Was Absolute Idealism invented in the 19th century?
Absolute Idealism is often viewed as a creature of the 19th century, created by the post-Kantian German Idealists. A typical example of this view can be found in The Routledge Dictionary of Philosophy: "Absolute idealism developed after Kant, notably with Hegel, and was popular in Britain from about 1865 to 1925. It takes many forms, but its central point is that there is only one ultimately real thing, the Absolute, which is spiritual in nature. Other things are partial aspects of this, or illusory appearances generated by it. Here idealism becomes a form of MONISM. The Absolute is so called because it alone does not depend on or presuppose anything and does not have its properties relative to something else." (Proudfoot & Lacey 2010: 173)
The substantive definition of Absolute Idealism given by the Routledge Dictionary is in itself – in all its brevity – quite adequate and instructive. But its historical claim that "Absolute idealism developed after Kant, notably with Hegel" is a flagrant case of historical myopia (or Eurocentrism, if you will). To be sure, the term "Absolute Idealism" originated with the post-Kantian German Idealists, who self-applied it in order to characterize their philosophy in contradistinction to Kant's Critical Idealism. But the philosophical point of view indicated by that term – the belief in a spiritual Absolute as the ultimate ground or essence of reality – is much older. In fact, it is as old as philosophy itself.
If we want to find the true origin of Absolute Idealism – or at least its oldest recorded manifestation – we have to leave the West behind and journey not only deeper into the past but also further to the East, namely, to India in the 8th to 5th centuries BCE. This was a crucial period in human history, the so called Axial Age (Karl Jaspers), when from Greece to China independent rational thought first broke free from the bondage of traditional religious dogmas and myths. In India this step was accomplished by the anonymous sages behind the Upanishads as they began to rationalize the polytheistic mythology of the Hindu religion, as expressed in the Vedas, into a philosophical monotheism.
The result was the world's first full-blown system – or rather family of systems – of Absolute Idealism, precisely as defined above by the Routledge Dictionary: an Idealistic Monism recognizing only one 'thing' as ultimately real, the Absolute, which is spiritual in nature, and of which all other things are partial aspects or illusory appearances. As Radhakrishnan notes, "the general spirit of Indian thought", of which the Upanishads are the original source, "has a disposition to interpret life and nature in the way of monistic idealism, though this tendency is so plastic, living and manifold that it takes many forms and expresses itself in even mutually hostile teachings." (Radhakrishnan 1989: 32) At the end of this post, I will return to the different forms taken by this Idealistic Monism which is pervasive in Indian thought. First, however, we will take a closer look at the central ideas of the Absolute Idealism expressed in the Upanishads.
Brahman, the Vedantic Absolute
Those unfamiliar with Indian philosophy may be forgiven for never having heard of Hindu Absolute Idealism, since the terminology commonly used in relation to it is so very different. The resulting philosophical system (or rather family of such systems) is not usually known as Absolute Idealism but rather as Vedanta, literally meaning "end / culmination of the Vedas". Likewise for the spiritual Absolute as the ground of all reality, which in the Vedanta is known as Brahman – a term of unclear etymological origin, supposedly deriving from a Sanskrit root meaning "to grow, to burst forth". In the older Vedas "Brahman" meant primarily mantra or ritual prayer. It was only later, at the time of the earliest Upanishads, that the term came to indicate the object of prayer, that which is invoked by the prayer, the growing force underlying and permeating the universe (cf. Keith 1989: 445; Radhakrishnan 1989: 163, n.1).
Exactly how and why this semantic transition from "Brahman" as mantra to "Brahman" as the Absolute occurred is an interesting question which I will investigate in a following post. Let us now simply note that through this transition "Brahman" came to stand for the Absolute qua unconditioned ground of all reality (cf. Radhakrishnan 1953: 66). Brahman is that which explains all reality and which as such cannot be explained by anything other than itself. It is "that which, being known, everything else becomes known" (Mundaka Upanishad: 672). It is "the self-caused" (Katha Upanishad: 630; Svetasvatara Upanishad: 747). It "created itself by itself" (Taittiriya Upanishad: 549). And as such it is not relative to anything else but is "one without a second" (Chandogya Upanishad: 447-8).
