Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Inspiration—How Plato and Hegel Integrate the Sciences, Arts, Religion, and Philosophy

Plenary talk for the International Hegel Society conference, Tampere, Finland, June 6, 2018

Abstract: There has been controversy since ancient times about the relations between the sciences, the arts, religion, and philosophy. In Plato and other ancient Greeks, and down to the present, the natural sciences and philosophy often seem to challenge the legitimacy both of religion and of the arts. Plato, however, is not so one-sided. He has his own preferred version of religion, and his own practice of art, of which he is quite aware. And in modern times, Hegel presents a systematic account of the sciences, the arts, religion, and philosophy, as aspects of “Spirit,” which shows how all of them make indispensable contributions to freedom and thus to the highest reality. My goal in this talk is to show how, elaborating on Plato’s hints on these issues, Hegel’s systematic account (especially in the Encyclopedia) of the sciences, the arts, religion, and philosophy resolves the disputes between them which still, whether spoken or unspoken, pervade our culture.

“We see in God in a magnified form the analogy between work of art and person.”
Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1993), p. 81

There has been controversy since ancient times about the relations between the sciences, the arts, religion, and philosophy. In Plato and other ancient Greeks, and down to the present, the natural sciences and philosophy often seem to challenge the legitimacy both of religion and of the arts. Plato, however, is not so one-sided. He has his own preferred version of religion, and his own practice of art, of which he is quite aware. And in modern times, Hegel presents a systematic account of the sciences, the arts, religion, and philosophy, as aspects of “Spirit,” which shows how all of them make indispensable contributions to freedom and thus to the highest reality. My goal in this talk is to show how, elaborating on Plato’s hints on these issues, Hegel’s systematic account (especially in the Encyclopedia) of the sciences, the arts, religion, and philosophy resolves the disputes between them which still, whether spoken or unspoken, pervade our culture.

Though I will cover a good deal of familiar and seemingly elementary ground, I think that by the end of the talk a picture will emerge that will not be so familiar. If this picture were better known, we could have avoided a great deal of the fruitless controversy about Plato, and especially about Hegel, with which we are all well acquainted.

For simplicity, in this talk, I’ll skip over most of the intermediate figures between Plato and Hegel who also illuminate the relations between the sciences, arts, religion, and philosophy in various ways and who played important roles in conveying Platonic ideas and concerns to Hegel.


After criticizing the popular religion of Homer as promoting immorality, Plato makes it clear (in a way that’s not at all axiomatic for modern thinking) that knowledge of nature nevertheless is a first step toward knowledge of the divine. The sciences and mathematics contribute as philosophy does to raising us above mere appetite-satisfaction, opinions, and self-importance, or the shadows on the walls of the Cave. In this way, natural science and mathematics are inspiring and are parts of the philosophical religion that Plato adumbrates. Understanding inspiration on any of these levels is a step toward understanding divinity itself. I’ll show this in more detail when we get to Hegel, but what Hegel presents is not different in principle from what we already see in Plato.

Regarding the arts, Plato’s critical edge is well known. The arts aren’t self-aware enough; they can’t explain where their power comes from, and consequently they’re unreliable. They can lead us morally astray.

On the other hand, Plato is well aware that he himself is an artist, too. His depiction of Socrates and his associates could well be described as the first and one of the greatest “novels” in world literature. Furthermore, Plato has Socrates describe himself, in the Republic, as “greedy for images” (Republic 488a), and indeed Plato’s dialogues are full of striking images: the exit from the Cave, the chariot with its black and white horses, the tree whose roots are in the sky, the midwife…. Socrates, speaking no doubt for Plato, candidly admits that he can’t fully clarify, conceptually, what some of these images entail (Republic 517b). So Plato’s critique of the arts would apply to some of his own work as well as to the more traditional arts.

This observation about Plato invites the question, do the arts have anything in common with the “philosophy” that Plato is trying to practice? Plato’s most explicit answer to this question is his description of poetry, in the Phaedrus, as one of the “god-given” forms of madness (Phaedrus 244a, 245). Not mere madness, but “god-given madness,” which is to say, somehow higher than everyday life. “Inspired,” as we say.

What do we mean when we describe some aspects of life as “higher,” more “inspired” and “inspiring,” than other aspects? Plato’s answer to this question is that some aspects of life are more responsive to the eternal Forms, and especially the Form of the Good. Other aspects, such as mere appetite-satisfaction, opinions, and self-importance (thumos, in Greek), are less responsive to the eternal. To turn toward the eternal, as the soul does when it turns to the Forms and the Good for guidance, is to be higher than what doesn’t make this turning. In fact, because this turning contrasts so sharply with our ordinary pursuits of appetite-satisfaction and self-importance, Plato calls it “divine” (Timaeus 41c, 90a).  

The problem with the arts, Plato implies, is that they don’t fully make this turning toward the eternal. They are inspired and inspiring; they make life more “intense,” as we say; but they don’t do this by explicitly turning to the Good. And consequently they’re morally unreliable. If we think of the power-seeking “sophists” of Plato’s day, or, in our own time, of the arts of advertising and of propaganda, we can easily see how what’s inspiring can be morally unreliable.

But it remains the case that the arts are, in one way or another, inspiring. This is what makes them “art,” we might say, as opposed to mere depiction, description, or tones. They evoke something that’s “more intense,” for us, than our humdrum eating, sleeping, reading the newspaper, and so forth. By doing this, the arts testify to the dimension of inspiration, the dimension by which some aspects of life seem to be truly “higher” than others. And this is what they have in common with “philosophy,” as Plato understands it, as well as with religion and the “gods.”

—Hegel on Infinity and Spirit—

Now, one of Plato’s major modern successors, G.W.F. Hegel, sets out explicitly to explore the relationship between these four forms of inspiration (the sciences, the arts, religion, and philosophy), and in so doing to explain how it is that the four of them are inspiring, even though they don’t always explicitly aim at the Good. Hegel explains this in the “Spirit” section of his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. The natural sciences are an aspect of “Subjective Spirit,” by which individuals achieve a significant degree of freedom, while art, religion, and philosophy are aspects of “Absolute Spirit,” which is called “absolute” because it’s set free (absolvere means to loosen or set free) from the limitations of “subjective” and “objective” Spirit.

To understand how Hegel’s account of Spirit integrates these four aspects we must first understand Spirit as such. Hegel’s account of Spirit begins, in effect, in his Science of Logic, in which he shows how being and nothing are initially interchangeable insofar as neither of them has a determinate characteristic that would distinguish it from the other. The process of becoming, however (either coming into being, or ceasing to be), presupposes something determinate that comes into being or ceases to be. The question then arises, is this determinate something determinate through itself, or through its relations to others? If it’s separated from others, by being finite, it’s still determined through its limit, and thus through something that involves it with others. Hence, the only way for it to be determinate entirely through itself is for it to be infinite. The infinite, however, can’t be something other than the finite, on pain of being limited by the boundary between it and the finite, and thus failing to be infinite. So, Hegel concludes, it must be the finite’s going beyond itself.[1]

The “true infinity” that is the finite’s going beyond itself is fundamental for everything that follows it in Hegel’s system. In particular, it’s fundamental for his conception of “Spirit.” Spirit aims to be free, self-determining (Encyclopedia §§382-385). But if it’s to be self-determining, it can’t be something separate from material nature, as it seems to be in Descartes’s dualism of mind and body or Kant’s dualism of noumenal freedom and phenomenal determinism. For if it were separate, it would be determined in part by the boundary that separates it (from body or from phenomena), and thus it wouldn’t be fully self-determining or free. Consequently, Hegel conceives of freedom and Spirit on the model of “true infinity”: as the self-surpassing of un-free, mechanical nature. The second and third parts of his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, on Nature and Spirit, trace out in detail this process of Nature’s self-surpassing as Spirit.

The key thing to bear in mind here is this word, “surpassing” (Hinausgehen über). Hegel makes it clear that what he has in mind is not merely an anodyne “emergence” of something that’s different from and not reducible to what it emerges from. On the contrary, he asserts that in addition to not being reducible, the infinite is “real” in a way that the finite is not, and Spirit is the truth of Nature.[2] What “emerges,” here, is more real and more true than what it emerges from. It’s more real in that by being self-determining it’s real as itself, and not merely as the product of its heritage and surroundings.

This is what Hegel means by calling himself an “idealist”: that the ultimate truth and reality depend upon the “Idea” and Spirit, which go beyond what’s merely finite or mechanical. His “idealism” agrees with Berkeley and Kant in this respect, while it disagrees with them by insisting on the indispensable role of the finite and the mechanical within the self-surpassing that yields the ultimate reality and truth.  True infinity, the “Idea,” and “Spirit” all contain the finite, the “objectivity,” and the “Nature” that are ordinarily thought of as opposed to them. They contain them by being their self-surpassing. This is how Hegel captures what’s true in the modern versions of “idealism” while avoiding the one-sidedness or dualism that they tend to fall into.

Indeed, one could say that this is how Hegel captures what’s true in Plato’s “idealism” as well, while avoiding the dualism that Plato’s presentation occasionally falls into. As we know from the final section of Hegel’s Logic, the ”Good” is just as important for Hegel’s “Idea,” and thus for the highest reality as Hegel understands it, as it is for Plato’s. But Hegel differs from Plato in making it clear that the Good is, in fact, the self-surpassing of the finite, of substance, and of objectivity, rather than something mysteriously brought in from outside them. Hegel takes Plato’s hint in Republic books iv-vii that reason (and thus ultimately the Good) is what enables the soul to be “entirely one” (Republic 443e), and he spells out the non-dualistic conception of transcendence, transcendence as surpassing one’s finitude in the pursuit of one’s own true self, that this implies. Because they are both ways of surpassing one’s being determined by externally-induced appetites, opinions, self-importance, and so forth, so as to be determined instead by “oneself,” Hegel’s “freedom” and Plato’s ascent to the Good amount to the same thing.[3] Since this is the case, I will frequently allow myself, following Hegel’s practice, to use the word “freedom” as a short-hand way of referring to what Plato would be more likely to describe as rational self-government.

How “Spirit” emerges, then, is first of all that, following the example of Plato’s “demiurge” who cannot be “jealous” (Timaeus 29e), Hegel’s “Idea” opens out into the sheer spatio-temporal externality of “Nature.” “Spirit,” then, is the process of self-surpassing in pursuit of self-determining unity and full reality for itself, by which this external Nature finds its way back to the infinite Idea.

