Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 9a

Hegel’s cognition of God

Hegel wrote that, contrary to the view of the church and the Enlightenment that we can know neither God nor truth, not only can we know God and truth, to do so is our highest duty

we should know God cognitively, God’s nature and essence, and should esteem this cognition above all else.1

Philosophy for Hegel is the cognition of what flows from God, of His nature in its manifestation and development. Divine cognition is the knowledge of what an object’s determinations are, of

what its content is, so that our knowing is a fulfilled and verified knowledge in which we are aware of the necessary connectedness of these determinations.2

Cognition isa judging or dividing, a self-distinguishing within oneself (my italics).’3 Truth for Hegel and the Neoplatonists is the identity of thinking or knowing with its object. Plotinus’ words, that truth occurs in the coalescence of seeing subject with seen object, in the identity of object known with the knowing act or agent4 are repeated in those of Hegel

(Kant’s disparaging statement that truth is) the agreement of cognition with its object (is) a definition of great, indeed of supreme, value.5

9.1 What is cognised?

It would seem that there is an unbridgeable difference between Plotinus and Proclus on the one hand and Hegel on the other with regard to what can be known. For Plotinus and Proclus the One is beyond knowledge and the second hypostasis is the realm of true knowledge. Hegel argued that God can and must be cognised.

But the words of Plotinus describing Intellectual-Principle could be Hegel’s describing his ‘reason-world’

(it is) a multiplicity striving towards unity; that is to say, a One-that-is-many.6

As I have argued earlier, Hegel’s incorrect conflation of the hypostases in his discussion of the philosophies of both Plotinus and Proclus point to what he did with the hypostases in his own philosophy – conflating them, giving a One/God/Mind/Being, and replacing them in his ‘reason-world’ with his Neoplatonic version of the Christian Trinity.

Plotinus and Proclus themselves blurred the division between the first two hypostases and laid the ground for the conflation of them in their discussion of knowledge in relation to priors and their sequels. Plotinus wrote of the One

We do not, it is true, grasp it by knowledge, but that does not mean that we are utterly void of it; we hold it not so as to state it, but so as to be able to speak about it. …we are, in fact, speaking of it in the light of its sequels; unable to state it, we may still possess it.7

Proclus wrote similarly in his Elements of Theology

All that is divine is itself ineffable and unknowable by any secondary being because of its supra-existential unity, but it may be apprehended and known from the existents which participate it: wherefore only the First Principle is completely unknowable, as being unparticipated.8

9.2 God is a Neoplatonic process

The Neoplatonic Supreme thinks himself. He is the activity, the process of the Neoplatonic knowledge of self, of subject contemplating its object. For Plotinus, the second hypostasis is both thought (thinking being) and the objects created in that activity. Thought is the things it knows – knowledge is undifferentiated from its objects

The Intellectual-Principle…is the things it knows…it resides with its objects, identical with them, making a unity with them; knowledge of the immaterial is universally identical with its objects.9

Hegel added the philosophical and prose-poetic device of a Christian patina to his Neoplatonism – now God as Being, as actus purus, eternally constituted distinctions within Himself and took them back into himself, not Intellectual-Principle. Christ perfectly justified and symbolised differentiation within sameness.

Christian theology…conceives of God, that is, of Truth, as spirit and contemplates this, not as something quiescent, something abiding in empty identicalness but as something which necessarily enters into the process of distinguishing itself from itself, of positing its Other, and which comes to itself only through this Other, and by positively overcoming it – not by abandoning it.10

9.3 Plotinus and Cusanus: impressions become concepts

Neoplatonism was never a fixed system of belief. Others after Plotinus, such as Proclus and Cusanus, developed and contributed to what he had first set out in his Enneads. The subject of the cognition of God is an example of this. For Plotinus Intellectual-Principle and Soul (Universal Soul) are the knowing hypostases. Intellectual-Principle, in its very effort to unite with the One, creates and accumulates a multiplicity of successive ‘impressions.’ In knowing that multiplicity of ‘impressions,’ it knows the One

Thus the Intellectual-Principle, in the act of knowing the Transcendent, is a manifold. It knows the Transcendent in very essence but, with all its effort to grasp that prior as a pure unity, it goes forth amassing successive impressions, so that, to it, the object becomes multiple: thus in its outgoing to its object it is not (fully realised) Intellectual-Principle; it is an eye that has not yet seen; in its return it is an eye possessed of the multiplicity which it has itself conferred: it sought something of which it found the vague presentment within itself; it returned with something else, the manifold quality with which it has of its own act invested the simplex.