To appreciate the revolutionary novelty of such an all-inclusive explanatory approach to reality, we only have to take a look at classical Greek philosophy. There anything comparable to the Vedantic notion of Brahman emerged only many centuries later in the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, whose concept of the One points to a similarly self-creating Absolute. (There is even some evidence suggesting that Plotinus was influenced by the Vedanta; see Bréhier 1985.) Thus the Plotinian One represented a revolutionary development in Greek philosophy, where the existence of reality had always been taken for granted as unproblematic, as needing no explanation.
This can be seen from the fact that neither Plato's Demiurge nor Aristotle's Unmoved Mover presents us with an all-creating Deity. Leibniz’s famous question “Why is there something rather than nothing” simply did not occur to the ancient Greeks. They probably would have rejected that question as nonsensical. This has a lot to do with the fact that the Greeks simply had no conception of absolute nothingness (what philosophers nowadays call the "null state" in which nothing at all exists), which is reflected in the fact that they did not have the mathematical concept of zero either. For the Greeks it was simply unimaginable that the universe might not have existed.
The role of nothingness in late Vedic thought
The situation was very different in ancient India. There an acute philosophical awareness of the ontological possibility of absolute nothingness was already well in place before 1000 BCE, as testified by the famous Hymn of Creation (from the Rig Veda) which begins by describing the state preceding the creation of the universe: "Non-being then existed not nor being" (Radhakrishnan & Moore 1957: 23). As to why the ancient Indian mind, in contrast to the classical Greek mind, was so much more alive to the ontological possibility of nothingness we can only speculate. One reasonable speculation is that the explanation lies in the practice of meditation in ancient India (first termed "yoga" in the Upanishads), which had no counterpart in classical Greece. The "emptiness of consciousness" attained in meditation may very well have been the experiential source of the Indian concept of nothingness.
The inward turn of the Upanishads
The ancient Indian mind, in its acknowledgement of the (paradoxical) possibility of nothingness and its subsequent search for the explanation of reality as such, was remarkably modern – more so than classical Greek thought. In a way the Upanishadic sages anticipated Leibniz's rationalist Principle of Sufficient Reason, according to which there is an explanation for every fact, including the fact of reality's existence. The ancient Indian sages were the first philosophers in the world to feel this need to explain everything, as witnessed by their revolutionary postulation of Brahman as the self-causing cause of all reality. Thus the nagging questions raised in the Hymn of Creation – what preceded the creation of the universe? why and how did that creation occur? – received answers in the Upanishadic period.
The answers, we must stress, followed from a decisive new turn in Indian thought: the turn inwards, towards the mystery of human self-awareness as the key to the mystery of the cosmos. As Radhakrishnan writes: "When we pass from the Vedic hymns to the Upanishads we find that the interest shifts from the objective to the subjective, from the brooding on the wonder of the outside world to the meditation on the significance of the self. The human self contains the clue to the interpretation of nature." (Radhakrishnan 1953: 49)
Atman, the Universal Knower
Why did the Upanishadic sages make this inward turn? Why did they single out the human self as holding the key to the nature of the Absolute? As I will show in a following post, this is a very intriguing question that is not easily answered. Part of the story has to do with epistemology. For one of the things that impressed the Upanishadic sages in the self is its epistemological aspect, i.e. the relation of the self to sense experience and knowledge. We already noted how the Upanishads are remarkably modern in their anticipation of Leibniz's Principle of Sufficient Reason and the concomitant question why there is something rather than nothing – a question that did not arise for the ancient Greeks. This remarkable modernity of the Upanishads also comes to the fore in the sharp awareness the Upanishadic sages had of the epistemological centrality of the self, insofar as they stressed the thoroughgoing dependence of objective empirical reality on the conscious subject to whom this reality appears. In this way the Upanishads anticipated the epistemological Idealism of modern philosophers such as Berkeley, Kant and Husserl. Much like the Kantian transcendental subject, the Vedantic Brahman was conceptualized as the universal Knower, the universal subject underlying all experience, thinking and knowledge.
