10.7 Hegel and Plotinus rejected propositions of the understanding from their speculative philosophy
Hegel rejected from his philosophy those traditional tools of reason that are employed to test the worth and validity of concepts – the proposition of the understanding (Verstand), the use of predication and the formal syllogism – and he did so all for the same reason – that they deny the unity-in-difference and the principle of negation which are the engine of the conceptual openness and poetry of his Neoplatonic system, the mysticism of which neither he nor his ideological proponents would or could ever acknowledge.
For Hegel, the propositional language of the understanding, of Verstand is inadequate for the expression of the complexity of philosophical Truth. Dialectic, pre-eminently exemplified in poetry, is essential to philosophical demonstration. Hegel believed the proposition of the understanding is an empty form because it distinguishes between, separates subject and predicate resulting in a meaning other than what was intended. Such a proposition denies the complexity of the experience of consciousness (the process of freedom, reconciliation and truth), giving something that is one-sided
One difficulty which should be avoided comes from mixing up the speculative with the ratiocinative methods, so that what is said of the Subject at one time signifies its Notion, at another time merely its Predicate or accidental property. The one method interferes with the other, and only a philosophical exposition that rigidly excludes the usual way of relating the parts of a proposition could achieve the goal of plasticity.1
Hegel echoed Plotinus who asked rhetorically
What, then, is Philosophy?
Philosophy is the supremely precious.
Is Dialectic, then, the same as Philosophy?
It is the precious part of Philosophy. We must not think of it as the mere tool of the metaphysician: Dialectic does not consist of bare theories and rules: it deals with verities…Dialectic…has no knowledge of propositions – collections of words – but it knows the truth and, in that knowledge, knows what the schools call their propositions…it leaves petty precisions of process to what other science may care for such exercises.2
10.8 Proclus and Cusanus on propositions
Proclus, follower and systematiser of Plotinus, sought to structure the unsystematic presentation of his master’s philosophy in the two hundred and eleven propositions of his Elements of Theology and men with interests as diverse as Kepler and Coleridge responded equally to the same speculative Neoplatonic dynamism of his writing, which pushed beyond the linguistic constraints of mere propositions of the understanding
His language flows like a torrent, inundating its banks, and hiding the dark fords and whirlpools of doubts, while his mind full of the majesty of things of such a magnitude, struggles in the straits of language, and the conclusion never satisfying him, exceeds by the copia of words, the simplicity of the propositions.3
The most beautiful and orderly development of the philosophy which endeavours to explain all things by an analysis of consciousness, and builds up a world in the mind out of materials furnished by the mind itself, is to be found in the Platonic Theology of Proclus.4
Cusanus also believed that speculative thinking focuses on what functions beyond the constraints of propositions of the understanding, of ratio. Jaspers wrote of his philosophy
Whatever may be formulated in a proposition, in a word, is for this very reason not yet the point which thinking strives to attain – a point beyond the formulation, the ‘absolute ground,’ ‘being itself,’ ‘what precedes being.’ And even these expressions are only signs.5
10.9 Hegel’s ultimate concepts – beyond predication
‘God,’ to which all roads lead in Hegel’s philosophy, was for him the most perfect concept – the ‘most perfectly real.’ Hegel believed that predication is not appropriate to God because it cannot grasp God in his thinking. Verstand’s definition of God by the use of determinate predicates amounts only to a list of particular, rigid characteristics which remain unresolved contradictions.