The Idea’s opening out into Nature corresponds to the “coming forth” or proodos that Plotinus saw in Plato’s Timaeus; and Spirit’s return to the Idea corresponds to the “turning back” or epistrophe that Plotinus saw in Plato’s Republic and Symposium. Critics have objected that Hegel, like Plato and Plotinus, seems not to conceive of the “creator” as sufficiently separate from the “created.” To which I think Hegel’s response is simply that since what’s “separate” is limited by what it’s separate from, an infinite and fully free creator can’t be separate, but must be engaged in the kind of process that Hegel describes.[4]

This is Hegel’s response to the common suggestions that he is advocating a kind of “pantheism,” or a Feuerbachian “anthropotheism.” Because what’s separate is limited by what it’s separate from, the infinite and fully free creator cannot be a separate being. So rather than being a separate being, an infinite and fully free creator must be the self-surpassing of the finite world, to which it gives whatever full reality the finite world can possess. In presenting this view, Hegel is confident that he follows in the footsteps of St Paul (“in [God] we live and move and have our being”), St Athanasius (God “was made man so that we might be made God”), and St Augustine (God is “more inward to me than my most inward part”).[5] None of these canonical authorities appear to preach a God who is, in the normal sense, a separate being from us. But they’re never accused of advocating pantheism or a non-“transcendent” God, because it’s clear that the God whom they preach, though not a being that’s separate from us, is in general, higher than us. And of course the same applies to Hegel’s God.

—Subjective Spirit, Natural Science, and Objective Spirit—

Having Spirit’s general character thus in view, as Nature’s return, in search of full reality for itself, to the Idea, we can now examine the main lines of its development. Hegel first identifies ways in which Nature achieves forms of centeredness or “self-hood.” When these eventually become articulate enough to form a conception of themselves as having a finite life-span and destiny, separate from what surrounds them, and thus having an “inner” life, they emerge as Subjective Spirit: soul, consciousness, intelligence, and will.

One implementation of intelligence would be the natural sciences. Through them, as through subjective Spirit in general, we achieve inner freedom by seeking truth rather than being guided merely by our intuitions or representations.

Rich though it is, this life of soul, consciousness, intelligence, and will is still limited, finite, and therefore un-free, insofar as an inner life by definition faces an “external” world which is not composed of soul, consciousness, and so forth, and the resulting boundary between it and the outer is a limitation for it, which prevents it from being completely self-determining or free.

Subjective Spirit’s limitation, it turns out, can be partially overcome by “objective Spirit,” which is composed of such things as property, morality, family, the state, and history. Each of these embodies an “inner” idea in the “outer” world, and thus serves to make the outer world more like the inner one and less of a limitation for it. Through the combination of inner, subjective Spirit and outer, objective Spirit, which is a combination that no doubt is especially evident in human societies, a remarkable degree of self-determining freedom can be achieved.

However, insofar as subjective and objective Spirit are still understood to be divided from each other, one as inner or subjective and the other as outer or objective, each of them is still bounded and limited by the other. So the only fully free or “absolved” (“absolute”) Spirit, the only Spirit that’s fully self-determining rather than being determined in part by its relation to something that’s other than it, will be a Spirit that goes beyond the division of subjective versus objective.

—The Arts—

Now the first reality, Hegel tells us, that goes beyond the division between subjective and objective Spirit—beyond the division between the inner phenomena of soul, consciousness, and so forth, and external phenomena like property, the family, and so forth—is Art.

Works of art, whether they’re buildings or paintings or poems or pieces of music, are entirely “physical” and in that sense entirely “outer.” And at the same time they have an “inner” logic, an “inspiration,” that makes them integrated wholes in a way that merely external things like (say) random collections of rocks are not. Unlike the soul and consciousness, works of art take up physical space and time. But unlike property, the family, and so forth, which likewise take up physical space and time, works of art have individuality. They have an inner inspiration that unifies them more fully than a piece of property or a family or a state can be unified. A family or a state is still, in one respect, a collection of individuals. A work of art is more integrated than that. It supersedes, renders irrelevant, whatever individuality its ingredients may previously have had. And in that way the work of art, which is an external object, is also fully “inner.” It defines itself, from within, in the same way that a soul or a consciousness does. This is the “analogy between work of art and person” to which Iris Murdoch alluded in her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1993).[6]

So in this way we can say that works of art go beyond the division between subjective and objective Spirit. They unite both categories in a way that yields an entirely new category: “absolute Spirit.” And in doing this they yield a degree of freedom (absolvere, again) that’s greater than the previous categories could provide us with.

This is freedom in the sense of self-government and wholeness, as well as independence from prior and surrounding circumstances. It’s not, clearly, “freedom” in the sense of arbitrariness, which would not produce a coherent whole. Rather than being the absence of any government, freedom as Hegel and Plato understand it is being governed by oneself, through some sort of inner law. Works of art exhibit precisely this kind of freedom. They define themselves by an inner law, of which we are more or less explicitly aware.

It’s no wonder, then, that the arts inspire us and have occupied a central place in human cultures since the beginning. If we presume that freedom and being fully oneself are a built-in, central human concern, the arts speak to this concern or satisfy this need more fully than anything that we’ve considered so far. This has the consequence that for many people, the arts are (as it were) the nearest thing to a “religion” that they possess, and they pursue the arts with the same devotion and zeal that religious devotees exhibit. They do this because the arts are the highest incarnation of freedom, and therefore the most inspiring thing, that they’re aware of. They’re higher, more free, than the freedom of one’s inner life, because they’re also fully “outer”; but they’re higher also than the freedom of one’s outer, social life, because they’re also fully “inner.” This is Hegel’s explanation of how the arts are inspiring (“god-given,” as Plato says), even though they may not be guided in any direct way by a conception of the Good. (Here again, Hegel is avoiding the dualism that Plato sometimes falls into.)

However, in Hegel’s view as in Plato’s, the arts are not what’s most inspiring. The reason is, first of all, that works of art are many and finite. Each work is not the others, and vice versa. And likewise, each work has a relation to its producer, the artist, who played a role in its coming into being. The work’s relations to other works and to its author are always somewhere in the background, so that no work can be utterly self-determining and utterly free, in the way that complete self-determination would require. So however excellent and inclusive it may be, no single work can ever be fully self-determining, and consequently no single work (and no finite number of works) can ever fully satisfy our demand for freedom.


This, Hegel suggests, is why we wind up with religions. Religions seek to integrate not only subjective and objective Spirit, with all of their respective components, but also all of the arts, into (as it were) a “super-art” that’s no longer simply an art, because nothing is left outside it to compete with it. They seek to be a thoroughly inclusive, and thus truly absolute freedom.

Here we may think of Plato’s critique of Homeric religion, which he accused (like Homer’s poems that incorporated it) of promoting immoral behavior. Zeus engages in rape, and so forth. It’s not just that Plato, like many religious reformers, was a moralist as well as a religious person. Rather, Plato was pointing out that ethics, as a form of freedom, had to be incorporated into any fully satisfactory religion, insofar as religion aims to embody all forms of freedom and thus to be absolute.

Ethics is a form of freedom insofar as it integrates one’s own freedom with that of others and thus prevents one’s freedom from being circumscribed and limited by one’s relation to those others.[7] By including ethics within religion, Plato was trying to make religion measure up to the role that Hegel was later to specify for it, of being a form of absolute freedom. Plato felt that as long as religion left a significant form of freedom or rational self-government such as ethics outside itself, it would fail to measure up to what the religious spirit really dreamed of. And indeed many religious believers have felt that Plato and others (such as, for example, the Hebrew prophets) were right about this, which is why the tendency in the development of religions has been towards greater emphasis, within them, on ethics.

Finally, however, Hegel (again like Plato) thinks that we need to go beyond religion, as such. One reason is that we find that in practice we have many religions, each competing for the role of the all-inclusive religion and none of them appearing to have clearly the best claim to that role. Hegel does describe Christianity as “the consummate religion” (die vollendete Religion), thus intentionally suggesting that Christianity has more successfully articulated what religion as such aims at, than other religions have. But he goes on, in the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences as well as in the Phenomenology of Spirit, to make it clear that the “philosophy” that understands religion goes beyond religion as such. So we don’t have to adjudicate Hegel’s views about Christianity in particular, in order to appreciate and apply his thoughts about the relations between religion and philosophy in general.

Philosophy goes beyond religion as such because no religion, including Christianity, spells out and lives by the analysis of science, ethics, art, and religion that Plato and Hegel have given us. That is, no religion understands itself fully in terms of freedom and the various forms that attempts at freedom necessarily need to take. Consequently no religion grants to each of its component elements, such as consciousness, science, the family, the state, and the arts, the relative autonomy that each of them needs to have in order to qualify for the role of a form of freedom. Rather, religions often lay down rules for these subordinate realms which restrict or throttle their inner, free development. Because religions often don’t comprehend how their power to inspire embodies and depends upon freedom, they often become authoritarian. Since religions as such don’t (fully) understand their relationship to freedom, no religion as such is in a position to fully carry out the program of absolute Spirit, which every religion nevertheless dreams of and seeks to represent.

No doubt some will object that religion simply is authoritarian, and has no constitutive relation to freedom whatever. As evidence that this isn’t the case, Hegel would point (for example) to the increasing emphasis on ethics, within many religions, over time. And to the manifest fact that millions of humans have in fact found religions inspiring, and not merely something to be put up with. Hegel’s proposal that this inspiration derives from religions’ celebrating, through images and stories, an ascent that amounts to freedom, must be taken seriously. So when a religion appears to call for abject submission, we must consider the possibility that what its believers are being asked to submit to is, in fact, a requirement of their own freedom. As when (according to the argument that I gave a moment ago) treating others morally is necessary for one’s own full freedom. Though certainly greater clarity about why “submission” is called for is likely to produce greater clarity also about what, in particular, believers can appropriately be asked to submit to. As, for instance, in the long debate about Abraham’s obedience to the supposed divine command to sacrifice Isaac, and in the parallel debate in Plato’s Euthyphro about whether the pious is pious because the gods love it, or they love it because it is pious.

The notion of God as a “supreme being” that issues commands has, of course, worked against the idea that religion has to do with a freedom in which we could be self-governing. But Hegel never speaks of God as “a being,” if for no other reason (as I explained above) than because “a being,” one being among others, would ipso facto be finite, limited by its relations to other beings. Whereas God, Hegel assumes, must be infinite. Therefore Hegel thinks of God on the model of true infinity, which surpasses the finite without being separate from it.[8]

When we think of God in this way, God surpasses humans as such, and thus embodies higher standards than we often obey, but these standards aren’t literally “commands” inasmuch as their source is our own self-surpassing, rather than a separate being from us. God’s freedom and authority are ours insofar as we go beyond our finite selves into the divine reality and truth. Thus the conflict between divine and human freedom that we see in Augustine’s debate with Pelagius and in Luther’s debate with Erasmus need not be unresolvable.

If the notion that we can “become” (in any respect) “God” sounds grandiose or insane, remember that we become this God only by becoming fully free, which means precisely not being driven by our separateness from other beings, and our self-importance. So Heinrich Heine misunderstood Hegel when he wrote in a much-quoted humorous recollection that “Ich war jung und stolz, und es tat meinem Hochmuth wohl, als ich von Hegel erfuhr, daß nicht, wie meine Großmutter meinte, der liebe Gott, der in Himmel residiert, sondern ich selbst hier auf Erden der liebe Gott sei.” (“I was young and proud, and it gratified my self-esteem to learn from Hegel that, contrary to what my grandmother thought, it wasn’t the Lord in heaven, but I myself here on earth who was God.”)[9] Pride has to do with one’s relations to others, and thus is a feature of a finite and non-self-determining being. So to the extent that Heine was proud, he definitely was not God. But if he had allowed himself to understand this, he would have been deprived of a good joke!

