In the contemporary philosophical landscape, Gregory S. Moss’s book stands out for many different reasons, and even though it should be considered a major contribution to the understanding of Hegel’s logic, its worth cannot be limited to the narrow boundaries of Hegelian scholarship. In this review I would like to illustrate some of the merits of this book, and I will try to show why Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics can be read as an autonomous philosophical work, an exciting occasion to continue and renew the debate on some fundamental philosophical questions.
The Author’s first monograph on Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms addressed the question of the autonomy of language. While dealing with partially different issues – the nature of language and the philosophy of culture – this book already discusses some topics that are the main focus of Moss’s philosophical work, and shows methodological elements that remain unaltered in his second book. Aside from the general interest in the history of German thought, the book already deals with the problem of autonomy and of universality, discussing the relationship between language and logic and introducing the question about interculturality.
More importantly, in Ernst Cassirer and the Autonomy of Language Moss already showed his deeply theoretical approach to the analysis of the authors of the past. His reconstruction of Cassirer’s philosophy of language does not simply aim at offering an accurate sketch of the author’s thought, but rather it is an attempt to show how that theory can still find a place in the contemporary debate.
Following the same methodological inspiration, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics offers a monumental reconstruction of Hegel’s metaphysics, often underlining some aspects of his thought that have been lost in the most successful trends of the Hegelian research in the English-speaking world. However, it is also a striking attempt to show why Hegel’s metaphysics continues to be relevant. This may be the greatest achievement of Moss’s work: it does not just illustrate Hegel’s own position, but also and foremost shows what it means to have a Hegelian approach to philosophy today.
Despite its remarkable internal coherence, the impressive size of the book – around 500 pages – makes it almost impossible to provide a comprehensive summary of its content. Instead of doing so, I will start by introducing the main focus of the book – the relation between singularity and absoluteness. After that, I will discuss some pivotal elements of Moss’s interpretation of Hegel’s thought. Finally, I will try to point out some issues that remain open at the end of the analysis, in the attempt to show how this book can be understood as the starting point for a productive debate on Hegel, on the contemporary debate, and on the future of philosophy.
1. Philosophy’s Paradoxical Stance Toward Singularity
Since Plato, the relationship between philosophy and singularity has been complicated, even paradoxical. On the one hand, philosophy has been constantly presented as the kind of knowledge that addresses the universal rather than the singular. The tradition offers us a bunch of formulas in order to clarify this taxonomy: while philosophy is knowledge of the universal, art or history address what is singular. While thought only grasps the universal, only intuition has access to individual things.
On the other hand, however, philosophy has always been obsessed with singularity. The greater part of the philosophical effort since Plato and Aristotle is devoted precisely to understand how singular being (ta ekasta) are structured, how they are generated, how we think and say things about them, how they relate to each other. While the singular is banned from the domain of philosophy, nonetheless philosophy’s main task has always been the discovery and the elaboration of the structure of singularity in itself.
But what is singularity? Even this question, along with the distinction between singular and universal, is quite problematic. We are accustomed to identify singularity as the lower limit of thought, namely as what lies beyond any possible specific difference in the great taxonomy of genera and species. Yet, what is singular is also what lies beyond the upper limit of thought, namely what exceeds any possible genus: it is epekeina tes ousias, to use Plato’s formulation. In a sense, “singular” is the opposite of “universal”; in another sense, it is the opposite of “plural”. I know it is a schematic oversimplification, but this could account for the main difference between Aristotle and Plato: according to Plato, ideas are the true “singulars”: there is only one Beauty, it is one, eternal, and determinate, whereas sensible things are always plural, changing, indeterminate and temporal. In this context, what is most universal is at the same time utterly singular. On the contrary, Aristotle’s attempt to “save phenomena” – a formula used by Simplicius – is precisely the attempt to think sensible things as singular, determinate beings. Universals are plural, they are instantiated and thus have specific, but not numeric unity. Only individual things – both sensible and supra-sensible – are singular. For the sake of discussion, this oversimplification could be useful to identify this basic difference between a Platonic and an Aristotelian attitude towards singularity: on the one side, the singular is the absolute; on the other side, the singular is first and foremost finite, individual being.
2. Hegel’s Thought as a New Theory of Singularity
Now, how do we place Hegel’s philosophy in this frame? First of all, it’s worth mentioning that Hegel’s thought has traditionally been accused of having a complete lack of interest in singularity. Hegel is the “philosopher of universality” par excellence. Universality, necessity and subjectivity are the three key notions that structure most traditional interpretations of Hegel’s idealism, in which singularity, contingency and objectivity are therefore accounted for only as partial and lower steps of a more comprehensive dialectical process.
Already right after Hegel’s death, his first commentators criticized his disregard for singularity. According to Ludwig Feuerbach, the distinction between logical and sensible being is the inescapable mark of Hegel’s failure in thinking the individual: «Die Sprache gehört hier gar nicht zur Sache. Die Realität des sinnlichen einzelnen Seins ist uns eine mit unsern Blute besiegelte Wahrheit» (Sämtliche Werke, II, 212). This is Hegel’s major fault, not recognizing that „reality of singular sensible being” that we cannot help but feel as an immediate truth.
The strongest critic of Hegel’s philosophy of singularity, however, is Kierkegaard, who polemically used the term “Einzelheit” in his philosophy precisely to rescue the singular from Hegel’s monistic and universalistic account. Since idealism is “abstract thought”, Kierkegaard’s aim is to highlight the philosophical significance of existence, whereas what exists is precisely that singular being that abstract thought keeps overlooking.
This interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy has survived up to contemporary philosophy. In particular, French thought used the term “singularity” in order to develop an anti-Platonic and anti-Hegelian concept of individuality. Gilles Deleuze is the philosopher who expresses this critique in the most explicit way: «Hegel substitutes the abstract relation of the particular to the concept in general for the true relation of the singular and the universal in the Idea» (Difference and repetition, 10). Quite ironically, while Hegel is one of the first philosophers to use the word “singularity” as a technical term, clearly distinguishing between a commonsensical and a speculative use of the notion, the whole post-structuralist tradition uses the term “singular” as an anti-Hegelian device, tracing it back to Spinoza in contraposition with Hegelian dialectic.