Here the contrast with classical Greek philosophy is again instructive. The historian of ancient Greek philosophy M.F. Burnyeat (1982) has famously argued that epistemological Idealism was entirely absent in ancient Greece. He pointed out that although there certainly was epistemological skepticism in Greek philosophy (though mostly in its post-Classical, Hellenistic period), this skepticism never went so far as to doubt – let alone deny – the existence of an external reality (i.e. a reality independent from our consciousness of it). According to Burnyeat, such thoroughgoing skepticism became possible only after Descartes' cogito ergo sum argument, which placed the evidential basis for all certainty firmly within our consciousness and its representations ("ideas", "Vorstellungen") – representations from which the evidence for an external reality then had to be reconstructed. Only after this Cartesian turn to consciousness had been taken did it become possible for philosophers to deny the existence of any reality beyond our consciousness and thus for modern Idealism to arise.
But Burnyeat's thesis is expressly limited to Western philosophy. The situation in ancient Indian philosophy was, again, very different from early on. As we have seen, there something very much like the Cartesian turn to the subject had already been accomplished in the Upanishads with its inward turn, when the human self was chosen as the preferred model for understanding the nature of Brahman. And as said, what impressed the Upanishadic sages in the human self was partly its epistemological aspect, i.e. the fact that the self is presupposed by every experience, thought and feeling. A sensory experience is always experienced by a self; a thought is always thought by a self; a feeling is always felt by a self... But since, according to the Upanishadic sages, there is in truth only one Self, the universal Atman which is Brahman, they concluded that this Self must be the universal subject underlying all cognition.
In this way the Upanishadic concept of Atman came surprisingly close to the Kantian conception of the transcendental subject which underlies and unifies all individual acts of knowledge. Thus Brahman became "the knower of all" (cf. Mandukya Upanishad: 697; Svetasvatara Upanishad: 747), the universal "seer of seeing", "hearer of hearing", "thinker of thinking", "understander of understanding" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 220), the universal "witness" (Svetasvatara Upanishad: 746). The famous Vedantic scholar Shankara (ca. 788 – 820 CE) likewise calls Brahman "the witness of all experiences" (1975: 83). This means that reality is effectively reduced to an experience of Brahman, since the latter is also the cause of everything, the Absolute underlying all reality. That is to say: reality exists only insofar as it appears to Brahman, i.e. insofar as it is seen, heard, smelled, understood (and so on) by Brahman. With this step the Absolute Idealism of the Upanishads becomes complete: reality is nothing but a mental construct created by Brahman.
Pantheism vs. acosmism in the Vedanta
It is, however, in relation to this question – How does empirical reality relate to the single Brahman? – that considerable differences emerge in the Upanishads and also in later developments of the Vedanta. This is why, as noted earlier, the Upanishads do not present a single system of Absolute Idealism but rather a family of such systems. The Upanishads do not at all speak in one voice. Although all start out from the basic identity "Brahman is Atman", different strands in the Upanishads unpack this identity in different ways. Two basic strands or families can be distinguished: (1) the acosmic strand in which empirical reality is declared to be an illusion, since only the object-less consciousness which is Brahman exists, and (2) the pantheistic strand in which the reality of the empirical world is fully recognized and subsequently explained as an expression or manifestation of the consciousness which is Brahman.
This difference turns on how the consciousness which is Brahman is conceived: as self-consciousness or rather as object-less consciousness? Each view is associated with the name of a legendary Upanishadic sage. The first view, mainly associated with the sage Uddalaka, lays more stress on the self-hood of Brahman, viewing its consciousness as essentially self-consciousness. The other view, mainly associated with the sage Yajnavalkya, downplays the self-hood of Brahman and views its consciousness as essentially object-less and thus not as consciousness of a self at all, but rather as an empty consciousness, a pure consciousness without an object. Yajnavalkja appears prominently in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Uddalaka in the Chandogya Upanishad – the two oldest Upanishads, dating roughly from the 7th to 6th centuries BCE.
