Absolute idealism

Absolute idealism

Absolute idealism is an ontologically monistic philosophy attributed to G. W. F. Hegel. It is Hegel's account of how being is ultimately comprehensible as an all-inclusive whole. Hegel asserted that in order for the thinking subject (human reason or consciousness) to be able to know its object (the world) at all, there must be in some sense an identity of thought and being. Otherwise, the subject would never have access to the object and we would have no certainty about any of our knowledge of the world. To account for the differences between thought and being, however, as well as the richness and diversity of each, the unity of thought and being cannot be expressed as the abstract identity "A=A". Absolute idealism is the attempt to demonstrate this unity using a new "speculative" philosophical method, which requires new concepts and rules of logic. According to Hegel, the absolute ground of being is essentially a dynamic, historical process of necessity that unfolds by itself in the form of increasingly complex forms of being and of consciousness, ultimately giving rise to all the diversity in the world and in the concepts with which we think and make sense of the world.

The absolute idealist position was dominant in the nineteenth century in Germany, Britain, and, much less so, the United States. The absolute idealist position should be distinguished from the subjective idealism of Berkeley, the transcendental idealism of Kant, or the idealisms of Fichte and Schelling.



For Hegel, the interaction of opposites generates in dialectical fashion all concepts we use in order to understand the world. Moreover, this development occurs not only in the individual mind, but also through history. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, for example, Hegel presents a history of human consciousness as a journey through stages of explanations of the world. Each successive explanation created problems and oppositions within itself, leading to tensions which could only be overcome by adopting a view that could accommodate these oppositions in a higher unity. At the base of spirit lies a rational development. This means that the absolute itself is exactly that rational development. The assertion that "All reality is spirit" means that all of reality rationally orders itself and while doing so creates the oppositions we find in it. Even nature is not different from the spirit since it itself is ordered by the determinations given to us by spirit. Nature, as that which is not spirit is so determined by spirit, therefore it follows that nature is not absolutely other, but understood as other and therefore not essentially alien.

The aim of Hegel was to show that we do not relate to the world as if it is other from us, but that we continue to find ourselves back into that world. With the realisation that both the mind and the world are ordered according to the same rational principles, our access to the world has been made secure, a security which was lost after Kant proclaimed the 'Ding an sich' to be ultimately inaccessible.

Relation to religion

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

Relation to science

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

Lately American historian Francis Fukuyama was inspired by an alleged thesis of Hegel, namely the End of History, to write an immensely popular book. That Hegel proclaimed the end of history though is a myth popularised by the Russian-born French interpreter of Hegel, Alexandre Kojève.

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


Neo-Hegelianism is a school (or schools) of thought associated and inspired by the works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German idealist philosopher who was active around the year 1800.

It refers mainly to the doctrines of an idealist school of philosophers that were prominent in Great Britain and in the United States between 1870 and 1920. The name is also sometimes applied to cover other philosophies of the period that were Hegelian in inspiration—for instance, those of Benedetto Croce and of Giovanni Gentile.

Hegelianism after Hegel

Although Hegel died in 1831, his philosophy lived on. In politics, there was a developing schism, even before his death, between right Hegelians and left Hegelians.

In the philosophy of religion, Hegel's influence soon became very powerful in the English-speaking world. The British school, called British idealism and partly Hegelian in inspiration, included Thomas Hill Green, William Wallace, F.H. Bradley and Edward Caird. It was primarily directed towards political philosophy.

America saw the development of a school of Hegelian thought move toward pragmatism.

German twentieth-century neo-Hegelians

In Germany there was a neo-Hegelianism (Neuhegelianismus) of the early twentieth century, partly developing out of the Neo-Kantians. Richard Kroner wrote one of its leading works, a history of German idealism from a Hegelian point of view.

Other notable neo-Hegelians

  • Francis Herbert Bradley (1846–1924), a British absolute idealist who adapted Hegel's Metaphysics.
  • Josiah Royce (1855–1916), an American defender of absolute idealism.
  • Benedetto Croce (1866–1952), an Italian philosopher who defended Hegel's account on how we understand history. Croce wrote primarily on topics of Aesthetics, such as artistic inspiration/intuition and personal expression.
  • Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), an influential British mathematician, philosopher, and logician, working mostly in the 20th century. Russell, however, shed his neo-Hegelianism in his early years.
  • Giovanni Gentile (1875–1944), important philosopher within the fascist movement. Ghost-wrote "The Doctrine of Fascism"
  • Alexandre Kojève (1902–1968), gave rise to a new understanding of Hegel in France during the 1930s.


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


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

Moore and Russell

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

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

Bertrand Russell; as quoted in Klemke 2000, p.28


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

Absolute idealism has greatly altered the philosophical landscape. Paradoxically, (though, from a Hegelian point of view, maybe not paradoxically at all) this influence is mostly felt in the strong opposition it engendered. Both logical positivism and grew out of a rebellion against Hegelianism prevalent in England during the 19th century. Continental phenomenology, existentialism and post-modernism also seek to 'free themselves from Hegel's thought'. Martin Heidegger, one of the leading figures of Continental philosophy in the 20th century, sought to distance himself from Hegel's work. One of Heidegger's philosophical themes was "overcoming metaphysics".


  • Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Garfield)
  • Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Blackburn)
  • A History of Christian Thought (Tillich)
  • From Socrates to Sartre (Lavine)
  • Hegel: Een inleiding (ed. Ad Verbrugge, et al.)
  • Hegels Idealism, The Satisfactions of Self Consciousness (Pippin)
  • Endings, Questions of Memory in Hegel and Heidegger (Ed. Mc Cumber, Comay)

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