A second element that is useful to point out, in order to understand the novelty of Gregory S. Moss’s approach, is that this criticism of Hegel’s notion of singularity goes along with a critique of Hegel’s systematic and anti-foundational idea of philosophy. Feuerbach and Kierkegaard, but also many other early commentators of Hegel’s system, such as Karl Werder, Kuno Fischer, Schelling, and Friedrich A. Trendelenburg, criticized Hegel’s disregard for the individual and at the same time stated the impossibility to obtain a complex categorical structure starting from the absolute simplicity of being. In other terms, the impossibility to get difference starting from identity.
Now, this close connection between systematic metaphysics and the problem of singularity is at the core of the theoretical analysis of Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics. The so-called Hegel-renaissance in the English-speaking world has already rediscovered the importance of Hegel’s account of individuality. Paul Redding highlighted in the clearest way how the Pittsburgh school – Robert Brandom in particular – has managed to read Hegel’s philosophy as a semantic theory of individuation. However, these interpretations have systematically underplayed the systematic aspect of Hegel’s thought, along with its strictly metaphysical character. Following the oversimplified frame that I’ve proposed before, Robert Brandom’s inferentialism is – in a way – an Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s theory of singularity, since it understands singular beings only as finite, individual objects.
In this context, Gregory Moss’s book offers a timely and original reading of Hegel’s logic, since it finally highlights some aspects of Hegel’s philosophy that have been structurally neglected by many commentators. Three aspects are particularly worth mentioning.
In the first place, the author clarifies that Hegel’s notion of singularity not only refers to individual, finite beings, but also – and foremost – to that peculiar singular being that is the Absolute. In a way, therefore, Hegel’s speculative use of the notion of singularity overcomes the difference between the Platonic and the Aristotelian approach.
Secondly, Moss shows how it is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without taking into account the necessary relationship between these two dimensions. There is no account of the singularity of finite being without addressing the singularity of the Absolute, and any account of the Absolute that does not illustrate the metaphysical status of singular finite being is incomplete and partial.
Finally, the book puts a very strong accent on necessity to highlight the general aim of Hegel’s philosophical enterprise. It is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without considering the metaphysical character of his logic. Here it is important to grasp Hegel’s own understanding of what metaphysics is, rather than applying some contemporary use of the term to the Hegelian text, which forces Hegel into a theoretical frame that does not have much to do with his own methodology.
As I will point out later, these three elements also identify three problematic aspects of Moss’s theoretical and interpretative framework, or at least three questions that are still open after reading the book. However, before going deeper into the critical analysis, I will briefly illustrate the main structure of the book.
3. Thinking the Absolute
One of the most striking elements of Moss’s book is that it emphasizes the strict relationship between infinite and finite thought. While tradition generally accepted that we cannot think the Absolute in the same way we think finite being, one of the key contributions of Classic German Philosophy is the idea that if we fail to think the Absolute, even thinking finite being becomes impossible. If I’m not misunderstood, this is what is at stake in what Moss calls the “problem of nihilism”. I won’t go into it in detail, but a general consequence of this approach is precisely Moss’s attempt to show how Hegel’s philosophy is a unification of Plato’s and Aristotle’s approaches: if the Absolute is absolute, and therefore there is nothing outside of it, then it is impossible to differentiate between two faculties or two different methods, as if, for instance, understanding were to be identified with the faculty of finite being, and reason with the faculty of the Absolute. So, by developing a critical discussion of how the Absolute has been thought in the metaphysical tradition, we are at the same time questioning the way we think finite being. This traditional view is what the Author calls the “duality of principles”, the idea that knowledge – and reality – cannot be grounded on one principle, but rather require at least two: intuitions and concepts, matter and form and so on. Against this position, the Author defends a strongly monistic account of Hegel’s metaphysics, according to which the true Singular – the Absolute – self-differentiates in a way that can be compared to the Neoplatonic One.
The thesis of the duality of principles is grounded on another assumption, namely the impossibility of self-reference. If there is only one principle, then identity and difference must stem from the same source, and this source has no external matter on which to operate. According to Moss, the history of Western thought has mostly rejected this idea because of the undisputed adherence to the principle of non-contradiction. If identity generates difference, then the same thing is at once identical and different, namely contradictory.
These three metaphysical assumptions, the principle of non-contradiction, the rejection of self-reference, and the duality of principles, are presented by the Author as the fundamental argumentative structure that undermines at the basis the very possibility to think the Absolute, and that can be found in the history of Western metaphysics from Plato up to Kant.
For this reason, Moss’s analysis starts with a critical assessment of some basic problem of traditional metaphysics. While the author does not have philological or reconstructive interests, his confrontation with some authors of the past is extremely useful in order to grasp his fundamental orientation. For instance, while Plato, Aristotle and Kant are examples of the duality of principles approach, the brief but intense reconstruction of early German idealism aims at showing that Fichte’s and Schelling’s objective was precisely to overcome Kant’s dualism, and to re-introduce a self-referential first principle as the metaphysical and epistemological ground of a new philosophy. At the same time, this approach is strongly connected by Moss to Plotinus and Neoplatonic philosophy, with a long and dense excursus on ancient philosophy that reveals the Author’s tendency to offer a somewhat Neoplatonist interpretation of Hegel’s logic.
After having offered a critical reconstruction of these three metaphysical assumptions, Moss shows how they inevitably lead to five paradoxes that can be found throughout the history of philosophy.
The Problem of Instantiation: if particulars and universals are indebted to different (epistemological/ontological) principles, it’s impossible to clarify their relationship.
The Missing Difference: if conceptuality is not the source of its own differentiation, then the source of this differentiation is non-conceptual. «The essential difference that distinguishes one thing from another cannot be accounted for by appealing to what the thing is ‘in virtue of itself’» (165).
Absolute Empiricism: since the differentiated content of the conceptual dimension is not conceptual, the source of conceptuality is entirely empirical.
The Problem of Onto-Theology: the most universal notion is indicated as both universal and particular.
The Third Man: if the Concept is not self-differentiating, then every instance of the Concept, as a particular concept, cannot be the Universal Concept. Every attempt to find the universal concept leads to new particular concepts.
