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Absolute idealism

Schelling and the “philosophy of identity”

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling.(Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling.)

At the very end of the 18th century, Friedrich W. J. Schelling, a young German philosopher claiming to be first of Fichte, wrote a series of works which influenced the doctrine of his master. In particular, he grants a positive status to “Nature”, interpreted no longer as a simple negation of the “I” but as the objective pole of the “Spirit”, its external manifestation. Then, from 1798, the date on which he published On the World Soul, he abandoned the Fichtean project of founding the real, based on the subjective principle of the “Absolute Self”, to constitute his own philosophy, in direct connection with the romantic movement, the German nature philosophy and mysticism of this period.

The whole project of the first Schelling was to reconcile Kantianism and the thought of Fichte with that of Spinoza, by revealing the two faces of the Absolute which are spirit and nature. Faced with the failure of this attempt, Schelling then undertook to “naturalize” the Fichtean philosophy of the Ego by attributing to the object itself – nature – an activity of self-generation. Proceeding by deduction, it places the conditions of possibility of concrete experience in its self-construction and establishes the absolute “Identity” of nature and spirit. This identity results in complete symmetry between them, as well as between their various variations. It leads to making one the negative of the other at the level of appearances. Thus, “nature is the invisible spirit, the spirit the invisible nature.” But these two principles are actually one. I and not-I, subject and object, phenomenon and thing-in-itself reabsorb themselves into this fundamental unity that reason can only grasp by splitting it up, by “dialectizing” it.

Joining in this the neo-Platonic tradition, Schelling envisages the reality of the world as an essential undifferentiated unit; there is therefore no reason, according to him, to oppose the ideal world and the real world. Spirit and nature are but two sides of one and the same being, the “One”, the Absolute. This is neither subject nor object, neither spirit nor nature, but the identity or indifference of their oppositions. In the depths of things there is the Absolute, which is the indifferent identity of subject and object; at the summit of philosophy there is the intellectual intuition of this Absolute, by which is understood the prelogical identity of subject and object. It is from the Absolute, first reason (Grund) of all things, itself unfathomable by common reason and inaccessible to consciousness, that arises the bipolarity of consciousness and the split between nature and spirit. Although apparently contradictory, the two objective and subjective poles of consciousness coexist and develop in parallel, thereby manifesting their profound identity and the perfect coincidence of nature with the spirit. Such a relationship explains that the “rhythm” of nature – its organization and development – is the same as that of the mind, and that it is always “logical” or “ideal” (according to reason).

The thesis of spirit-nature identity within the Absolute is referred to by Schelling as the “philosophy of Identity”. This philosophy falls under “German idealism” in the sense that, as with Fichte and Hegel, it leads to “idealizing” the world. However, having recourse neither to Fichte’s “Absolute Self”, nor to the God of theology, nor even to the living nature of pantheistic philosophy, Schelling makes the apparent ideality of the world the consequence of a more fundamental principle from which comes all spirit but which is not itself a spirit.

Hegel and “speculative philosophy”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel(Portrait of Hegel, dated 1831.)

It was with G. W. F. Hegel that absolute idealism took on a systematic aspect that would leave a lasting mark on European philosophical thought. Initially close to that of Schelling, with his theses of subject-object identity and of the unique basis of existence, Hegel’s idealism ends up moving away from it significantly by relegating the subject and the object to the side of abstractions to go beyond, and by adopting a fundamentally intellectualist approach. In this way, he deviates as much from classical ontology and its childish realism as from the “metaphysics of subjectivity” based on an “I think” (Cogito), and he announces contemporary attempts (neo-Freudian, post-Wittgensteinian) to grasp psychological reality as a “it thinks”, that is, as a mental process independent of the “me”.

