Hegel’s Preface

In Nature, Ends, Normativity I raised the question of what happens to Aristotelian teleology when we look at it through a Kantian critical lens, then made a preliminary gesture toward its resolution by invoking Hegel’s challenge and admonition to us in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit to make ourselves at home in otherness. Just how making ourselves at home in otherness helps with the question about Aristotle and Kant may not be at all clear yet. For now it’s just a thought to keep in mind.

First I want to try to explore Hegel’s larger point in the Preface that I risked reducing to the phrase “make ourselves at home in otherness”, and let that lead where it may. This post won’t get to the point where the phrase is introduced. It’s even possible that I’m remembering it from a paraphrase in H. S. Harris’ outstanding commentary. I’ll walk through the Preface over the course of several posts, using Terry Pinkard’s translation published in 2018.

Hegel’s Preface is an extremely dense text that seems to very deliberately follow a non-linear order. It does have a development, but it doesn’t just proceed from beginning to middle to end. Rather, it seems to repeatedly circle around several key insights, adding a little more each time. Famously, he begins by rejecting the very idea that philosophical truth is the kind of thing that could be “introduced” or made easily digestible by a conventional preface.

He goes on to repeatedly criticize two chief ways in which philosophy is made digestible and shallow — one that treats truth as something merely formal, and one that claims to leap into absolute knowledge by means of intellectual intuition. Especially in some of the later parts, Hegel gives a number of valuable hints at what he thinks serious philosophy ought to look like.

“[C]onventional opinion holds that the opposition between the true and the false is itself fixed and set…. It does not comprehend the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive development of truth as much as it sees only contradiction in that diversity…. However, at the same time their fluid nature makes them into moments of an organic unity in which they are not only not in conflict with each other, but rather, one is equally as necessary as the other” (p. 4).

Hegel is not at all advocating some trite relativism or erasure of distinctions here. He is objecting to the artificially “fixed and set” way in which what he calls formalism sees the truth of propositions taken in isolation. More positively, he seems to be suggesting that we view the great philosophers as participants in a common, mutually enriching dialogue rather than as competitors.

“[T]he subject matter [of philosophy] is not exhausted in its aims; rather, it is exhaustively treated when it is worked out. Nor is the result which is reached the actual whole itself; rather, the whole is the result together with the way the result comes to be…. [T]he unadorned result is just the corpse that has left the tendency behind…. The easiest thing of all is to pass judgment on what is substantial and meaningful. It is much more difficult to get a real grip on it, and what is the most difficult of all is both to grasp what unites each of them and to give a full exposition of what that is” (p. 5).

Here Hegel makes a very Aristotelian point about the essential role of actualization. What he is directly applying it to is philosophical accounts of things. We should be interested not just in philosophy’s ostensible conclusions, but in how they were arrived at. (But an analogous point could be made about the actual working out of Aristotelian teleology in the world. What is relevant to this is not just pure ends by themselves, but the whole process by which ends are actualized by means of concrete tendencies.)

“In positing that the true shape of truth lies in its scientific rigor — or, what is the same thing, in asserting that truth has the element of its existence solely in concepts — I do know that this seems to contradict an idea (along with all that follows from it), whose pretentiousness is matched only by its pervasiveness in the convictions of the present age. It thus does not seem completely gratuitous to offer an explanation of this contradiction even though at this stage such an explanation can amount to little more than the same kind of dogmatic assurance which it opposes” (p. 6).

By “scientific” he basically means rational. Hegel here aligns himself with Kant’s emphasis on the conceptual and discursive character of rationality, and with Kant’s closely related rejection of claims to immediate knowledge by intellectual intuition. He is particularly alluding to claims of intellectual intuition in the philosophy of nature by followers of Schelling, as well as to the religiosity of immediate feeling promoted by followers of the German literary figure F. H. Jacobi, from whom Kierkegaard borrowed the image of the leap of faith.

The “true shape of truth” Hegel contrasts these with lies in conceptual elaboration — interpretation and explanation, not just asserted conclusions. The measure of truth is the insight and understanding it gives us. He also notes a difficulty that I often feel in attempting to summarize the results of a substantial development: summaries always run the risk of shallowness and dogmatism.

Hegel continues ironically that for his contemporary opponents, “The absolute is not supposed to be conceptually grasped but rather to be felt and intuited” (ibid).

“There was a time when people had a heaven adorned with a comprehensive wealth of thoughts and images. The meaning of all existence lay in the thread of light by which it was bound to heaven and instead of lingering in this present, people’s view followed that thread upwards towards the divine essence; their view directed itself, if one may put it this way, to an other-worldly present. It was only under duress that spirit’s eyes had to be turned back to what is earthly and kept fixed there, and a long time was needed to introduce clarity into the dullness and confusion lying in the meaning of things in this world, a kind of clarity which only heavenly things used to have; a long time was needed both to draw attention to the present as such, an attention that was called experience, and to make it interesting and to make it matter. — Now it seems that there is the need for the opposite, that our sense of things is so deeply rooted in the earthly that an equal power is required to elevate it above all that. Spirit has shown itself to be so impoverished that it seems to yearn for its refreshment only in the meager feeling of divinity, very much like the wanderer in the desert who longs for a simple drink of water. That it now takes so little to satisfy spirit’s needs is the full measure of the magnitude of its loss” (pp. 7-8).

