Hegel’s Logic as Metaphysics

[This is a post by Keith Mitchell.  It is part of the continuing series on Philosophy and Theology that current ThM students are entrenched in.  Enjoy!]

There are three common areas in philosophy that we have already discussed. Metaphysics asks, “what is?” Epistemology, “how do you know about what is?” and Ethics, “what should we be doing about it?” For Hegel the Metaphysical question of “what is?” can ultimately be understood as The Absolute Geist (aka Spirit or Mind). The essential stuff of what exists—the Geist—is non-material. The Geist got separated from itself and is now working back toward itself through history (this view of history retains a familiar Judeo-Christian progressive linearism).  What is more tangible than all imminent idea moving history forward?

The process the Absolute Geist takes through history is dialectic; working in the same manner as a rational and productive conversation (Hegel is all about synthesis whereas Kant was fine with the dualism). The interaction (between the thesis and antithesis) makes for clarification on a deeper level (synthesis), verses impasses and compromise. The result is a resolution to a higher place, not just another place.

But what gives the dialectic momentum and energy for movement? Because for something to be ultimate reality (the Absolute Geist), it must be self-sufficient, we cannot be responsible for dragging it along. This is where Hegel’s logic comes in. By logic I do not mean syllogistics, but the reason for a thing; in this case the reason for the dialectical movement of what ultimately is.

For Hegel there is no logical concept of ‘being,’ without ‘not being.’ Thus, A cannot be ~A (the little symbol just means “not”). But, and this is key, A can become ~A. For Hegel then, becoming is a more fundamental reality than being. Thus any given idea needs its opposite in order to first exist, and then to evolve. Each idea is not complete; having within it the potential for inherent contradictions.  All incomplete ideas give rise to an antithesis, which resolve into a synthesis. These contradictions are self-perpetuating. Thus, becoming is a dynamic process that works of its own accord and moves toward becoming more universal and concrete.

The final stage of the dialectic for the Geist is self-awareness. At this stage the Absolute will have no more antitheses inherent in it. All that exists will be harmoniously at one with itself. Individuals will finally experience true freedom since there will no longer be any areas of conflict. With it, there will be an end to the pattern of change. Hegel’s view is called “Absolute Idealism;” “Absolute” because it is encompassing everything, and “Idealism,” because the essential stuff of what exists (Geist) is non-material.  For Hegel, reality is rational and this is its logic.


Posted on October 12, 2010, in Metaphysics, Philosophical Theology, Th.M. Program and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. Keith, thanks for a very interesting summary of Hegel’s dialectical ontology. I’d be interested in hearing whether you find any of this to be of value in your own thinking? Do you think Hegel’s metaphysics offers anything of value for theology?

    • Hi Marc,

      The value I see in interacting with Hegel (as with most philosophers) is descriptive because it exposes me to issues and questions. As far as incorporating any of his philosophy into my Theology, no, I personally do not see any value in that. We only have so much time, and I want my theology to stem from exegesis alone.

  2. I don’t know much about Process theology (in which Open Theism is grounded) but by chance does it have roots in Hegelian thought? It sounds similar as it speaks of “becoming”.

    • Yes, I think it’s fair to say that process theology has its roots in Hegelian idealism (as filtered through later Hegelians and process philosophers).

      • Amen Marc,

        But even Kierkegaard had to fight with Hegel I think. German Hegelian idealism has been more of an influence on 20th century theology also: Wellhausen, Gunkel, also Von Rad. And even closer to us, with the good man, James Barr, though perhaps very little. Note Barr’s works on “Tradition”. But even Bultmann discovers the Heilsgeschehen, or saving event, as occurring whenever the kerygma is proclaimed to a person and is received in faith.

      • I’ve developed a growing appreciation over the last few years for how influential Hegel has been in setting the trajectory for modern theology. I think a strong argument can be made that Hegel’s emphasis on history and progress had a direct influence on Protestant liberal theology. I need to spend more time reflecting on the combination of Schleiermacher and Hegel together as setting the trajectory for much later theology.

      • Marc,

        You mentioned a desire to reflect more on “the combination” of Schleiermacher and Hegel “together” setting the trajectory for later theology. Are you referring to a level of collaboration between the two? I know Schleiermacher and Hegel both taught at Berlin at the same time, but I understand their relationship was a pretty cold one. As far as Hegel’s influence on theology, after the attempts of the left-wing and right-wing Hegelians, no one could do anything constructive with Hegel in the field of theology and so Ritschl went back to Schleiermacher’s Kantian approach. At that point, Hegelian thought went underground and, as far as I see it, did not seriously emerge in any significant way until process theology came on the scene in the late-twentieth century.

