One of the key concept's of Hegel's philosophy is that of the Absolute. The Absolute is the whole of reality, the whole universe, Hegel is not saying that the Absolute is infinite “substance” (as it was for Spinoza) for Hegel also means that the Absolute is not only substance but subject as well. But if the Absolute is subject what is its object? The only answer can be that it is itself the object – that is, thought thinks itself, self-thinking thought. To say that the Absolute is Spirit is to say that it is infinite self-luminous or self-conscious subject. This is what Absolute as Spirit means: self-conscious, self-thinking infinite subject.
The question that may be raised is: is this not Aristotle’s definition of God? Yes, but Hegel this Absolute Spirit is not a transcendent deity (above/outside reality); rather it is the whole of reality as process. That is, the Absolute is a process of self-reflection and so reality (Absolute) comes to know itself through the human spirit. Now, as we have seen in Fichte, nature is a necessary precondition for human consciousness; the objective without which the subjective does not exist. But for Hegel both the objective and the subjective are both moments in the life of the Absolute. Thus, nature is not real in a subjectivist sense; it is the Absolute expressed objectively. The philosophical reflection of humanity is the Absolute’s self-knowledge. Thus, the history of philosophy (of thought) is the process whereby the Absolute, reality as a whole, comes to think itself. In philosophical reason we see the whole history of the cosmos and the whole history of humankind as the self-unfolding of the Absolute – and it is the Absolute’s knowledge of itself.
So Hegel agrees with Aristotle that God is self-thinking thought and that this self-thinking thought is the telos which draws the world as final cause, but whereas Aristotle’s self-thinking thought (prime mover) is already self-conscious and does not depend on the world, Hegel’s self-thinking thought is not a transcendent reality but rather the universe’s (totality) knowledge of itself. The whole process of reality is a teleological movement towards the actualization of self-thinking thought. In other words, the Absolute is immanent in process coming to think itself.
Self-thinking thought is the identity of the real and ideal, of subjectivity and objectivity, even as this identity is definitely not an undifferentiated identity. Spirit sees itself in nature as the objective manifestation of the Absolute which is a necessary condition of the Absolute’s own existence. In other words, the Absolute which knows itself as the totality, as the whole process of becoming, is at the same time aware of distinctions in its own life. It knows identity-in-difference as the unity which comprises distinguishable phases within itself. Philosophy is then charged with the task of understanding this life of the Absolute. This is to say that philosophy must exhibit systematically the rational dynamic structure, the teleological process, of the movement of Reason in both the sphere of nature and in the sphere of human spirit, which then culminates in the Absolute’s knowledge of itself. But be careful this task of philosophy does not mean that philosophy must do what science and history already do, rather the knowledge of science and history is presupposed and then philosophy’s task is to make clear the teleological process which is immanent in both scientific and historical knowledge – exhibiting the self-realization of infinite Reason through the finite process of science, and of history.
If infinite Reason actualizes itself in the sphere of nature and the sphere of human spirit (history) then we can distinguish between the eternal Idea and the field of its actualization (both in nature and human spirit). The Idea or Logos then goes over into nature as objectivity as the antithesis of the Idea, but in the sphere of the human spirit – history – Logos returns to itself in that it is in this sphere that it manifests itself as it really is. Hence the Absolute comprises three phases (of its rational dynamic teleological structure in history): the
(2) the sphere of nature, and
(3) the sphere of Spirit.
Similarly philosophy falls into three domains:
(1) logic (metaphysics –studying the Absolute in itself),
(2) philosophy of nature, and
(3) philosophy of Spirit.
When Hegel talks about the eternal Idea manifesting itself as nature and spirit he implies that the Logos possesses an ontological status of its own, independent of things. When he does so he frequently invokes the language of religion and speaks of the logos as of God and so gives the impression that the Logos is a transcendent reality manifesting itself in nature. But as we have seen this cannot be so since he rejects, for example, Aristotle’s prime mover and the Judaic-Christian concept of a God as a being outside creation). But the religious language is not accurate here and it is difficult to decide whether the Logos indeed does have an independent ontological status. In any case, philosophy studies
(1) the Absolute “in itself”,
(2) Absolute in Nature “for-itself”, and
(3) the Absolute in Spirit (“in and for itself” in history).