The largest part of the book’s first section is devoted to the historic and theoretical analysis of these paradoxes. The second section, instead, shows how – by positing the Concept as one self-referential and dialetheic principle – Hegel’s logic manages to overcome them.
Surprisingly, the book does not use the classic difference between understanding and reason as an instrument throughout this analysis. The question of the difference between understanding and reason is of course present, but it is not always clear whether these issues could be addressed as the result of an intellectualistic and non-speculative understanding of the domain of conceptuality. For instance, and here I’m forcing and radicalizing the issue in order to facilitate the discussion, the problem of the missing difference could be analysed as a specific formulation of a more general issue that concerned British and Italian idealism for a long time, namely the insufficient and contradictory nature of the forms of judgment. In fact, since every judgment, as Kant states, is in the form “The singular is universal”, and since the singular is not universal, an intellectualistic approach to the nature of conceptuality already finds itself entangled in a contradiction.
However, rather than appealing to this methodological instrument, the Author prefers addressing these problems systematically, retracing their origin in the three metaphysical assumptions listed above. This choice gives a very strong conceptual unity to the book, even though it could lead to some forced passages, in particular when it comes to analysing these issues through examples taken from the history of philosophy.
For instance, the first two paradoxes – the problem of instantiation and the missing difference – are addressed by quoting many passages from Plato’s Parmenides and the Book B of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Now, while these passages are in fact very good examples of the problems the Author is discussing, both the Parmenides and Metaphysics Beta are, so to say, “partes destruentes”, critical preliminary moments of a new theory. In other words, it is possible to find already in Aristotle’s and Plato’s work – as Hegel himself recognizes in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy – speculative solutions to the problems they raise in some of their texts.
The difference between intellectualistic and speculative thought seems to be a very good way to account for this internal evolution in Plato’s and Aristotle’s thought. For instance, Plato’s generative account of the koinonia ton genon in the Sophist does not look to be still subject to these paradoxes. In it, for instance, the self-referential character of ideas is no longer problematic, but at the same time it is not trivialized through the reference to empirical concepts as it happens in the Parmenides. Another example is Aristotle’s philosophy: following Ferrarin, Moss concedes that Aristotle’s metaphysics is speculative and belongs to the domain of the concept. But then, how can we integrate this idea with the paradoxes of Aristotle’s account of conceptuality? Isn’t this account, as it is presented in the book, utterly intellectual rather than speculative?
In other words, while the author manages to provide a strikingly coherent and dense systematic account of some fundamental metaphysical issues, a more extensive analysis of Plato’s and Aristotle’s own solutions to these problems, along with a comparison with Hegel’s own interpretation of their works, could give the chance to highlight how there is more than one way to think speculatively. The author does discuss Aristotle’s solutions to some of the problems he listed in Metaphysics Beta, but the historical reconstruction of Aristotle’s approach is not the main focus of Moss’s research, and it is only mentioned in order to highlight some aspect of Aristotle’s thought that the author recognizes in Hegel’s work.
However, given the book’s size, focusing on the systematic aspect of the issue has been a wise choice: this remark only aims at pointing out, once again, that this monumental book must not be interpreted as the end of a research, but rather as an exciting proposition for a new approach to the study of Hegel’s logic, of the history of philosophy and of metaphysics in general.
Four Open Problems
With this spirit in mind, I would like to point out some specific issues that I find of particular importance in Moss’s book. Of course, as already mentioned, this is a monumental piece of scholarship, and there are many topics worth discussing. There are many arguments and analyses that deserve a much deeper discussion than I can provide here. Nevertheless, I will try to avoid discussing specific matters or individual passages of the book, since I would like to keep the debate on a more general and fundamental level, and discuss some structural aspects of Moss’s proposal rather than specific topics. In particular, I will try to propose a brief critical assessment of four questions that remain open.
4a. What Kind of Metaphysics?
In the final part of his critical analysis, the Author thoroughly discusses different metaphysical and non-metaphysical accounts of Hegel’s logic. In particular, he also highlights Hegel’s intention to reform metaphysics beyond any dogmatic understanding of it. The interpretation of Hegel’s own understanding of metaphysics is deeply connected with the relationship between logic, nature and spirit. While Moss does not expressly analyse this aspect of Hegel’s system, the passage from logic to nature is a crucial point of his reading.
As we know, one of the main arguments of the book is that Hegel’s logic introduces a self-referential and self-differentiating account of the Concept. As Roberto Morani has shown in his monumental book on the evolution of Hegel’s dialectics, this aspect of Hegel’s philosophy is also the main focus of the auto-reformation of his own logic in the Second Edition of the Doctrine of being, when he stresses that objective logic already is subjective logic in disguise. This issue is closely related to the question of the “formal” character of logic. According to Hegel, logic is not formal because it has logical forms as its own content: logical forms are at the same time form and content of the logical process, that in this way is truly noesis noeseos:
But logical reason is itself the substantial or real factor which, within itself, holds together all the abstract determinations and constitutes their proper, absolutely concrete, unity. There is no need, therefore, to look far and wide for what is usually called a matter; it is not the fault of the subject matter of logic if the latter seems empty but only of the manner in which this subject matter is grasped. (SL, trans. Di Giovanni, 28)
Elena Ficara has stressed the importance of this passage, which shows Hegel’s opposition to any formalistic understanding of logic as a discipline. However, Moss radicalizes this aspect and points out how this unity of form and matter generates a self-determining progression. But what is the limit of this activity?
The logic is a self-generating process, through which the concept determines itself as concept: while we discover a great variety of conceptual determinations, these determinations never become empirical. In other terms, the logical development of the category of quality never generates the concept of “colour” or of “green”. In other words, what does never happen is what Fichte talks about in his lectures on the Tatsachen des Bewusstseins: if we radicalize this monistic self-generating activity, then everything must be deduced starting from the first principle, even this singular blade of grass. It is the same conception of systematic metaphysics that Wilhelm Traugott Krug presents as a critic to Idealism, and that Hegel ridicules. For instance, when Hegel talks of the ontological proof, the point is that the Concept has logical objectivity. Nevertheless, Moss is right to highlight how important it is to understand the Concept as a creative activity, and by doing so he defends a strong metaphysical interpretation of Hegel’s logic that many passages in Hegel’s work seem to confirm. While the author recognizes that the creative activity of the Concept does not entail the deterministic deduction of all empirical content, establishing the precise nature and the limits of this self-particularizing activity is one of the tasks that remain open after having read his analysis, and it is a crucial element to test the hermeneutical validity of his interpretation.
