Hegel and the Transformation of Philosophical Critique

By William F. Bristow | Go to book overview

Introduction

Whether, or to what extent, Hegel's system of philosophy regresses to the dogmatic rational metaphysics that Kant had effectively criticized in his Critique of Pure Reason is one of the central perennial issues about Hegel's thought. Undeniably, Hegel makes bold claims on behalf of reason, in conscious defiance of the limits Kant famously draws. According to Kant's critical limits, human reason cannot achieve knowledge beyond the bounds of possible experience, and hence knowledge of reason's special objects in metaphysics (of God, of the soul, of the size, age, or causal ground of the world as a whole) is impossible for us. Kantian criticism consists in the self–limitation of human reason. Hegel, in contrast, claims for his system what he calls ‘absolute’ knowledge, (or also ‘knowledge of the absolute’). Instead of limiting itself, reason finally attains in Hegel's system of thought perfectly adequate knowledge of that which it has in the history of metaphysics forever been attempting to know. Hegel presents his system as the complete fulfillment of reason's age–old ambitions.1 While so much is undeniable, readers are sharply divided in their responses to Hegel's apparently transgressive metaphysics.

If Hegel's thought has been largely absent in the tradition of Anglo– American analytic philosophy over the last century, this is to a great extent due to the widespread perception that his thought is ‘extravagantly’ metaphysical. In a tradition of philosophy marked by its hostility to metaphysics in general, Hegel's talk of ‘the Absolute’, ‘Spirit’, ‘the Subject’, ‘the Negative’, etc.—all usually capitalized in English translations—has been read as so untied to epistemological constraints as to be nonsense. Hegel acquired the reputation as an unregenerate speculative metaphysician, complacently unconcerned with issues of epistemological justification. Consequently Hegel's thought

1 Hegel writes in the Introduction to his Science of Logic that its ‘content is the exposition of God as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of nature and the finite mind’ (Hegel, WL, vol. 5, 44/50). (For the manner in which I refer to the texts of Hegel and of Kant, please see the section entitled ‘Abbreviations’.)

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