Together they constitute the complete construction of the life of the Absolute. It is the task of philosophy to exhibit this life of the Absolute in conceptual form, that is, as a necessary process of self-actualization - a necessity that is reflected in the philosophical system.
Thus, philosophy (contra religion) must exhibit the life of the Absolute in conceptual form – as a process of self-actualization reflected in the philosophical system which is the whole truth and a faithful reflection of the Absolute. It is in fact the Absolute’s knowledge of itself through the human mind – a self-mediated totality – which would be a self-mediation of the Totality. Hence on Hegel’s view there is no question of comparing absolute philosophy with the Absolute, as though the Absolute were purely external to an account of the latter; rather, absolute philosophy would be the Absolute’s knowledge of itself. [That is, the history of thought – of philosophical reflection –is the Absolute’s knowledge of itself.]
But if we say that philosophy must exhibit the life of the Absolute in conceptual form, there at once arises a difficulty. As we have seen, the Absolute is identity-in-difference (e.g., of the infinite and the finite, the One and the Many) but the concept of the infinite and the finite would seem to be mutually exclusive. If philosophy is to exhibit the life of the Absolute conceptually how can it do so in concepts of the understanding that are always mutually exclusive? And even if we allow that its concepts are not well-defined how can we understand the life of the Absolute? Would it not be better to say with Schelling that the Absolute simply transcends conceptual thought?
In fact, for Hegel this problem does arise at the level of understanding (Verstand) since Verstand posits fixed and static concepts, but of course Verstand is inadequate for speculative philosophy. Hegel affirms that Verstand is important in life (to maintain clarity of concepts of, say, the real and ideal) and science is generally based on Verstand. But philosophy when it tries to grasp the life of the Absolute it must pass beyond the opposite concepts (binary concepts) of Verstand such that thinking becomes dialectical. That is, the mind must penetrate deeper into the concepts (which are categories of reality) and it will then see that concepts pass over and into, or call forth, their opposites. For example, if the mind really tries to think through the concept of the infinite, this concept loses its rigid and self-contained-ness and the concept of the finite emerges. Similarly, when the mind tries to think through the concept of reality as opposed to appearance it will see the absurd or contradictory character of a reality that does not appear or manifests (appear) itself. Again for practical commonsense these concepts are distinct – one thing is distinct from another, and each thing is self-identical, and this is useful – but once we really try to think it we see the absurdity of the notion of a completely isolated thing, and we are forced to negate the original negation.
Thus, in speculative philosophy the mind must elevate itself from the level of understanding to the level of dialectical thinking which overcomes the rigidity of the concepts of understanding and sees one concept as passing into its opposite. Only then can it hope to grasp the life of the Absolute in which one moment or phase necessarily passes into another. But obviously if this dialectic is to work then the opposite concepts must have a higher unity or synthesis which annuls their difference. This is the function of reason (Vernunft) to grasp this identity-in-difference. Hence philosophy demands that the understanding is elevated through dialectical thinking to the level of reason (speculative thought) which is capable of apprehending identity-in-difference.
From Hegel’s perspective this is not a question of producing a new logic out of which he then establishes a preconceived view of reality; he sincerely believes that dialectical thought (reason) allows for a deeper penetration of the nature of reality than does the understanding which only distinguishes things (only makes distinctions). For example, for Hegel it is not a question of insisting that the concept of the finite must pass over into the concept of the infinite simply because of a preconceived belief that the infinite exists in and through the finite, rather, it is his conviction that we cannot really the think the finite at all without relating it to the infinite. Hence, it is not we who do something to the concept (juggling about with it) it is rather the concept itself which loses rigidity and breaks up before the mind’s (subject’s) attentive gaze – and this reveals the nature of the finite.
Hegel has been accused of denying the principle of non-contradiction by suggesting that contradictory concepts (e.g., infinite vs finite) stand together. Hegel reply is that it is precisely in not being satisfied with sheer contradiction (opposition) which forces the mind onwards towards a higher synthesis in which contradiction is overcome. Yet Hegel objected to Fichte claim that contradictions were merely apparent, Hegel argues contradictions are real. Thus the contradictory concepts are preserved in their dialectical synthesis even if not in a relation of mutual exclusiveness (binary opposites); rather, they are shown to be essential and complementary in a higher synthesis wherein the contradiction is resolved. Hence, the principle of non-contradiction (logic) is given dynamic formulation in Hegel as a principle of movement of reason (rather than the stasic concepts of binary opposites which the understanding yields).