Perhaps I should add that the common criticism of Hegel’s supposed “arrogance” or “hubris” makes the same mistake that Heine made, of ignoring the way in which Hegel draws on Christian notions of “becoming God,” which are never accused of being arrogant. Nor would it be appropriate to accuse them of that, insofar as these notions require (as in “the last shall be first”) that we go beyond the self-importance of our finite selves.

Now although religions may lend themselves to the kind of “mystical” interpretation that I have just sketched, according to which (as we seem to learn from Hegel’s “absolute Spirit”) God’s freedom and authority are ours insofar as we go beyond our finite selves into the divine reality and truth, it’s sufficiently obvious that religions in general don’t describe themselves as promoting freedom, as such. What’s missing from the religious version of absolute Spirit is, as I said, an explicit comprehension of what absolute Spirit as such inherently but so far only implicitly aims to be, namely, the fully articulated project of freedom.


Where is such a comprehension to be found? Plato and Hegel both locate it in what they call “philosophy.” We needn’t, of course, assume that “philosophy” in this sense corresponds to what we find in university departments that go by that name. Fragments of it may be found there, and in many other places. Plato and Hegel are simply saying that a concentrated effort needs to be made to understand and live by the requirements of freedom, in its various different dimensions. And that such an effort has indeed been made in numerous different realms, though seldom if ever with full consciousness of what’s being attempted over all, and thus of how the various realms are best practiced in relation to the others and how they are all needed, from the point of view of the whole.

This, then, is what such Hegelian dicta as “the truth is the whole” are driving at. Not at the idea that some individual has grasped everything, and the rest of us can bow down before him, but rather at the consequences of always taking context into account in our efforts to be free, self-governing, and thus fully ourselves. These consequences are what a philosophy of “Spirit” and inspiration can clarify for us.
Hegel doesn’t stress the moral dangers of the arts or religion as Plato does. This is because he is always describing the “actual,” that is, the accomplished rational, rather than the world’s contingent failings. The latter, which moralists like Plato have sufficiently underlined, Hegel mostly passes over in silence. But their vast extent, the “slaughter-bench of history,” is the unspoken “other side of the coin,” implied by the necessary messiness of true infinity, in which self-governing freedom is the self-surpassing of everything that’s finite and un-free. (As Hegel says, “Infinity is only as a transcending of the finite….”[10]) It goes without saying that this messiness must pervade even the heights of absolute Spirit, up to the point at which, in what Hegel and Plato call “philosophy,” it achieves full clarity about its underlying nature and goal. Beauty, as Plato says, is in the visible world, and freedom is in the un-free. This is the nature of the case. So even religion will never be perfect. And neither will “philosophy,” insofar as it remains an effort to understand these matters, rather than a definitive success in doing so.

It may also strike you that in the realms of absolute Spirit, we no longer seem to see the human individual playing the role that we might have imagined her playing in regard to subjective and objective Spirit, as two aspects of her life. No doubt art, religion, and philosophy are aspects of individuals’ lives, but they don’t appear to be this primarily, as (for example) consciousness and property were. Instead, a work of art (for example), insofar as it has its own law within it, seems to leave its creator and its audience behind it. How, then, can we speak, as we have, of absolute Spirit as consummating freedom? Surely freedom is primarily an attribute of individual humans?

The answer to this question, I believe, is that like the state and history, but more so, absolute Spirit demonstrates how freedom can take us individuals beyond the constraints of an individual life as we normally conceive of one. We are familiar with the idea that politics and art can give a practitioner’s work an influence that extends far beyond his or her lifetime. But in religion and philosophy, one’s actual identity can go beyond a life-span from birth to death.[11] Spirit originated in the awareness of a life-span from birth to death; but it concludes with the awareness of a reality with which we are identical and which surpasses such a life-span. It’s another case of the finite surpassing itself. As Hegel says, Spirit is “the infinite Idea” (Encyclopedia §386, emphasis added), which becomes “self-thinking” (Encyclopedia §577) in philosophy. As infinite, Spirit surpasses time and finitude in eternity. And insofar as we identify with this project—insofar as we take ourselves to be something that seeks to be truly free and truly ourselves (or truly our “self”)—we too surpass time and finitude.


So, to sum up our path briefly. Spirit from its beginning seeks freedom, first internally in science and the like and then in the external, objective world, as the family, the state, and so forth. Art goes beyond this duality, inspiring us by integrating subjective and objective aspects of freedom in a way that nature, consciousness, science, ethics, and politics cannot. Religion then extends this “inspiration” to the whole of our experience, and philosophy comprehends and clarifies this whole process of nature, subjective and objective Spirit, and the arts and religion, and thus makes it fully effective. Science and the arts are indeed indispensable forms of inspiration, each embodying, in a certain way, our highest potential. But they don’t incorporate that potential as a whole, in the way that religion does. And neither science, the arts, nor religion fully understands or implements the articulation of Spirit or inspiration as a whole. Only philosophy does this, and only philosophy, therefore, can show how the different domains of Spirit need to relate to each other.

Thus science, the arts, religion, and philosophy each have an indispensable role to play in the full articulation of freedom. And to the extent that their respective roles are understood, each of them plays its role correctly, there is no need for any of them to dispute the rights of others, and the “super-natural” whole that they constitute is intensified to the maximum degree. In this way, though unbeknownst to many of us, Plato and Hegel resolve the disputes between science, the arts, religion, and philosophy which still, in numerous ways, pervade our culture. But we can nevertheless expect these disputes to continue indefinitely, in various ways. The Plato/Hegel resolution of them is unlikely ever to be universally understood, since true infinity, as the self-surpassing of the finite, depends upon the persistence of the finite as finite as well as on its (sometimes) surpassing itself. However, in another way, the Plato/Hegel resolution is always already understood, as the goal that we all pursue in our efforts to be ourselves by being self-governing, and which we constantly experience, therefore, as present and operating within us. All that we lack is an explicit understanding of this implicit but entirely familiar experience.

[1] Note that the infinity that Hegel is talking about here is qualitative, rather than quantitative. So this discussion has little to do with mathematical conceptions of infinity. Infinity as the finite’s going beyond itself: “Infinity is only as a self-transcending [Hinausgehen über sich] of the finite… [The finite’s] infinity consists in sublating its own self” (Hegel’s Science of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller [Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1989], pp. 145-6 (translation revised); Wissenschaft der Logik, Gesammelte Werke [=GW] vol. 21 [Düsseldorf: Rheinisch-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1985], p. 133). I give a detailed account of Hegel’s argument to true infinity in chapter 3 of my Hegel’s Philosophy of Reality, Freedom, and God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
[2] The infinite is real in a way in which the finite is not: “It is not the finite which is the real [das Reale], but the infinite” (Hegel’s Science of Logic, p. 149; GW vol. 21, p. 137). Spirit is the truth of Nature: “Der Geist hat für uns die Natur zu seiner Voraussetzung, deren Wahrheit und damit deren absolut Erstes er ist. In dieser Wahrheit ist die Natur verschwunden” (Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften, §381, emphases altered).
[3] I explore Hegel’s relation to Plato further in my essay on “Infinity and Spirit: How Hegel Integrates Science and Religion, and Nature and the Supernatural,” in B. Göcke and C. Tapp, eds., The Infinity of God (South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018).
[4] Walter Schulz asserts that like Hegel’s God, “Schelling’s God also continually surrenders its freedom” (Die Vollendung des deutschen Idealismus in der Spätphilosophie Schellings {Pfullingen: Neske, 1975], p. 316). It seems to me, on the contrary, that Hegel’s God is defined by its freedom (what would be the point of a God that isn’t free?) and consequently can’t surrender it; and that in order to be free and not defined by limits, and therefore not to exclude anything (not to be “jealous,” as Plato puts it), God has to open out into the externality of nature. When Hegel says that the Idea “freely releases” Nature (EL §244), we should focus above all on the meaning of “freely.” Surrender of self is not freedom. Arbitrariness (Willkür) is not freedom. This is why God (the Idea) is still in some way present and operative in the sheer externality of Nature. Nature is “die Idee in der Form des Andersseins” (EN §247), the Idea in the form of otherness.
[5] St Paul, Acts 17:28; Athanasius, On the Incarnation, section 54; Augustine, Confessions, (11).
[6] Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (New York: Penguin, 1993), p. 81. Murdoch’s remark may have been inspired by the comparison that Ludwig Wittgenstein made in his Notebooks 1914-1917 (New York: Harper, 1961) between “the work of art” and “the good life” (entry for Oct. 7, 1916). Neither Wittgenstein nor Murdoch seems to have been aware of Hegel’s treatment of art as embodying freedom, and thus as paralleling or extending the human experience of inner freedom. Nor were they aware of the way Hegel develops this relationship in his account of the divine as “absolute Spirit.”
[7] I explore Hegel’s presentation of the relationship between ethics and freedom in detail in my Hegel’s Philosophy of Reality, Freedom, and God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), passim.
[8] Citing the intimate connection that Hegel claims to establish between God and humans, Stanley Rosen writes that “it seems evident that [Hegel] cannot be an orthodox Christian” (The Idea of Hegel’s Science of Logic [2014], p. 452). But in view of the authoritative Christian literature that I mentioned in note 5, the evidence that Rosen cites does not establish his claim. I discuss Hegel’s theology in some detail in Wallace (2005), and in “Infinity and Spirit: How Hegel Integrates Science and Religion, and the Natural and the Supernatural,” cited in note 3 above.
[9] Heinrich Heine, Confessions, trans. P. Heinegg (No place given: Joseph Simon, 1981), p. 47; Heinrich Heine’s Sämmtliche Werke vol. 5 (Philadelphia: John Weit, 1860), p. 9.
[10] See note 1.
[11] Plato explored this phenomenon of the individual’s going beyond her single, finite life in his account of love as “giving birth in beauty” (Symposium 206b), which Aristotle elaborated in his account of the friend as “another self” (Nicomachean Ethics 1166a32). Hegel explores it as infinity and Spirit in general. More on this in my commentaries cited in note 3 and note 7.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Infinity and Spirit: How Hegel Integrates Science and Religion, and Nature and the Supernatural (rev.11/11/16)

(paper for B. Göcke and C. Tapp, eds., The Infinity of God, University of Notre Dame Press, 2017)

Robert M. Wallace

Abstract: This paper shows how Hegel’s conception of infinity enables him to integrate science and religion, and the “natural” and the “supernatural,” more explicitly and effectively than any other well-known writer has done. (Though in retrospect one can see a similar integration at work in the whole broadly Platonic tradition, of which Hegel is an important member.) Through infinity and the “spirit” that’s structured by it we see that science, religion, ethics, art, and philosophy are all necessary aspects of a single self-determining reality, whose traditional name is “God.” Science, religion, ethics, art, and philosophy all seek to “ascend” above one’s initial opinions, appetites, and emotions, to something that’s truer, better, or more beautiful. This ascent takes us beyond the ways in which we’re determined by our biological antecedents and our environment, and thus it makes us self-governing. By making us self-governing, it makes us real as ourselves, and in that sense it constitutes a higher reality, which we call “God” because only it is fully itself, and not a product of limits and thus of what’s other than itself. The essential role of “ascent” in this reality corresponds to what’s traditionally called “transcendence,” so that Hegel’s conception is neither atheist nor pantheist. But the ascent connects nature and the “supernatural” (Hegel’s “Spirit”) in an intelligible way, rather than leaving their relationship a mystery. And the role of science in the ascent and in Spirit makes it clear that Hegel’s conception is not anti-scientific. It merely prevents us from thinking of science as the only form of ascent.