4b. What Kind of Singularity?
I would like to go back to the notion of singularity, which is the main focus of the book as a whole. In Moss’s book it is clearly stated that each category of the logic cannot be used exclusively to think the Absolute, since the Absolute is not separated from finite being. Therefore, singularity does describe both “limits” of thought—the Absolute and finite being. Nevertheless, Moss’s reconstruction strongly privileges the “Platonic” side of the analysis. In other words, the Author seems to be much more interested in showing how singularity expresses the logical structure of the Absolute, rather than explaining how the same notion can be used to describe the nature of finite being. For instance, Hegel writes that singularity is the principle of every “individuality and personality” (SL, 547). In order to complete the analysis of Hegel’s use of the notion of singularity, it would be very interesting to integrate Moss’s interpretation with a focus on this dimension.
This does not mean, of course, that Moss’s reading is a Platonic one. As I’ve already highlighted, if it is true that Platonism and Neo-Platonism play a pivotal role in the development of his reading of Hegel, Moss aims at showing both the Platonic and Aristotelian aspects of Hegelian dialectics, in particular by emphasising the importance of Aristotle’s notion of the «self-particularizing universal». This interpretation of Aristotle’s notion of Form is also quite interesting, and it would be worth discussing it in a further analysis of Hegel’s own historical sources.
One of the most surprising aspects of Moss’s book is his analysis of syllogism. Usually judgment and syllogism are analysed as logical developments of the abstract concept, and Hegel also expressly indicates them as such in the Science of Logic. Nevertheless, the Author seems to understand judgment and syllogism as a logically impoverished form of the first section, identifying them with a «self-alienated» form of the Concept (374). While this strong accent on the Concept is quite original, it is very hard to explain Hegel’s own statement at the beginning of the section on the syllogism, where he writes that «the syllogism is the completely posited concept; it is, therefore, the rational» (SL, 588). More generally, Hegel repeatedly highlights the syllogistic character of his system: the end of the Encyclopaedia is maybe the strongest example.
This issue leads to another question on the relationship between syllogism and inference. Moss’s critique of Robert Brandom’s account of Hegel’s philosophy as a form of inferentialism is very convincing, and does show the partiality of neo-pragmatist, non-metaphysical readings of Hegel. Nevertheless, by criticizing Brandom, the Author seems to share with him one core assumption, namely that syllogism is inference, and that when Hegel speaks about syllogism, he’s always talking about a formal structure of reasoning. This identification could be the main reason for Moss’s scepticism against the importance of syllogism in Hegel’s thought. For instance, in the Science of Logic Hegel expressly writes that «All things are a syllogism, a universal united through particularity with singularity; surely not a whole made up of three propositions» (SL, 593). Of course, Hegel does heavily criticize the form of inference (even in his Lectures on history of philosophy), but this passage seems to show that we must distinguish the subjective form of inference from the logical, objective form of syllogistic unity. For this reason, while Moss’s interpretation of the relationship between the concept and syllogistic forms is quite original and in some cases very convincing, it does need further discussion.
Finally, I would like to briefly discuss the question of contradiction. One of the structural aspects of the book is to show that, in order to think the Absolute, we must accept dialetheism, namely the position according to which some contradictions are true. In the case of Hegelian thought, this question is closely connected with the meaning of the term “speculative” as Hegel uses it throughout his work. While it is hardly debatable that only speculative thought is able to grasp the Absolute in its concrete and actual form, the question is whether such a way of thinking necessarily entails a violation of the principle of non-contradiction (PNC) in its Aristotelian formulation.
A good start for illustrating the issue is a passage quoted by the Author while analysing the relationship between speculative thought and contradiction:
Speculative thought consists solely in holding on to the contradiction, and thus to itself. Unlike representational thought, it does not let itself be dominated by the contradiction, it does not allow the latter to dissolve its determinations into other ones or into nothing/ (SL, 383)
Right after this passage Hegel does give some examples, and his choice are determinations of relation – above/under, father/son – that can hardly be seen as violation of Aristotle’s PNC. The interpretation of this passage is very contentious and I won’t go into it. Instead, I would like to argue that there are two possible interpretations of the nature of speculative thought. According to the first, speculative thought is necessarily dialetheic, since it requires to accept that the same x is and is not P. Here it is important to clarify that “not being P” is not the same than “being non-P”.
According to the second interpretation, speculative thought generates a new understanding of the predicates and of their reciprocal relationship. In this case, x can be P and non-P, according to a meaning of non-P that does not entail not being P.
For instance: the proposition “the particular is universal” is contradictory only as long as we assume that “being universal” entails “not-being particular”. This implication is different from the simple fact that universal and particular are different concepts, namely that “universal” is not “particular”. I do believe that it is possible to make the case that, in his subjective Logic, Hegel shows how universality, particularity and singularity, as conceptual determinations, are not reciprocally exclusive.
Moss does provide an exhaustive analysis of many different interpretations of Hegel’s account of contradiction. Again, his criticism of Robert Brandom’s strong coherentist reading is very compelling. Nevertheless, while it is clear that, according to Hegel, speculative thought somehow “deals” with contradictions, this statement must be compatible with other two explicit Hegelian theses: that contradiction is a defining aspect of finite being and finite concepts, and that contradiction itself is used throughout the system as a criterion to identify the finite and false character of the categories.
This could mean, in a way, that the Absolute cannot be contradictory in the same way finite concepts and beings are. Moss’s analysis of the difference between explosive and non-explosive contradictions could be a way to express this fundamental difference. However, it seems clear that Hegel’s foundation free metaphysics is an exciting contribution to a debate that is still open and is impossible to close simply by choosing one option over the other, be it coherence or contradiction.
