Thursday, January 18, 2018

Why I like Absolute Idealism but dislike Hegel (and love Plotinus)

Readers of this blog will probably know that I have a thing for Absolute Idealism. One of the things I like about it is the neat answer it gives to Leibniz’ famous question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Absolute Idealism can be summarized as the claim that everything exists because it is thought and/or experienced by an Absolute Mind, which in turn exists because It thinks/experiences itself. Thus, the Absolute Mind constitutes its own existence by being conscious of itself, and should therefore be defined as Absolute Self-Consciousness. According to Absolute Idealism, then, there is something, rather than nothing, because Absolute Self-Consciousness is self-producing.

I think this answer to Leibniz’s question is attractive because (a) we know – with Cartesian certainty! – that self-consciousness exists, and thus that this theory latches on to a real phenomenon, and (b) because it fits the contemporary philosophical landscape rather well, a landscape which has changed dramatically as a result of the Hard Problem of Consciousness. The latter has plunged scientific materialism / physicalism into a crisis, sparking a remarkable return of interest in consciousness oriented ontologies, such as Panpsychism, Russellian Monism, and different varieties of Idealist Monism, including Absolute Idealism (cf. Sprigge 1983; Hutto 2000; D'Oro 2005).

I also think, however, that if we are to make Absolute Idealism work, we have to get away from Hegel, for several reasons. One reason is – to put it bluntly – that Hegel just isn’t a very good philosopher (and now I am pissing off a lot of people). It is certainly not the case that Absolute Idealism “culminated” in Hegel, as is often said, as if his system were the be-all and end-all of the Idealist tradition. That, of course, is how Hegel likes to describe his own philosophy, as the ‘Closure of History’ no less, where the “Absolute Spirit” finally comes to complete self-consciousness – but really that is just self-mythologization. It is quite shocking to see how many people have been taken in by that myth and accept the view that Hegelianism is the culmination of the Idealist tradition.

Hegel’s notorious obscurity
I share the view, common in much of analytic philosophy, of Hegel as a very sloppy and unnecessarily obscure thinker, who opportunistically twists and turns his dialectical method and categories so as to smooth out the rather big wrinkles in his system.
The obscurity of Hegel's prose is well-known and has convinced many interpreters that the philosophical value of his work is questionable. I tend to agree with that view. Hegel’s obscurity, though suggestive of deep and difficult thoughts, functions in my estimation as a smoke screen behind which he hides the many unmotivated transitions and inferences in his system (notably in his Logic).

Robert Pippin sees a “puzzling irony” here: “Simply stated, Hegel seems to be in the impossible position of being both extraordinarily influential and almost completely inaccessible.” (Pippin 1989: 3) But, although surely ironic, there really is nothing puzzling about this. It seems clear that Hegel has been so influential precisely because of his obscurity, which allowed all different kinds of interpretations to be superimposed on his texts. Thus Hegel offers something for almost everyone: left-wing, right-wing, Christian, atheist, romantic, rationalist, postmodernist, neoconservative, metaphysical, anti-metaphysical… Now, of course, some multi-interpretability affects all the great philosophers. But in Hegel this multi-interpretability takes on such a massive scale that one starts to wonder if there is any coherent meaning to his thought at all. In this light, Hegel's claim regarding the scientific character of his system looks particularly ridiculous. As Pippin notes, there is nothing “remotely resembling a consensus about the basic position of Hegelian philosophy” (ibidem). But if any such consensus is lacking, I see no point in taking the Hegelian system seriously. For what, then, is this system, what does it say? This remains totally unclear.

Dialectics? No thanks, I prefer mathematics
I also have more theoretical reasons for rejecting Hegel, having to do with the inherent inadequacy of his thought. One reason is the fact that not dialectics but rather mathematics appears to be the basic structure that underlies the texture of empirical reality. Contemporary physics, after all, is thoroughly mathematical in nature. If Absolute Idealism is going to work, it must accord a fundamental role to mathematics. The Absolute Mind that ‘thinks up’ empirical reality, must do so according to mathematical principles. As the physicist James Jeans famously put it: “[F]rom the intrinsic evidence of his creation, the Great Architect of the Universe now begins to appear as a pure mathematician.” (Jeans 1937: 167)

It is well-known that Hegel’s attitude to mathematics was rather condescending and revealed a substantial misunderstanding of the nature and importance of mathematics (cf. Royce 1959: 526-7). That is partly why, in developing the outlines of a new Absolute Idealism, I am not looking to Hegel, but rather to Absolute-Idealist thinking prior to Hegel, notably the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, who accorded a fundamental role to “Number” in the “emanation” of reality from the absolute self-consciousness of the One – as well as to Absolute-Idealist thinking after Hegel, notably John Wheeler’s theory of the Self-Observing Universe, which basically reconstructs the philosophy of Absolute Idealism in the medium of quantum physics and information theory.