In Hegel, absolute idealism is conceived as concrete thought going beyond the old conceptual oppositions. It is supposed to present the only solution to the problem posed by the fact that reality itself, contrary to what Kant believed, is ultimately knowable and comprehensible, and always is as a whole. While the solution to the problem of knowledge of the real had hitherto only been envisaged on the basis of a theory of knowledge, it is announced with Hegel as a metaphysical truth consisting in the identification of being (or reality) and thought. In fact, for an understanding of reality to be possible, the real must be able to submit to an explanatory principle, and must in this sense be identical to thought. Moreover, the necessarily logical character of the world, entirely subject to the formal rules of thought, can only be explained by the fact that it shares with the latter the same ideal (or intellectual) nature. This is why, for Hegel, “true philosophy” is possible only insofar as it presupposes that being is the same thing as thought, and it is in this sense that we must understand his famous sentence: “all true philosophy is an idealism”.

Hegel’s Absolute Idealism claims to contain the demonstration of the unity of being and thought using a new philosophical method called “speculative”, which demands new concepts and rules of logic including contradiction and movement. According to Hegel, “Reason”, the principle of all things, essentially consists of a contradictory and totalizing dynamic, a general historical and dialectical process which produces new and ever more complex forms of being and of consciousness. This dynamic is both that of “Spirit” and that of “Nature”. It engenders all the effective diversity of the world and forms the “Concept” by which we think of it and grasp it in meaning. It unfolds through a story described as an orderly process of self-revelation of the Spirit which must lead to an absolute self-awareness, and to the perfect identity of thought with the whole being.

“Absolute Monism” in Britain

In the British academic context, in particular English, “absolute monism” designates a current of “British idealism” generally claiming a form of “neo-Hegelianism”, although the dialectical method of Hegel is neglected there, even disputed. This philosophical current developed during the second half of the 19th century. British idealism as a whole reached its peak at the beginning of the 20th century and then entered a period of decline, until its almost total disappearance in the 1940s in favor of analytical philosophy. It is the monistic tendency of British idealism that will be most severely criticized by the precursors of analytic philosophy, Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore in the lead.

Bernard Bosanquet(Bernard Bosanquet is the originator of the “coherentist” conception of truth, which he identifies with experience understood in its entirety.)

The main figure of the first generations of British idealists is F. H. Bradley. He reasons in Appearance and Reality from the principle of non-contradiction: what is contradictory cannot be. Bradley then reveals the contradictions contained in our ordinary conception of reality, when we believe that reality is composed of objects independent of each other and independent of our experience of them. For him, pluralism and realism, philosophical extensions of this ordinary conception, have contradictory consequences and must be rejected in favor of the idea that “reality is one” and that it is both “thought” and ” experience”. As soon as the mind is conceived as the process by which the “Absolute” is accomplished, the subjective and the objective are no longer separated by representations but become the differentiations of an overall unity. Bradley supports in this sense a “monism” and an “absolute idealism”, claimed as such by him, although his doctrine does not fit directly into the tradition of Hegelianism.

Bradley’s idealism, as well as that of other British monist idealists, must be clearly distinguished from the subjective idealism of a Berkeley or a Fichte. Indeed, in its idealistic sense, monism has the consequence that experience is not a representation for a subject that would be thought of as an entity outside of this same experience; there would then be no more “monism.” One of the two terms of the subject-object relation must therefore disappear, and Bradley clearly states that one “must abandon the idea of ​​a self which would be of itself or which could be real”. Like Bradley, absolute monists reject all pluralisms and all dualisms, seeking to demonstrate that there cannot be absolute ontological divisions, such as those established between mind and nature, between the thinking subject and the thought object, between oneself and others.

Absolute monism is supported for the first time explicitly by Bernard Bosanquet, who also seems to be the first to have identified, from its first publication in 1883, the truth with experience in its entirety (as a system), identification that he will resume under the saying “the truth is all”41. Bosanquet is thus at the origin of the theory of truth-coherence, implicit in Bradley, and of which a slightly different version will be defended by Harold Joachim36 in 1906 in The Nature of Truth. From the turn of the 20th century, absolute monism was the subject of much criticism from a third generation of British idealists. Some of them, such as J. M. E. McTaggart, reject its “monistic” conclusions, adopting instead a “pluralistic” and “personalistic” (or individualistic) approach to reality.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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