Thought and Reality In Hegel’s System. Gustavus Watts Cunningham 1910
Perhaps no part of Hegel’s system has been more persistently overlooked or misunderstood than has his doctrine of the nature of thought.
Certainly no part of his system deserves to be more carefully studied.
For this is the doctrine that is absolutely fundamental to his system; and it must be understood before any fair appreciation of his system can be arrived at or any just criticism of his contentions be advanced. To give an exposition of the Hegelian doctrine of thought, and to do this as much as is practicable in the author’s own words, is the aim of this chapter.
Almost universally it is taken for granted that the Logic contains all that Hegel thought it worth while to say about the nature of thought. His epistemology is criticized and defended against criticism exclusively on the basis of the dialectical development of the categories, the assumption of both critic and champion being that here we find Hegel’s last word concerning the nature of knowledge. That such an assumption is erroneous and leads to positive error in interpreting the Hegelian epistemology will, I trust, appear in what is to follow. The Logic does, indeed, purport to give an account of the essentially organic nature of thought, by showing how one category necessarily loses itself in its negative, which proves to be, not an abstract negative, but a negative that dialectically leads on to a more concrete synthesis of the two opposed categories.
The Logic leads progressively from the abstract categories of Being, through the more concrete categories of Essence, to the still more concrete categories of the Notion; and finally to the most concrete category of all, that category in which all the lower categories find their ‘truth,’ namely, the Absolute Idea. This the Logic does; but this is all that it does. It tells us nothing direct about the empirical significance of the categories themselves. Except by frequent hints – which indeed are quite emphatic and significant – the Logic gives us no insight into that fundamental problem of epistemology, namely, the significance of the subject-object relation. On the contrary, as Hegel himself declares, the very purpose of the Logic is to deal with the categories in the pure ether of thought and in abstraction from their empirical setting. So in the Logic we search in vain for an exposition of this most important aspect of our knowing experience; the implications of the objective reference of thought are not explicitly touched upon there. For such an exposition we must look elsewhere.
The exposition for which we seek is to be found in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Perhaps this will appear beyond dispute from a consideration of some of Hegel’s own statements on the point. In the preface to the Phenomenology he says: “The task which I have set myself is to elaborate the fact that philosophy approaches the form of science – approaches the point where it lays aside the name of love for knowledge, and becomes real knowledge.” Again, later in the same preface we read: “The process of science in general, or of knowledge, is set forth in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Knowledge as it is at first, or the immediate spirit, is spiritless or sensuous consciousness. In order to become real knowledge, to reach the element of science which is its pure notion itself, this sensuous consciousness has to work itself through a long way.” This way is, of course, that traced by the Phenomenology.
A little later in the same work we are told that the problem of the Phenomenology is simply “an investigation and proof of the reality of knowledge.”  This same point Hegel is emphasizing when he urges that the Phenomenology is the science of experience; for experience, he tells us, is only the “dialectical process (Bewegung) which perfects consciousness in itself, both in its knowledge and in its object.” In other words, since experience is essentially a subject-object relation, its truth is to be found in the determination of the real import and significance of that relation. Thus it seems that the problem of Phenomenology is pretty clearly defined: it is simply the progressive definition and exposition of the significance of this duality within experience. It is not merely to trace an organic development from one to another stage of consciousness, as Professor Baillie would seem to suggest. Rather is it to disclose the important change that takes place between subject and object as the knowing experience is traced through the various attitudes of consciousness. As Lasson aptly remarks in the introduction to his recent edition of the Phenomenology, the point of interest in the work is the transition “from one relation of consciousness to the entire world of being, to another such relation.” Hegel’s purpose in this novel Introduction to Philosophy is not like Kant’s in the first of the Critiques, namely, to investigate the possibility and limitations of knowledge. He accepts knowledge and the knowing experience very much as it is accepted by common-sense, and then proceeds to develop its implications.
Passing dialectically from sensuous consciousness through self-consciousness, reason, spirit, and religion, he finally arrives at what seems to him to be the true attitude of consciousness, the truth of the knowing experience. This final result of the Phenomenology, which Hegel calls Absolute Knowledge (das absolute Wissen), is thus his definition of the real nature of knowledge; it is his final statement of the significance of the subject-object relation within concrete experience.
It is very important to notice at the outset, and to keep constantly in mind, the fact that Hegel bases this conception of absolute knowledge directly and unequivocally upon our common knowing experience. This point is so fundamental, and is so generally neglected by the critics, that it needs emphasis even at the risk of digression. If there is wanted more evidence than has already been adduced, it is not far to seek. In the Preface to the Phenomenology itself, we find an explicit statement to the effect that there is no break between consciousness as it appears in sensuous perception and in absolute knowing; and this very fact, Hegel argues, makes possible the transition from the lower to the higher stage.