      • Danielle, that’s a great historical point. I did not mean to imply any intentional (or even unintentional) cooperation between the two. I was just wondering out loud whether I should give more credence to Hegel along with Schleiermacher in setting the trajectory for later theological developments. To give just two examples, Hegel’s emphasis on the primacy of “becoming” over “being” was certainly important in the 19th century and has played a huge role in modern theology, and Hegel’s idealism/pantheism helped put theological weight behind the deification of nature found in romanticism and common in much modern theology. Again, I’m just thinking out loud. I haven’t really given Hegel much of a role in the history of theology and I’m beginning to realize how inadequate that is.

  3. Good ole German Idealism, but a poor mate for biblical theology.

  4. Thanks Keith.

    William Lane Craig does a good job pointing out some of the weaknesses in Hegel’s thinking as applied to the “finite” and the “infinite” when speaking of God. Craig puts it well when he argues that God isn’t finite just because the world exists outside of himself.

    At the same time I appreciate Hegel’s both/and thinking because he points out the importance of living in the tension. I also appreciate that he places this process in the context of history/story/process. And although his eschatology isn’t necessarily Christian, his philosophy reminds me as a Christian that things will we good in the end. The socialist in me discretely rejoices. 😉



  5. I like that he holds the tension but it seems so arbitrary at times. I am not sure where he gets the idea that history has necessarily made progress. In some areas sure but with that we have stepped back as well. Every arena in which humans move forward causes us to move backward. So we advance technologically yet we revert ecologically. What justifies his system?

    • Andreas Lundén

      Hmm, didn’t necessarily refer to Hegel’s system. Rather, Hegel’s system challenges us to dig deeper in our own tradition. Themes like “story” and “perfection” certainly apply, but definitely can’t be equated with the way Hegel saw these developments. Make sense?

    • Keep in mind Hegel’s historical context. During this time, there is an almost pervasive sense of optimism and progress in nearly every field of endeavor. So, in its context, Hegel’s optimism was not terribly unusual.

  6. Thanks Keith for the great overview it really helped me understand Hegel’s system better.

    I have three questions so I am going to post three different times to break up my questions. So here is number one…

    I am wondering about the question of Hegel’s onto-theology (speculative philosophy). It seems in one of our readings entitled “Overcoming Onto-theology” from the book of the same name by Merold Westphal that Heidegger sees Hegel as the culmination of onto-theology (see also Westphal’s book, Transcendence and Self-Transcendence). Westphal believes that the focus for onto-theology is on “how” we say things about God (instead of “what” we say about God). On page 13 Westphal says, “Early and late, metaphysics is the forgetfulness of Being, and that theme is part of the critique of onto-theology.” This seems to be in line with the system that Keith described above, with the focus of Hegel being on “becoming” rather than “being”. But in other readings I have been reading today it seems Hegel still puts equal weight on the idea of Being but seems to not make a distinction between Being and beings? Is this a correct understanding?

  7. Question number two…

    Another question I have is how does Hegel allow God into his philosophy? Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology seems to be on the issue of revealing what is a mystery (unconcealing and concealment, Westphal, Transcendence and Self-Transcedence, pg. 77). Which from the outline above, given by Keith, is the result of Hegel’s dialectical analysis; Hegel wants to make reality fully intelligible to human thought. It seems then that what would follow from this thinking that God can only enter into philosophy when philosophy allows Him. Thus, the project of philosophy is to render the whole of reality intelligible to human thinking. Heidegger believes it is the pride of this project and the idea that God is only used as means to this end that he rejects Hegel’s onto-theology (ibid, pg. 75-80). Thus, Christianity then (I believe Hegel would say) is a revealed religion because in Christianity God is fully knowable but only when Christianity has been processed through his philosophy (Speculative philosophy). Is this a correct assessment?

  8. Last one…

    One question I have about Hegel’s “Absolute Geist” is what does it refer too? Does it refer to the mind or does it refer to spirit? Or are they interchangeable? Again in my readings this morning it seems sometimes Hegel refers to spirit as the “Absolute Geist” and then other times knowledge (and even other times there is talk of Absolute Being). Just kind of lost to what the proper referent is when Hegel speaks of “Absolute Geist?”

    • What does “Absolute Geist” refer too?

      Dico: First, I answer then explain.

      Absolute Geist seems to be God/Pure Mind/Pure Logic recovering (its perception of universal essence as pure Idea/Being) from it’s loss to nothingness when God first tried to think Himself

      Note: inconsistency marks precision in Hegel when seeking the answer to your questions. That being said here is the clearest explanation that I can give.

      Idea-in-itself (thesis)
      God-pure mind thus pure Being- tried to think Himself which is in-itself Absolute logic (thesis). Thinking pure Being is an impossible thought thus God thought ‘nothing’ (antithesis). In doing so God became alienated from Himself and began the eternal dialectic toward holistic self recovery.