Hegel was critical of traditional Augustinian other-worldliness, but saved his special disdain for followers of Schelling and Jacobi.

“The force of spirit is only as great as its expression, and its depth goes only as deep as it trusts itself to disperse itself and to lose itself in its explication of itself. — At the same time, if this substantial knowing, itself so totally devoid of the concept, pretends to have immersed the very ownness of the self in the essence and to philosophize in all holiness and truth, then what it is really doing is just concealing from itself the fact that instead of devoting itself to God, it has, by spurning all moderation and determinateness, instead simply given itself free rein within itself to the contingency of that content and then, within that content, given free rein to its own arbitrariness” (ibid).

It is not enough just to have a concept like the absolute Idea.

“However, just as little of a building is finished when the foundation is laid, so too reaching the concept of the whole is equally as little the whole itself. When we wish to see an oak tree with its powerful trunk, its spreading branches, and its mass of foliage, we are not satisfied if instead we are shown an acorn. In the same way, science, the crowning glory of a spiritual world, is not completed in its initial stages. The beginning of a new spirit is the outcome of a widespread revolution in the diversity of forms of cultural formation; it is both the prize at the end of a winding path as it is the prize won through much struggle and effort” (p. 9).

He implicitly recalls Aristotle’s argument that the oak tree is logically prior to the acorn, and cautions against assuming perfection in beginnings.

“Only what is completely determinate is at the same time exoteric, comprehensible, and capable of being learned and possessed by everybody. The intelligible form of science is the path offered to everyone and equally available to all” (p. 10).

When the Idea is kept vague, it becomes the province of claims of esoteric knowledge and special genius. Here he links the idea of rational “science” to a democratic tendency. But we should also beware of premature claims.

“At its debut, where science has been wrought neither to completeness of detail nor to perfection of form, it is open to reproach” (ibid).

He goes on at length about the formalism of the Schellingians’ insistence that all is one. The rhetoric is strong, but he is standing up for the importance of difference and distinction, which I completely support.

To condense a good deal, “when what is demanded is for the shapes to originate their richness and determine their differences from out of themselves, this other view instead consists in only a monochrome formalism which only arrives at the differences in its material because the material itself has already been prepared for it and is something well known…. [N]owadays we see the universal Idea in this form of non-actuality get all value attributed to it, and we see that what counts as the speculative way of considering things turns out to be the dissolution of the distinct and determinate, or, instead turns out to be simply the casting of what is distinct and determinate into the abyss of the void…. To oppose this one bit of knowledge, namely, that in the absolute everything is the same, to the knowing which makes distinctions… that is, to pass off its absolute as the night in which all cows are black — is an utterly vacuous naivete in cognition” (pp. 11-12). (See also Substance and Subject.)

Indistinct Cows, Pistol Shot

Hegel in the Phenomenology wants to teach us to be at home in what he calls “otherness”.

Plato was traditionally read as treating “the Others” as inferior to “the One” in the Parmenides, but in the Sophist he explicitly suggested that notions of Other, Same, and Being are equally fundamental.

Hegel goes further, in affirming the essential role of mediation (dependence of things on other things) — as well as the kind of differences in form that “make a difference” practically — in any kind of intelligibility. In the Preface, he sharply criticizes unnamed contemporaries for effectively denying the importance of otherness, either through excessive preoccupation with formal identity or through emphasis on a kind of immediate intuition of God or the Absolute.

Schelling never forgave Hegel for the quip that to insist that all is one in the Absolute makes of the Absolute a “night in which all cows are black”, which has often been read as directed at him. Harris in his commentary argues that the main target of this particular remark was actually the purely formal notion of truth propounded by K. L. Reinhold, who helped popularize Kant.

A bit later, Hegel goes on to denounce “the sort of ecstatic enthusiasm which starts straight off with absolute knowledge, as if shot out of a pistol, and makes short work of other points of view simply by explaining that it is to take no notice of them” (Baillie translation, pp. 88-89). In this case Harris finds it most plausible that the reference really is to Schelling’s Presentation of My Own System (1801), but adds in a note that a good case has also been made that the reference is to J. K. Fries, who apparently talked a lot about the feeling of the infinite.

Hegel shared many of the perspectives of the German Romantics, including a concern for spiritual renewal, awareness of the limits of formal reasoning, and inspiration from Greek antiquity. But by the time of the Phenomenology and for the rest of his life, he supported Kant against Schelling in denying the legitimacy of appeals to direct intuition of metaphysical truth, and had distanced himself from Romantic notions of individual immediate interiority.

For Hegel, Reason finds its home in otherness. This is closely related to the noncontrolling attitude he associates with what he calls “Science” (see The Ladder Metaphor). Hegel’s verbal emphasis on “system” and “Science” needs to be understood in the context of his defense of other-sensitive, value-oriented interpretive Reason against both its reduction to formalism and its effective rejection by Romantics and other proponents of metaphysical intuition.


