Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 11a

Hegel, prose poet

11.1 Language is the ‘mind’s’ perfect expression

In his Philosophy of Mind Hegel wrote that the body is only the ‘mind’s’ first appearance, while language is its perfect expression.1 In his Science of Logic he wrote

The forms of thought are, in the first instance, displayed and stored in human language.2

He believed we cannot think without words (although as previously noted, he also wrote we are thinking all the time, including in sleep3) and that words give our thoughts their highest and truest existence which only becomes definite when we objectify them

(The existence of words) is absolutely necessary to our thoughts. We only know our thoughts, only have definite, actual thoughts, when we give them the form of objectivity4

For Hegel, what cannot be expressed in language has no reality. Such is the power of ideology and so strong the Siren call of possible joys in pandering to it that Hegel’s assertion regarding the necessity of language to thought and reality itself has been accepted almost unanimously.

But Hegel’s equating expression in language with reality is no less flawed than was his philosophical forebear’s banishing of poets from his ideal state in defence of fundamentally the same ‘rational principles’ – Plato, one of the most influential poets in the West being among those to suffer exclusion.

I will argue that Hegel was, as the consummate Neoplatonist, a great prose poet, that he employed a range of poetic devices to convey the content and meaning of his philosophy which always functions beyond the separation and definition of the Verstand he was so critical of and that Hegel’s philosophy can be neither fully understood nor appreciated without according it that recognition.

Not only did Lauer write

it is no more strange to entertain the notion of Hegel as poet than it is to consider the harsh things that Plato had to say about poetry and the poets and at the same time to claim that Plato himself is to be numbered among the greatest of the poets5

Hegel noted that

Plato philosophised in a mythological way. People praise him for making many things accessible in the form of representational images.’6

Franke wrote of Hegel’s philosophy

Since the rational is coextensive with language and all it can express, this means that what is not expressible in language simply has no reality. Yet Hegel’s writings also provocatively show the limits of this position and point to another possibility, a possibility of infinite difference, of something…that would remain forever inexpressible to Logos.7

11.1.1 The German language has many advantages

Benz wrote that the German language of the High Middle Ages did not reflect

the scholastic development of philosophy, theology, and the sciences – (it) was essentially poetic. …a language of images, allegories, parables (and) not a language of abstract concepts and philosophical and logical  terms.8

He stated that the great spiritual revolution in Germany was provoked by the ignorance of Latin of the German Dominican nuns to whom Eckhart, as the prior of the Dominican order, had to give sermons – he was compelled either to attempt to translate his abstract theology in Latin into the poetic imagery of the German of his time or to create a new terminology of abstraction improvised in German.

It was to this poetic richness of the German language that Hegel referred in his Preface to the second edition of his Science of Logic

German has many advantages over other modern languages; some of its words even possess the further peculiarity of having not only different but opposite meanings so that one cannot fail to recognise a speculative spirit of the language in them: it can delight a thinker to come across such words and to find the union of opposites naïvely shown in the dictionary as one word with opposite meanings, although this result of speculative thinking is nonsensical to the understanding.9

a thought he repeated

It is a delight to speculative thought to find in the language words which have in themselves a speculative meaning; the German language has a number of such.10

Central to his dialectic and exemplifying the above is the verb aufheben and its noun Aufhebung – concepts rich in contradictory meaning (to sublate, to lift or raise up, to seize, to retain, to preserve, to reverse [a judgement], to put an end to) and he drew on these meanings, in relation to both concepts and things, at the same time.

He wrote of sublation

To sublate, and the sublated (that which exists ideally as a moment), constitute one of the most important notions in philosophy. …‘To sublate’ has a twofold meaning in the language: on the one hand it means to preserve, to maintain, and equally it also means to cause to cease, to put an end to. …what is sublated is at the same time preserved; it has only lost its immediacy but is not on that account annihilated. …Something is sublated only in so far as it has entered into unity with its opposite11

11.1.2 The sound of speech

Hegel regarded poetry as the most perfect art because it is the means for the richest expression of spiritual freedom. He thought of poetry as the articulation of inner life and ideas in language, particularly when spoken – the art of sound as speech.