      Idea-outside-itself (antithesis)
      Idea being thought outside itself is no longer an idea but the material world of particularities, a wordl called nature, a world opposite of geist/spirit

      Idea-for-itself (synthesis)
      This has the dialectic of three movements whose synthesis is Absolute Spirit

      Subjective spirit operates as mind expressing itself as soul in particularities of self-consciousness, an introversion (thesis)

      Objective spirit operates as mind opposing introversion and projects out creating nature (antithesis)

      Absolute Spirit (Geist) reconciles nature as universal consciousness of all self-conscious particulars move in unity of logical thought thus recovering pure Being as pure logic

      The absolute spirit comes
      (thesis) by way of art-Anshauung (thesis)-which is mind expressing essence or truth in the ‘form’ of intuition, here is where perfect freedom is found

      (antithesis) by way of religion-Vorstellung-which is mind expressing essence or truth in the ‘form’ of imagination or presentation, here is reverent religion

      (synthesis) by way philosophy-Begriff-which is mind expressing essence or truth in the ‘form’ of pure logical thought, here mind knows itself in abstract universality

      I hope that provides some relief 😉

  9. Andrew has asked some great questions above, but I think I’ll wait and see if anyone else wants to weigh in.

    Keith, I’m intrigued by your statement that you prefer to engage philosophy descriptively (rather than constructively) because you want your theology “to stem from exegesis alone.” I’m wondering if you could unpack that a bit more. If you mean that you want your theology to be grounded in exegesis, that would not seem to preclude constructive philosophical engagement. The early church would have said that the idea of “three persons in one nature” was fully grounded in exegesis, even though that construction relies heavily on the philosophical thought of the day. If, on the other hand, you want your theology to derive directly from your exegesis, I’m curious as to what you do with things like the three-in-one and the hypostatic union. Neither of those are directly products of exegesis, but are theological/philosophical constructs used to understand biblical data. Is this use of philosophy correct in your understanding, or is this an illegitimate intrusion of philosophy upon exegesis? (Also, if theology derives directly from exegesis in this way, what is it that distinguishes theology from exegesis? Wouldn’t they basically be the same thing?)

    • RE: earlier stupid careless statement.

      Hi Marc, I’m sorry, I can see why “to stem from exegesis alone,” is confusing. My point is that I want my theology to be birthed in exegesis—I want it to guide my searching and inquiry. I’m thinking about Melanchthon reacting to Catholicism and restarting with Romans, or Barth’s rejection of the liberal theologians of his day in which he did the same.
      I think part of the confusion is that we are using the term “constructive” differently. I’m not saying philosophy is not helpful. I do think an interaction with philosophy is very constructive (in your sense of the term). I’m using “constructive” in a more technical sense of constructing a system. I do not think theology should take whole parts of a philosophical system, which is based on reason, and insert them into theology, which is based on revelation.
      You referred to the early creedal statements as relying heavily on the philosophical thought of the day. In the early creedal statements I see the use of philosophical vocabulary to help explain things that philosophy could never comprehend, but I do not see them borrowing philosophical concepts. For example, they were not adopting a Neo-Platonic notion of Ultimate Being; nor did they borrow three persons in one nature—or the concept of the hypostatic union—from anyone’s philosophy.
      Some theologians’ incorporation of Kant’s deontological ethics further illustrates my concern. Scripture already makes claims about moral living. Why then would we want to take Kant’s ethical system—which was arrived at through reason alone—as an acceptable explanation of Biblical morality?

      • Thanks Keith, that’s a helpful clarification and (I think) a much better way of talking about exegesis in theology. And, I’m personally rather inclined toward the kind of ad hoc use of philosophy that you describe (and that Barth affirms). I’d be careful about thinking, though, that you can borrow philosophical vocabulary without also borrowing philosophical concepts. That almost never happens. Indeed, usually the only reason to borrow the vocabulary is because there was something about the philosophical concept that you found appealing. The trick is to appropriate the philosophical concept without other (more problematic) aspects of the respective philosophical system tagging along for the ride.

        So, that gets me back to my original question. Is there anything in Hegel’s way of doing philosophy that you find interesting? Do you find anything that you think is helpful for doing theology, or do you think it’s pretty much worthless for anything other than understanding the history of ideas?

      • Thanks Marc for your response, I was really looking forward to it—this is so stimulating and productive! But, I don’t think I’ll be able to respond to your first paragraph without a few concrete examples.

        As for the second paragraph, I find Hegel’s way of doing philosophy very interesting in an historical kind of way. Liberal theologians are the ones that borrow such ideas, and I’m not there yet. But then again Liberal Theologians are the ones that believe God reveals himself imminently.