“The beginning of philosophy,” he says, “makes the presupposition or demand that consciousness be in this element” (i.e., as the context indicates, in the ‘element’ of ‘absolute science,’ which is simply the point of view of absolute knowledge). “But this element receives its completion and clearness only through the process of its development.... On its side, science demands of self-consciousness that it raise itself into this ether....
On the other hand, the individual has a right to ask that science at least let down to him the ladder to this standpoint, that is, show him the standpoint within himself.” Furthermore, in the Introduction to the larger Logic we read: “Absolute knowledge is the truth of all modes or attitudes of consciousness.” Finally, there is a passage in the smaller Logic which runs thus: “In my Phenomenology of Spirit... the method adopted was to begin with the first and simplest phase of mind, immediate consciousness, and to show how that stage gradually of necessity worked onward to the philosophical point of view, the necessity of that view being proved by the process.” Now it would seem that the import of such passages as these is unmistakable. The Phenomenology begins with the most naive attitude of consciousness, where the matter of intuition is looked upon as a mere datum; its progress, as Professor McGilvary suggests, consists just in showing that this sensuous consciousness is an essential element in absolute knowing. In other words, the standpoint of absolute knowing is involved in every, even the simplest, phase of consciousness; it is implied in every act of knowledge, in every subject-object relation, – which is tantamount to saying that it is conterminous with experience itself.
Near the end of his discussion of the Phenomenology, Haym, looking back over the course of its development, remarks: “This whole phenomenological genesis of absolute knowledge was nothing other than the presence of the Absolute, which unfolded itself before our very eyes in the methodical manner peculiar to its spiritual nature. It was the selfdevelopment of the Absolute as it has mirrored itself in consciousness and in history.” One is led to believe that the critic means by this, as he says later, that the ego “is at the beginning of the Phenomenology exactly where it ought to be at the end, – not in itself, but in the Absolute.”  The suggestion of such a point of view as this, however, seems to me to be at best misleading. Whatever may be said concerning the relation of the result of the Phenomenology to the standpoint of an Absolute Intelligence, there is certainly no reason for maintaining that Hegel would ask us to assume such a standpoint at the beginning of the Phenomenology. He asks us merely to place ourselves at the point of view of sensuous consciousness, and to try to discover its logical implications.
It is, indeed, true that in the attitude of sensuous consciousness Hegel sees the standpoint of absolute knowing, which thus finds its basis in the actual knowing experiences of finite individuals; and it is also true that these experiences are never left out of consideration by him.
But this means nothing more than that absolute knowledge is logically involved in every knowing experience, and that investigation can prove that it is so involved. Hegel himself has very clearly put the matter in another context: “It may be said that the Absolute is involved in every beginning, just as every advance is simply an exposition of it.... But because it is at first only implicit, it is really not the Absolute.... The advance, therefore, is not a sort of overflow, as it would be were the beginning truly the Absolute; rather the development consists in the fact that the universal determines itself.... Only in its completion is it the Absolute.” Even granting, then, for the sake of the argument, that Hegel finally identifies absolute knowledge with the point of view of an omniscient Intelligence (which assumption is by no means self-evident, – indeed, it is difficult to prove that Hegel’s Absolute is such an Intelligence), we are certainly not justified in saying that he emerges from the Phenomenology with nothing more than the assumption with which he began his investigation. The standpoint of absolute knowledge is not assumed at the beginning; it is arrived at only at the end. And to accuse Hegel of having begun with the point of view of the Absolute is an indication that his actual procedure has been misconstrued. Absolute knowledge does not, as Haym asserts, find its justification in the fact that “the Weltgeist has completed itself in history,” but, as we shall see later, in the fact that it is the necessary presupposition of all concrete individual experience.
Lotze, too, has brought practically the same accusation against Hegel.
“It was not after Hegel’s mind,” he tells us, “to begin by determining the subjective forms of thought, under which alone we can apprehend the concrete nature of this ground of the Universe, – a nature perhaps to us inaccessible. From the outset he looked on the motion of our thought in its effort to gain a clear idea of this still obscure goal of our aspiration as the proper inward development of the Absolute itself, which only needed to be pursued consistently in order gradually to bring into consciousness all that the universe contains.” Now I submit that such an accusation entirely overlooks the procedure of the Phenomenology in establishing the category of absolute knowledge. The very purpose of this effort was ‘to determine the subjective forms of thought’ as they appear in the knowing experience of the individual. It is true that Hegel did not enter into psychological discussion of individual minds; his aim was epistemological and not psychological. It is also true that he ended his investigation by exhibiting the essential objectivity of these so-called ‘subjective forms’ of thought. But the fact still remains that he took his stand on actual human experience and began his inquiry with common everyday consciousness. In the case of the Logic (provided one forgets the fact that the result of the Phenomenology is its presupposition) it may be argued with some show of plausibility that from the outset the author regards thought as the “proper inward development of the Absolute itself.” But there can be no doubt whatever concerning the baselessness of the charge when made with reference to the Phenomenology of Spirit. The category of absolute knowledge is not a first principle shot out of a pistol at us, as it were, but a conclusion laboriously reached; and it is attained only by a careful and painstaking examination of all stages of consciousness from the sensuous to the scientific and religious. Wherever there is a subject-object relation, there the characteristics of absolute knowledge are disclosed.
