Absolute Idealism

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Absolute idealism is an ontologically monistic philosophy attributed to G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel developed a comprehensive speculative metaphysics that found an all-inclusive unity in the Absolute Spirit (non-personal, non-Creator, Hegelian rational God). Hegel argued that the Absolute Spirit unfolds itself as history, which encompasses all natural, social, and historical events and phenomena. Since Hegel's idealism is based upon the notion of Absolute Spirit, his idealism is called "Absolute Idealism."

His philosophy can be best understood within the contexts of German idealism beginning with Kant. Hegel presented his philosophy as an answer to the questions raised by Kant and other German idealists.

Hegel's idealism greatly impacted philosophers in the twentieth century; however, they developed their thoughts partly as a rejection and reaction against Hegel's speculative metaphysics.


For Hegel, the interaction of opposites generates, in dialectical fashion, all concepts we use in order to understand the world. Moreover, this development occurs not only in the individual mind, but also through history. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, for example, Hegel presents a history of human consciousness as a journey through stages of explanations of the world. Each successive explanation creates problems and oppositions within itself, leading to tensions which could only be overcome by adopting a view that could accommodate these oppositions in a higher unity.

Hegel also identified rational development is the essential element of spirit. The assertion that "All reality is spirit" means that reality rationally orders itself, which creates the oppositions we find in it.

Hegel's aim was to show that we do not relate to the world as if it is apart from ourselves, but that we continue to find ourselves within the world. With the realization that both my mind and the world are ordered according to the same rational principles, our access to the world is made secure, recovering a sense of security that had been lost after Kant proclaimed the 'Ding an sich' (thing in itself) to be ultimately inaccessible.

The Absolute Idealist position should be distinguished from other forms of idealism such as Berkeleyan Idealism, Kant's Transcendental Idealism, Fichte's subjective idealism, and Schelling's Objective idealism.

Historical background: German Idealism

German idealism was a philosophical movement in Germany in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It developed out of the works of Immanuel Kant in the 1780s and 1790s, and was closely linked both with romanticism and the revolutionary politics of the Enlightenment. The most well-known thinkers in the movement were Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. However, thinkers such as Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, and Friedrich Schleiermacher were also major contributors to German idealism.

Meaning of idealism

Main article: Idealism

The word "idealism" has more than one meaning. (For instance, it could mean thinking about things or people as having the best or most perfect qualities. This is not the meaning that should be associated with German idealism.)

The philosophical meaning of idealism is that the properties we discover in objects depend on the way that those objects appear to us as perceived subjects, and not something they possess "in themselves," apart from our experience of them. The question of what properties a thing might have "independently of the mind," a "thing-in-itself" in Kant's terminology, was one of main problems German idealists tried to solve.


Kant (1724 - 1804) is sometimes considered the first of the German idealists. Kant's work purported to bridge the two dominant philosophical schools in the eighteenth century: 1) rationalism, which held that knowledge could be attained by reason alone a priori (prior to experience), and 2) empiricism, which held that knowledge could be arrived at only through the senses. Kant's solution was to propose that while we could know particular facts about the world only via sensory experience, we do not know the form they must take prior to any experience. That is, we cannot know what objects we will encounter. Kant called his mode of philosophizing "critical philosophy," in that it was supposedly less concerned with setting out positive doctrine than with critiquing the limits to the theories we can set out. The conclusion he presented, as above, he called "transcendental idealism."

This distinguished it from earlier "idealism," such as that of George Berkeley's, which held that we can only directly know the ideas in our minds, not the objects that they represent. Kant, however, argued that those things considered in themselves, that exist outside of the mind, are "real." He conceptualized "things considered in themselves apart from out cognitive capacities" as "things-in-themselves." Things-in-themselves are, in principle, unknowable. In other words, we know that those objects are real, but we cannot know them if we try to know them without consideration of human cognition or cognitive capabilities and their mechanisms.[1] Kant used a concept of "thing-in-itself" as a "limiting concept" (Grenzbegriff). He claimed that "thing-in-itself" is "transcendentally real" but "empirically ideal."[2]

Kant held in the Critique of Pure Reason that the mind plays a central role in influencing the way that the world is experienced: we perceive phenomena through time, space and the categories of the understanding such as quantity, quality, relation, and modality.[3]

The other end of the movement, thought not normally classified as a German idealist, is Arthur Schopenhauer (he considered himself an idealist). In his major work The World as Will and Idea he discusses his indebtedness to Kant, and the work includes Schopenhauer's extensive analysis of the Critique.