        P.S. If Melanchthon, Calvin, and Turretin can do without Hegel, then there is still hope for me.

      • My first point is really the same point that Westphal makes in his argument (though I didn’t notice it until I reviewed the article last night) when he says that Heidegger “is warning her that the language she is about to adopt for expressing that faith is dangerous, that it comes from a land foreign to that faith, and that in its native habitat it is part of a project antithetical to that faith. Appropriation of some sort may be unavoidable, but it is always dangerous.” (p. 9) Any philosophical term/concept comes already embedded in a worldview that is often (usually) a-Christian a best. Appropriating that term/concept for philosophical use can be very valuable, but it comes with risk. For example, when the early church adopted the term “Logos” to describe Christ, they ran the risk of bringing along all sorts of philosophical baggage (particularly from stoicism). They would never have done this intentionally, indeed they sought to transform the term by filling it with biblical-theological meaning from Genesis and the rest of the OT. Nonetheless, it was a term that had a well-developed, philosophical meaning in its cultural context and its use ran the risk (sometimes fulfilled, sometimes avoided) of bringing that philosophical baggage into one’s theological system. I don’t think this is an argument for avoiding philosophy in theology, but I do think it’s an argument for doing so carefully and with full awareness of the potential pitfalls. (Since I think everyone does philosophy at some level, the only real alternative is to do so unintentionally and carelessly).

        By the way, I have to say that I don’t find much terribly valuable in Hegel for theology either. Much of what I do appreciate (his emphasis on history, his penchant for finding transcendent commonality in areas of apparent discord, etc.), I can get from other, less problematic, sources. So, in general, I also study Hegel for primarily historical/descriptive purposes. I always recommend looking closely at a philosopher to see if there is something that can be learned – even (perhaps especially) when that philosopher is someone with whom you have strong disagreement. But, there does come a time when you have to conclude that you’re just not interested in what he/she is selling.

      • Marc, thank you so much for agreeing with me. I guess you were just playing devil’s advocate all along.

      • I really wasn’t trying to play devil’s advocate (though I often do). If I wanted to do that I’d have to try and argue that Hegel really has value for constructive theology today. I’m sure that someone could make such an argument, but I’m not interested enough to give it a try myself. Of course, I generally don’t tip my hand in what I think about a particular philosopher/theologian until the discussion has gone a ways so that I don’t shortcut the conversation. But, I was really just trying to understand what you thought of Hegel and what you were saying about how philosophy and theology are related.

    • RE: The Value of Hegel to Theology

      Perhaps Hegel provides a splendid opportunity for a contrast experience that responds with mystery, faith, and worship. That is where Westphal, Marion, Levinas, Desmond, Caputo, Benson etc seem to go.

      For me, Hegel’s totalization of God within the gulag of the post-enlightenment human mind causes at first revulsion (thesis) then emergence of a desire for otherwise than being/becoming Ecclesiastes 3:11 (antithesis). For that I am thank-full (synthesis) 😉

  10. I think that Hegel is certainly the most fun of all the philosophers, his dialectic especially. It has so many uses. For example, if you take fine dining as thesis and potluck as its antithesis you come up with BarBQ. Extraordinary, and tasty. Even in church history it opens the door for all sorts of meaning. What is the reformation and its resulting Protestantism if not the synthesis of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy? Brilliant.

    • Andrew did have some fantastic questions and I don’t want to take away from them. However, I feel compelled to respond to Adam’s post.

      It is rather obvious in reading Hegel that his concept of Geist is not the Holy Spirit as mention in the Scriptures. Non-the-less I believe Hegel stumbled upon one of the Holy Spirit’s methods. Hegel wrote about a thesis-antithesis coming to a positive synthesis for government and even humanity itself. He choose the losing team. While the governments of this world are destined to fail, the church is destined to overcome.

      We can see Hegel’s thesis-antithesis coming to a positive synthesis in the work of the Holy Spirit on a grand scale. The theologically centric apostolic church interacted with the unified Roman Empire and ended up with a positive outcome, the Roman Catholic church (the church made gains in theology and unity). Next, the Catholic church interacted backwards with the apostolic church (and not sideways with the Orthodox church, as Adam suggested) and produced the positive outcome of Protestantism (a new deeper synthesis of theology and practice). Next, Protestantism split and migrated to America establishing a new form Protestantism, government-free. This split continued to interact with the older form of European national Christianity until the new synthesis of a worldwide international church came into being with deeper theology and more unity than ever before. Next…?

      • Steve, you are on the right track. In fact, we have seen this positive synthesis quite recently in the history of the church. This took place when the liberals (thesis) battled it out with Barth (antithesis) and formed the newer and better evangelicalism that we all know and love today.

  11. The logic differs but the result is always one in the study of meta physics. Thank you for the valuable post.

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