Absolute knowledge being, then, Hegel’s interpretation of the essential characteristics of thought as it appears in every actual knowing experience, the question arises concerning the details of the conception.
What are the fundamental characteristics of thought as defined in this Hegelian category? It is to an attempt to answer this question, partially at least, that we now address ourselves.
In the first place, Hegel claims that his conception of absolute knowledge gives thought release from the subjectivity in which it was bound by both the Kantian and Fichtean systems. Kant, he admits, does indeed give to thought a quasi-objectivity, namely, universal validity. “Kant gave the title objective to the intellectual factor, to the universal and necessary; and he was quite justified in so doing.” That is to say, for Kant objectivity means the universally valid in contradistinction to the particularity and relativity of sense-perception; and this is a step in the right direction towards true objectivity. “But after all,” Hegel continues, “objectivity of thought, in Kant’s sense, is again to a certain extent subjective.
Thoughts, according to Kant, although universal and necessary categories, are only our thoughts – separated by an impassable gulf from the thing, as it exists apart from our knowledge.” In other words, Kant’s categories cannot, by their very nature, express the real: they are mere ideas, which can indeed tell us about the temporal and spatial relations of objects, but which just for this reason can give us no insight into the nature of ultimate reality. Hegel elsewhere speaks of them as prisms through which the light of truth is so refracted and broken that it can never be had in its purity. Such idealism, Hegel justly concludes, is purely subjective. Heroic as were Fichte’s efforts to break through to reality, they were, Hegel asserts, unavailing. “Fichte,” he says, “never advanced beyond Kant’s conclusion, that the finite only is knowable, while the infinite transcends the range of thought. What Kant calls the thing-by-itself, Fichte calls the impulse from without, – that abstraction of something else than ‘I,’ not otherwise describable or definable than as the negative or non-Ego in general.” To express it otherwise, Fichte, in his search for objectivity, finds nothing more satisfactory than an unattainable ideal, an eternal Sollen. But this vanishing ideal does not meet the difficulty; thought, which merely ought to be objective, is still subjective, even though an infinite time be allowed for transition to objectivity. Consequently, Fichte’s position, like Kant’s, is in the last analysis nothing more than subjective idealism. Now the standpoint of absolute knowledge, Hegel maintains, transcends the dualism in which the systems of Kant and Fichte seem hopelessly involved. It gives to thought, not a quasi-objectivity or an objectivity that ought to be, but an objectivity that is at once genuine and actual.
Hegel has left us in no doubt as to what he thinks such an objectivity implies. In the context of the above criticism of Kant, he says: “The true objectivity of thinking means that the thoughts, far from being merely ours, must at the same time be the real essence of the things, and of whatever is an object to us.” Later in the same context he tells us that objectivity means “the thought-apprehended essence of the existing thing, in contradistinction from what is merely our thought, and what consequently is still separated from the thing itself, as it exists in independent essence.” From these very explicit statements it is evident that objectivity of thought means for Hegel at least two things: (a) that thought which is truly objective is not particular and individual, but in a sense transcends the individual; and (b) that truly objective thought does actually express the essence of things. A consideration of these two points will now occupy our attention for a time.
The first of these points, that thought is really more than an individual affair, Hegel states very explicitly in the smaller Logic. In the twenty-third section he asserts that thought is “no private or particular state or act of the subject, but rather that attitude of consciousness where the abstract self, freed from all the special limitations to which its ordinary states or qualities are liable, restricts itself to that universal action in which it is identical with all individuals.” Furthermore, he constantly insists that the dialectic of thought is really der Gang der Sache selbst.
“It is not the outward action of subjective thought, but the personal soul of the content, which unfolds its branches and fruit organically.” The question, however, at once arises, Are not such statements meaningless? Is the “abstract self, freed from all the special limitations to which its ordinary states or qualities are liable,” anything more than an hypostatized entity? Do we know anything about the ‘universal action’ of thought apart from an individual experience? Is the finite knower merely a passive observer of the ‘march of the object,’ or of the organically unfolding ‘soul of the content’? To meet the objection implied in these questions, a preliminary consideration is necessary.
Every act of thought may be looked at from two points of view. It may be regarded as a process in time, that is, as a mere psychological event, or as a meaning. As a process in time, it is a state of consciousness among other such states to which it is related and by reference to which it may be explained. As a meaning, it is the expression of the relation of subject to object, the expression of which relation gives it its significance as an act of knowledge. Neither of these aspects of thought can, of course, be neglected; a timeless act of thought is as much a nonentity as a meaningless act of thought. But, on the other hand, the two aspects must not be confused; thought as a process in time is something quite different from thought as a meaning. Both points of view are legitimate and, indeed, necessary in dealing with concrete mental experience.