In this paper I’m going to outline how through his conception of infinity and the “spirit” that’s structured by infinity, Hegel integrates science and religion, and the natural and the supernatural, more explicitly and effectively than any other well-known thinker has done. Though in retrospect one can see a similar integration at work in the entire broadly Platonic tradition of which Hegel is an important recent member.[1]

Through Hegel’s account of infinity and “spirit” we see that science, religion, ethics, the arts, and philosophy are all necessary (not points of view on, but) aspects of a single self-determining reality, whose traditional name is “God.” This is the essential proposal of the latter two thirds of Hegel’s Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1817 ff.), on “Nature” and “Spirit,” which derive their structure from his account of Infinity in the first third of the Encyclopedia (on “Logic”) and in his Science of Logic (1812 ff.).[2] Once one understands science, religion, etc. in this way, as aspects of the ultimate reality, it makes no sense to try to delegitimize one of them by appealing to another one. Since they belong together, each must be practiced in a way that respects the others.

Because we have inklings of the integration that Hegel achieves, he has an ongoing influence in widely disparate circles even though there is very little agreement as to what exactly it is that he integrates or how he does it. I hope that by presenting an accomplishment which there is reason to impute to Hegel and which appears to have great cultural and intellectual significance, I will encourage further work on this broad issue. Including, of course, further exegetical work on the form that this accomplishment takes in Hegel and in related thinkers.

1. An Ultimate Reality?

How can science, religion, ethics, the arts, and philosophy all be necessary aspects of an ultimate “reality”?

They all seek to practice an “ascent” above one’s initial opinions, appetites, and emotions, to something that’s truer, better than, or more beautiful than those initial opinions, appetites, and emotions. By “ascending” in this way, whether through truth, goodness, or beauty, we make ourselves more able to govern ourselves, rather than being governed by whatever external forces caused us to have our initial opinions, appetites, and emotions. Insofar as we govern ourselves, in this way, we become more “real,” as ourselves and not merely as products of our environment, than we would otherwise be. Hegel points to this higher degree of reality with his doctrines that “the finite is only by going beyond itself,” as the infinite, and that “the finite is not the real, rather the infinite is the real.”[3] By which he means that when the finite “becomes infinite” by going beyond its limiting relations to its circumstances, it “is” as itself, and not merely as the product of those circumstances. We can call this more intensive reality “ultimate,” because it includes the more familiar kinds of “reality” but goes beyond them in a way that seems to be definitive. Nothing could be more real than what by governing itself makes itself what it is.

By rising above external circumstances in this way, science, religion, ethics, the arts, and philosophy all help to constitute the ultimate reality. Let me emphasize, however, that to say that science etc. help to constitute this reality is not to say that science etc., as finite, “human” activities, are what’s real, and the “ultimate reality” derives its reality from theirs. For in that case there wouldn’t be anything particularly “ultimate” about it. Rather, “the finite is only by going beyond itself,” as the infinite. Insofar as science, etc., pursue truth, goodness, and so forth, they go beyond the finite and (in ways that will become apparent as we go along) they are more than what we normally think of as “ours.” And the result is that the ultimate reality that they constitute is also more than merely human or merely ours, and is, in fact, logically prior to (more fundamental and more real than) what is finite, merely human, and, in the ordinary sense, ours.

In what follows, I will try to clarify this apparently paradoxical proposal. To begin with, let’s look at how science, religion, etc., each contribute to something that deserves to be called an ultimate reality.

2. Science and the Arts as Aspects of the Ultimate Reality

It’s not difficult to see how science is an aspect of the ultimate reality that I’ve described. Insofar as science seeks the truth, as such, rather than merely to satisfy our preexisting appetites or confirm our preexisting opinions, it goes beyond those appetites and opinions and reflects something that seems more our own than they are. We can let particular appetite-satisfactions and opinions go while knowing that we ourselves are still intact. But if we were to let our pursuit of truth go, we would become automatons, no longer governing ourselves in a significant way but simply reacting (through appetites and opinions) to the world that created us and impinges on us, and thus no longer existing as “ourselves.”[4] So our pursuit of truth expresses us ourselves, our self-government, more than externally-induced appetites or opinions can do; and the same is true of the sciences, as particular ways in which we pursue the truth. In this way the sciences help to constitute something that’s more fully itself, and more real as itself, than what would otherwise be present.

Thus the idea that science shows or presupposes that there is no higher or more ultimate reality is refuted by the practice of science itself. For by rising above our externally-induced appetites and opinions, science helps to constitute something that’s more self-governing, and thus more real as itself and in a clear sense more ultimate than what lacks science. And a world in which nothing pursued science or the truth as such would be less self-governing and less real as itself than the world in which they are pursued. Its contents would be determined by an apparently infinite regress of causes, without anything that causes or governs itself.

Next, the arts. Insofar as they take us beyond the satisfaction of bodily appetites or our needs for security, pride, and the like, the arts seem to put us in a state that expresses “us” personally more than our bodily appetites and emotional needs are likely to. For the body and our emotional needs were presumably formed largely by prior bodies and by experiences that came from outside us. Whereas by taking us beyond the body’s appetites and externally induced emotional needs, the arts enable us to be less dominated by external influences as such. This would explain the fact that we find excellent works of art not merely pleasant or entertaining, but (as we say) “inspiring.” By freeing us, to some degree, from merely external influences, so that we can (as we say) be “creative” and “express ourselves,” the arts enable us to be more fully ourselves and they thereby contribute to the reality that’s real “as itself,” by not being governed by what’s other than it.

3. Religion as an Aspect of the Ultimate Reality

With regard to religion, you might wonder how it could contribute to our being fully ourselves. Doesn’t it do the opposite, by directing us to be governed by something, such as a “God,” that’s other than us? I want to suggest that even in the Abrahamic religions, with their focus on a God who seems to be separate and set over against us, there is an important sense in which this God in fact does or can function to make us more fully ourselves.

It’s well known that religions in general urge their followers to subordinate purely self-centered concerns to something that’s higher or more inclusive. The moral teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam certainly do this. While they sometimes promise rewards and punishments after death, their most exalted and most admired teachings celebrate virtue itself as bringing us closest to God. The best-known and most admired saying of Rabia of Basra, the eighth-century Sufi saint, is that she wanted to “burn paradise and douse hell-fire, so that … God’s servants will learn to see him without hope for reward or fear of punishment.”[5]

There is still the issue of the authority that God seems to have in these religions, which sets God over against those who must merely obey. Here, turning to Christianity, I would point out how in the Christian scriptures, Jesus is reported as saying that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).[6] St Paul is reported as approving the view that “in” God, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And numerous early Christian writers wrote of the possibility of our “becoming God” (theosis), as something that was made possible by God’s “becoming man.”[7] These latter formulations are in fact preserved and repeated in the Roman Catholic Catechism and Mass. Similar formulations can be found in Jewish and Islamic mystical writings and in Advaita Vedanta and Taoism.

None of these formulations encourage the common idea that God is simply a separate being, one that “exists independently of” humans. Nor does such an idea recommend itself if we want God to be infinite; for as Hegel points out, any being that’s separate is ipso facto finite, limited by its relation to the other beings, from which it’s separate. (That relation being the relation of “being separate from” those beings.) This is Hegel’s critique of the “spurious infinity” (schlechte Unendlichkeit) which is conceived of as separate from the finite but is therefore limited by its relation to the finite, and thus is finite itself.[8] So Hegel, drawing on the “orthodox” texts that I mentioned and followed by modern theologians like Paul Tillich and Karl Rahner, seeks a formulation that will preserve God’s transcendence while not making God a “separate being.”[9]

4. Hegel’s Version of Transcendence: Beyond but not Separate

The biggest obstacle to understanding Hegel’s relation to religion is the widespread notion that if Hegel is indeed serious about God, his “God” is “immanent” rather than “transcendent,” and this sets him apart from what people take to be “orthodox” religious thinking.[10] It’s likely that writers who describe Hegel in this way think that a “transcendent” God would be a being that’s separate from the world, as Hegel’s God is not.[11] But as I’ve just pointed out, first, Hegel has a good reason to avoid thinking of God as a separate being from the world (namely, that a separate being is limited by what it’s separate from, and thus it’s not infinite), and second, the Christian and other theistic traditions are by no means unanimous in thinking of God as a separate being from the world. For (to cite the Christian doctrines again) if God were a separate being, we could hardly “become God,” and it’s difficult to imagine how God’s “kingdom” could be “within us.”

Nor is it clear that a God who is not a separate being is therefore “immanent.” Hegel gives no systematic role to the terms, “transcendence” and “immanence,” but if we look for a central concern of his that corresponds to what we mean by “transcendence” (such as passing beyond limits, or surpassing the material universe), it would be the difference between the (truly) infinite and the finite.[12] The infinite transcends or (as Hegel puts it) “goes beyond” the finite in that it’s real as itself and not just as the product of other things.[13] Plato and Hegel both evidently intend to conceive of a reality that’s “transcendent” in something like this sense, without being a “separate” or “independently existing” being or beings. [14]

This intention makes it clear why Hegel is not, as is sometimes suggested, a pantheist. The vertical dimension whereby the infinite goes beyond the finite, prevents  “everything” from being equally “divine,” as it’s supposed to be in pantheism. Insofar as it’s a mere collection of finite things, whether denumerable or otherwise, “everything” isn’t the kind of infinity that Hegel is interested in, because it seems clear to him that only a qualitative infinity, which produces a different kind of being from finite beings, can invite worship and deserve to be called divine.

But one still naturally wants to know how something (call it, “B”) can go beyond something else (“A”) and be “more real as itself” than A is, without being a separate being from A. The answer is that this can be the case if B is A’s own going beyond its finitude, by becoming infinite and real as itself.[15] A can go beyond its finitude through rational self-government or the pursuit of truth, such as I described earlier, in which A is guided by reason rather than by whatever external forces caused it to have the opinions and appetites that it started out with. If anything expresses A itself, rather than expressing externally induced opinions or appetites, it’s A’s pursuit of truth. When it’s guided by itself in this way, A as B is real as itself, and in that sense it’s more real than it was merely as the externally-guided, unthinking A. But since B is A’s own going beyond its finitude, in this way, B is not a separate being from A.

Presenting God in this way, as the self-surpassing (becoming fully real) of finite things rather than as a being that’s separate from finite things, is Hegel’s way of interpreting (among others) the teachings that “the kingdom of God is within you” and that in God, “we live and move and have our being.” The kingdom of God is within us in the sense that we’re capable of rational self-government, and we have our being in this God in the sense that it’s only through our self-government “in” this God that we achieve full reality, full being, as ourselves.