At the end of this brief critical assessment of some aspects of the book, there would be much more worth mentioning. Gregory S. Moss’s book offers a compelling reconstruction of Hegelian metaphysics as a form of strong monism and shows how it can be profitably used to discuss some contemporary philosophical positions. Moss is also the translator of the English edition of Markus Gabriel’s Why The World Does Not Exist, and Gabriel’s pluralistic metaphysics is one of the main critical references throughout the book. By using Hegel’s philosophy to debate with Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Priest, Robert Brandom and others, Moss brilliantly shows how the study of Classic German Philosophy can still offer a valid contribution to the contemporary debate on metaphysics.
Another aspect that resonates throughout the book is Moss’s interest for intercultural philosophy, as well as for the mystic tradition. There is no doubt that this book is a vital and promising contribution to the contemporary debate on Hegelian philosophy. However, it is also much more than that, since it provides a very compelling theoretical framework for the discussion of many different questions in contemporary continental metaphysics. Finally, it also offers a profitable exchange between philosophy, theology, and the study of other cultures.
Despite its remarkable size, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics does offer an extremely coherent and well-argued account of some of the most important theoretical issues in the history of metaphysics. By doing so, it succeeds at showing the ground-breaking nature of Hegel’s approach to logic and provides a very original interpretation of the Doctrine of the Concept. It is an ambitious example of Hegelian scholarship, but it is also a very good example of a truly Hegelian approach to philosophy today.
Kant famously wrote in the Preface to his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (released two years after the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason) that: “I freely confess: it was the objection of David Hume which first, many years ago, interrupted my dogmatic slumber” (4:260). In Kant, Hume, and the Interruption of Dogmatic Slumber, Abraham Anderson attempts to understand what Kant meant by this locution. Amongst the central theses that Anderson defends in the book include: [i] the contention that it was Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding that awoke Kant from his dogmatic slumber, and not Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature; and [ii] the claim that is was Hume’s challenge to the principle of sufficient reason which awoke Kant from his dogmatic slumber, not a denial of the causal principle governing experience—the thesis that every event has a cause.
In what follows, I will present a summary, and commentary, of Abraham’s defence of these two theses which take place over the course of 5 main chapters, and a lengthy introductory chapter. Before doing so, it is important to clarify some key concepts. First, how does Anderson construe the term ‘principle of sufficient reason’? Anderson tells us that he:
shall use [the term] to refer to the causal principle not restricted to experience, which was supposed to be known by reason, and which Hume led Kant to reject (xii).
Abraham claims (xiv) that Kant was awoken from his dogmatic slumber because he accepted Hume’s criticism of this principle—Hume’s point being that we cannot know causal relations by pure reason. Why is the principle important in the first place? The rationalist principle of sufficient reason is important because without it we cannot know any causal claim that goes beyond experience, such as the claim that something cannot come from nothing. We may be more explicit about this key principle by looking at how it differs from the causal principle—a thesis which Anderson is also concerned with in the book.
The Causal Principle [Hereafter, ‘CP’]: “the principle that every event has a cause” (xi).
We can see how this differs from the former by considering the following:
Principle of Sufficient Reason [Hereafter, ‘PSR’]: “the causal principle extending beyond experience” (xi).
What is the key difference between these two theses? PSR is concerned with what we are justified in believing—that is, it limits our knowledge of causes to experience. Whereas CP is making a definitive claim (albeit one that is negative). PSR claims that we are entitled to hold causal beliefs only insofar as they cohere to experience. If a claim about a matter of fact goes beyond experience, then we are not justified in believing it, even if doing so is natural or useful. CP, on the other hand, is making a negative metaphysical claim—namely, that it is false that every event has a cause. Anderson claims that PSR more accurately allows us to see Hume’s attack as one about metaphysics—the term ‘metaphysics’ in this context referring to the science of objects “beyond experience” (xi). Hume, according to Anderson, is not attacking the causal principle: what he is doing is presenting the limits of our grounds of justification—which is of course limited to experience for Hume. This dispute is an important one to solve, Anderson claims, because it gives us a “clue to the meaning of the Critique” (xi). Anderson point outs (xv) that since Hume is not explicit about his rejection of PSR in either the Treatise or Enquiry, his own proposal is controversial.
In the introductory chapter, titled the ‘The State of the Question’, Anderson provides a survey of the secondary literature which focuses on the issue of how to interpret Kant’s claim in the Prolegomena that, “I freely confess: it was the objection of David Hume that first, many years ago, interrupted my dogmatic slumber” (4:260). The introduction is the longest chapter of the book (42 pages). In it, Anderson considers several different answers to the question of what Kant meant by “the objection of David Hume”, and how such an objection awoke Kant from his dogmatic slumber. Given there is no scholarly consensus about how to understand what Kant meant by the “objection of David Hume”, or how the objection interrupted Kant from his “dogmatic slumber”, Anderson summarises the different perspectives that have been taken on the issue. Anderson also points out that the issue is not only about how to interpret Kant’s famous locution, but also whether Kant should be taken at his word. Anderson states that some think Kant’s claim about being awoken by Hume is a “confusion and misremembering” (1) and should not be taken literally. Anderson thinks that Kant should be understood literally, but he also considers reasons for thinking he should not be. These include Kant’s 1798 letter to Christian Garve, where Kant states that it was the Antinomy that awoke him from his dogmatic slumber—thus apparently contradicting what Kant himself says in the Preface to the Prolegomena. Given that Hume is not mentioned by name in the first edition of the Critique until the very last part, Anderson considers views which propose that this letter lends support to the claim that Kant was not awoken by Hume.
One of the most important views considered in the introduction is Norman Kemp Smith’s, which comes from his 1923 Commentary to Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”. Kemp Smith claims that Kant was awoken by Hume’s attack on the ‘causal axiom’ (referred to as ‘CP’ above)—the thesis that every event has a cause. This is a view Anderson returns to throughout the book. It represents an important rival to Anderson’s own view. The view is considered by Hume in the Treatise as follows.
’Tis a general maxim in philosophy, that whatever begins to exist, must have a cause of existence (T 220.127.116.11; SBN 78-9).