Hegel’s basic mistake
Hegel’s dialectics fails especially with regard to the central principle of Absolute Idealism, namely, Absolute Self-consciousness and its self-creating capacity. The dialectic generalizes Spinoza’s dictum that omnis determinatio est negatio (“every determination is a negation”). Thus the dialectic maintains that everything is what it is by differing from what it is not, such that dependence on “otherness” is internal to every identity. Now, this may well be true for finite things, for the multitude of entities inside the universe. But it becomes illogical when applied to the Infinite, i.e. the Universe as a Whole, the Absolute. By definition, there is nothing outside that Whole, so what could its dialectical counterpart – its ‘Other’ – possibly be? This is Hegel’s fundamental mistake: the extension of the dialectic to the Absolute.

The dialectical conception of self-
consciousness: the self must first
become its own other in order to
become and know itself...
In this way, Hegel arrives at a dialectical conception of self-consciousness as the – illogical – foundation of his version of Absolute Idealism. On this conception, Absolute Self-Consciousness is only achieved through the mediating contrast with the Not-Self (the object), such that the Absolute Subject must first “posit” the Not-Self before it can “posit” itself as a determinate Self (via the negation of the Not-Self, the notorious “negation of the negation”). Hence Hegel’s claim that the Absolute must be understood, not as the ontologically first, but rather as the last, as the end result of the universal dialectical development, when all otherness has finally been “taken back” by the Absolute Spirit: “Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only in the end is it what it truly is” (Hegel 1977: 11). For Hegel, then, the Infinite is ontologically later than the finite, as it can only come about through the negation or “sublation” of the finite.

But the Absolute, as that which explains all of reality, cannot be “essentially a result”, because result of what? By definition, nothing can precede the Absolute. So how could the finite possibly precede the Infinite? Moreover, if the reality of finite things could exist by itself, then the very need to postulate the Absolute as their ground would fall away, and we would be left, not with Absolute Idealism, but rather with empiricist positivism… So the cause producing the Absolute can only be the Absolute itself, such that the Absolute is both beginning and result, cause and effect, simultaneously. Furthermore, nothing can mediate that transition from cause to effect, because the Absolute must already be the Absolute right from the start; it must immediately be its own result. The self-causation of the Absolute, then, must be an immediate ‘event’, not mediated by otherness, and therefore fundamentally non-dialectical.

This also follows from reflection on the possibility of self-causation. It is clear that the self-causation, which timelessly ‘kick-starts’ reality, cannot in any way be mediated; it must take place immediately, ‘in one fell swoop’, or it doesn’t take place at all. Suppose, a contrario, that a hypothetical self-causing cause C first has to effectuate a mediating cause C’ which only then produces C itself. In that case self-causation would clearly be impossible. C only has causal power when it exists, but it exists only as soon as it has caused itself. This means that it can’t cause C’ prior to causing itself. Therefore C’ can’t be causally prior to the effectuation of C. Therefore self-causation is only possible at once: the self-causing cause must immediately be its own effect.

Neoplatonic Absolute Idealism
Rather than to Hegel, then, I think we should (re-)turn to Neoplatonic Absolute Idealism, as developed primarily by Plotinus. I already noted the positive role Plotinus accords to mathematics in his account of how reality flows from the One. But it is also with respect to the required immediacy of Absolute Self-Consciousness that Plotinus’ thought is superior to Hegel’s. Plotinus saw that the self-causation of the One could only be an immediate ‘event’ (outside of time) and therefore he also saw the self-constituting self-consciousness of the One as an immediate self-awareness, an undivided self-intuition, where the intuiting and the intuited are identical (for Plotinus’ view of Absolute Self-Consciousness, see here). For Plotinus, then, the One exists by itself, prior to and independent of the rest of reality – which, as we saw, is what is needed if a concept like “the One” (which is simply the Plotinian version of the Absolute) is to be able to ‘shut up Leibniz’. (Schelling’s vision of the Absolute, at the time of his Identity System, as the undivided unity of subject and object, is simply a repetition of the Plotinian One in the context of German Idealism.)

Exactly how the absolutely simple self-intuition of the One generates mathematics is, however, something that is left more or less unexplained by Plotinus – which, perhaps, is unsurprising in light of the still primitive state of much of mathematics in Plotinus’ time. I think, however, that the revolutionary developments in mathematics that took place in the early decades of the 20th century – notably the development of set theory and of the theory of computation – will enable us do what Plotinus failed to do, namely, explain mathematics and the mathematical nature of physical reality on the basis of Absolute Self-Consciousness. For some suggestions about how this could be done, see here, here and here.