If, now, these ways of viewing thought be the standpoints of psychology and epistemology, respectively, we are perfectly right in saying that, from the psychological point of view, thought is subjective and particular, while from the standpoint of epistemology it is transsubjective.
As a psychological process, thought is subjective and particular for the simple reason that, when so viewed, it is nothing more than an element in a complex presentation which at a particular moment makes up the mental life of the individual subject. Even belief in a trans-subjective world, the psychologist treats, as Professor Seth Pringle-Pattison says, “simply as a subjective fact; he analyzes its constituents and tells us the complex elements of which it is built up; he tells us with great precision what we do believe, but so far as he is a pure psychologist he does not attempt to tell us whether our belief is true, whether we have real warrant for it.” Epistemology, on the contrary, necessarily transcends this subjective standpoint of psychology. It deals, not with the knowing experience of any particular mind, not with knowledge as it is possessed by any particular subject, but with knowledge as it is in itself. Epistemology finds its special field just in determining the validity or falsity of the claims of our trans-subjective belief. Its business is to give us a criterion of truth, to investigate the subject-object relation within experience and to develop its implications. In doing this it must neglect the particular experiences, or, to use Professor Bosanquet’s phrase, it must abstract from the abstractions of psychology, and fix its attention upon the essential nature of knowledge qua knowledge. It does not, of course, deny the significance of the psychological aspect of thought, nor does it try to escape from the implications of experience when read from that angle of vision. It simply deals with thought from its own specific standpoint, its aim being to handle its data unencumbered as much as possible by psychological considerations. Now, as I understand Hegel, we can accuse him neither of confusing these two points of view, nor of overlooking one in his zeal for the other. As has been pointed out, his interest in the discussion of knowledge is primarily epistemological in the sense above defined; and he keeps consistently to this point of departure. He sees clearly that, from this point of view, knowledge must be investigated as it is in and for itself and freed from the prejudices and preconceptions which attach to it in individual minds; if an adequate standard of truth is to be attained, relativity in knowledge must be overcome. But it should be very carefully noted that Hegel does not, at any rate need not, forget that thought is always a process in a knowing mind. The objectivity which he claims for thought in the category of absolute knowledge is claimed for the thought of every individual who knows; the truth of absolute experience, truth as it is in itself and for itself, is simply the truth of the experiences that are here and now. This point I tried to emphasize at the beginning of the discussion. Thus the ‘abstract self,’ freed from the limitations of its ordinary states and busy in its universal mode of action, turns out to be the finite self making an unusually strenuous effort to be consistent. Genuinely objective thought is not the private possession of A or B; it is rather the thought activity in which, so far as they are rational creatures, A and B participate. Even if we are fully convinced that Hegel has gone too far in the identification of the finite knower with the Absolute, still we must admit the legitimacy and necessity of this demand of the category of absolute knowledge. For if the subjectivity in which experience is involved by the Kantian and Fichtean philosophies is really to be transcended, experience must be given some form of genuine objectivity; and if that form of objectivity is to be found in thought, then thought must be looked upon as it is in its essential nature and not as it appears in this or that individual mind. And this, it would seem, is all that Hegel means when he says that truly objective thought transcends the individual experience.
The second factor involved in the conception of true objectivity, namely, the capacity of thought to express the essential nature of its object, Hegel shows to be the necessary presupposition of all knowing experience. Thought must disclose the constitution of reality, he maintains, otherwise experience is doomed to a hopeless dualism. “The truth as such,” he tells us, “is essentially in knowledge.” “Only in so far as reflection has relation to the Absolute is it reason and its activity that of true knowledge (Wissen).” Every individual who knows does, by virtue of that very fact, transcend the dualism which seems to exist between subject and object; on any other assumption it is not easy to see how experience can be brought into actual contact with ultimate reality.
To elaborate this argument is exactly what Hegel undertakes in the Phenomenology.
He shows there by dialectical procedure how the lowest and most naive attitude of consciousness to its object subsumes the opposition which prima facie seems such a barrier to the comprehension of reality; such subsumption must be assumed, or we shall never be able to say that experience and reality are one. One might summarily say, without doing violence to Hegel’s own words, that the purpose of the Phenomenology is to show, in opposition to the Kantian philosophy, why the Ding-an-sich must be known and how it can be known. It must be known, because this is the presupposition of experience from its earliest and simplest stages; it can be known, because thought is no merely subjective and private process going on in our heads, but in its very essence is a significant relation to objects. Thus Hegel solves the problem of the opposition between subject and object by pointing out that the problem is really made by our own abstract procedure in dealing with experience. In point of fact, he tells us, there is no such opposition; on the contrary, the very fact that we can have significant knowledge forces us to the conclusion that thought is truly objective, and that the object is in reality as it is in knowledge.
