in a certain sense. Hegel is unable to refute Fichte on this point; he can only ignore him. Even the most highly developed form of the Hegelian dialectic in The Phenomenology of Mind or the Encyclopaedia is vulnerable to this criticism. Hegel and Schelling can only assert the objectivity of spirit; they cannot prove it, since spirit’s independence of consciousness is in fact the basic fallacy of objective idealism.

Coming from the other side, from materialism, Feuerbach is able to carry through Fichte’s argument with greater consistency than Fichte. Moreover, he directs his fire not at the early works but at The Phenomenology of Mind itself. As we shall see, Hegel’s strategy there is to chart the dialectical journey from sensuous perception to spirit itself, justifying the necessity of his own position by demonstrating the necessity of this journey. Feuerbach shows that even here Hegel remains within the bounds of thought, of consciousness, and that his appeal to the sensuous reality of the external world is based on a fallacy.

‘The “Here” is, for instance, a tree. I turn around and this truth disappears. True enough in the Phenomenology where turning-round costs no more than a word. But in reality, where I must also turn my ponderous body the Here retains a very real existence even behind my back. The tree sets limits to my back; it prevents me from occupying the place it occupies. Hegel does not refute the Here as an object of sensuous consciousness and as an object for us as opposed to pure thought, but the logical Here…. It [i.e. Hegelian philosophy] begins not with the otherness of thought but with the thought of the otherness of thought.’

This clearly exposes the fallacy in Hegel’s process of reasoning about objective reality.

It was necessary to refer to this aspect of Hegel’s disagreement with Fichte since it is closely related to the ultimate limitations of his dialectics. Looked at historically, Schelling and Hegel simply had to ignore Fichte’s not entirely otiose objections in the interest of the fruitful further development of the dialectic, just as Fichte had in his day overridden no less defensible arguments from Kant. In the absence of this philosophical self-deception, which is closely bound up with a whole series of societal self-deceptions – both heroic and petty – Hegel’s dialectics would never have come into being. We have seen that Feuerbach was right to criticize this particular delusion. But we know also that this correct insight in no way helped Feuerbach to extend Hegel’s dialectic on a materialist basis. Only Marx was able to do that and he could do it only on the basis of a critique of Hegel and Feuerbach. And we have no need to demonstrate that if Marx was in a position to overcome both objective idealism and metaphysical materialism, this was because he could and did criticize bourgeois philosophy as a whole from the standpoint of the proletariat. It is this that highlights the impotence of Fichte’s strictures on Schelling and above all Hegel. For even if the economic situation and the class structure in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century had been such as to permit the emergence of a materialist philosophy of the stature of Feuerbach’s, the objections raised by such a philosophy to Hegel’s idealism would have been sterile, however correct in themselves. Feuerbach’s critique could only bear fruit after the development and triumph of his philosophy in a Germany where class tensions were reaching breaking-point and where the pressures leading to a bourgeois democratic revolution were at a peak. And even then it could only do so in the sense that it provided the impetus for the emergence of dialectical materialism. The bourgeois successors of Feuerbach degenerated to a level well below that of the Hegelian dialectic.


Spread the love
You may also like

  • The Ideology of Modernism – Georg Lukacs
  • The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought – Georg Lukacs