-D’Oro, Giuseppina (2005), “Idealism and the philosophy of mind,” in: Inquiry 48 (5): 395-412.
-Hegel, G.W.F. (1977), Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
-Hutto, Daniel D. (2000), Beyond Physicalism. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
-Jeans, J. (1937), The Mysterious Universe. London: Penguin Books.
-Pippin, R.B. (1989), Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
-Royce, J. (1959), The World and The Individual, First Series: The Four Historical Conceptions of Being. New York: Dover Publications.
-Sprigge, Timothy L.S. (1983), The Vindication of Absolute Idealism.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


  1. Hello.
    Interesting post, and wonderful blog.
    I wonder how this Absolute, Brahman or Plotinus One, relate to pure nothingness from your essey

    Empty Consciousness is rather something than nothing, and you not writing in context of Absolute about antinomies which pop out within nothingness. You show how Empty Consciousnes in recursive manner is making complexity, but how that stand to zero energy universe?

    Best Regards

  2. Hi, that's a very interesting question. I have an answer, but I'm afraid its highly speculative. Indeed, as you say, the absolute self-consciousness is in its core (which is prereflective self-consciousness) thoroughly empty, almost like a self-aware nothingness. But through its reflective recursivity it indeed generates infinite complexity, first of all the natural numbers and perhaps even the whole of mathematics (hierarchy V in set theory). So, in my view, what the absolute then does is mirror its own essence in the medium of mathematics, thereby giving rise to the mathematical structure of our universe. But since the absolute is in itself empty, its mathematical image must reflect this emptiness, which means that all the computations that constitute our universe must ultimately add up to nothing. A zero energy universe could perhaps be understood in this way, i.e. as the mathematical image of the empty absolute...

    But we should be careful with the idea of the zero energy universe. It's a controversial concept among physicists... It is theoretical possibility, but by no means has it been experimentally confirmed.

    A little point of clarification: I wrote the essay about nothingness prior to my 'conversion' to absolute idealism. I was thinking about Leibniz' question (Why is there something?) and at that time I could not make sense of self-causation. Somehow, I thought, the universe had to have come from nothing, and the idea of the zero energy universe seemed to fit that idea. But then a year later or so it suddenly struck me that the circular structure of self-consciousness fits the circular structure of self-causation perfectly. And it dawned on me that thinkers like Plotinus, Fichte and the Upanishadic sages had already seen absolute self-consciousness as self-causing in a sense. So that then became my preferred answer to Leibniz' question. Self-consciousness, after all, is real, we know with Cartesian certainty that it exists. Nothingness, however, is a non-entity and can therefore have no causal power. Nevertheless, the emptiness of absolute self-consciousness does make its comparison to nothingness fruitful...

    As for the dialectical antinomies of nothingness as the 'motor' behind creation, I no longer believe in that.

    I hope this answers your question.


  3. Thank You very much for your response. Now it's all clear, your worldview evolwed. I also like idea of Absolute Selfconsciousness. It give better explanation to mind/body problem in my opinion. I have one more question. What is your or wider in Absolute Idealism which you support, stance about what happen with indywidual selfconsciousness after body death. I read little about it, and Josiah Royce's position is not clear for me. Some people say about subjective immortality.

    Best Regards, Jerzy

  4. Hi Jerzy,

    I honestly have no clue. Personally I think that the Absolute computes our universe, and us in it, but via the mediation of something analogous to Plotinus' Intellect. The Absolute in itself must be timeless, thus its primary computational self-image must be timeless as well. I think that primary computational self-image must be computationally equivalent to a Universal Turing Machine (UTM), and I would say that Plotinus' Intellect is this UTM. Now, this Intellect -- as it mirrors the Absolute -- must itself also mirror itself computationally, but then it seems to be limited by the Halting Problem, which is how I introduce time and contingency in the picture. I explain this more fully in section 8 of this text:

    So the picture that thus arises is as follows: the Absolute timelessly computes the Intellect (= UTM), which in turn -- since it is limited by the Halting Problem -- computes a contingent and temporal universe, in which we exist.

    So your question about subjective immortality would then come down to the question: does this timeless Intellect somehow retain the temporally evolving computation of our physical universe?

    I honestly have no idea how to answer this question. It has to do with the relation between time and timelessness... a well-known philosophical conundrum.

    You could also say, with the Idealist philosopher MacTaggart, that time is an illusion anyway, so that in truth we already exist outside of time and are therefore 'already' immortal. MacTaggart is here very close to the Einsteinian idea of the block universe, where past, present en future of the universe exist together as one timeless block of mathematical equations. We would then exist timelessly in those equations.

    But of course the idea of the block universe is controversial, and I don't really know how it relates to my own ideas...