In 1787, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi addressed, in his book On Faith, or Idealism and Realism, Kant's concept of "thing-in-itself." Jacobi agreed that the objective thing-in-itself cannot be directly known. However, he stated, it must be taken on faith. A subject must believe that there is a real object in the external world that is related to the representation or mental idea that is directly known. This faith or belief is a result of revelation or immediately known, but logically unproved, truth. The real existence of a thing-in-itself is revealed or disclosed to the observing subject. In this way, the subject directly knows the ideal, subjective representations that appear in the mind, and strongly believes in the real, objective thing-in-itself that exists outside of the mind. By presenting the external world as an object of faith, Jacobi legitimized belief and its theological associations.


Karl L. Reinhold published two volumes of Letters Concerning the Kantian Philosophy in 1790 and 1792. They provided a clear explication of Kant's thoughts, which were previously inaccessible due to Kant's use of complex or technical language.

Reinhold also tried to prove Kant's assertion that humans and other animals can know only images that appear in their minds, never "things-in-themselves" (things that are not mere appearances in a mind). In order to establish his proof, Reinhold stated an axiom that could not possibly be doubted. From this axiom, all knowledge of consciousness could be deduced. His axiom was: "Representation is distinguished in consciousness by the subject from the subject and object, and is referred to both."

He thereby started, not from definitions, but, from a principle that referred to mental images or representations in a conscious mind. In this way, he analyzed knowledge into (1) the knowing subject, or observer, (2) the known object, and (3) the image or representation in the subject's mind. In order to understand transcendental idealism, it is necessary to reflect deeply enough to distinguish experience as consisting of these three components: subject, representation, and object.


Kant felt that a mental idea or representation must be of something external to the mind. He gave the name of ding an Sich, or thing-in-itself to that which is represented. However, Gottlob Ernst Schulze wrote, anonymously, that the law of cause and effect only applies to the phenomena within the mind, not between those phenomena and any things-in-themselves outside of the mind. That is, a thing-in-itself cannot be the cause of an idea or image of a thing in the mind. In this way, he discredited Kant's philosophy by using Kant's own reasoning to disprove the existence of a thing-in-itself.


After Schulze had seriously criticized the notion of a thing-in-itself, Fichte (1762 - 1814) produced a philosophy similar to Kant's, but without a thing-in-itself. Fichte asserted that our representations, ideas, or mental images are merely the productions of our ego, or knowing subject. For him, there is no external thing-in-itself that produces the ideas. On the contrary, the knowing subject, or ego, is the cause of the external thing, object, or non-ego.

Fichte's style was a challenging exaggeration of Kant's already difficult writing. Also, Fichte claimed that his truths were apparent to intellectual, non-perceptual, intuition. That is, the truth can be immediately seen by the use of reason.

Schopenhauer, a student of Fichte's, wrote of him:

… Fichte who, because the thing-in-itself had just been discredited, at once prepared a system without any thing-in-itself. Consequently, he rejected the assumption of anything that was not through and through merely our representation, and therefore let the knowing subject be all in all or at any rate produce everything from its own resources. For this purpose, he at once did away with the essential and most meritorious part of the Kantian doctrine, the distinction between a priori and a posteriori and thus that between the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself. For he declared everything to be a priori, naturally without any proofs for such a monstrous assertion; instead of these, he gave sophisms and even crazy sham demonstrations whose absurdity was concealed under the mask of profundity and of the incomprehensibility ostensibly arising therefrom. Moreover, he appealed boldly and openly to intellectual intuition, that is, really to inspiration.

Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, §13


Hegel responded to Kant's philosophy by suggesting that the unsolvable contradictions given by Kant in his Antinomies of Pure Reason applied not only to the four areas Kant gave (world as infinite vs. finite, material as composite vs. atomic, etc.) but in all objects and conceptions, notions and ideas. To know this he suggested makes a "vital part in a philosophical theory."[4] Given that abstract thought is thus limited, he went on to consider how historical formations give rise to different philosophies and ways of thinking. For Hegel, thought fails when it is only given as an abstraction and is not united with considerations of historical reality. In his major work The Phenomenology of Spirit he went on to trace the formation of self-consciousness through history and the importance of other people in the awakening of self-consciousness (see master-slave dialectic). Thus Hegel introduces two important ideas to metaphysics and philosophy: the integral importance of history and of the Other person.