God’s determinateness is not constituted by a predicate or a plurality of predicates…(because) each determinate content has become just as immovable, just as rigidly for itself, as the natural content was to begin with …The predicates do not correspond to the reality of the concept…the concept in itself is real, wholly free totality, free totality present to itself.6
Plotinus also wrote that God has no qualities, but is simple and single – that no name is apt to it. Proclus argued that while what is around the One (the henads) can be predicated, the One cannot. Cusanus also argued that God cannot be predicated and he did so using words very similar to those of Hegel – what displayed for the latter the rigidity and separation of Verstand in relation to Vernunft did so for the former those of ratio (understanding/discursive reason) in relation to intellectus (intellect/intellectual vision)
just as God transcends all understanding, so, a fortiori, [He transcends] every name. Indeed, through a movement of reason, which is much lower than the intellect, names are bestowed for distinguishing between things. But since reason cannot leap beyond contradictories: as regards the movement of reason, there is not a name to which another [name] is not opposed.7
Hegel thought the aim of philosophy is cognition of the Absolute. He famously mocked in his Phenomenology of Spirit the Absolute in which
the A = A…(where) all is one. To pit this single insight, that in the Absolute everything is the same, against the full body of articulated cognition, which at least seeks and demands…fulfilment, to palm off its Absolute as the night in which, as the saying goes, all cows are black – this is cognition naïvely reduced to vacuity.8
How did Hegel position this concept in his ‘full body of articulated cognition’? To repeat, Engels observed that Hegel had absolutely nothing to say about his own Absolute Idea,9 with which he concluded the lengthy development of his categories in his Science of Logic. Magee also made an excellent point when he wrote that Hegel’s system embodies, realises the Absolute rather than describes (or, as I would write, defines) it – that for Hegel, simply to give the Absolute voice is to give it being.10
Where is the criticism in academia of Hegel’s posturing hypocrisy on this issue? The ideology of the dominant class is at stake, and the silence of the unspeakable reigns supreme behind cloistered walls. Not only did Hegel write that the concept ‘Absolute’ is devoid of predicates11 and is synonymous with that of ‘God,’12 he many times equated ‘God’ with his conflation of the One in his overlay of the Christian myth on his Neoplatonic philosophy. An example
God is One, in the first instance the universal.
God is love and remains One, [subsisting] more as unity, as immediate identity, than as negative reflection into self.
God is spirit, the One as infinite subjectivity, the One in the infinite subjectivity of distinction.13
To give a developmental account (‘exhibiting’ or ‘self-exposition’ to use Hegel’s words14) of the ‘Absolute’ as Hegel did – at great length – is not to define it – which Hegel did as little as those he mocked or criticised. A process, even in its complex totality, is not a definition.
Hegel takes over the idea of an Absolute from Schelling, including the idea that the Absolute transcends the distinction between subject and object.15
This is incorrect. As I have argued previously, Plotinus was the first to use, and repeatedly, ’Absolute’ as a noun – long before Cusanus and the German idealists who were inspired by him – including in his tractate ‘Nature, Contemplation, and the One,’ translated by Creuzer in 1805 (Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit was first published in 1807), and Hegel took over that idea from Plotinus, as he did the transcendence of the distinction between subject and object and much else besides.
Hegel theorised his Absolute consistent with his conflation of the Neoplatonic hypostases in his ‘reason-world’ – Plotinus’ second hypostasis
the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as its beginning16
For Hegel, this ‘reason-world’ is a systemic whole in which Mind or Being becomes conscious of itself. In the ‘unanalysable’17 beginning there is absolute identity which develops into a dialectically self-differentiating unity of ‘mutually antagonistic’18 elements eventually resulting in the sublation of the distinction between subject and object (between subjects/objects). Philosophy gives a ‘rational,’ dialectical account of the nature of the Absolute. All of this is explained by Hegel’s conflation of the Neoplatonic hypostases.
Plotinus wrote that a defined One would not be the One-Absolute (Absolute One) because the Absolute is prior to the definite19
this Absolute is none of the things of which it is the source – its nature is that nothing can be affirmed of it – not existence, not essence, not life – since it is That which transcends all these.20
Hegel’s discussion of Spirit or consciousness is thoroughly Neoplatonic – it is One21 which through the process of producing itself, of self-differentiation and the positing of distinctions makes itself its own object, thereby gaining knowledge of itself. It is the process of the divine’s coming to self-consciousness in mankind. As with ‘God’ and ‘Absolute,’ it is
an eternal process (my italics) of self-cognition in self-consciousness, streaming out to the finite focus of finite consciousness, and then returning to what spirit actually is, a return in which divine self-consciousness breaks forth. The community is a process of eternal becoming.22
Spirit is consciousness that has Reason…by passing through a series of shapes (Spirit must) attain to a knowledge of itself.23
Again, utterly Neoplatonic. The simile of the sculptor shaping and perfecting his soul24 resonates through the Enneads and Western culture – specifically, Soul is shaped in its passage through Intellectual-Principle in its return to the One.