Kemp Smith’s claim that Kant was awoken by the Treatise, and his claim that Hume denied CP, are controversial because, as Anderson points out, the Treatise was not translated into German until the Critique of Pure Reason was already published. This is a problem because it is commonly understood that Kant could not read English. Anderson gives several other reasons for doubting Kemp Smith’s proposal. One of the examples he cites comes from Hume’s 1754 letter to John Stewart, which says the following:
I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that any thing might arise without a Cause: I only maintain’d, that our Certainty of the Falshood of that Proposition proceeded neither from Intuition nor Demonstration; but from another Source (Hume, 1754).
This passage seems to support Anderson’s reading, as Hume is quite upfront here about the nature of his scepticism about causation. Anderson, further, quotes Kant who says in the Prolegomena that Hume’s question “was not, whether the concept of cause is correct, usable, and indispensable for the whole knowledge of nature, for this Hume never doubted” (4:258). Hume’s passage, and Kant’s own admission, seem to go against Kemp Smith’s view, as Anderson suggests.
The rest of the introduction is concerned with several other controversial topics and summaries of scholarly views. For example, Anderson considers the remarks of Manfred Kuehn, Günter Gawlick and Lothar Kreimendah, who argue that it was Treatise 1.4.7. (The conclusion to Book 1) that awakened Kant from his slumber. He considers Lorne Falkenstein’s view, which says that the seeming contradiction between the letter to Garve and Kant’s Preface can be reconciled by accepting that Kant had a gradual awakening. And also, Eric Watkins’s view, which says that Kant is trying to refute Hume’s sceptical challenge to the idea of having any causal knowledge.
In chapter one, Anderson begins to address the book’s central question about what Kant meant by the ‘objection of David Hume’ in the Preface to his Prolegomena. Further, Anderson seeks to understand what Kant meant by being awoken from a ‘dogmatic slumber’. Anderson’s contention, which is further developed in subsequent chapters, is that the objection of David Hume equates to Hume’s attack on Metaphysics (Anderson call this “another name for the objection of David Hume” p. 44). This attack, Anderson tells us, is seen by Kant as a contribution to the Enlightenment because of its implications for the liberation of the human mind—one of which includes a challenge to theological authority.
The chapter touches upon many important issues. One is the directness of Kant’s writing style. Anderson notes that it was dangerous at the time to make attacks on metaphysics too openly (50), since the battle over metaphysics had significant implications for certain religious and political matters. Another issue has to do with Kant’s actual references to Hume. If it was really the objection of David Hume which awoke Kant, then why isn’t Hume mentioned by name in the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason until late in the work (until the Discipline of Pure Reason)? Might this be a reason to doubt the veracity of Kant’s claim? Anderson thinks not, given the way Hume’s work had been received at the time. He notes of the hostile reception that Hume’s Dialogues of Natural Religion received upon its release. Anderson (53) references a 1779 review of Dialogues featured in the Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen, which was quite critical of the work. The review charged the text of corrupting the youth. This is an interesting reason for why Kant may have been relucent to refer to Hume explicitly initially, and Anderson does a good job of exploring it. It is interesting to note that Hume himself was also conscious of the reception of his own work, which affected the way it was written. In Hume’s December 1737 letter to Henry Home, he says: “I am at present castrating my work, that is, cutting off its nobler parts: that is, endeavouring it shall give as little offence as possible” (Hume, 1737).
To make sense of Kant’s defence of Hume, Anderson also discusses what Kant said about Hume’s critics. These include Thomas Reid, James Oswald, James Beattie, who appealed to common sense to overcome Hume’s concerns about the causal principle. Kant rejects these kinds of appeals to common sense, and Anderson shows why Kant takes Hume’s objections seriously, and how they were misconstrued by others. On page 62, for example, he looks at Priestley’s claim that Hume actually doubted the concept of cause and that the concept was useful. But as Anderson points out, Hume did not think the notion of causation was useless; and neither did he cease to believe in it. Such discussions help to show why Kant found Hume so troubling and help to understand the nature of Hume’s scepticism.
Another interesting puzzle has to do with why Kant is so explicit about Hume’s influence in the Prolegomena. If Kant wanted to avoid the controversies associated with the Dialogues, as Anderson proposes, then why is Kant so open about his debt to Hume in the Prolegomena—two years later after the release of the first edition of the Critique, where he is not so explicit? Anderson’s claim is that Kant’s avowal of his debt to Hume in the Prolegomena is a response to the Göttingische Anzeigen review of the Critique, which came out 2 years after it was released. It may have been that Kant wanted to make his point more explicit since, as Anderson notes (55), Kant regarded the review as a radical misunderstanding of the text. By that point Kant may have felt he had nothing to lose. Anderson offers a second reason for why Kant is more ready to acknowledge his debt to Hume in the Prolegomena. Also published in 1781 was the edition of the works of Sulzer, published by Blanckenburg. Anderson notes that in the Preface to the work, Blanckenburg evoked Sulzer’s Preface to Hume’s Enquiry, which was also included in the work (originally published 26 years earlier), that Hume’s writings would “pull German philosophers by the sleeve and rouse them from their peaceful rest” (cited in Anderson’s text on p. 64). It is hard to know for certain that Kant is responding directly to this passage, but it certainly looks very similar to what Kant writes in his Preface as Anderson points out (p.65).
In the second chapter, Anderson attempts to define the “Objection of David Hume.” After claiming that the objection of David Hume is really attack on metaphysics, Anderson attempts to be more specific about what this attack amounts to. According to Anderson, this attack on metaphysics has three steps, which are divided up further in the chapter. These include:
 “no one can know from pure concepts a priori that because one thing is, another must necessarily exist also.” (72)
 leads, in Anderson’s view, to two implications. The first is:
[C1] “cause is not a legitimate child of reason but a bastard of the imagination, and that all the other purportedly a-priori-subsisting cognitions of reason are mere falsely reminted common experiences.” (72)
And the second is,
[C2] “That there is no metaphysics and cannot be any” (72). (Here Anderson takes metaphysics to be reasoning beyond experience.)