Hegel was hugely influential throughout the nineteenth century; by its end, according to Bertrand Russell, "the leading academic philosophers, both in America and Britain, were largely Hegelian".[5] His influence has continued in contemporary philosophy but mainly in Continental philosophy. In contrast, contemporary Analytic philosophy of the English-speaking world came about as a reaction against Hegel and a re-assertion of abstract thought.


With regard to the experience of objects, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775 - 1854) claimed that the ideas or mental images in the mind are identical to the extended objects that are external to the mind. Schelling's "absolute identity" asserted that there is no difference between the subjective and the objective, that is, the ideal and the real. In the book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, philosopher Ken Wilber called Schelling's thought "Plotinus temporalized." That is, Schelling transformed Plotinus' neo-Platonic emanationist metaphysics into an evolutionary ontology.

Ken Wilber points out Schelling's insight in seeing beyond the separation of knowledge to a future synthesis and integration of that differentiated knowledge, which opponents mistook for a call to regression and re-merging of that knowledge in undifferentiated form. For example, in 1851, Schopenhauer criticized Schelling's absolute identity of the subjective and the objective, or of the ideal and the real. "… [E]verything that rare minds like Locke and Kant had separated after an incredible amount of reflection and judgment, was to be again poured into the pap of that absolute identity. For the teaching of those two thinkers [Locke and Kant] may be very appropriately described as the doctrine of the absolute diversity of the ideal and the real, or of the subjective and the objective." (Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, "Fragments for the History of Philosophy," § 13). Schelling's Philosophical Inquiries Into the Nature of Human Freedom (1809) lends much support to Wilber's assessment.


Friedrich Schleiermacher was a theologian who asserted that the ideal and the real are united in God. He understood the ideal as the subjective mental activities of thought, intellect, and reason. The real was, for him, the objective area of nature and physical being. Schleiermacher declared that the unity of the ideal and the real is manifested in God. The two divisions do not have a productive or causal effect on each other. Rather, they are both equally existent in the absolute transcendental entity which is God.

Responses to idealism

Schopenhauer contended that Spinoza had a great influence on post-Kantian German idealists. Schopenhauer wrote: "In consequence of Kant's criticism of all speculative theology, almost all the philosophizers in Germany cast themselves back on to Spinoza, so that the whole series of unsuccessful attempts known by the name of post-Kantian philosophy is simply Spinozism tastelessly got up, veiled in all kinds of unintelligible language, and otherwise twisted and distorted," (from The World as Will and Representation, Vol.II, ch. L).

Kant's original philosophy, with its refutation of all speculative philosophy, had been transformed by the German Idealists. Through the use of his technical terms, such as "transcendental," "transcendent," "reason," "intelligibility," and "thing-in-itself" they attempted to speak of what exists beyond experience and, in this way, to revive the notions of God, free will, and immortality of soul. Kant had effectively relegated these unknowable and inexperiencable notions to mere faith and belief. The German Idealists Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and Schleiermacher tried to reverse Kant's achievement. This trend was continued later in the nineteenth century by American transcendentalists.

Santayana had strong opinions regarding this attempt to overcome the effects of Kant's transcendental idealism.

German Idealism, when we study it as a product of its own age and country, is a most engaging phenomenon; it is full of afflatus, sweep, and deep searchings of the heart; but it is essentially romantic and egotistical, and all in it that is not soliloquy is mere system-making and sophistry. Therefore when it is taught by unromantic people ex cathedra, in stentorian tones, and represented as the rational foundation of science and religion, with neither of which it has any honest sympathy, it becomes positively odious – one of the worst impostures and blights to which a youthful imagination could be subjected.

George Santayana, Winds of Doctrine, IV, i.

British idealism and Hegel

British idealism does not refer to all idealist philosophers who happened to be British (e.g., Berkeley), but rather to a philosophical movement that was influential in Britain from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. The leading figures in the movement were T.H. Green (1836-1882), F.H. Bradley (1846-1924), and Bernard Bosanquet (1848-1923). They were succeeded by the second generation of J. M. E. McTaggart, H. H. Joachim, J. H. Muirhead, and G. R. G. Mure. The doctrines of British idealism so provoked the young Cambridge philosophers G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell that they gave birth to analytic philosophy.

