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Hegel’s Metaphysics: Changing the Debate

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Hegel’s Metaphysics: Changing the Debate James Kreines Philosophy Compass 1:5 (2006): 466-480. ABSTRACT: There are two general approaches to Hegel’s theoretical philosophy which are broadly popular in recent work. Debate between them is often characterized, by both sides, as a dispute between those favoring a more traditional “metaphysical” approach and those favoring a newer “non-metaphysical” approach. But I argue that the most important and compelling points made by both sides are actually independent of the idea of a “non-metaphysical” interpretation of Hegel, which is itself simply unconvincing. The most promising directions for future research, for those on both sides of recent debates, will require recognizing that Hegel’s theoretical philosophy includes a metaphysics, and engaging new debates about the specific character of that metaphysics. The central claims of Hegel’s theoretical philosophy are couched in his famously opaque terminology—the terminology of “the absolute,” “the idea,” etc. And it is safe to say that recent work on Hegel’s theoretical philosophy lacks consensus concerning these central claims—even concerning what sorts of philosophical issues they are meant to address. There can be no question here of complete and even-handed coverage of the many interpretive subvarieties and debates between them all. There are, however, two general approaches broadly popular in recent work. Debate between them is often characterized, by both sides, as a dispute between those favoring a more traditional “metaphysical”Kreines, Changing the Debate 2 approach and those favoring a newer “non-metaphysical” approach. But I argue that the most important and compelling points made by both sides are actually independent of the idea of a “non-metaphysical” interpretation of Hegel, which is itself simply unconvincing. The most promising directions for future research, for those on both sides of recent debates, will require recognizing that Hegel’s theoretical philosophy includes a metaphysics, and engaging new debates about the specific character of that metaphysics. 1. Two Recently Popular Approaches The first general approach popular in recent work is the more traditional of the two; I will call it traditionalism, following Redding (2002). I think this general view is best introduced in terms of the idea that Hegel aims to revive and modify a form of pre-Kantian metaphysics—namely, Spinoza’s monism. Traditionalists see Hegel as following Spinoza in holding that everything real must be “in” a single, all-encompassing substance. So Hegel’s “absolute” is akin to what Spinoza calls “substance” or “God.” Spinoza claims that “from God’s supreme power, or infinite nature … all things, have necessarily flowed” (Ethics IP17S1). And Hegel similarly holds that “the absolute” determines, grounds, or organizes everything real. Like some of his contemporaries, however, Hegel advocates a distinctively idealist form of monism, in this sense: he aims to synthesize Spinoza’s account of substance with the emphasis on freedom in Kant and later idealists.1 But at this point there is a divergence between interpretive subvarieties. The most straightforward and vivid story is that Hegel sees substance itself as a mind or spirit (“Geist”) or “subject” which is somehow freely self-creating. In Taylor’s 1For an excellent English-language version of the this version of the history of the development of post-Kantian idealism, see “Part II” of Henrich’s 1973 lectures at Harvard (2003).Philosophy Compass 1:5 (2006) 3 version, the “the universe” is supposed to be “posited by Geist” or by an all-encompassing “cosmic spirit” (1975, 87ff.). This idea certainly provides a natural way to understand Hegel’s claim that “substance is essentially subject” (PhG 3:28/14). But a different way of understanding Hegel’s modification of Spinoza is probably more popular in recent work, although it is also more difficult to summarize clearly. The basic idea is that everything real is determined by a fundamental organizing principle of the whole, which interpreters often call a basic “structure.” This is supposed to be what Hegel himself refers to as “the idea.” It is not itself a mind; it is an organizing principle which governs both natural and mental phenomena. But this “structure” is best or most completely realized specifically in phenomena such as self-consciousness, subjectivity, and freedom. Rolf Horstmann and Frederick Beiser are two, of many, advocates of interpretations of this general sort.2 There is also a recently popular nontraditional approach to this material. If there is a single classic work of recent nontraditionalist interpretation, it is Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Idealism (1989); Robert Brandom and Terry Pinkard have long been working along broadly similar lines. The basic view is best introduced in terms of the idea that Hegel’s theoretical philosophy is a continuation or extension of Kant’s critical project, rather than a revival or modification of any form of pre-critical metaphysics. More specifically, Hegel’s project is similar to Kant's attempt to account for the conditions of the possibility of cognition of objects: Hegel focuses on “forms of thought” which are 2 I follow here especially the version proposed by Horstmann; see especially his discussion of a “primary structure” (1991, 177-82) and the similar formulation at (1998/2004; Part 4). And see Beiser (1993 and 2005). See also Stern (1990, especially pp. 110-119) and Wartenberg (1993).Kreines, Changing the Debate 4 comparable to Kant’s “categories.”3 And Hegel, following Kant, is interested in the source of the legitimacy or normative authority of these forms of thought; for example, Hegel follows what Brandom describes as a Kantian “shift in attention from ontological questions … to deontological ones.”4 But Hegel’s project is also shaped by skepticism among post-Kantian idealists about Kant’s sharp distinction between concept and intuition. Hegel consequently places great emphasis on the challenge of accounting for determinate cognition or thought about objects, without assuming that determinacy is provided by a given manifold of sensible intuition.5 This task is supposed to send Hegel in two main new directions. First, he defends a form of holism according to


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