Absolute idealism

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Absolute idealism is chiefly associated with Friedrich Schelling and G. W. F. Hegel, both of whom were German idealist philosophers in the 19th century. The label has also been attached to others such as Josiah Royce, an American philosopher who was greatly influenced by Hegel's work, and the British idealists.[1][2]

According to Hegel, being is ultimately comprehensible only as an all-inclusive whole (das Absolute). Hegel asserted that in order for the thinking subject (human reason or consciousness) to be able to know its object (the world) at all, there must be in some sense an identity of thought and being. Otherwise, the subject would never have access to the object and we would have no certainty about any of our knowledge of the world.

The absolute idealist position dominated philosophy in nineteenth-century Britain and Germany, while exerting significantly less influence in the United States. The absolute idealist position should be distinguished from the subjective idealism of Berkeley, the transcendental idealism of Kant, or the post-Kantian transcendental idealism (also known as "critical idealism")[3] of Fichte and of the early Schelling.[4][clarification needed]

Schelling and Hegel's concepts of the absolute[edit]

According to the scholar Andrew Bowie, Hegel's system depends upon showing how each view and positing of how the world is really has an internal contradiction: "This necessarily leads thought to more comprehensive ways of grasping the world, until the point where there can be no more comprehensive way because there is no longer any contradiction to give rise to it."[5]

For Hegel, the interaction of opposites generates, in a dialectical fashion, all concepts necessary to comprehend what is.

For Kant, reason was only for us, and the categories only emerged within the subject. However, for Hegel, reason is fully immanent. Spirit emerges from nature in history and, in art, religion, and philosophy, knows itself in its truth.

Hegel shows that the world is not other than self. With the realization that mind and world are, by logical necessity, meaningfully coherent, our access to the world is made secure, a security that was lost in Kant's proclamation that the thing-in-itself was ultimately inaccessible.

Hegel's position is a critical transformation of the concept of the absolute advanced by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775–1854), who argued for a philosophy of Identity:

‘Absolute identity’ is, then, the link of the two aspects of being, which, on the one hand, is the universe, and, on the other, is the changing multiplicity which the knowable universe also is. Schelling insists now that “The I think, I am, is, since Descartes, the basic mistake of all knowledge; thinking is not my thinking, and being is not my being, for everything is only of God or the totality” (SW I/7, p. 148),[6] so the I is ‘affirmed’ as a predicate of the being by which it is preceded.[7]

For Schelling, the absolute is a causeless 'ground' upon which relativity (difference and similarity) can be discerned by human judgement (and thus permit 'freedom' itself) and this ground must be simultaneously not of the 'particular' world of finites, but also not wholly different from them (or else there would be no commensurability with empirical reality, objects, sense data, etc. to be compared as 'relative' or otherwise).

In both Schelling and Hegel's systems (especially the latter), the project aims towards a completion of metaphysics. As Redding describes it: "While opinions divide as to how Hegel's approach to logic relates to that of Kant, it is important to grasp that for Hegel logic is not simply a science of the form of our thoughts. It is also a science of actual content as well, and as such has an ontological dimension."[8]

For Schelling, reason was an organic 'striving' in nature, and this striving was one in which the subject and the object approached an identity. Schelling saw reason as the link between spirit and the phenomenal world, as Lauer explains: "For Schelling [...] nature is not the negative of reason, to be submitted to it as reason makes the world its home, but has since its inception been turning itself into a home for reason."[9]

Hegel's doubts about intellectual intuition's ability to prove or legitimate that the particular is in identity with whole led him to progressively formulate a speculative dialectic in which concepts like Aufhebung came to be articulated. Beiser summarizes the early formulation as follows:

a) Some finite concept, true of only a limited part of reality, would go beyond its limits in attempting to know all of reality. It would claim to be an adequate concept to describe the absolute because, like the absolute, it has a complete or self-sufficient meaning independent of any other concept.

b) This claim would come into conflict with the fact that the concept depends for its meaning on some other concept, having meaning only in contrast to its negation. There would then be a contradiction between its claim to independence and its de facto dependence upon another concept.

c) The only way to resolve the contradiction would be to reinterpret the claim to independence, so that it applies not just to one concept to the exclusion of the other but to the whole of both concepts. Of course, the same stages could be repeated on a higher level, and so on, until we come to the complete system of all concepts, which is alone adequate to describe the absolute.[10][failed verification]

Hegel's innovation in German Idealism was to theorize a historical mode of self-consciousness self-reflection capable of generating a more inclusively holistic understanding of what it ultimately means to be rational in the grand scheme of things.