Though much more variegated than some commentaries would seem to suggest, British idealism was generally marked by several broad tendencies: a belief in an Absolute (a single all-encompassing reality that in some sense formed a coherent and all-inclusive system); the assignment of a high place to reason as both the faculty by which the Absolute's structure is grasped and as that structure itself; and a fundamental unwillingness to accept a dichotomy between thought and object, reality consisting of thought-and-object together in a strongly coherent unity.

British idealism largely developed from the German Idealist movement—particularly such philosophers as Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel, who were characterized by Green, among others, as the salvation of British philosophy after the alleged demise of empiricism. The movement was certainly a reaction against the thinking of John Locke, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, and other empiricists and utilitarians. Some of those involved would have denied any specific influence, particularly in respect of Hegel. Nevertheless, James Hutchison Stirling's book The Secret of Hegel is believed to have won significant converts in Britain.

British idealism was influenced by Hegel at least in broad outline, and undeniably adopted some of Hegel's terminology and doctrines. Examples include not only the aforementioned Absolute, but also a doctrine of internal relations, a coherence theory of truth, and a concept of a concrete universal. Some commentators have also pointed to a sort of dialectical structure in e.g., some of the writings of Bradley. But none of the British idealists adopted Hegel's philosophy wholesale, and his most significant writings on logic seem to have found no purchase whatsoever in their thought (nor in British thought generally).

On its political side, the British idealists were largely concerned to refute what they regarded as a brittle and "atomistic" form of individualism, as espoused by e.g. Herbert Spencer. In their view, humans are fundamentally social beings in a manner and to a degree not adequately recognized by Spencer and his followers. The British Idealists did not, however, reify the State in the manner that Hegel apparently did; Green in particular spoke of the individual as the sole locus of value and contended that the State's existence was justified only insofar as it contributed to the realization of value in the lives of individual persons.

The hold of British idealism in the UK weakened when Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, who were educated in the British idealist tradition, turned against it. Moore in particular delivered what quickly came to be accepted as conclusive arguments against Idealism. At that point British philosophy in general revolted once more against metaphysics in general. The later work of R.G. Collingwood was a relatively isolated exception. Among present-day UK philosophers the best-known exponent of absolute idealism is probably Timothy L.S. Sprigge.

British idealism's influence in the United States was somewhat limited. The early thought of Josiah Royce had something of a neo-Hegelian cast, as did that of a handful of his less famous contemporaries. The American rationalist Brand Blanshard was so strongly influenced by Bradley, Bosanquet, and Green (and other British philosophers) that he could almost be classified as a British philosopher himself. Even this limited influence, though, did not last out the twentieth century.


Exponents of analytic philosophy, which has been the dominant form of Anglo-American philosophy for most of the last century, have criticised Hegel's work as hopelessly obscure. Existentialists also criticise Hegel for ultimately choosing an essentialistic whole over the particularity of existence. Epistemologically, one of the main problems plaguing Hegel's system is how these thought determinations have bearing on reality as such. A perennial problem of his metaphysics seems to be the question of how spirit externalises itself and how the concepts it generates can say anything true about nature. At the same time, they will have to, because otherwise Hegel's system concepts would say nothing about something that is not itself a concept and the system would come down to being only an intricate game involving vacuous concepts.


Schopenhauer noted that Hegel created his absolute idealism after Kant had discredited all proofs of God's existence. The Absolute is a non-personal substitute for the concept of God. It is the one subject that perceives the universe as one object. Individuals share in parts of this perception. Since the universe exists as an idea in the mind of the Absolute, it copies Spinoza's panentheism in which everything is in God or Nature.

Moore and Russell

Famously, G.E. Moore’s rebellion against absolutism found expression in his defense of common sense against the radically counter-intuitive conclusions of absolutism. G.E. Moore also pioneered the use of logical analysis against the absolutists, which Bertrand Russell promulgated and began the entire tradition of analytic philosophy with its use against the philosophies of his direct predecessors. In recounting his own mental development Russell reports, "For some years after throwing over [absolutism] I had an optimistic riot of opposite beliefs. I thought that whatever Hegel had denied must be true." (Russell in Barrett and Adkins 1962, 477) Also:

G.E. Moore took the lead in the rebellion, and I followed, with a sense of emancipation. [Absolutism] argued that everything common sense believes in is mere appearance. We reverted to the opposite extreme, and thought that everything is real that common sense, uninfluenced by philosophy or theology, supposes real.