Anderson suggests that Kant located this attack on metaphysics (what Anderson calls ‘Hume’s Objection) in the Enquiry and not in the Treatise, as some commentators such as Kemp Smith have suggested. This attack, Anderson tell us, is substantial because it undermines Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason, and the causal principles of Descartes and Locke. This is consequential, as such arguments were employed to prove God’s existence (76). So  is clearly a significant result.
Anderson is right, in my view, to characterise Hume’s attack on the “rational origin of the concept of cause” (77–78). This seems to cohere more succinctly with Hume’s radical empiricism, rather than a denial of the causal principle, as Kemp Smith maintains. Further it also seems to cohere with what Kant himself says in his Preface to the Prolegomena. Kant claims Hume’s question:
was not whether the concept of cause is correct, useful, and indispensable for the whole knowledge of nature, for this Hume had never doubted; but whether it is thought by reason a priori (4:258–59).
Next, Anderson engages with the question of whether it was the Treatise or Enquiry that was the key source which awoke Kant from his slumber. Anderson describes the view of Kemp Smith, who follows Vaihinger and Erdmann, in thinking that it was Treatise 1.3.3 that awoke Kant from his dogmatic slumber. Anderson rehearses points made in previous chapters, noting that the Enquiry was published in German in 1755; but the Treatise was not published until 1790, putting it after the 1781 edition of the First Critique. And given that Kant did not know English, this timeline is problematic. This is not a knock down argument, of course, as there were parts of the Treatise translated and Kant knew people who could have read it. For example, Treatise 1.4.7—where Hume advanced a series of sceptical claims—was translated. Yet Anderson claims (89) that the Treatise was less well known in relevant circles.
So where in the Enquiry, then, does Anderson claim Kant located Hume’s attack? There are various places he cites—not all of them are discussed in this chapter. One claim Anderson makes is that [C1] is stated in parts 1 and 2 of Enquiry 7, “Of the Idea of Necessary Connexion.” (90). This is where Hume argues that we have no idea of necessary connection beyond constant conjunction. Another is Anderson’s discussion of [C2], which says that there cannot be any metaphysics, by looking at section 8, 9, 10 and 11 of the Enquiry. For example, he focuses on Hume’s claim at 11.30 which says that, since the idea of necessary connection is grounded in constant conjunction, there is a problem of determining a unique cause. This has implications for the concept of a divine cause. Anderson suggests that the first step, , is to be found in Section 4, part 1 and at 12.29 note (d) of the Enquiry. Such a position is defended in later chapters.
In chapter 3, Anderson attempts to locate where in the Enquiry Hume’s first step in Hume’s attack on Metaphysics is (recall this is the thesis that we cannot have knowledge of causation independent of experience). Anderson also attempts to defend the thesis that the Enquiry supports his own proposal that Hume’s first step is really an attack on the principle of sufficient reason.
Anderson begins by focusing on section 4.11 of the Enquiry, and its debt to 4.2, where Hume talks about our knowledge of matters of fact—namely that, when it comes to matter of fact it is always possible to imagine things being different to the way they, are or what we are used to. While it would be odd, we can easily imagine that a rolling white billiard ball will float up when it hits the black or stop completely. This is because no contradiction materialises: as long as we reason a priori, anything can cause anything. It follows from this, Anderson claims (102), that we cannot know a causal necessity a priori. And further, Anderson states: this “implies a denial of the principle of sufficient reason” (102). This is because we could not say of a cause that it was a sufficient reason of its effect. To put things more precisely, Anderson claims this means that we cannot know a priori, of anything at all, that it must have cause (102). This is drawn from what Hume says at 4.13 of the Enquiry:
When we reason a priori, and consider merely any object or cause, as it appears to the mind, independent of all observation, it never could suggest to us the notion of any distinct object, such as its effect; much less, show us the inseparable and inviolable connection between them (EHU 4.13; SBN 31-32).
Does Anderson’s suggestion do a better job of explaining such a passage compared to the one put forward by Kemp Smith—namely, that Hume denies that every event has a cause? I think so. Anderson’s account—that Hume is rejecting the principle of sufficient reason—seems to capture the spirit of this passage in a more adequate way than Kemp Smith’s.
The chapter also features an interesting discussion about Hume’s disavowal of a thesis that Lucretius called ‘Ex nihilo, nihil’ (119)—nothing comes from nothing. This idea is important because it was taken by some to prove the existence God (as Locke and Clarke tried to do.) Anderson claims that Kant would have seen Hume’s rejection of this the principle as a rejection of the principle of sufficient reason. Anderson claims that
In rejecting Ex nihilo, nihil fit, then, Hume is not rejecting the principle that every event has a cause, which he emphatically accepts. Rather, he is rejecting the principle that Descartes, Locke, and Clarke had used to prove the existence of a divine Cause (109).
It is important, Anderson points out, that this principle does not disprove god; only that it cannot be used to prove god. Again, I think this does a good job of capturing the spirit of Hume’s sceptical empiricism, which is to draw the limits of what we can be justified in believing—namely, to experience.
In chapter 4, Anderson supports his reading of Kant’s interpretation of Hume by examining the Treatise. His main contention is that Treatise 1.3.3 is not, as Kemp Smith supposed, an attack on the causal principle governing experience. He investigates Treatise 1.3.3 in order to undermine Kemp Smith’s claim.
It is important for Anderson to consider Treatise 1.3.3. because, as he states, Hume does not say explicitly in the Enquiry that he is attacking the principle of sufficient reason “in so many words” (123). In addition to arguing against Kemp Smith’s interpretation of 1.3.3, Anderson also draws upon Hume’s letter to Henry Home: the ‘Letter from a Gentleman.’ This letter is important for several reason. First, because it features a candid remark by Hume about the construction of his text—namely, that he went about “castrating” the Treatise, meaning that he cut “off its noblest parts.” Anderson notes that this is most likely because of its implications for theology. What this means is that some interpretive work is needed to determine what Hume is claiming. And second, and more importantly for the content of his argument, Anderson notes of Hume’s reply to critics of the Treatise. Hume claims:
The Author is charged with Opinions leading to downright atheism, chiefly by denying this principle, that whatever begins to exist must have a cause of existence (cited on p. 135 of Anderson’s text).