Hegel’s position on this point can, perhaps, be more clearly understood when contrasted with Lotze’s view. In his Logic Lotze summarizes his position thus: “We have convinced ourselves that this changing world of our ideas is the sole material given us to work upon; that truth and the knowledge of truth consist only in the laws of interconnection which are found to obtain universally within a given set of ideas.” Now when we recall that these ideas are for Lotze more or less subjective, mere ‘tools’ by means of which we somehow come in contact with reality, but through which the essence of objects can never be known, the contrast between his position and Hegel’s is plain. According to the one, we are shut off from reality by means of the very tools we vainly endeavor to work with; reality is a realm ‘whose margin fades forever and forever’ as we move. According to the other, we are never out of touch with reality, since to know is ipso facto to know the essential nature of the objects of knowledge. To the former, truth is nothing more than consistency within a given set of ideas; to the latter, truth is nothing less than reality itself. In a word, on the theory of Lotze thought is after all still subjective, still confined to the abstract realm of bare universals, impotent to overtake the phantom reality it pursues: Hegel teaches, on the contrary, that thought is essentially objective, that form and content interpenetrate, that the process of knowledge is the process of things.
And this conception of the objectivity of thought, Hegel would urge, is a necessary presupposition of experience, unless indeed we are willing to abide by the consequences of an epistemological dualism.
But if thought expresses the essence of its object, then thought ipso facto comprehends its object and so exhausts reality. This implication of his doctrine of the objectivity of thought Hegel not only recognizes but insists upon. “Conception is the penetration of the object, which is then no longer opposed to me. From it I have taken its own peculiar nature, which it had as an independent object in opposition to me. As Adam said to Eve, ‘Thou art flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone,’ so says the Spirit, ‘This object is spirit of my spirit, and all alienation has disappeared.’ This same idea Hegel has in mind when he speaks of thought as begreifendes Denken. “Begreifendes Denken,” says Professor McGilvary, “is grasping, clutching thought, thought that grips its object as its own inalienable possession. Perhaps we might translate das begreifende Denken by the phrase ‘object-appropriating thought’; for the logical relation of such thought to its object is analogous to the legal relation of the master to the slave; the slave had no independent status; he stood only in his master, who engulfed him.” Again, the one distinguishing feature between what Hegel terms ‘finite’ and ‘infinite’ thought is that the latter destroys the opposition between form and content, which opposition the former never transcends; as Hegel puts it, ‘finite’ thought is “subjective, arbitrary, and accidental,” while ‘infinite’ thought is what alone “can get really in touch with the supreme and true.” And, of course, it is ‘infinite’ thought with which Hegel has to do in his category of absolute knowledge. Furthermore, in the Introduction to the larger Logic Hegel argues that to separate the form and content of knowledge is to presuppose an external objective world which is independent of thought; and this, he objects, is unjustifiable. And later in the same Introduction, we read: “In logic we have nothing to do with thought about something which lies independently outside of thought as the basis of it.” Finally, in the smaller Logic, he asserts: “In the negative unity of the Idea, the infinite overlaps and includes the finite, thought overlaps being, subjectivity overlaps objectivity.” Other passages bearing on this point might be quoted, did it seem necessary; but the above passages state very clearly Hegel’s position. In fact, the position is inevitably involved in his whole conception of the objectivity of knowledge.
Truly objective knowledge cannot have opposed to it an unaccountable residuum of fact, which it is unable to comprehend or interpret; on the contrary, it must be conterminous with reality.
The following quotation from Mr. McTaggart presents an admirable antithesis to Hegel’s position here. “Thought is a process of mediation and relation, and implies something immediate to be related, which cannot be found in thought. Even if a stage of thought could be conceived as existing, in which it was self-subsistent, and in which it had no reference to any data... at any rate this is not the ordinary thought of common life. And as the dialectic process professes to start from a basis common to every one,... it is certain that it will be necessary for thought, in the dialectic process, to have some relation to data given immediately, and independent of that thought itself.” It makes no difference that this statement is given by the critic as an interpretation of Hegel; it is in truth exactly contrary to Hegel’s view of the matter.