“Imagination” is said in at least three major ways.  Aristotle minimalistically characterized phantasia as a production of images that both plays a role in our experience of sense perception and can operate independent of it, as in dreaming.  Spinoza treated imagination as kind of a passive belief.  For him, this was strongly associated with common illusions and wishful thinking – especially with regard to our status as agents — in ordinary life.  The Romantics identified imagination with creativity.

Beatrice Longuenesse in her marvelous Kant and the Capacity to Judge has developed in detail Kant’s argument that the same basic “categories” used in reflective thought are already implicit in our pre-reflective apprehensions of things in what Kant called a synthesis of imagination.  I think this means not that the Kantian categories have some pre-given or metaphysical status, but rather that for the kind of beings we are, even “pre-reflective” apprehensions have some dependency on previous reflective apprehensions.  We are never either entirely active or entirely passive.  (See also Passive Synthesis, Active Sense; Voluntary Action; Middle Part of the Soul.)

Richard Kearney in On Paul Ricoeur: The Owl of Minerva nicely develops Ricoeur’s view that imagination is not so much a special way of seeing as “the capacity for letting new worlds shape our understanding of ourselves…. This power would not be conveyed by images, but by the emergent meanings in our language” (quoted in Kearney, p. 35).  According to Kearney, Ricoeur associated imagination first and foremost with “semantic innovation”.  What Aristotle in a different context called “searching for a middle term” is an aspect of this creativity with respect to meaning.

The Greek root for “poetry” (poiesis) fundamentally means making or doing in a much more general sense.  The Romantics added a stress on innovation, which they saw as coming from the inner depths of the soul.  Ricoeur’s treatment of imagination as fundamentally involving the emergence of new meaning nicely takes up the Romantic stress on imagination as innovation, without depending on the Romantics’ dubious metaphysical psychology of interiority.  (See also Personhood; Reason, Nature.)


F. W. J. von Schelling (1775-1854) is my least favorite of the major German idealists. He is the one most strongly associated with Romanticism, and has been considered a precursor of existentialism, which does not seem to me like a recommendation. He lacked Hegel’s grounding in Aristotle and more serious engagement with Kant. Even Schelling’s admirers don’t claim much for his rather undisciplined attempt at a Romantic philosophy of nature. He castigated Hegel for his rationalism, while reviving metaphysical use of the pretentious claim of intellectual intuition that Kant and Hegel fought against.

Like Fichte whom he at first followed, Schelling expressed himself in simpler and more approachable terms than Kant or Hegel, but at the cost of sacrificing the multidimensional richness Kant and Hegel both achieved. Like Fichte, he erred in making self-consciousness an immediate intellectual intuition rather than a dialectical development, but unlike Fichte, he also revived general use of intellectual intuition in metaphysics. Fichte is largely antithetical to me due to his hyper-strong subject-centeredness, but he was principled and had a razor-sharp intellect. Schelling is superficially more balanced, but what he balanced his Fichteanism with was a shallow Romantic pseudo-neoplatonism. Having spent a few years in close study of the real Greek neoplatonists, I am very unimpressed by Schelling’s heavy-handed forays into this territory.

Schelling is the one who really does ignore Kant’s warnings about unbridled speculation. Armed with intellectual intuition, he simply leaps into a (pseudo-neoplatonic rather than Hegelian) Absolute. Among his criticisms of Hegel was that Hegel made the Absolute a result attained from a finite starting point. Schelling said this was impossible, since the Absolute is infinite. This reflects a complete failure to understand the misleadingly named Hegelian Absolute, which was precisely not a humanly unachievable theological infinite, but carefully developed in terms that made it an Aristotelian perfection after a kind achievable in an understandable way by a finite rational being without intellectual intuition. (See also “Absolute” Knowledge?; Kantian Discipline; Copernican.)

Schelling in his “Identity philosophy” naively propounded the broadly neoplatonic theme of an original self-division of an infinite Absolute, without all the nuances developed by the Greek neoplatonists that made their version more interesting. (For both Aristotle and Hegel, in contrast to Schelling and the neoplatonists, the “first” principle is really an attractor and an end, not the metaphysical-theological origin of everything. I would not say “just” an end, because for both Aristotle and Hegel, ends are more important than origins.)

The late Schelling’s “Positive” philosophy again pitted intellectual intuition against reason, while also appealing to religious revelation. Early in his career, he had been influenced by the fideist F. H. Jacobi’s proto-Kierkegaardian idea that there is an uncrossable gap between “the conditioned” and “the unconditioned”, requiring a leap of faith. But at least after Jacobi publicly attacked him, Schelling distinguished his view from Jacobi’s more extreme anti-rationalism. (See also Being, Consciousness.)

In profound contrast to Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, across his career Schelling seems to have had no real interest in ethics. His Romantic reliance on intellectual intuition rather than dialectic also means that although he shares some core vocabulary with Hegel, the same terms have very different meanings. (See also Pure Thinking?)