Shaping Soul through Reason’s thinking is the activity of Intellectual-Principle – Intellectual-Principle is the sculptor
The Intellectual-Principle is in one phase the Form of the Soul, its shape; in another phase it is the giver of the shape – the sculptor, possessing inherently what is given – imparting to Soul nearly the authentic reality25
10.9.4 Concept/Notion (using Miller’s and Wallace’s translations)
Hegel wrote in his Science of Logic that it is essentially only Spirit that can comprehend the Notion as Notion because it is Spirit’s ‘pure self.’26
As Plotinus described the creative energy of his second hypostasis, ‘boiling over with life’27 in its self-differentiating, so Hegel described Notion as the vital, boundless activity of its self-differentiating. As Plotinus wrote of Intellectual-Principle’s being at rest and in motion28 – a ‘stationary wandering’29 within itself, Hegel wrote of Notion pulsating within itself but not moving, inwardly vibrating yet at rest.30 For both, what characterises this activity – ‘the very heart of things (that) makes them what they are’31 – is its vital, divine nature.
10.9.5 Absolute Idea
Absolute Idea is the culmination of Hegel’s Science of Logic. It is the identity of the theoretical and practical Idea, God as divine thought thinking itself, embodied in the ‘mind’ of the philosopher – the union of subject and object.
This same union of subject and object occurs at the conclusion of the Enneads. Findlay wrote that ‘the Absolute Idea is defined by Hegel as the eternal vision of itself in the Other.’32 Plotinus wrote
In this seeing, we neither hold an object nor trace distinction; there is no two. The man is changed, no longer himself nor self-belonging; he is merged with the Supreme, sunken into it, one with it33
Magee writes that Absolute Idea ‘is understood to “contain” all the preceding categories, as, in effect, (Absolute’s) definition.’34 Such a claim, even though it is putting Hegel’s view, should not go without criticism. It is the attempt to impose a complete definition on a process which is without end in which such a definition has no part. The same provisional and inadequate definition of the Absolute by the categories in their dialectical development should apply no less to ‘Absolute Idea.’
The Neoplatonists, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, summoned forth a magnificent power – they gave expression to how the world (for them, in consciousness) works. Hegel took this to the highest point of development within Neoplatonism and Marx, having stood this philosophy ‘on its feet,’ applied it in its correct material orientation. But these greatest dialecticians all made the same error in seeking to impose the products of their own consciousness, their own volition on infinitely greater processes prior to it – from the soaring conclusion of the Enneads to that of the Science of Logic, from the Prussian state to communism.
1. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 39 ↩
2. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., I.3.5 ↩
3. Quoted by Thomas Taylor in his Introduction to Proclus, On the Theology of Plato, op. cit. ↩
4. Quoted by E.R.Dodds in his Introduction to Proclus, The Elements of Theology op. cit., xxxiii ↩
5. Jaspers, The Great Philosophers, op. cit., 140 ↩
6. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 185-186 ↩
7. Nicholas of Cusa, De docta ignorantia (‘On Learned Ignorance’), op. cit., I,76,40 ↩
8. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., Preface, 9 ↩
9. Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Part I: Hegel, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch01.htm ↩
10. Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, op. cit., 98 ↩
11. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 351 ↩
12. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. I, 118 ↩
13. Ibid., vol. III, 78 ↩
14. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 530 ↩
15. Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 160 ↩
16. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., Preface, 10 ↩
17. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 75 ↩
18. Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 23 ↩
19. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., V.3.12 ↩
20. Ibid., III.8.10 ↩
21. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction: Reason in History, op. cit., 52 ↩
22. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 233 ↩
23. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 265 ↩
24. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., I.6.9 ↩
25. Ibid., V.9.3 ↩
26. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 618 ↩
27. Plotinus, Enneads, Trans., A.H.Armstrong, op. cit., vol. VI, VI.5.12 ↩
28. ‘(Intellect) is both at rest and in motion; for it moves around Him (the Good). So, then, the universe, too, both moves in its circle and is at rest.’ Ibid., vol. II, II.2.3 ↩
29. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., VI.7.13. Plotinus also wrote of the ‘static activity’ of Intellect. Armstrong op. cit., vol. II, II.9.1 ↩
30. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 100 ↩
31. Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, op. cit., 232 ↩
32. Findlay in Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., Foreword, xi ↩
33. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., VI.9.10 ↩
34. Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 99 ↩