Bertrand Russell; as quoted in Klemke 2000, 28


Particularly the works of William James and F.C.S. Schiller, both founding members of pragmatism, made lifelong assaults on Absolute Idealism. James was particularly concerned with the monism that Absolute Idealism engenders, and the consequences this has for the problem of evil, free will, and moral action. Schiller rather attacked Absolute Idealism for being too disconnected with our practical lives, and that its proponents failed to realize thought are merely tools for action rather than for making discoveries about an abstract world that fails to have any impact on us.

Relation to religion

Some form of idealism related to absolute idealism has been a consistent favorite standpoint for earlier religious thinkers and philosophers. It is present in the thinking of many important Christian theologians such as Meister Eckhart. It is also the basis of Advaita Hinduism and several forms of Buddhism, including Zen, Madhyamika, Yogacara, and some interpretations of Pure Land. Classifying these directions under the common denominator 'absolute idealism', though, would be incorrect, because it would blur distinctions which are necessary for comprehending these traditions in their own right.

Relation to science

Absolute idealism or Hegelianism has influenced the Humanities to a great extent. In German they are called "Geisteswissenschaften" and in Dutch "Geesteswetenschappen," a direct influence of the Hegelian notion of spirit (Geist). In sociology for instance the position of important sociologist Ralph Dahrendorf is inspired by Hegel.

Lately American historian Francis Fukuyama was inspired by an alleged thesis of Hegel, namely the End of History, to write an immensely popular book. That Hegel proclaimed the end of history though is a myth popularized by the French Hegel interpreter Aleksandr Kojeve.

In many philosophic circles it is accepted that the philosophy of nature Hegel proposes is outdated, though it was state of the art when he proposed it. A full one third of Hegel's library consisted of hand books on natural science. Currently contributors like Houlgate argue that Hegel's philosophy of nature warrants closer attention and has been unjustifiably relegated to the dust bin of philosophy.


Absolute idealism has greatly altered the philosophical landscape. Paradoxically, (though, from a Hegelian point of view, maybe not paradoxically at all) 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 nineteenth century. Continental phenomenology, existentialism and post-modernism also seek to "free themselves from Hegel's thought."

See also


  1. Kant also discussed the issue of "thing-in-itself" ("noumena") in his ethical writings. The limit of knowledge he argued in his epistemological writings is tied to his arguments for "rational faith" for the existence of God and afterlife.
  2. Among contemporary scholarships, In his Kant's Transcendental Idealism An Interpretation and Defense, Henry Allison explicated Kant's "transcendental idealism" and "empirical realism."
  3. Kant's categories of understanding. These categories are a priori (prior to experience) structures of cognitive faculties of mind. They determine the way we perceived the world or the way we structure our experiences without self awareness.
    • Quantity
      • unity
      • plurality
      • totality
    • Quality
      • reality
      • negation
      • limitation
    • Relation
      • inherence/subsistence
      • causality/dependence
      • community
    • Modality
      • possibility
      • existence
      • necessity
  4. Hegel, "The Science of Logic" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences (1817-1830)
  5. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2004).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Allison, Henry E. Kant's Transcendental Idealism An Interpretation and Defense. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983. ISBN 0300030029
  • Ameriks, Karl. The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0521651786
  • Beiser, Frederick C. Hegel. Routledge philosophers. New York: Routledge, 2005. ISBN 0415312078
  • Hartnack, Justus. From Radical Empiricism to Absolute Idealism. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1986. ISBN 0889463042
  • Quinton, Anthony. Absolute Idealism. London: Oxford University Press, 1972. ISBN 978-0197256756
  • Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0415325056
  • Sorley, W. R. A History of English Philosophy. Forgotten Books, 2017. ISBN 978-0260908155
  • Sorley, W. R. A History of British Philosophy to 1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1965.
  • Sprigge, Timothy L. S. The Vindication of Absolute Idealism. Edinburgh: University Press, 1983. ISBN 978-0852244555

External links

All links retrieved April 8, 2021.

General Philosophy Sources


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