But we’re still talking about God, and not merely about us, insofar as this full reality is always “above” a great part of what we, as human beings, are. The finite “is only by going beyond itself”: Hegel is not reducing God to us as the finite beings that we ordinarily take ourselves to be. Rather, he is elevating us (in part) to something beyond what we ordinarily take ourselves to be. This is why the apparent paradox that I mentioned, that the reality that’s more real than us is constituted by our activities, is only apparent. For this ultimate reality is constituted by activities in which we in fact go beyond our finite selves, to a higher degree of reality than we normally possess.

I’ll say more about this in what follows. But we can already see how Hegel’s version of transcendence identifies a core of truth in religion which lends itself to integration with science, ethics, the arts, and philosophy. It lends itself to this because it takes religion to be promoting the surpassing of one’s everyday finite self, rather than promoting submission to something that’s separate from oneself. This core of truth no doubt contrasts with much conventional religious talk, but no advocate of religion is likely to deny that religion encourages its followers to surpass their everyday ways of thinking and functioning. Jesus (in Luke), St. Paul, Rabia, and Hegel are simply defining with increasing precision what would be the result of our doing that. They make it clear how one can speak meaningfully of an ultimate reality that’s neither reducible to humans, as such, nor, as Karl Rahner put it, a mere member of the larger household of all reality,” as it would be if it were an additional being, separate from and alongside humans and the “world.”[16]

5. The Plato/Hegel “Philosopher’s God”: Love, Faith, Prayer, etc.

As for the common objection that religious believers will be left cold by a “philosopher’s God” such as one finds in Platonism and in Hegel, several points need to be made. First of all, this kind of God is characterized not only by the rational self-government or freedom that is manifest in rising above pre-given appetites and opinions, but also by an important kind of love. The reason for this love is made most explicit by Hegel, in a variation on his critique of the supposed “infinity” that turns out to be rendered finite by being opposed to finite beings. Hegel points out that being separate from others is a way of being related to those others, so that being guided by one’s separateness from others is a way of being guided by those others as others and, to that extent, not being guided by oneself.[17] So being guided by one’s separateness from others detracts from one’s self-government.

But “self-centered” people and gods are, precisely, guided by their separateness from others—they are concerned about themselves, and “not” (as they will tell you) concerned about those “others.” And to that extent they are guided by (their relation to) those others, and they fail to be self-governed. So people and gods who are fully self-governed will not be self-centered. Rather, they will be, in effect, loving: they will treat others the same way they treat themselves. In this way, freedom as self-government translates into an important kind of love.[18]  Of course this also makes it clear how being truly oneself entails ethics, in which we are expected (broadly) to treat others as we treat ourselves.

Secondly, since the ultimate reality, which is real “as itself,” is real in a way that everyday finite realities are not, one could see it as the core of truth in the idea of God’s “creating” the world. By its presence in and influence on the world, the ultimate reality gives the world all of the “full” reality, reality “as itself,” that the world possesses.

Third, our adherence to the ultimate reality that’s composed of freedom and love, despite the attractions of self-centered appetites, opinions, and so forth, is equivalent to what traditional religion calls “faith.” This is because our commitment to the ultimate reality is to something that goes beyond our “all-too-human” nature, and which from the point of view of that nature (that is, from the point of view of self-centered appetites and opinions) has no evident authority at all.  

Furthermore, turning away from those self-centered appetites and opinions toward freedom and love is the equivalent of what’s traditionally called “conversion.” The aid that we receive, in this faith and conversion, from the freedom and love that are around us and hidden (as potential) within us, is equivalent to what’s traditionally referred to as “grace” and “salvation.” And our praise of this aid and our effort to be receptive to it are what we traditionally call “worship” and “prayer.”

Critics often suggest that the Plato/Hegel God is not a “personal” God. But the Plato/Hegel God is in fact much more personal than we usually are, because, as Hegel tells us, it’s “supremely free.” Through its freedom/love, it nurtures the potential for “personhood” in everything, including us.[19]

In all of these ways, this “philosopher’s God” and our dealings with it reproduce what we see in traditional religion. The only apparent difference is that Plato and Hegel present it all in a more analytical vocabulary. It seems reasonable to suggest that what’s most inspiring in traditional religious stories and concepts may be, precisely, the transcendent, free, loving, and supreme reality that Plato and Hegel show we’re able to experience.

Plus, as I’ve explained, what Plato and Hegel describe has the advantage over the conventional conception of God as a separate being that Plato’s and Hegel’s God is truly infinite, which is to say, truly transcendent.

I realize that the view of Plato that I’m suggesting here may be unfamiliar. Few present-day commentators on Plato focus on the way in which Plato’s account of the soul, in book iv of the Republic, together with his account of cognitive “ascent” in books vi and vii, shows how we can understand “transcendence” as a process that takes place within the world rather than simply in opposition to it. But this is the aspect of Platonism that Aristotle, Plotinus, and Spinoza all develop in various ways, and which Hegel in his turn conceptualizes through his account of true infinity and spirit.[20] All of these thinkers are very serious about transcendence, and they all seek to understand it as in some way taking place within reality or the world, rather than flatly in opposition to reality or the world. It’s a dimension of ascent, rather than a dualistic divide. For, as Hegel in particular spells out, a dualistic divide prevents either of its components from truly transcending the other.  

6. Science and the Scientist, “Object” and “Subject”

I must also acknowledge the natural response of admirers of science to what I have been saying about science’s contribution to the reality that’s fully itself and that’s traditionally called “God.” The problem is that science doesn’t seem to recognize any such “ultimate reality” as I have been describing. If science doesn’t recognize it, how can I say that science helps to constitute it? This puzzling state of affairs fuels the suspicions towards “metaphysics” and religion which one often encounters among people who admire the sciences.

The explanation of this puzzle is that beginning with the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, modern science has made it its business to focus solely on “objects” and to ignore the possible significance of its own rational activity—of the “subject,” as German Idealists call it. The narrow focus on “objects” was initially intended as a practical way of maximizing the likelihood of rapid progress within a delimited area. Since then, however, it has come to be taken for granted, to such an extent that a scientist who suggests that her own rational activity deserves attention in its own right is likely to seem like an eccentric who is distracting attention from the only true reality: that of “objects.” Science in practice systematically excludes itself, its own rational activity, from the realm of “objective realities” that it addresses.

When one puts it that way, it’s obvious that such an exclusion can only be defended as a temporary expedient, not as an established truth about what’s real. Surely an activity that claims to be fully rational must ultimately address itself, the “subject,” as well as its “objects.” And indeed this is just what the great modern philosophers have tried to do, on behalf of science.

Kant’s way of addressing this issue, in his three Critiques, was to keep the subject separate from its objects. Science as he understood it was properly concerned only with objects, understood in a Newtonian mechanistic way, while the subject had “moral faith” in certain things about itself which mechanistic science could not know about the world as such. The subject had moral faith in its freedom, responsibility, immortality, and so forth. Kant’s thoughts, in the third Critique, about the “regulative” role of teleology in understanding life, did not succeed in bridging the fundamental divide between object and subject, and knowledge and “faith,” which he had thus created. There was still no way that one could have knowledge of oneself and of how one should act; one could only have practical faith. But if one’s ideal is knowledge, then a “faith” that’s contrasted with knowledge is bound to seem like a poor substitute for it. As a result of this unresolved dualism of knowledge versus faith, it seems clear that Kant did not successfully integrate science with ethics and religion.

One alternative, which is often adopted, would be to exalt some kind of “faith,” as the key to everything, over knowledge. As an admirer of science, Kant wasn’t tempted to do this, so he remained stuck with the problem of how to relate the two.

7. Hegel’s Platonic Solution

A third approach, which goes beyond Kant’s uncomfortable dualism and beyond the exaltation of faith, was sketched by Hegel in his early essay, “Faith and Knowledge” (1802) and systematically developed in his Science of Logic and his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. Hegel was in effect returning to something like what seems to have been Plato’s original solution to the problem. Hegel explains how knowledge and faith, and object and subject each involve the other. Rather than being belief in a separate and very powerful being, “faith,” in Hegel’s view, is one’s commitment to the pursuit of knowledge—and through knowledge, of being oneself, and being real as oneself—as opposed to mere opinion, appetite-satisfaction, and failure to be oneself. The “subject” that exhibits this commitment is far from being merely “subjective” since, being real as itself, it has a more complete “reality” than mere “objects,” as such, possess. Thus “faith” in this sense generates full reality, and gives rational access to it as well. Rather than being opposed to knowledge or reason, this faith is part and parcel of knowledge and reason.

In his major works beginning with his Science of Logic, Hegel investigates the central issue of what it is to be oneself, and to be real as oneself.[21] To begin with, he presents “becoming,” or coming-into-being and perishing, as entailing a “something” that comes into being or perishes, and which thus is determinate in some way (has a definite quality). The question then is, is the something determinate in itself (an sich) or through its relations to others (Sein-für-anderes)?

We might suppose that the something could be determinate in itself by being separate from others, as “finite” things are. But as I suggested earlier, this separation still connects it to the others, because it constitutes a relation between them. So separation and finitude don’t give us something that’s determinate entirely in itself. Rather, they give us what amounts to an infinite regress, of which no part is fully determinate by itself, and thus the “promise” of determinacy seems to be endlessly postponed.

The qualitative infinite, on the other hand, which involves no boundaries, promises to be determinate entirely in itself. As I mentioned in connection with the common conception of God as a separate being from us, it’s important not to conceive of the “infinite” as another “being,” separate from finite beings and thus, in fact, limited by its relation to them and not infinite. Hegel proposes that in order to avoid this outcome and come up with a true infinity, we must conceive of the infinite as the finite’s own going beyond its finitude.[22] Then there is no border between the two, and we have before us what Hegel at one point calls “the fundamental principle of philosophy.”[23] He calls it that because in it we finally have something that is what it is in itself, rather than through its relations to others, but which at the same time allows for the apparent multiplicity and reality of finite beings.  

How can the finite “go beyond its finitude”? Again as I suggested earlier, the finite can do this through something like rational self-government. We are sometimes able to be more self-determining, and thus to be what we are more “in ourselves,” by being governed by our own thinking rather than by appetites or opinions that originated outside us. Hegel here is drawing on Kant’s notion of rational autonomy, in which the autonomous moral agent is governed by its own rational nature rather than by inclinations that probably originated outside it. A finite something that goes beyond its finitude, Hegel suggests, is like a finite human being that goes beyond its initial appetites and opinions.[24] There is something within the something which guides it, and through which it’s no longer “finite,” no longer limited and determined by what’s around it.

The first signal that such an inner guidance is possible is what Hegel calls (paraphrasing Kant and J.G. Fichte) “the ought” (das Sollen). Kant had made it clear that our inner guidance takes us beyond the realm of mere “fact,” to a “morality” that his readers might be inclined to call a realm of “value.” Likewise Hegel’s “infinite” is not a “fact.” Like the initial notion of something’s being what it is “in itself” and not just through its relations to others, the infinite or the Ought is an aspiration. But it’s not “only” an aspiration, since it’s only through this aspiration that anything, including the universe, can be what it is entirely in itself, and not by reference to anything outside it. So that “value” and full reality are not (as we commonly suppose) separate domains, but are intimately entwined.