These different views have different implications for the relation of Brahman to the empirical world, the universe. The view associated with Uddalaka, which stresses that Brahman is essentially self-conscious, tends to see that relation as one of expression and participation: the universe is a progressive manifestation of Brahman, who gradually expresses himself (or rather itself) in the universe, reaching its fullest manifestation only in those sages who – through mystical intuition – finally realize their unity with Brahman. This family of views, then, tends to pantheism, the identification of the universe with (part of) Brahman. As Arthur Keith notes in his classic study The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads: "The pantheistic view is undoubtedly present in the many passages in which the development of the world from the absolute [sic] is expressed in metaphors: thus in the metaphor of the spider from which the thread proceeds, or the fire whence come forth the sparks. Often too the Atman is declared to pervade the whole of the universe, it is likened to the lump of salt which in water disappears, indeed, but leaves all pervaded by it [...]." (Keith 1989: 523)
The latter metaphor, of the salt dissolved in water, occurs in the celebrated dialogue of Uddalaka with his son Svetaku in the Chandogya Upanishad: "'Place this salt in the water and come to me in the morning.' Then he did so. Then he said to him, 'That salt you placed in the water last evening, please bring it hither.' Having looked for it he found it not, as it was completely dissolved. / 'Please take a sip of it from this end.' He said, 'How is it?' 'Salt!' 'Take a sip from the other end. How is it?' 'Salt!' 'Throw it away and come to me.' He did so. It is always the same. Then he said to him, 'Verily, indeed, my dear, you do not perceive Pure Being here. Verily, indeed, it is here. / That which is the subtle essence this world has for its self. That is the true. That is the self. That art thou, Svetaku.'" (Chandogya Upanishad: 463)
On Uddalaka's view, then, as the salt pervades the water, so the Atman pervades the entire universe. Brahman qua Atman is therefore not just the efficient cause of the universe but also its material cause, the 'subtle essence' of which everything is made. On the pantheist view, Brahman qua Atman is immanent to the universe. Other metaphors used to express this relation of the Atman to the universe invoke images of production, like sound coming from a flute: "As a spider sends forth and draws in its thread, as herbs grow on the earth, as the hair grows on the head and the body of a living person, so from the Imperishable arises here the universe... As from a blazing fire, sparks of like form issue forth by the thousands, even so, O beloved, many kinds of beings issue forth from the Immutable and they return thither too." (Mundaka Upanishad: 673, 680)
The other strand, associated with Yajnavalkya, stressing the object-less nature of Brahman as pure consciousness, tends rather to acosmism, the view that the existence of empirical reality is no more than an illusion, because in reality only Brahman qua pure consciousness exists. As Keith notes: "The theory which postulated an Atman of no real content [...] was the theory of Yajnavalkya. [I]t lays stress on the three propositions that (1) the Atman is the knowing self, is the subject of cognition; (2) that as such it can never be an object of knowledge of any sort; and (3) that beyond the Atman there is no reality at all, as it is the sole reality." (Keith 1989: 512) It is easy to see that from these propositions it follows that on Yajnavalkya's view reality is at bottom a void, an empty consciousness.
As the subject underlying all cognition, the Atman cannot itself ever be an object of consciousness. Yajnavalkya makes this crucial point in the famous dialogue with his wife Maitreya on the nature and (un)knowability of Brahman: "For where there is duality as it were, there one smells another, there one sees another, there one hears another, there one speaks to another, there one thinks of another, there one understands another. Where, verily, everything has become the Self, then by what and to whom should one speak, then by what and on whom should one think, then by what and whom should one understand? By what should one know that by which all this is known? By what, my dear, should one know the knower?" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 201)
On Yajnavalkya's view, then, the Atman cannot even be described as conscious of itself. The Atman is not self-consciousness but rather consciousness as such, pure consciousness without an object. This is reinforced by the other claim that nothing exists besides the Atman; so in effect there really is nothing for the Atman to be conscious of, since in truth there is no subject-object duality. This leads to the paradoxical result that once we attain insight into the true nature of Brahman, all differentiated reality disappears before our mind's eye as an illusion and what remains is just the reality of empty consciousness. It seems clear that this view, attributed to Yajnavalkya, anticipated much of what Buddhism would later say concerning consciousness and the emptiness of reality.