If it had not possessed a previous impression of the Transcendent it could never have grasped it, but this impression, originally of unity, becomes an impression of multiplicity; and the Intellectual-Principle in taking cognisance of that multiplicity knows the Transcendent and so is realised as an eye possessed of its vision.11

Inspired by recollection of and desire to reunite with its source, Intellectual-Principle creates a subject/object distinction, then that which is distinguished develops into a unity-in-multiplicity. Through knowing (‘taking cognisance of’) that multiplicity, Intellectual-Principle comes to know the Transcendent, intuitively – ‘realised as an eye possessed of its vision.’ Just as God as Spirit is only fully realised for Hegel in the cultus, Intellectual-Principle is only fully realised when it has completed its process.

It is now Intellectual-Principle since it actually holds its object, and holds it by the act of intellection: before, it was no more than a tendance, an eye blank of impression: it was in motion towards the transcendental; now that it has attained, it has become Intellectual-Principle12

Here, in the philosophy of Plotinus, further developed and clarified by Cusanus in this crucial area, is the basis for Hegel’s vaunted conceptual development – the conceptual development that Hegel believed enables us to cognise God. Cusanus wrote that our ‘minds’ are images of God’s ‘mind’ and as He creates the world, our ‘minds’ create conceptually

It must be the case that surmises originate from our minds, even as the real world originates from Infinite Divine Reason. For when, as best it can, the human mind (which is a lofty likeness of God) partakes of the fruitfulness of the Creating Nature, it produces from itself, qua image of the Omnipotent Form, rational entities, [which are made] in the likeness of real entities. Consequently, the human mind is the form of a surmised [rational] world, just as the Divine Mind is the Form of the real world.13

just as God is the Creator of real beings and of natural forms, so man is the creator of conceptual beings..And so, man has an intellect that is a likeness of the Divine Intellect, with respect to creating.14

The Divine Mind’s Conceiving is a producing of things; our mind’s conceiving is a conceptualising of things. …If all things are present in the Divine Mind as in their precise and proper Truth, then all things are present in our mind as in an image, or a likeness, of their proper Truth. That is, they are present conceptually, for knowledge comes about on the basis of [conceptual] likeness (my italics).15

The cognition of God’s activity as He eternally resolves self-generated contradictions, expressed conceptually, entails the cognition of God. Hegel believed that God as process – God himself – was set out in his Science of Logic

God…is absolute activity, creative energy, and his activity is to posit himself in contradiction, but eternally to resolve and reconcile this contradiction: God himself is the resolving of these contradictions.16

This God is Neoplatonic, not Christian.



1. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. I, 88
2. Ibid., 162
3. Ibid., vol. III, 301
4. ‘(In perfect self-knowing) the object known must be identical with the knowing act (or agent), the Intellectual-Principle, therefore, identical with the Intellectual Realm. And in fact, if this identity does not exist, neither does truth…Truth cannot apply to something conflicting with itself; what it affirms it must also be.’ Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., V.3.5
5. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 593
6. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., V.3.15
7. Ibid., V.3.14
8. Proclus, The Elements of Theology, op, cit., Prop. 123
9. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., V.4.2
10. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 12
11. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., V.3.11
12. Ibid.
13. Nicholas of Cusa, De coniecturis (‘On Speculations’), 1441-2, in Nicholas of Cusa: Metaphysical Speculations, Vol. 2, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2000, 163-257, 5, 164
14. Nicholas of Cusa, De beryllo (‘On [Intellectual] Eyeglasses’), 1458, in Nicholas of Cusa: Metaphysical Speculations: Six Latin Texts Translated into English, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1998, 792-827, 7, 794
15. Nicholas of Cusa, Idiota de mente (‘The Layman on Mind’), 1450, in Nicholas of Cusa on Wisdom and Knowledge, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1996, 531-589, 72, 543
16. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 271

Contents of Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist posts

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