In this way the Ought and what follows it are the equivalent, in Hegel’s presentation, of the Good, which Plato placed at the summit of reality. And indeed the Good itself appears in that traditional Platonic role at the end of Hegel’s Science of Logic. It’s only through the aspirations that are associated with the Good or the Ought that the soul, in Plato, or anything at all, in Hegel, can be what it is entirely in itself. As Plato’s Good had enabled the soul to be unified and to function as “itself,” the Ought and what follows it enable Hegel’s something to be self-determined and “itself.”[25] In this way, value plays an indispensable role in constituting what’s fully real, in the sense of being real as itself. Here Hegel follows Plato and Aristotle in identifying purposes, and value in general, as an essential aspect of reality, rather than a separate domain as they are in David Hume or in Kant.

So where Hegel differs from Kant is that by showing how the finite fails to be what it is in itself, Hegel shows that only the (value-based) infinite is fully real, in the sense of being real as itself. Knowing this, through Hegel’s exposition, and knowing through our experience the freedom that constitutes the infinite full reality, we know the infinite, our freedom, and the highest reality, rather than (as in Kant’s account) merely having “practical faith” in them. This knowledge of the finite’s relation to the infinite creates a path from the finite to the infinite, an intelligible process of “ascent,” in contrast to the unbridgeable duality between theoretical knowledge and practical faith, which Kant had left us with.

We see this ascent from finite to infinite again later in Hegel’s system as an ascent from Nature to Spirit. As the true infinity is the self-surpassing of the finite, so Spirit is the self-surpassing of Nature. And in each case, what propels this surpassing is our effort to be fully ourselves, and in that sense fully “real.” So again we have an intelligible process of ascent, this time from Nature to Spirit.

By presenting this process of ascent from Nature to Spirit, Hegel responds to the standard charge of advocates of “naturalism,” that because we have no systematic understanding of the relationship between the “natural” and the “supernatural,” we should ignore the latter and focus only on the former. (Or we should “reduce” the latter to the former.) Following the example of Plato’s analysis of ascent, in the Sun, Line, and Cave allegories in the Republic, Hegel shows how natural beings such as ourselves can and do come to function in ways that can appropriately be described as “supernatural.” This functioning merits such a description not because it belongs to a completely different “world” than nature, but because it’s more self-determining or self-governing than such paradigmatic “natural” processes as those studied by physics. Rather than being two separate “worlds,” the “natural” and the (properly understood) “supernatural” are lower and higher phases on a scale of increasing self-government and selfhood as such.[26]

8. Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature

In the “philosophy of Nature” portion of his Encyclopedia, Hegel divides Nature into “mechanics,” “physics,” and “organics.” “Organics,” of course, has to do with life; this is what we call “biology.” “Mechanics” has to do with the simple pushing and pulling of space, time, and matter—what I just referred to as “physics.” What Hegel himself calls “physics” is the intervening domain between the merely mechanical and the living, and has to do with the organization of matter into the four elements and the planet that’s composed of them, which unfolds as light, electricity, and chemical processes. What he traces through this whole increasing complexity is Nature’s increasing ability to organize itself into processes that have a “center” or a “self.” The earth, life upon it, living species, and the life and death of individual organisms exhibit increasingly intense versions of this “self-ness.” In all of this we can see the process of the finite’s going beyond itself through increasing degrees of self-determination and thus of “infinity.”

Hegel’s philosophy of Nature is controversial not merely because of its apparently antiquated theory of “elements” and so forth, but more importantly precisely because of the way it focuses on “self-ness.” “Self-ness” is not an everyday concern of modern physics, chemistry, biology, or neuroscience. On the contrary, scientists often seem to regard it as a mere by-product of processes that they seek to understand without reference to any “self.”

Hegel is saying, however, that such an agenda ignores the scientist’s own fundamental experience of seeking “selfness” in herself, through the cognitive “ascent” that seeks to replace initial opinions and appetites with truth. Hegel is saying that neither space, time, matter, nor anything else can be more fundamental or better known than this essential activity of “ascent” in which the scientist, like every human being, is constantly engaged. So it’s legitimate to examine space, time, matter, living things, etc. from the perspective of this issue of “self-ness,” self-organization, and self-determination.

Indeed, it’s more legitimate to examine them from this perspective than from any other. For self-ness (etc.) are by their very nature the ultimate reality, in reference to which every other candidate “reality” must be judged and understood. They are what is what it is by virtue of itself, rather than by virtue merely of its relations to other things; so that if we seek to understand reality as such, and not only in its myriad “manifestations,” selfness is what we must examine first. Since it is what we ourselves are, and what the entire activity of investigation that we call “science” is, we know it through our mere awareness of our own activity, and thus it’s not only more fully real but also better known by us than anything else. To bracket what we are and what we know best, and try to investigate only what we aren’t and what we know less well, is to consign ourselves to ignorance of something than which we could never know anything more real or more fundamental.

9. And his Philosophy of Spirit

So Hegel presents “Spirit” as the reality that focuses most fully upon itself, inasmuch as Spirit asks (in line with the famous injunction of the Delphic oracle to “know thyself” [Hegel, Encyclopedia §377]) what it, “Spirit,” really is and thus how it can most successfully be what it really is.

Within “Spirit,” Hegel unfolds first the familiar “subjective Spirit” that’s composed of our theoretical and practical thinking. This would include the practice of science, as well as other cognitive activities. Then Hegel examines an “objective Spirit” that’s composed of property, morality, the family, the state, and history. In addition to our “inner” functioning, Hegel calls all of these “external” institutions “Spirit,” as well, because they are ways in which our external, social world enables us to be free, self-determining, in our dealings with one another. Enabling us to find various kinds of rational self-determination in the external world, they prevent that world from being a mere (irrational) obstacle to our self-determination.

But then a question arises: which of these two kinds of freedom is primary—the internal one that’s composed of our theoretical and practical thinking, or the external one that’s composed of property, morality, the family, the state, and history?
Hegel’s answer is that neither of them adequately embodies freedom, since being limited by each other, each one outside of and opposed to the other, they are both finite. To combine them and thus go beyond their limitations, we need a new, more inclusive kind of reality, which will preserve what’s free and fully real in each of them. Hegel calls this more inclusive reality “absolute Spirit” (where “absolute” means “freed”). We know this reality as the arts, religion, and philosophy. They preserve what’s fully free and thus fully self-determining and fully real in subjective and in objective Spirit, and they omit the rest. So Hegel describes them as a “reconciliation.” In fact he describes them, for reasons that I’ll explain, as “the Spirit’s elevation to God.”[27]
10. Absolute Spirit: Art

To begin (as Hegel does) with art, it’s fully present in the “outer” world of the senses, but it also goes beyond that world by giving it the additional dimension that we call “aesthetic.” In this additional dimension, we don’t experience objective time, space, and finite concerns in the way that we do in the “practical,” subjective/objective world. Instead we’re held, entranced, by the aura of the artwork and what it does to us.

It’s tempting to describe aesthetic experience as “merely subjective,” merely “in the eye of the beholder.” But insofar as we engage seriously with the arts, we know that this can’t be correct. We can often reach agreement with other people about whether the art that we make or experience together is relatively shallow and contingent, or deeper and more compelling. That’s the sense in which the arts, while being independent objects in the world, are also, as it were, “thoughtful.” We can evaluate them in a way that resembles the way we evaluate thoughts. How “compelling” are they, for those who understand them? Because of this dimension of “thoughtfulness,” art has a more intensive presence than what’s merely objective and lacks anything like thought. While on the other hand their physicality gives them a more intensive presence than what’s merely subjective.

And this is what gives the arts the magnetism that they have for us. They give us a glimpse of a more intensive “reality,” transcending the subjective/objective divide. And we’re inspired by this reality because we feel that we ourselves transcend that divide, through the arts. Indeed, looking back at what’s most free and most real in the accomplishments of subjective and objective Spirit, and of Nature before them, we can see all of this as, in an important sense, “art.” What’s fully “itself” and thus most real, including us, is “art” (or whatever art in its turn will turn out to be), because in it the work, its creator, and its appreciators (as it were) “create themselves.”

11. Absolute Spirit: Religion and Philosophy

Since the arts enable us to have this experience, it’s no wonder that many of us make the arts into something rather like a religion for ourselves, in which we engage in something that’s not very different from worship. But religion in the normal sense of the word goes one step further than this. We can see it as an effort to consolidate or “totalize” the magnetism that we experience in the arts.[28] Because of their immersion in sense experience, works of art are after all disparate, there are boundaries between them, and in that respect they fail to achieve the full freedom, the infinity, that we’re searching for.[29] Archetypal religious figures, on the other hand, like Jehovah, Osiris, Orpheus, the Buddha, and Jesus overcome this disparateness and finitude by “representing,” in various ways, the unity or infinity of everything. The “art religion” (as Hegel calls it) of the Homeric gods is gradually displaced by the more intense, “totalizing” religions of Orphism and its successors, because we are searching for the complete self-determination or freedom that the latter represent for us.

But because the world offers us many of these “unifying” figures and associated totalizing religions, it’s unclear whether any of them can really unify our world. And beyond that problem there is the even more challenging problem of the division between these figures and ourselves. This ultimately prevents any of these figures from giving us full freedom or infinity. As Buddhists have quipped, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The Buddha may inspire you to find infinity in yourself, but if you regard him as a figure that’s separate from yourself, he’s also an obstacle to your finding infinity. Likewise for Jesus and all the other “gods” insofar as they are assumed to be beings separate from ourselves.  

What Hegel calls “philosophy” supersedes this final disunity and finitude by understanding the entire process that we see in the arts and religion, including the divisions between different gods and between the gods and ourselves, as part of the single process of the finite’s surpassing of itself in true infinity. Sense-experience (in art) and representation (in religion) set us over against what we experience or what’s represented to us. So although we came to art and religion for infinity, what we experience in them is still, in important respects, finite. Philosophy, on the other hand, understands us and artworks and gods as aspects of the self-comprehending process that is the self-surpassing of everything finite, including us, the artworks, and the gods.[30]

Within this process, everything is integrated with everything. This is the ultimate accomplishment of the rational love that I outlined in section 5, above. Finite, infinite, Nature, Spirit, you, me, subjectivity, objectivity, value, science, family, state, artworks, religion, gods—nothing is rejected, everything is integrated and subsumed, as Spirit “raises itself to” or surpasses itself as that which alone is completely infinite and thus wholly “itself.”

The traditional term for what is completely infinite and wholly itself is, of course, “God.” Though now it’s clear, as I’ve suggested, that while it’s higher, this God can’t be separate from ourselves. Rather, as we seek to be wholly ourselves by participating in the process that Hegel describes, we go beyond our finite bodies, our emotional needs, all separateness from each other and from everything else, and (as in the Roman Catholic Catechism, which is quoting Saint Athanasius) we “become God.”