Later this difference between the acosmic and pantheist strands in the Upanishads became codified in the opposition between the Non-Dual (Advaita) Vedanta of Shankara (ca. 788 – 820 CE) on the one hand and the Qualified Non-Dual (Vishishtadvaita) Vedanta of Ramanuja (1017 – 1137 CE) on the other. Shankara, who accepts acosmism, sees only Brahman Nirguna (i.e. Brahman without any qualities) as fully real, explaining the empirical universe as an illusion (maya) arising from individual ignorance (avidya). As Radhakrishnan dramatically notes: "According to Shankara, it is some monstrous deformity of our vision that makes us see what is really one as if it were many." (Radhakrishnan 1997: 521 – my italics, PS) Ramanuja, by contrast, subscribes to the pantheist view and sees the universe as fully real, explaining it as the body of Brahman: as individual selves stand to their bodies, expressing and manifesting themselves therein, so Brahman stands to the universe as a whole.
Reception of Vedantic Idealism in the West
As noted earlier, the Upanishadic concept of Atman as the Universal Knower is surprisingly close to the Kantian conception of the transcendental subject which underlies and unifies all individual acts of knowledge. It is therefore not surprising that when the first translations of the Upanishads became available in the West during the early nineteenth century, the closeness of the Upanishadic philosophy to the dominant philosophy of the age – Kantian Idealism – was quickly noticed. Schopenhauer, in particular, stressed that the Upanishads had effectively anticipated Kant's philosophy, which in his view "leads to just the same result by a different path" (1958: vol. II, 475). This closeness to Kantian Idealism was also stressed by Paul Deussen, a renowned Indologist and admirer of Schopenhauer. Deussen even claimed that Kant's Critique of Pure Reason gave "the true scientific foundation of the Vedanta system" (1912: 55).
However, this comparison of the Vedanta to Kantian Idealism was not a very happy one. Kant, after all, still retained an unknowable "thing-in-itself" outside of all consciousness; the transcendental subject merely constructs empirical reality by imposing its order (time, space, causality etc.) on the raw sensory data caused by the thing-in-itself. In the Vedanta, however, nothing exists apart from Brahman, the self-causing cause of all reality. So there is no thing-in-itself to occasion the experiences witnessed by Brahman; somehow all these experiences flow from Brahman itself. Thus the Vedanta stands much closer to the post-Kantian Idealisms of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, who did away with Kant's concept of the thing-in-itself which they took to be illogical. After all, if the thing-in-itself is unknowable, how then can we know about its existence? And if causality is just a subjective form imposed on sensory data, as Kant said, how then can the thing-in-itself be the cause of those data? Hence the rejection of Kant's thing-in-itself by Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. It was precisely this abolition of the thing-in-itself that turned their Idealism into Absolute Idealism, insofar as the transcendental subject remained as the sole existent and sole source of empirical reality, i.e. as the Absolute.
It is true that Schopenhauer, too, rejected Kant's notion of the thing-in-itself as being illogical. But his pessimistic Idealism, where reality is in essence nothing but a "blind Will to Life" which is eternally at war with itself, is a far cry from the Vedantic view of Brahman as supreme bliss – a view that is essentially optimistic. For Schopenhauer, ultimate deliverance meant just the cessation of all willing and thereby of all suffering – an essentially negative doctrine owing much more to Buddhism than to the Vedanta. In the Vedanta, deliverance is a supremely positive experience: participation in the bliss which is Brahman. It is a bit strange, therefore, that insofar as the Vedanta was taken up by 19th century German Idealists, these were primarily Kantian Idealists of a Schopenhauerian bend. To the Absolute Idealists – Fichte, Schelling, Hegel – the Vedanta was virtually unknown (Hegel doesn't even mention the Upanishads in his discussion of Indian Philosophy in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy), even though it fitted their philosophy much better than Schopenhauer's.
It seems likely that Schopenhauer's early appropriation of Indian philosophy prejudiced other Idealists against the latter, as it reinforced the impression that Indian philosophy was essentially nihilistic and effectively coincided with Buddhism. Professional recognition of the closeness of the Vedanta to Absolute Idealism came only during the first decades of the 20th century, notably through the work of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who introduced the Vedanta into the cultural circles of British Idealism (cf. Mander 2011: 537-8). By that time, however, British Idealism itself was already on the wane, due to the onslaught of Analytic Philosophy. The professional recognition of the Vedanta as a form of Absolute Idealism was therefore short-lived: it disappeared from academic view together with Absolute Idealism...
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