Absolute idealism in Britain[edit]

By the beginning of the 19th century, German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Kant, Hegel, and Fichte, was being read by British philosophers. Figures such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and J. F. Ferrier, found in idealism an alternative and a response to the then-dominant empiricist views in Britain.[11] Early authors such as James Hutchison Stirling not only attempted to introduce German idealist thought to Britain, but sought to present their own version of absolute idealism in an English medium.[12]

Edward Caird and T.H. Green were of the first generation of British idealists who took the work of Hegel and some of his successors and, from their positions as professors at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, respectively, influenced generations of students. Absolute idealism was more fully developed in a second generation by their students, especially F.H. Bradley and Bernard Bosanquet. Bradley's 1893 Appearance and Reality and Bosanquet's two volumes of Gifford lectures, The Principle of Individuality and Value (1912) and The Value and Destiny of the Individual were the most influential volumes of absolute idealism of the period. British absolute idealism had an influence not only within philosophy, but in theology, politics, and social and public policy.[13] Moreover, many of the students of the idealists, in turn, introduced absolute idealism to Canada, southern Africa, and India.


Absolute idealism has greatly altered the philosophical landscape. This influence is mostly felt in the strong opposition it engendered. Both logical positivism and analytic philosophy grew out of a rebellion against Hegelianism prevalent in England during the 19th century.[14] Continental phenomenology, existentialism, and postmodernism also seek to 'free themselves from Hegel's thought'.

Martin Heidegger, one of the leading figures of Continental philosophy in the 20th century, sought to distance himself from Hegel's work. One of Heidegger's philosophical themes in Being and Time was "overcoming metaphysics," aiming to distinguish his book from Hegelian tracts. After the 1927 publication, Heidegger's "early dismissal of them [German idealists] gives way to ever-mounting respect and critical engagement." He continued to compare and contrast his philosophy with Absolute idealism, principally due to critical comments that certain elements of this school of thought anticipated Heideggerian notions of "overcoming metaphysics."[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Absolute Idealism". Britannica.com. October 30, 2018.
  2. ^ The term absoluter Idealismus occurs for the first time in Schelling's Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur als Einleitung in das Studium dieser Wissenschaft (Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature: as Introduction to the Study of this Science), Vol. 1, P. Krüll, 1803 [1797], p. 80.
  3. ^ Frederick C. Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 1781-1801, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 3.
  4. ^ Nectarios G. Limnatis, German Idealism and the Problem of Knowledge: Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, Springer, 2008, pp. 138, 166, 177.
  5. ^ Bowie, A. (4 August 2016). "Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling". Retrieved 15 April 2020.
  6. ^ Schelling, F.W.J. Sämmtliche Werke, ed. K.F.A. Schelling, I Abtheilung Vols. 1–10, II Abtheilung Vols. 1–4, Stuttgart: Cotta, 1856–61. Stuttgart.
  7. ^ Bowie, Andrew (2016), "Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2020-04-15
  8. ^ Redding, Paul (2020), "Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2020-04-15
  9. ^ Lauer, Christopher (2011-11-03). The Suspension of Reason in Hegel and Schelling. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4411-1588-1.
  10. ^ Beiser, Frederick C., ed. (2008-11-17). The Cambridge Companion to Hegel and Nineteenth-Century Philosophy. doi:10.1017/ccol9780521831673. ISBN 9780521539388.
  11. ^ William J. Mander, British Idealism: A History, Oxford University Press, 2011
  12. ^ The Secret of Hegel (1st edition, 1865, in 2 vols.; revised edition, 1898, in 1 vol.)
  13. ^ William Sweet, The Moral, Social, and Political Philosophy of British Idealism, Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2009.
  14. ^ "Without exception, the best philosophy departments in the United States are dominated by analytic philosophy, and among the leading philosophers in the United States, all but a tiny handful would be classified as analytic philosophers. Practitioners of types of philosophizing that are not in the analytic tradition—such as phenomenology, classical pragmatism, existentialism, or Marxism—feel it necessary to define their position in relation to analytic philosophy." John Searle (2003) Contemporary Philosophy in the United States in N. Bunnin and E.P. Tsui-James (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, 2nd ed., (Blackwell, 2003), p. 1.
  15. ^ Dahlstrom, Daniel (2008). "Heidegger and German Idealism". A Companion to Heidegger: 65–79.

Further reading[edit]

  • Robert B. Pippin, Hegel's Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self Consciousness, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Rebecca Comay, John McCumber (eds.), Endings: Questions of Memory in Hegel and Heidegger, Evanston (Ill.), Northwestern University Press, 1999.