As in Plato, this ascent is a matter of becoming (wholly) oneself, not of becoming something different. But what one discovers about “oneself,” in the process, and what one discovers about “God,” is certainly not what common sense or conventional science expected. One’s true self, it turns out, is the transcendent God.

In this rather awe-inspiring conception we see again the apparent paradox, that the merely finite (us) can constitute, by “going beyond itself,” what’s truly infinite. But now we have a much more detailed account of how this is possible and (indeed) actual.[31]

12. Responses to Hegel and to Plato

It’s not surprising that many writers in the generation after Hegel weren’t clear about what he had been driving at with this conception. Not recognizing the role of love in Hegel’s ascent (on which, again, see section 5), Ludwig Feuerbach criticized it as merely “intellectual,” and held up a counter-ideal of non-intellectual “love” which he hoped to find in the senses and in matter.[32] Karl Marx, focusing on the familiar misuses of religion, suspected that Hegel and religious traditions had conceived of “Spirit” as “higher” in order to sanctify the power of the ruling classes. Soren Kierkegaard caricatured Hegel’s “true infinity” as a stick with which Hegel beat his opponents, and his concern for “system” as a psychological compulsion rather than the simple effort of thought to be as coherent as possible. And then there was Heinrich Heine’s often-quoted recollection, “I was young and proud, and it gratified my self-esteem to learn from Hegel that, contrary to what my grandmother thought, it wasn’t the Lord in heaven, but I myself here on earth who was God.”[33]

This barrage of misunderstanding all missed the point of Hegel’s ascent, which is his account of how one can be truly oneself only by being self-determining, therefore (as we saw in section 5) not separate from anything, and since not separate, certainly not “proud.” (Likewise it all ignored the question of what indisputably orthodox Christian writers like Athanasius might have meant by their notion of “becoming God.”)

To a large extent these reactions against Hegel recapitulated reactions that had originally appeared in response to Plato. Epicurus and Lucretius in the ancient world and Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century responded to Plato’s apparent rejection of the physical world by rejecting all of Plato, including the notion of “ascending” above the mechanical functioning of bodies so as to achieve freedom. Friedrich Nietzsche, in the 19th century, added the psychological hypothesis that when Plato and Christians speak of something “higher” they are actually seeking a phantom compensation or revenge for their suffering in this world. These critics all failed to see how they themselves, insofar as they sought truth, were engaging in the ascent that Plato and Hegel describe, and how that ascent goes beyond all issues of finite self-interest, including any “compensation” or “revenge.”

The tradition of rejecting both Platonism and its Hegelian version continues into our own time. If we think of influential recent doctrines like existentialism, pragmatism, logical positivism, materialism, naturalism, and deconstruction, none of them acknowledges rational freedom as a means by which one can be self-determining, real as oneself, and thus “transcendent.” Accordingly, few thinkers who are influenced by these doctrines appreciate how the common core of science, ethics, art, religion, and philosophy is this rational transcendence.

Despite repeated efforts, the Plato/Hegel view has not been well expounded since Hegel’s time.[34] But there are reasons to think that the present situation in philosophy may make possible a new appreciation of what Plato and Hegel accomplished. In recent decades writers such as Charles Taylor, Gary Watson, Susan Wolf, John Martin Fischer, and Alfred Mele have developed conceptions of human rational self-government that resemble Plato’s and Hegel’s in their general approach.[35] Ethics and the arts are getting respectful attention; commentators on science are doing their best to clarify the nature and the limits of science’s understanding of reality; and not everyone regards religion as inherently and in all respects irrational. Plato and Hegel dealt with all of these issues in a remarkably integrated and consequently powerful way. So when a better understanding of their response feeds into current discussions, a major illumination could occur.

When we appreciate Plato’s and Hegel’s view we see that science, religion, the arts, and philosophy are all aspects of the same “ascent,” the same freedom, and the same freest and fullest reality or “person.” And thus if science is indispensable, so are religion, ethics, the arts, philosophy, and the fullest reality or person. To deprive oneself of any of these, on the grounds of its supposed incompatibility with one or more of the others, is to render oneself finite and un-free.[36]

