Metaphysical solutions to Kant

[This excerpt is from Chapter 2 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]

Metaphysical solutions to Kant: from Hegel to Nietzsche

hegel-50x60Georg W. F. Hegel’s philosophy is another fundamentally Counter-Enlightenment attack on reason and individualism. His philosophy is a partially secularized version of traditional Judeo-Christian cosmology. While Kant’s concerns centered upon epistemology, Hegel’s centered upon metaphysics. For Kant, preserving faith led him to deny reason, while for Hegel preserving the spirit of Judeo-Christian metaphysics led him to be more anti-reason and anti-individualist than Kant ever was.

Hegel agreed with Kant that realism and objectivism were dead ends. Kant had transcended them by making the subject prior, but from Hegel’s perspective he had been too wishy-washy in doing so. Kant made the subject responsible only for the phenomenal world of experience, leaving noumenal reality forever closed off to us. This was intolerable to Hegel—after all, the whole point of philosophy is to achieve union with reality, to escape the merely sensuous and finite and to come to know and be one with the supersensuous and infinite.

However, Hegel had no intention of trying to solve the epistemological puzzles about perception, concept-formation, and induction that had set Kant’s agenda, in order to show us how we might acquire knowledge of the noumenal. Instead, taking a cue from Johann Fichte, Hegel’s strategy was to assert boldly an identity of subject and object, thus closing the gap metaphysically.

On Kantian grounds, the subject is responsible for the form of awareness; but Kant was still enough of a realist to posit a noumenal reality that was the source of the content that our minds shape and structure. For Hegel, the realist element drops out entirely: the subject generates both content and form. The subject is in no way responsive to an external reality; instead, the whole of reality is a creation of the subject.

“In my view,” Hegel wrote at the beginning of the Phenomenology of Spirit, “which can be justified only by the exposition of the system itself, everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject”.[23] The Subject that Hegel had in mind is not the empirical, individual subject of traditional philosophy. The creative Subject that is also Substance is the universe as a whole (or God, or Spirit, or the Absolute), of which we individual subjects are mere portions. Realists had seen the universe as a whole as an object or set of objects within which there are some subjects. Hegel reversed that: the universe as a whole is a subject, and within the subject are objects. Such a bold posit solves a lot of problems.

We can get even more necessity and universality than Kant had given us. Hume had told us that we cannot get necessary and universal truths from reality. Kant, agreeing with Hume’s conclusion, had suggested that we supply necessity and universality from ourselves. That grounded necessity and universality, but at a price: since we supply them subjectively, we cannot be sure that they apply to reality. Hegel agreed with Kant that our minds supply necessity and universality, but said that all of reality is a product of mind, the Mind that contains all of our little minds within it. Since reality comes from us, we can know all of reality in all of its glorious necessity.

We can also get a universe that does not dehumanize us. Hegel argued that the realist and objectivist models had, by separating subject and object, inevitably led to mechanical and reductionist accounts of the self. By taking the everyday objects of empirical reality as the model and explaining everything in terms of them, they necessarily had to reduce the subject to a mechanical device. But if instead we start with the subject and not the object, then our model of reality changes significantly. The subject, we know from the inside, is conscious and organic, and if the subject is a microcosm of the whole, then applying its features to the whole generates a conscious and organic model of the world. Such a model of the world is much more hospitable to traditional values than the materialist and reductionist leanings of the Enlightenment.

Hegel could also claim to be more of an advocate of reason than Kant was. Reason, Kant, taught us, is fundamentally a creative function. And, Kant also taught us, it can know only its own phenomenal creations. But having asserted that reason creates all of reality, Hegel could offer us the very optimistic, Enlightenment-sounding conclusion that reason can know all of reality.


[23] Hegel 1807, 17.

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[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]

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