Thought, as Hegel conceives of it, certainly has no data opposed to, and independent of it; nor is it merely a process of mediation and relation among phenomena external to it. It bears no relation whatever to immediately given data, ‘nuclei’ of being, which lie outside of and beyond it, for there are no such. On the contrary, it transcends this dualism, and always finds itself ‘at home’ in its object from which every trace of alienation has disappeared. Perhaps I can best bring out the contrast between Hegel’s real position and that attributed to him by his critic by letting him once more speak for himself: “If under the process of knowledge we figure to ourselves an external operation in which it is brought into a merely mechanical relation to an object, that is to say, remains outside it, and is only externally applied to it, knowledge is presented in such a relation as a particular thing for itself, so that it may well be that its forms have nothing in common with the qualities of the object; and thus, when it concerns itself with an object, it remains only in its own forms, and does not reach the essential qualities of the object, that is to say, does not become real knowledge of it. In such a relation knowledge is determined as finite, and as of the finite; in its object there remains something essentially inner, whose notion is thus unattainable by and foreign to knowledge, which finds here its limit and its end, and is on that account limited and finite.” So far we have a statement of the critic’s view with its attendant difficulties. By way of criticism and exposition of his own position, Hegel continues: “But to take such a relation as the only one, or as final or absolute, is a purely made-up and unjustifiable assumption of the Understanding. Real knowledge, inasmuch as it does not remain outside the object, but in point of fact occupies itself with it, must be immanent in the object, the proper movement of its nature, only expressed in the form of thought and taken up into consciousness.” This passage is self-explanatory, and comment on it seems superfluous.
In it Hegel has simply pointed out the inevitable dualism involved in the position which Mr. McTaggart has attributed to him; and in opposition to such a position he has stated his own more objective standpoint An objection which arises just here seems prima facie unanswerable.
If it be true that thought actually does exhaust reality, then it must be that thought, or knowing experience, and reality coincide. But can such a view possibly be seriously entertained? Is it not nonsense to say that thought is co-extensive with the real, when so much of our everyday experience, our hopes, our fears, our loves, our hates, fall outside the thinking process? Can one be so mad as to attempt to reduce existential reality to terms of ideas? Lotze has put the objection very forcibly thus: “Nothing is simpler than to convince ourselves that every apprehending intelligence can only see things as they look to it when it perceives them, not as they look when no one perceives them; he who demands a knowledge which should be more than a perfectly connected and consistent system of ideas about the thing, a knowledge which should actually exhaust the thing itself, is no longer asking for knowledge at all, but for something entirely unintelligible.” Mr. Bradley, in a classic passage, has voiced the same feeling: “Unless thought stands for something that falls beyond mere intelligence, if ‘thinking’ is not used with some strange implication that never was part of the meaning of the word, a lingering scruple still forbids us to believe that reality can ever be purely rational.... The notion that existence could be the same as understanding strikes as cold and ghost-like as the dreariest materialism. That the glory of this world in the end is appearance leaves the world more glorious, if we feel it is a show of some fuller splendour; but the sensuous curtain is a deception and a cheat, if it hides some colourless movement of atoms, some spectral woof of impalpable abstractions, or unearthly ballet of bloodless categories.” Now Hegel’s answer to this objection is, I think, found in the second characteristic of thought as he has defined it for us in absolute knowledge; and this we shall proceed at once to examine.
Thought, Hegel argues, is not mere abstract cognition, but, on the contrary, is truly universal. In answer to Mr. Bradley he would say that thought does stand for something which falls beyond mere intelligence.
That is to say, actual concrete thought, in Professor Bosanquet’s phraseology, is a process, not of selective omission, but of constructive analysis; its universals are syntheses of differences. In Hegel’s own words: “The Notion is generally associated in our minds with abstract generality, and on that account it is often described as a general conception. We speak, accordingly, of the notions of color, plant, animal, etc. They are supposed to be arrived at by neglecting the particular features which distinguish the different colors, plants, and animals from each other, and by retaining those common to them all. This is the aspect of the Notion which is familiar to the understanding; and feeling is in the right when it stigmatizes such hollow and empty notions as mere phantoms and shadows. But the universal of the Notion is not a mere sum of features common to several things, confronted by a particular which enjoys an existence of its own. It is, on the contrary, self-particularizing or self-specifying, and with undimmed clearness finds itself at home in its antithesis. For the sake both of cognition and of our practical conduct, it is of the utmost importance that the real universal should not be confused with what is merely held in common. All those charges which the devotees of feeling make against thought, and especially against philosophic thought, and the reiterated statement that it is dangerous to carry thought to what they call too great lengths, originate in the confusion of these two things.” In other words, universality may mean two very different things. On the one hand, it may indicate nothing but abstract generality which is arrived at by neglecting the marks peculiar to particular objects. On the other hand, it may mean the synthetic analysis of the particulars, and so include within itself the essential characteristics of them. If one only remembers this distinction, and remembers that the true universal of thought is the subsumption, not the annihilation, of the particular, then, Hegel would say, there should be no objection raised against the assertion that ultimately the real is comprehended by thought.
For, in this meaning of thought, experience and thinking experience are synonymous terms.