When the poet attended to ‘the choice, placing, and sound of words,’12 the result would be the most perfect art given expression by ‘the freest, and in its sound the most perfect instrument the human voice, which unites in itself the character of wind and string instruments’.13 Küng quoted Bloch – ‘Hegel’s language proves to be Luther’s German set to music’14

Hodgson wrote

(With regard to his speculative philosophy, Hegel) is not offering empirical descriptions but imaginative constructions. For this purpose the medium of oral lectures was ideally suited, and it is notable that Hegel was reluctant to constrain the fluidity of speech through publication.15

11.2 On the importance of feeling to philosophy

Hegel criticised the Enlightenment for its lack of ‘old fashioned’ religious feeling and he argued for the importance of ‘feeling.’ In ‘The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason’ (1822) he wrote ‘Only in the region of feeling can the impulse to truth take refuge.’16 In Lectures on the Philosophy of World History he wrote

the Christian…worships truth in symbolic form…the philosopher…immerses himself in eternal truth through rational thought. …the feelings themselves are one and the same.17

Hegel would have endorsed Lauer’s words

philosophy cannot dispense with emotion, not only in the sense that the human spirit’s relation to truth is emotional but also in the sense that only when significant truth is allied to beauty is it genuinely compelling, because authentic philosophy is an activity of whole human persons18

I will argue in this chapter that Hegel built his use of words and language so that a feeling for the Absolute becomes knowledge of it – as did Plotinus.



1. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 147
2. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 31
3. ‘it is also inadequate to…(say) vaguely that it is only in the waking state that man thinks. For thought in general is so much inherent in the nature of man that he is always thinking, even in sleep. In every form of mind, in feeling, intuition, as in picture-thinking, thought remains the basis.’ Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 69
4. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 221
5. Quentin Lauer, ‘Hegel as Poet’ in History and System: Hegel’s Philosophy of History, Ed., Robert L. Perkins, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1984, pp. 1-14, 1
6. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. I, 284
7. William Franke, A Philosophy of the Unsayable, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2014, 26
8. Ernst Benz, The Mystical Sources of German Romantic Philosophy, Trans., Blair R. Reynolds and Eunice M. Paul, Pickwick Publications, Eugene, Oregon, 2009, 8. Eckhart introduced new philosophical and theological terms into German. Benz wrote that it was with him that philosophical speculation in German began, further developed by Jakob Böhme. ‘All the ontological terms, for example, Sein, Wesen, Wesenheit, das Seiende, das Nichts, Nichtigkeit, nichtigen, all the terms such as Form, Gestalt, Anschauung, Erkenntnis, Erkennen, Vernunft, Vernünftigkeit, Verstand, Verständnis, Verständigkeit, Bild, Abbild, Bildhaftigkeit, entbilden, all the concepts such as Grund, Ungrund, Urgrund, ergründen, Ich, Ichheit, Nicht-Ich, entichen, Entichung, are the creations of German mystical speculation’ Ibid., 10
9. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 32
10. Ibid., 107
11. Ibid.
12. Hegel, Aesthetics – Lectures on Fine Art, vol. II, op. cit., 969
13. Ibid., 922
14. Hans Küng, The Incarnation of God: An Introduction to Hegel’s Theological Thought, Trans., J.R.Stephenson, Crossroad, New York, 1987, 193
15. Peter C. Hodgson, ‘Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion,’ in Beiser, Ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hegel and Nineteenth-Century Philosophy, op. cit., 230-252, 232
16. Hegel in Hodgson, Ed., G.W.F.Hegel, Theologian of the Spirit, op. cit., 164
17. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction: Reason in History, op. cit., 45
18. Lauer, ‘Hegel as Poet’ in History and System: Hegel’s Philosophy of History, op cit., 13

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