[1] I give a good deal of additional textual support for my way of reading Hegel in my Hegel’s Philosophy of Reality, Freedom, and God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). The “broadly Platonic” tradition, toward which I can only gesture in this paper, seeks to overcome materialism, mechanism, nominalism, relativism, and skepticism through a single systematic effort. (See Lloyd Gerson’s description of “Ur-Platonism” in his From Plato to Platonism [Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2013], p. 10; and compare his Aristotle and Other Platonists [Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005].) Some leading members of the broadly Platonic tradition are Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Spinoza, and Hegel.
[2] Again, more details are in Wallace (2005). I’m not aware of another commentary that grasps Hegel’s essential proposal regarding God or Spirit or the relevance to it of his account of infinity. I give a quick survey of related efforts since Hegel’s time in note 36, below.
[3] Hegel’s Science of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1989) (“Miller trans.”), pp. 145 and 149; G.W.F. Hegel, Gesammelte Werke (“GW”), vol. 21 (Hamburg: Meiner, 1985), pp. 133 and 136; G.W.F. Hegel, Theorie Werkausgabe (“TWA”) (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1969-), vol. 5, pp. 160 and 164. In connection with this idea of a higher degree of reality, to which Hegel refers simply as “reality” (Realität) as such, please note that “real” here is not to be understood primarily in contrast to “illusory” or “imaginary” or the like. Rather, to be “real” is to be, as its Latin root res suggests, “thing-ish,” that is, having an inherent unity of some kind, in contrast (say) to a mere aggregation of items. Thus A can be “more real than” B without this implying that B is illusory or imaginary; it merely implies that B is less organized or “itself,” and more like an aggregate. Hegel proceeds from his introduction of “Realität” in the Science of Logic directly to the “something” (Etwas) which he describes as “relation to itself,” and indeed as “the beginning of the Subject” (Hegel’s Science of Logic, Miller trans., p. 115; GW 21:103; TWA 5:123). When he calls the “something” the “beginning of the Subject,” here in the Logic’s initial “Doctrine of Being,” Hegel is saying that through its “relation to itself,” the something foreshadows what he describes in the Logic’s culminating “Subjective Logic” as the domain of “freedom” or self-government. So “reality,” as preliminary to the “something,” exhibits very much in nuce the “self-relation” and self-governing unity that we later find fully developed as the “Subject” and its freedom. That’s another way in which, unlike the “reality” that’s contrasted to “illusion,” etc., Hegel’s “reality” can come in degrees. I explain in more detail in chapter 3 of Wallace (2005) and in the whole book how this “more intensive” (Hegel’s Science of Logic, Miller trans., p. 137; GW 21:125; TWA 5:150) “reality” of infinite freedom is the theme of Hegel’s philosophical system as a whole.
[4] By contrasting us with automatons, I don’t mean to take any position regarding determinism or libertarian free will, as such. I’m merely drawing attention to our need to take seriously our own rational functioning as enabling us to go beyond pre-given appetites and opinions. If we can’t actually function in this way, we might as well abandon the idea that we can practice science or any other rational discipline.
[5] Michael A. Sells, ed., Early Islamic Mysticism (New York: Paulist Press, 1996), p. 151. Teachers like Rabia, who don’t focus on an “afterlife” as such, don’t reduce religion to mere morality, insofar as they are concerned with the fuller “reality” or God that is achieved through the “ascent” of which morality is one aspect. This is the way in which “mystical” traditions, which are concerned with the eternal present rather than with an “afterlife,” are still fully “religious.”
[6] On the issue of how to translate this famous line in Luke, see Ilaria Ramelli, “Luke 17:21: ‘The kingdom of God is inside you.’ The Ancient Syriac Versions in Support of the Correct Translation” (2009), available on-line (March 2013).
[7] For example, “The Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man can become God” (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, ch. 1, par. 871). For other examples see the Wikipedia article, “Divinization [Christian],” citing among many other sources the Catechism of the Catholic Church; and for commentary see Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Wittung, eds., Partakers of the Divine Nature (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2007). See also St. Augustine’s famous saying, “You [that is, God] were more inward [to me] than my most inward part” (Confessions, [11]).
[8] “It will be found that in the very act of keeping the infinite pure and aloof from the finite, the infinite is only made finite” (Miller trans., p. 137; GW 21:124; TWA 5:149). It’s probably clear by now that as is usually true in theological discussions, the kind of “infinity” that Hegel is discussing here is a “qualitative” infinity rather than a mathematical or quantitative one. He discusses mathematical infinities in the second section (“Quantity”) of the Logic’s “Doctrine of Being.” The relation between the two types of infinity, as Hegel presents it, is too complex for me to discuss here.
[9] See Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 6-7, and Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1978), p. 63. One could also mention Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, Jürgen Moltmann, David Ray Griffin, and Philip Clayton, all of whom are usefully surveyed in John Culp, “Panentheism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on-line (2008 and 2013).
[10] “Hegel seemed to be denying any kind of transcendence (at least in a non-trivial sense) to God” (Terry Pinkard, German Philosophy 1760-1860. The Legacy of Idealism [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002], p. 303). Compare William Desmond, Hegel’s God: A Counterfeit Double? (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), p. 2, and Stephen Houlgate, The Opening of Hegel’s Logic: From Being to Infinity (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2006), p. 435. As evidence of Hegel’s rejection of transcendence, A. W. Moore in his The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics: Making Sense of Things ([Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012], p. 178) cites Hegel’s Encyclopedia §38, in which I assume he’s referring to Hegel’s objection there to the notion of a “beyond” (Jenseits), which Hegel associates with the “Ought.” But Hegel in fact approves of a certain kind of “beyond-ness,” which is the way in which true infinity, in his words, “goes beyond” the finite. See note 13, below, for the key citation on this. I discussed this whole issue in section 3.17 (pp. 96-102) of Wallace (2005).
[11] “Theism,” as Charles Taylor puts it, “looks on the world as created by a God who is separate and independent of the universe,” and “this cannot be accepted by Hegel” (Hegel [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975], p. 100.
[12] Hegel does occasionally use the adjective, “immanent,” in roughly the sense that Kant gave to it (Critique of Pure Reason A296f.), as pertaining to the realm of what can be known. Unless one assumes (as Hegel does not) that God cannot be known, this kind of “immanence” has nothing directly to do with our notion of immanence as the opposite of (“orthodox”) divine transcendence.
[13] Transcendere means literally “to climb over, surmount, surpass,” and Hegel explicitly describes the infinite as “going beyond” the finite: “The infinite is only as a going beyond [als Hinausgehen über] the finite” (Hegel’s Science of Logic, trans. Miller, p. 145 [Miller’s translation actually says “transcending”!]; TWA 5:160; GW 21:133). So we have to be careful not to read too much into Hegel’s objection to notions of a “Jenseits” (a “beyond”). In the next sentence but one after the sentence that I just quoted, Hegel spells out what it is that he really objects to: “The finite is not sublated by the infinite as by a power existing outside it; on the contrary, its infinity consists in sublating its own self.” What he objects to is not the notion of going beyond, as such, but the notion that such going beyond involves or is brought about by “a power existing outside” the finite. That is, he objects to conceptions of the “beyond” as a separately existing being. So rather than rejecting “transcendence” as such, Hegel is presenting what amounts to a revised conception of it, what we might call a “true transcendence.” (As for being “real as itself,” Hegel’s whole discussion in the Science of Logic of the “something” and the “finite” is a discussion of how something can be fully “in itself” and thus “real” [Miller trans. p. 111-115, GW 21:98-102, TWA 5:118-122], and the upshot is that the infinite is what’s “real” [Miller trans. p. 149, GW 21:136, TWA 5:164] and thus “in itself.”)
[14] Plato undermines the idea that God is an “independently existing being” when he makes it clear in the Timaeus that the “craftsman” who created the world had no choice but to create it, because he was “without jealousy” (29e). That is, God’s nature requires God to create a world; so we can’t coherently conceive of a God without a world; so the two don’t “exist independently” of each other in the usual sense. Plato’s conception of phenomena “participating in” transcendent Forms likewise suggests a closer relationship than the two “existing independently” of each other. Plato and Hegel both make it clear that it doesn’t follow from X’s not being a separate being from Y, that X is identical to Y. It may instead be the case that X “participates in” Y (Plato) or that Y is the “self-surpassing” of X (Hegel: see the text quoted in note 15).
[15] To quote Hegel’s formulation again: “The infinite is only as a going beyond the finite…. The finite is not sublated by the infinite as by a power existing outside it; on the contrary, its infinity consists in sublating its own self” (Hegel’s Science of Logic, trans. Miller, p. 146; TWA 5:160; GW 21:133).
[16] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1978), p. 63.
[17] “Mutual repulsion and flight is not a liberation from what is repelled and fled from; the one as excluding still remains connected to what is excluded” (Science of Logic, Miller trans., p. 175 [translation revised]; GW 21:163; TWA 5:196).
[18] The free alternative to being guided by one’s separateness from others is not being guided by what we merely happen to share with others, but rather being guided by our shared search for the True and the Good. So the love that Plato and Hegel advocate isn’t indiscriminate promotion of whatever we all happen to want, but rather a fostering of rational freedom in each and all of us. Which is a fostering that undoubtedly will often involve promoting the material conditions that enable such rational freedom to be actualized in us.
[19] “Supremely free”: Science of Logic Miller trans. p. 841, GW 12:251, TWA 6:570. At Miller trans. p. 824, GW 12:236, TWA 6:549, Hegel spells out “personality” as involving being “for itself” rather than “for” (dependent on) anything else, and being “practical” (as well as theoretical or contemplative). Nurturing: “The universal…could also be called free love … for it bears itself toward what it is different from as toward itself” (Miller trans., p. 603, GW 12:35, TWA 6:277).
[20] On Aristotle’s contribution to Platonism in a broad and useful sense of the word, see Lloyd Gerson, Aristotle and Other Platonists (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005). I should acknowledge that Plato’s middle-period preoccupation with the “separation” (chorismos) of the Forms vis-à-vis what “participates” in them prefigures our conventional assumption that God is a “separate” being. But it’s well-known that Plato in his Parmenides criticizes this “separation” trenchantly—without showing any sign of abandoning his fundamental concern with “ascent.” This is how the broad Platonic tradition that includes Aristotle and Hegel gets under way.
[21] Hegel’s first major work, his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), rotated around the same issue of subject and object, but complicated it in ways that the Science of Logic and Encyclopedia avoided. So it’s easier to extract his fundamental thought from the Logic and Encyclopedia than from the Phenomenology.
[22] See the text cited in note 15.  
[23] Encyclopedia Logic §95 Remark. One could suggest that insofar as there is a distinction between the infinite and the finite, there is still a separation and a “relation” between them. But Hegel’s point is precisely that in this distinctness, they still depend upon each other (since “The infinite is only as a going beyond the finite” [see note 3 above]) for their identity. So the “relation” between them is not, like ordinary relations, “external” to their identity.
[24]At the name of the infinite, the heart and the mind or spirit [the Gemüt and the Geist] light up, for in the infinite the mind or spirit is not merely abstractly present to itself, but rises to its own self, to the light of its thinking, of its universality, of its freedom” (Science of Logic, trans. Miller, p. 138; GW 21:125; TWA 5:150).
[25] Plato explains how the Good enables the soul to be unified and to function as “itself” in Republic book iv (on reason in the soul) and books vi-vii (on reason and the Good). Hegel discusses the “Ought” in Science of Logic, Miller trans., pp.131-136, GW 21:118-123, TWA 5:142-148, and the Good itself in Science of Logic pp. 818-823, GW 12:231-235, TWA 6:541-548. Commentators often stress Hegel’s criticisms of Kant’s and Fichte’s misleading conception of the “ought” to such an extent that they neglect the “ought’s” key role, for Hegel, in indicating how the finite can in fact go beyond itself as the infinite. We have to ask why the “ought” becomes an issue here at all, in the Logic’s conceptual development. If it were merely a “blind alley,” it would be the only “blind alley” in the Logic. It’s more plausible to understand it as Hegel’s acknowledgement that Kant and Fichte genuinely seek, through the “ought,” to go beyond finitude, and that such a seeking indicates the possibility of what it unfortunately fails to achieve. The prominent role of the Good at the conclusion of the Logic and the alternation of ontological topics with practical ones in the Encyclopedia make it clear that the ontological implications that Hegel associates with the “ought” introduce us to a fundamental principle of his system.
[26] In this way, Hegel’s “idealism” (as he calls it) does not assert like George Berkeley’s idealism that all reality is ideas located in minds, or like Kant’s idealism that important features are imposed on reality by minds. Rather, it shows how what most deserves to be called “real,” because it’s self-governing and thus is what it is by virtue of itself, is minds or “spirit.” The processes studied by physics are real in the sense that they can be studied objectively, but not in the sense that they are what they are by virtue of themselves. This is the gist of Hegel’s definitive account of what he means by “idealism,” in Science of Logic Miller trans. pp.154-156, GW 21:142-143, TWA 5:172-173.
[27] “Reconciliation”: Encyclopedia §§552R, 555, 561, TWA 10:364, 367, 369. “Spirit’s elevation to God”: Encyclopedia §552R, TWA 10:354; compare §50 Remark, TWA 8:132.
[28] In Encyclopedia §572 Hegel lays out the sequence of Art, Religion, and Philosophy as embodying (respectively) “intuition” (Anschauung), “representation” (Vorstellung) and “self-conscious thought,” and he associates religion and “representation” with “totality” (Totalität).
[29] This is a way of stating Plato’s objection to the arts, in the Republic, that they are “images of images,” and so forth. But it’s clear from Plato’s own manifestly artistic efforts (which he himself occasionally acknowledges as such) that while philosophy surpasses the arts in principle, it doesn’t thereby render them dispensable. Hegel formalizes this state of affairs by presenting the arts as aspects of “absolute Spirit,” ultimately subsumed but not abolished by philosophy, in accordance with his principles of “sublation” (Aufhebung) and true infinity.
[30] “This knowledge is thus the concept, cognized by thought, of Art and Religion, in which the diverse elements in the content are cognized as necessary, and this necessary as free” (Encyclopedia §572, TWA 10:378).
[31] When in the Encyclopedia’s treatment of Spirit everything finite goes beyond itself, as what Hegel now calls “the self-thinking Idea,” it “goes back” to his Logic (Encyclopedia §574), in which the culminating “Idea” was the origin of Nature and Spirit. Nature and Spirit always presupposed that infinity, and now they have explicitly returned to it. Thus Nature and Spirit are the epistrophe or turning back that (following the traditional pattern first spelled out by Plotinus) reverses the proodos, “progression,” or flowing out that occurs, in Hegel, in the Logic. Plotinus’s epistrophe was modeled on Plato’s descriptions of ascent in Republic book vii (etc.) and his proodos was modeled on Plato’s creation story in the Timaeus. Hegel has shown us a way in which to understand these traditional concepts.
[32] It’s sometimes suggested that Feuerbach’s “anthropotheism” restates what was really going on in Hegel’s philosophical theology. This, however, is a mistake, because Feuerbach didn’t reproduce the vertical dimension of (Plato’s and) Hegel’s thinking, which corresponds to religion’s “transcendence.” This is why Feuerbach’s various proposals have not inspired or attracted much of a following.
[33] Heinrich Heine, Confessions, trans. P. Heinegg (n.p.: Joseph Simon, 1981),
p. 47.
[34] During the two centuries since Hegel, a series of writers have tried either to explain how the Plato/Hegel synthesis works or to state something similar in their own way. In his The World as Will and Representation (1818), Arthur Schopenhauer laid out a duality of “will,” on the one hand, and a blissful liberation from “will” (vol. 2, pars. 65-70), on the other. But because Schopenhauer didn’t bring out the significance of our pursuit of the true and the good, or rational transcendence, there was no apparent path that could lead from “will” to the liberation that Schopenhauer described. Hence, no doubt, his pessimism. Later, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about becoming oneself, authenticity, and freedom, but none of them noted how the pursuit of the true and the good can be crucial in this connection, by raising one above automatic responses to one’s heritage or environment. Francis Herbert Bradley, in his Appearance and Reality (1893), gave a version of Hegel that likewise neglected the role of rational transcendence in becoming fully oneself and thus provided no path that an individual could travel from “appearance” to mystical “reality.” Like Schopenhauer and Bradley, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s apparently positive allusions to “the mystical” in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) didn’t connect it to our everyday experience of rational transcendence and thus they left obscure the role of this “mystical” in our lives. John Niemeyer Findlay and Wilfrid Sellars, in the middle of the century, and John McDowell’s Mind and World (1992) and Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992) likewise didn’t clarify the role of rational transcendence in (full) reality, and thus they weren’t able to effectively overcome scientism’s notion of “reality” as simply what’s “objective.” R.G. Collingwood came close to Hegel’s project of integration in his Speculum Mentis (1924), but he too did not spell out the notion of rational transcendence as such. Alfred North Whitehead identified the Platonic rational transcendence in general terms in his Religion in the Making (1926) and Process and Reality (1929), but he didn’t articulate it in everyday terms as freedom and love, so the concrete relevance of his account has remained fairly obscure. Nor have commentators on Hegel from Findlay through Charles Taylor, H.S. Harris, Robert Pippin, Stephen Houlgate, Peter Hodgson, or (in Germany) Dieter Henrich or Walter Jaeschke brought out the centrality of rational transcendence in Hegel’s system. So rational transcendence has not been effectively presented since Hegel’s time, and Nietzsche’s, Bertrand Russell’s, and Heidegger’s influential critiques of Platonism and Hegel have not been effectively countered.
[35] I’m referring to Charles Taylor’s “Responsibility for Self,” first published in A. O. Rorty, ed., The Identities of Persons (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 281-299, and not to Taylor’s Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), in which he unfortunately did not identify or appreciate Hegel’s contribution to the same Platonic train of thought about rational self-government that he (Taylor) was pursuing in “Responsibility for Self.”
[36] I would like to thank Tom Bennigson, Thomas Burns, and Alan Montefiore for very helpful comments on drafts of this paper.