There are various passages in which Hegel emphasizes this aspect of thought by insisting that thought is not one mental faculty among others coordinate with it, but that it is the principle of universality in mind and includes within itself the other so-called mental faculties as essential elements. In his lectures on the History of Philosophy occurs a criticism of Kant which is very suggestive in this connection: “With Kant the thinking understanding and sensuousness are both something particular, and they are merely united in an external, superficial way, just as a piece of wood and a leg might be bound together with a cord.” Against any such atomistic conception of the mind Hegel would insist: “Even our sense of the mind’s living unity naturally protests against any attempt to break it up into different faculties, forces, or, what comes to the same thing, activities, conceived as independent of each other.” But he would go further than this. Not only does he maintain that thought is not one element in an aggregate of disparate parts; he also urges that thought is rather the very life of the one organic whole which we call mind, “its very unadulterated self.” For example, in the smaller Logic he asserts that thought is present in every perception and in every mental activity. “We simply cannot escape from thought,” he elsewhere says, “it is present in sensation, in cognition, and knowledge, in the instincts, and in volition, in so far as these are attributes of a human mind.” In the Philosophy of Right we read: “Spirit in general is thought, and by thought man is distinguished from the animal. But we must not imagine that man is on one side thinking and on another side willing, as though he had will in one pocket and thought in another. Such an idea is vain. The distinction between thought and will is only that between a theoretical and a practical relation. They are not two separate faculties.
The will is a special way of thinking; it is thought translating itself into reality; it is the impulse of thought to give itself reality.” The conclusion of the whole matter is, that “in the human being there in only one reason, in feeling, volition, and thought.” Overlooking this conception of universality in Hegel’s doctrine of thought, Mr. McTaggart criticizes him for holding “that the highest activity of Spirit, in which all others are transcended and swallowed up, is that of pure thought.” Such a contention, we are informed, ignores a fact which Lotze has emphasized in many parts of his system. And that fact is “that Spirit has two other aspects besides thought – namely, volition and feeling – which are as important as thought, and which cannot be deduced from it, nor explained by it.” Now this criticism assumes that Hegel actually tried to reduce the contents of mind to terms of abstract cognition. But, as we have just seen, such an assumption is entirely groundless. Hegel never thought of reducing will and feeling to knowledge, meaning by knowledge what his critic means by it, namely, one of several coordinate elements within the life of mind. What Hegel means by thought, when he asserts that it is conterminous with experience, is simply that principle by virtue of which experience is an organic and unitary whole. It is that life of mind itself, which includes within itself feeling, will, and cognition, and which finds its very being in the expression of this living unity of the mind’s activity. For Hegel, there is “only one reason, in feeling, volition, and thought.” After all, the difference between Hegel and his critics on this point is not so great as might at first appear. Mr. McTaggart is perfectly willing to admit that it is not impossible that these elements of mind “might be found to be aspects of a unity which embraces and transcends them all”; but he is unwilling to call this unity thought. Mr. Bradley, likewise, demands an ultimate synthesis; but it must fall beyond the category of rationality. Though Lotze states it as his conviction “that the nature of things does not consist in thoughts, and that thinking is not able to grasp it,” yet he goes so far as to say that “perhaps the whole mind experiences in other forms of its action and passion the essential meaning of all being and action.” Thus it would seem that the real quarrel between Hegel and the critics is concerning the real nature of the synthesis. What the critics vaguely term an ultimate unity, Hegel prefers to call thought, reason, or Spirit. The former try to find a synthesis of elements which they have defined as practically exclusive and independent, though, of course, not ontologically separable from each other; and they seek this synthetic principle in feeling or intuition, – something ultra-rational. Hegel, on the other hand, insists that mind is an organic unity, and that it is such only by virtue of its own most characteristic activity; it is a one reason. Every concrete act of knowledge, he argues, is an activity of the whole mind; and this unitary, synthetic activity can be made intelligible and given true objectivity, not, as the critics seem to maintain, in terms of intuition or feeling, but only in terms of rationality. And reflection on the point will, I think, convince us that Hegel is in the right. We are now in a position to expose another aspect of the current misconception of Hegel’s doctrine of universality. The misconception concerns Hegel’s supposed identification of thought and being, and is, perhaps, one of the most prolific sources of adverse criticism of the Hegelian philosophy. I refer to the prevalent view, implied in the above quotations from Mr. Bradley and Lotze, which Professor Seth Pringle- Pattison expresses thus: “The result of Hegel’s procedure would really be to sweep ‘existential reality’ off the board altogether, under the persuasion, apparently, that a full statement of all the thought-relations that constitute our knowledge of the thing is equivalent to the existent thing itself. On the contrary, it may be confidently asserted that there is no more identity of Knowing and Being with an infinity of such relations than there was with one.” Now this idea that Hegel tried to reduce things to pure thought about things, or that he for a moment maintained that thought could possibly be the existent thing, seems to me a monstrous misinterpretation of his real meaning. It is inconsistent with the presupposition of his whole philosophy, namely, that reality is essentially a subject-object relation.
It is also inconsistent with the explicit statements quoted above concerning the universality of the Notion, which always involves particularity.