In fact, Hegel does not use the word contradiction in a consistent way. Thus, occasionally we find a verbal contradiction. Such as when the concept of Being is said to pass into or give rise to the concept of Not-being, while the concept of Not-being passes into the concept of Being. This dialectical oscillation then gives rise to the concept of Becoming which synthesizes Being and Not-being. But the meaning of this dialectical performance is easily intelligible (whether we agree with it or not). In any case, Hegel’s contradictions are more like contraries – wherein a one-sided abstraction evokes another which is then overcome in synthesis.
The word synthesis is used for the moment of identity-in-difference in a dialectical movement/advance (which is not merely the movement of reason but the movement of Spirit historically). In point of fact, the words thesis, antithesis and synthesis is more characteristic of Fichte than Hegel who seldom uses these words. At the same time, Hegel is obsessed by triads. Thus, in the construction of the Absolute there are three phases: Idea, Nature, and Spirit. Each phase is in turn divided into three. Moreover, the entire system aims at a necessary development. That is, for philosophical reflection one stage reveals itself as demanding the next stage by inner necessity. Thus in theory at least, if we start with the first category of logic, the inner necessity of dialectical development forces the mind to proceed not simply to the final category of logic but also to the ultimate phase of philosophy of Spirit.
This obsession with triads is made even more problematic when Hegel claims that philosophy is necessarily a deductive system of thought (not in the sense of a computing machine for then it would be the product of understanding and not reason). But obviously when he claims that philosophy is concerned with the life of Absolute Spirit (philosophy), to discern the unfolding of this life in history, say, apriori deduction is not sufficient, after all the material stuff is not supplied by philosophy but interpreted by philosophy in terms of a teleological pattern which works itself out in the material realm. At the same time the whole dialectical movement of the Hegelian system should, in theory at least, impose itself on the mind by its own inner necessity – otherwise the system could not be its own justification. Yet it is also clear that Hegel comes to philosophy with certain basic convictions:
(1) that the rational is real and the real rational,
(2) that reality is a self-manifestation of infinite reason, and
(3) that infinite reason is self-thinking Thought which actualizes itself in the historical process.
Of course Hegel claims that the truth of these convictions must be demonstrated (validated) in the system but it is also arguable that the system depends on these prior convictions.
One could simply interpret Hegel’ theory of the necessity inherent in the dialectical development of the system, as simply one way in which his philosophy satisfies the impulse of the human mind to attain conceptual mastery over the whole wealth of empirical data or to interpret the world as a whole and man’s relation to it. We could then compare this system to other whole systems (say materialism/positivism or evolutionism). But Hegel precludes this procedure since it does not square with his own estimation of his philosophy. For even if he did not think his system was the final form of the system, he did think it represented the highest stage which the Absolute’s developing knowledge has reached up to date (so precluding comparison to other total systems).
This may seem bizarre but we have to keep in mind Hegel’s view of the Absolute as identity-in-difference. The infinite exists in and through the finite and infinite Reason or Spirit knows itself in and through the finite spirit and mind of individual human beings. However, importantly, it is not every sort of finite thinking that develops this self-knowledge of the infinite (obviously, otherwise we would never get to the Absolute). Rather it is human being’s knowledge of the Absolute that is identical with the Absolute’s knowledge of itself even as we can never say that any finite mind’s knowledge of the Absolute is identical with the Absolute’s knowledge of itself. The Absolute’s knowledge of itself transcends any set of finite minds.
We can therefore speak of the human mind rising to participate in self-knowledge of the Absolute. This can be interpreted along theistic line (that is, e.g., while God is perfectly luminous to himself and independent of human beings, human beings are capable of participating in God’s self-knowledge). But Father Copelston suggests that human being’s knowledge of the Absolute and the Absolute’s knowledge of itself are two distinct aspects of the same reality. But even on this interpretation we can still speak of the finite mind rising to participate in divine self-knowledge, after all, not every sort of idea and thought in man’s mind can be regarded as a moment in the Absolute’s self-knowledge. To achieve this, the finite mind has to rise to the level of what Hegel calls absolute knowledge.
Summaries of Hegel's works and ideas (best read in succession):
Hegel on the AbsoluteHegel On Self-Consciousness