Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hegel on Idealism, Fichte and Schelling

In 1802 Hegel published his comparison of Idealist thinkers Fichte and Schelling (Differences between the philosophical systems of  Fichte and Schelling). He showed that Schelling was an advance on Fichte and in the process Hegel develops his own thought.

Hegel maintains that the fundamental task/purpose of philosophy is to reconcile oppositions and divisions (which are always the product of human understanding, see for example in his "Fragments of aSystem"). In the world of experience, the mind finds only oppositions, contradictions, differences and philosophy according to Hegel seeks to overcome these in different cultural-historical epochs (e.g., soul and body, subject and object, intelligence and nature, etc). Whatever the differences, it is the role of reason to overcome these. That is, the Absolute is to be constructed for consciousness – for synthesis of oppositions must in the long run involve reality as a whole.

Of course if the life of the Absolute is to be constructed, we must do so in reflection and the problem with reflection is that it functions as understanding (Verstand) and hence it posits even more differences and oppositions. Understanding must therefore be united with transcendental (intellectual) intuition which discovers the interpenetration of ideal and real, idea and being, subject and object, and soul and body. So that reflection (Verstand) is raised to the level of reason (Vernunft), and we have knowledge that is conceived of as the identity of Verstand and Vernunft – this was Schelling.

Hegel was also sympathetic with Fichte’s efforts to overcome the dualisms in Kant. Hegel too does away with the thing-in-itself – and he does so in the way both Fichte and Schelling do namely by invoking intellectual intuition (or the identity of subject and object). In science this identity/intuition becomes the topic of reflection, and in philosophy intellectual intuition makes itself its own object and hence is one with it – it is speculation, and Fichte philosophy is the product of speculation/reason. But while Fichte begins with the principle of identity, it is not how his system is constructed. In consciousness only the idea of an objective world (non-ego) is deduced and not the world itself, and we are left in Fichte only with subjectivity (not identity). We are indeed presented with the real world, but nature is only posited as the opposite of the ego – in other words we are left, in Fichte, with a dualism (this is Hegel’s critique of Fichte).

Here is where Schelling comes in. For Schelling the principle of identity is the absolute principle of the whole system. Here philosophy and system coincide: identity is not lost in its parts. That is, Schelling begins with the idea of the Absolute as identity and it persists in the guiding idea of the parts of the system. Thus nature is not simply the opposite of the ideal, but it is, though real, also ideal through and through – nature is visible spirit – and the principle of identity is maintained throughout the whole system.
Transcendental idealism shows how subjectivity objectifies itself; how the ideal is also real.

But Hegel also distinguishes himself from Schelling's Idealism for it is clear that intellectual intuition does not mean mystical intuition of the dark and impenetrable abyss, as the vanishing point of all differences. Rather it is reason’s insight into differences (antitheses) as moments in the one all comprehensive life of the absolute. Thus, in his Jena lectures, Hegel argues that the finite and infinite are set over against each other and there is no passage (synthesis) between them. But in point of fact we cannot think the finite without also thinking the infinite (the concept of the finite is not self-contained but is limited by what is other than itself) and, using Hegel’s language, the finite is not simple negation (of the infinite). Hence, we must negate the negation (the finite is the opposite/negation of the infinite) and in doing so we affirm that the finite is always more than the finite. Thus the finite is a moment in the life of the infinite and from this it follows that to construct the life of the Absolute (which is the task of philosophy) we must do so through the finite showing how the Absolute expresses itself necessarily as Spirit, as self-consciousness in and through the human mind. For the human mind though finite is at the same time more than finite and can attain the standpoint at which it becomes the vehicle of the Absolute’s knowledge of itself.

This is in harmony to some extent with Schelling but there is also a major difference. For Schelling the Absolute transcends conceptual thought and so we must approach the Absolute negatively by thinking away its attributes and distinctions of the finite. In contrast, for Hegel the Absolute is a process of self-expression/manifestation in and through the finite. Hence, in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel rejects Schelling view of the Absolute. This was also the break between Hegel and Schelling. Hegel rejects Schelling’s monotonous formalism and abstract universality (Absolute) as vacuous (“in the night in which all cows are black”). For Hegel the Absolute is not impenetrable, it does not exist above or behind its determinate manifestation: rather it is its manifestation.

This point is crucial for understanding Hegel’s philosophy and Idealism. The subject matter of philosophy is the Absolute, and the Absolute is to the totality (reality as a whole or the universe). Philosophy is concerned with the true and the true is the whole. This totality is the whole and it is infinite life in a process of development – or a circle that presupposes its end as its purpose and has its end as its beginning. The Absolute becomes concrete or actual through its development and through its end. Reality is then a teleological process, and the ideal presupposes its whole process and its significance. Philosophy must try to systematically understand this teleological process - as scientific system.