And, as we shall see in the next chapter, he emphatically repudiates such a view in his account of mediation and the function of the negative in thought. But, apart from these facts, it seems that we might credit Hegel with sufficient acumen to see the inherent absurdity of such a position. Surely he saw the contradiction involved in an attempt to attain by thought an ideal which would result in the annihilation of thought itself. Indeed, was it not Hegel who first impressed upon us the fact that knowledge always requires an object, and that, if that object be taken away, knowledge itself ceases to be? As Professor Jones has said: “It is inconsistent with the possibility of knowledge that it should be the reality it represents: knowledge is incompatible alike with sinking the real in the ideal, and the ideal in the real.” And I think we are safe in saying that Hegel was well aware of this truth; his essential disagreement with Spinoza is that in the Spinozistic philosophy object is reduced to and identified with subject.
Hegel seems to have taken special pains that he should not be misunderstood on this point. The passages already quoted might be paralleled with others just as positive. I shall content myself, however, with adding only two which show, as plainly as words can show, that the author was not an advocate of the theory of abstract identity. The first of these is to be found in the eighty-second section of the smaller Logic: “If we say that the absolute is the unity of subjective and objective, we are undoubtedly in the right, but so far one-sided, as we enunciate the unity only and lay the accent upon it, forgetting that in reality the subjective and objective are not merely identical but also distinct.” In the Philosophy of Mind is found the other passage, which so well forestalls the above criticism and so forcefully emphasizes the necessity of distinguishing between merely formal identity and concrete unity that I may be pardoned for quoting it at length: “The close of philosophy is not the place, even in a general exoteric discussion, to waste a word on what a ‘Notion’ means. But as the view taken of this relation is closely connected with the view taken of philosophy generally and with all imputations against it, we may still add the remark that though philosophy certainly has to do with unity in general, it is not however with abstract unity, mere identity, and the empty absolute, but with concrete unity (the Notion), and that in its whole course it has to do with nothing else; that each step in its advance is a peculiar term or phase of this concrete unity, and that the deepest and last expression of unity is the unity of absolute mind itself. Would-be judges and critics of philosophy might be recommended to familiarize themselves with these phases of unity and to take the trouble to get acquainted with them.... But they show so little acquaintance with them... that, when they of unity – and relation ipso facto implies unity – they rather stick fast at quite abstract indeterminate unity, and lose sight of the chief point of interest – the special mode in which the unity is qualified. Hence all they can say about philosophy is that dry identity is its principle and result, and that it is the system of Identity. Sticking fast to the undigested thought of identity, they have laid hands on, not the concrete unity, the notion and content of philosophy, but rather its reverse.” If in these passages Hegel does not deny any attempt to arrive at the blank identification of thought and being, of subject and object, and if in them he does not criticize such a goal as an essentially mistaken ideal of philosophical inquiry, then so far as I am concerned the import of the passages is lost. Surely by concrete unity he means something quite different from abstract identity, – and concrete unity is that with which philosophy, as he conceives it, has to do.
It seems only fair to insist that such considerations as the preceding be taken into account before Hegel is accused of attempting that which is at once impossible and absurd. He never had any idea of reducing the ‘choir of heaven’ and the multifarious passions of the human soul to a ‘ballet of bloodless categories.’ Such an attempt would have seemed to Hegel as nonsensical as it seems to his critics. When he speaks of the unity of thought and being, he always means identity in difference, and never the undifferentiated identity of Schelling’s system. And when he asserts that subject comprehends object, he does not mean to reduce experience to abstract subject, as did Spinoza. He does indeed insist upon unity, but it is always upon concrete unity, the unity of the ‘Notion’; and this unity does not annihilate or even harm its differences. In a word, Hegel transcends dualism, and yet, at the same time, does justice to the duality within and essential to experience. He neither denies nor attempts to explain away the factual side of experience; he simply denies that an inexplicable datum has any part or lot within experience.
Not immediacy, but abstract immediacy, immediacy apart from interpretation, is unreal.
This chapter may be brought to an end by an attempt to state in one paragraph its essential points. Hegel’s doctrine of thought, philosophic thought, is given in the category of absolute knowledge, which is arrived at through the procedure of the Phenomenology of Spirit. The conception is thus based directly upon our actual knowing experience, and claims to give us an account of thought as it essentially is. Thought, as here defined, is genuinely objective, transcending the relativity of individual experiences and being the determination of things as they are in themselves. But this is not to say that reality is identical with abstract cognition. For thought finds its capacity to express the real in the fact that its universals are always the syntheses of differences, and not the blank universals of purely formal logic. Actual living thought includes within itself the data of so-called intuitive perception, of feeling, of volition, of cognition, and it is adequately conceived of only as this unifying principle of experience; it is the living unity of mind, the one reason which appears in every mental activity. Therefore, when Hegel teaches that thought is conterminous with the real, he is simply stating the doctrine that experience and reality are one.