Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 11b

11.3 Hegel’s speculative thinking and his poetic imagination

‘Speculative,’ dialectical philosophy cannot be other than poetic because it is the attempt to most accurately explicate the processes of the world – for the idealist, those of the ‘inner world’ of consciousness, for the materialist, those of the objective world of matter, which subsumes consciousness.

Hegel exemplified his recognition of that challenge when he wrote in his Philosophy of Nature

We have now to make the transition from inorganic to organic Nature, from the prose to the poetry of Nature.1

The poetry of nature for him was that of Life (the capitalisation indicates Hegel’s mystical understanding of the concept) which

can be grasped only speculatively; for it is precisely in life that the speculative has an existence. …Wherever inner and outer, cause and effect, end and means, subjectivity and objectivity, etc., are one and the same, there is life.2

and, I add following Hegel, there also is poetry.

He wrote in his Lectures on Fine Art that poetry, the most spiritual of the arts, is the point at which art dissolves into ‘the prose of scientific thought’ and that speculative thinking is akin to the poetic imagination

(Poetry) abides by the substantive unity of outlook which has not yet separated opposites…there is none of the Understanding’s dissection of that living unity in which the poetic vision keeps together the indwelling reason of things and their expression and existence3

Not only is the subject matter of poetry ‘the infinite wealth of the spirit’4 and of spiritual connectedness, as Magee and others have commented, the real power behind dialectic is imagination, which facilitates the utterance of what is inward.

In ‘The Earliest System-Programme of German Idealism,’ written in 1796 or 1797 (ten years before he published his Phenomenology of Spirit) in Hegel’s handwriting and generally considered to be the expression of his views, Hegel wrote of philosophising as an aesthetic act and that great philosophy is a genre of poetry – ‘the art of philosophy’

I am now convinced that the highest act of reason, that in which it embraces all ideas, is an aesthetic act and that truth and goodness are siblings only in beauty. The philosopher must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet. Men without aesthetic sense are our literal-minded philosophers. The philosophy of spirit is an aesthetic philosophy. …

First of all I shall speak here of an idea which, so far as I know, has never occurred to anyone else – we must have a new mythology, but this mythology must be in the service of ideas, it must be a mythology of Reason.5

Responding to the creative vitalism of Neoplatonism, Hegel wrote

the poet is required to give the deepest and richest inner animation to the material that he brings into his work6

and that

in poetry the…rational is expressed…as vitalised, manifested, animated, all-determining, and yet at the same time expressed in a manner which lets the all-embracing unity, the very soul of the vitalisation produce its effect7

Hegel thought that both poetry and philosophy are a self-making (for the materialist, they are the product of the world reflecting on itself). The purpose of both is the liberation of the human spirit – synonymous with spirit’s coming to know itself as self-creative and self determining through artistic presentation. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy Hegel wrote that philosophy is thinking which is at the same time a ‘making’. As such

it is like poetry in being creative of that which is supremely beautiful; it is like poetry in being an activity whose product is itself.8

In writing of a poetical work of art, Hegel summarised his philosophy

It is now clear that every genuinely poetical work of art is an inherently infinite [i.e. self-bounded] organism: rich in matter and disclosing this matter in a correspondent appearance; a unity…a whole…which closes with itself into a perfect circle without any apparent intention; filled with the material essence of actuality…creating freely from its own resources in order to give shape to the essence of things9

In his Phenomenology of Spirit he referred to the source of this as

the many-named One. This One is clothed with the manifold powers of existence and with the ‘shapes’ of reality as with an adornment that lacks a self10

11.3.1 Speculative philosophy and metaphor

Not only was Jaspers correct to argue that metaphors are necessary to ‘speculative’ cognition, they are unavoidable – our language is full of them and our mutual understanding depends on them. Barfield wrote

Every modern language, with its thousands of abstract terms and its nuances of meaning and association, is apparently nothing, from beginning to end, but an unconscionable tissue of dead, or petrified, metaphors…A man cannot utter a dozen words without wielding the creations of a hundred named and nameless poets.11

Geary wrote that metaphors are ‘entombed in even the simplest words’12 and he quoted Emerson from his essay ‘The Poet,’ in which Emerson described language as ‘fossil poetry’

language is made up of images or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.13

Philip Wheelwright thinks that ‘three-fourths of our language may be said to consist of worn-out metaphors.’14

Metaphors appeal to the senses, particularly sight – itself a fundamental metaphor of mysticism. They allow thought greater abstraction and, as Verene noted, they always point to what is not present in the literal sense of words.15

11.3.2 Hegel and metaphor

Redding said that Hegel came out of an idealist tradition in which truth can be expressed in metaphorical and imagistic ways.16 I will argue not only that the use of metaphor was a major device in Hegel’s philosophical method but that he based his philosophy on a metaphor – just as Plotinus built his philosophy on the simile of a sculptor.17

Verene wrote

To the logical mind, the Understanding in Hegel’s terms, tropes are improper forms of speech because they are imprecise. Logic attempts to exclude all such figurative meanings. But from the standpoint of dialectic and Reason, tropes allow thought to enter into new stages of consciousness. Tropes are not arbitrary because the translatio presupposes the discovery of a similitudo that makes the transfer possible.18



1. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, op. cit., 270
2. Ibid., 274
3. Hegel, Aesthetics – Lectures on Fine Art, vol. II, op. cit., 973, 975
4. Ibid., 972
5. Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 25-26
6. Hegel, Aesthetics – Lectures on Fine Art, vol. II, op. cit., 998
7. Quoted in Lauer, ‘Hegel as Poet,’ op. cit., 8
8. Ibid., 13
9. Hegel, Aesthetics – Lectures on Fine Art, vol. II, op. cit., 996
10. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 419
11. Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973, 63, quoted in James Geary, I Is an Other, The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, HarperCollins e-books, Pymble, Australia, 2011, 46
12. Ibid., 49
13. Ibid., 50
14. Ibid., Cited in Philip Wheelwright, The Burning Fountain: A Study in the Language of Symbolism, Bloomington and London, Indiana University Press, 1968, 181
15. Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 24
16. Interview of Paul Redding on ‘Philosopher’s Zone,’ ABC Radio National 27.10.13
17. ‘The vivid images and metaphors used by (Plotinus) apparently did not just act as illustrations of mental concepts, but served rather to attune the mind to nondiscursive modes of grasping reality.’ Chlup, Proclus, An Introduction, op. cit., 180. Geary wrote that ‘a simile is just a metaphor with the scaffolding still up,’ Geary, I Is an Other, The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, op.cit., 36
18. Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 22-23

Contents of Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist posts

2 thoughts on “Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 11b

    • Hi Jason,

      Hegel thought that ‘reason’ (or God) is ‘rational’ (God for him is an activity or process). Thus, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History he wrote ‘reason governs the world, and…world history is therefore a rational process.’
      Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction: Reason in History, Trans., H.B. Nisbet, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984, 27.

      Philosophy for Hegel is the knowing of God (as the ‘rational’ activity of thinking).

      He also tied ‘reason’ and ‘rational’ to mysticism by using the Rosicrucian and hermetic symbol of the rose cross in his Philosophy of Right: ‘To recognise reason as the rose in the cross of the present…is the rational insight which reconciles us to the actual.’
      Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Trans. T.M.Knox, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979, 12

      Hegel discussed ‘intellect’ in his Philosophy of Mind where he equated it with der Verstand (the understanding).
      Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, Part Three of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), Trans., William Wallace, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971, #422

      Best wishes,

      Liked by 1 person

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