This is the causal principle listed above—the one which Kemp Smith claims Hume is denying. Hume’s response to this charge is interesting, however. He claims that he is not denying the principle, but rather disputing that the principle was “founded on demonstrative or intuitive Certainty”. This passage supports Anderson’s reading because it shows Hume’s focus is on justification, not on whether the causal principle is false.
Later in the chapter Anderson considers why readers have failed to see the Enquiry as the source of Kant’s awakening. He considers the claim that the causal principle is attacked in Treatise 1.3.3. Anderson disputes this on two grounds because he thinks that:
a) “The causal principle is attacked in the Enquiry too” (139)
b) “The causal principle [Hume] attacks is not the [CP] but the [PSR]” (139)
Anderson considers why Erdmann, Vaihinger, and Kemp Smith failed to see this. One reason he suggests is that while Hume in Enquiry 12.29 note (d) is direct in his rejection of the causal principle Ex nihilo nihil fit, he is indirect in his rejection of the PSR. Another reason he offers is that, while the Treatise is long and detailed in its steps, the Enquiry is “brief and elliptical” (140).
In the final chapter, titled ‘Hume’s Attack on the “Impious Maxim” as the Hidden Spine of the Critique’, Anderson attempts to locate several places in Kant’s Critique which support his contention about the PSR. He does so by examining four places in the Critique that recall Hume’s rejection of the impious maxim (Ex nihilo, nihil fit) at 12.29 note (d). Recall this is the claim that Anderson says is the most direct attack on the PSR. The four places include: the Transcendental Ideal, the Postulates, the Analogies and the Antinomy.
One example that Anderson cites is from the ‘Postulates of Empirical Thought’, in the ‘General Note on the System of the Principles.’ There Kant says that by beginning with mere categories, “We can easily think the non-existence of matter. From this the ancients did not, however, infer its contingency” (B290n). Anderson notes that Kant discusses this matter not to argue that matter is necessary, or contingent, but to suggest that we cannot prove that it is contingent or necessary. Anderson notes that this resembles a discussion Hume makes at 12.28-29 note (d), where Hume rejects the Ex nihilo, nihil fit maxim. The two sections are as Anderson suggests, quite similar. It is one example of the interesting connections Anderson makes between the two works.
In closing, we can ask: is the central claim that Anderson defends in the book plausible? Recall that this is:
Hume interrupted Kant’s dogmatic slumber…by attacking the rationalist principle of sufficient reason, and showing that we are not entitled to it, since we cannot conceive effects as logically necessary given causes, or vice versa, and since we cannot know, either intuitively or demonstratively, that there can be nothing without a reason why it is thus and not otherwise (159).
To my mind, Anderson’s contention does better than some of his rivals—which are, it should be noted, charitably considered in the book. Anderson is, further, careful in his analysis and does not draw any hasty conclusions when advancing his own views. Where there is speculation, it is supported with passages from Kant’s and Hume’s texts, historical documents, and possible counter interpretations. This careful nature of proceeding is one of the virtues of the book.
The book will obviously be of interest to Hume and Kant scholars who seek to understand how Hume’s ideas influenced Kant’s. But it will also be of interest to those seeking to understand the nature of Hume’s scepticism. Given this, I did wonder why Anderson did not discuss how Hume’s radical scepticism affected Kant. As Kevin Meeker (2013, 2) points out, many early readers of Hume—he includes Kant here—interpreted Hume as a radical sceptic. (An interpretation that goes against the scholarly consensus today.) Thinkers like Thomas Reid, for example, thought that if we accept Hume’s system, then we would have to say that we lack rational grounds for holding our everyday common sensical beliefs. It would have been interesting to see whether Anderson thought this radical scepticism played an integral part in Kant’s awakening.
I have only been able to touch upon a few of the issues of the book in this review. It is my hope that I conveyed the great interest of it. I found the book to offer a thorough and convincing account of the influence Hume had on Kant’s thought.
Hume, David.  1932/2011. “Hume to Henry Home, December 2, 1737, Letter 6.” In The Letters of David Hume, ed. J. Y. T. Greig, 2 vols, 1:23– 25. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hume, David. 1739-40 [2000 ]. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hume, David. 1748 . An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Hume, David.  1932/2011. “David Hume to John Stewart, February 1754.” In The Letters of David Hume, ed. J. Y. T. Greig, 2 vols, 1:187. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Meeker, Kevin. 2013. Hume’s Radical Scepticism and the Fate of Naturalized Epistemology. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kant, Immanuel.  2003. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. With a new introduction by Howard Caygill. 2nd ed. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kant, Immanuel.  2004. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Ed. Gary Hatfield. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
This volume continues Palgrave’s impressive Handbooks in German Idealism series, already comprising significant collections of essays on the topics of German Idealism in general, Kant, Fichte, and German Romanticism. At the time of writing, volumes on Schelling and on the relation between German Idealism and Existentialism are also on the way.
A book of this kind, collecting up-to-date critical contributions across all of the major areas addressed in Hegel’s systematic philosophy, might be thought to stand in competition with a number of similar recent volumes, perhaps most obviously Baur and Houlgate’s A Companion to Hegel (2011) from Blackwell, de Laurentiis and Edwards’ Bloomsbury Companion to Hegel (2013), and Moyar’s The Oxford Handbook of Hegel (2017). The reality of the situation, however, in the light of the richness of Hegel’s work, is that these collections complement one another. They do so by assembling investigations of Hegel’s work on phenomenology, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of history, and so on, that are frequently interestingly different in emphasis, evaluation, or interpretation. The essays included in such volumes can be read in isolation, so that somebody interested in, say, topics in Hegel’s philosophy of religion, would benefit from consulting the relevant essays in all four works, without having to engage with each in its entirety. At the same time, due to their scope and size, all four share the virtue of offering readers the opportunity to consider the various topics addressed within them in a systematic context (valuable in the case of Hegel).
The fact that such “competitors” exist also has consequences for how one evaluates the coverage of this volume. The Palgrave Hegel Handbook, to provide one example, has comparatively little in the way of entries which focus upon engagement with Hegel’s work in the twentieth century. Notably, it has no entries which focus upon the reception of Hegel among phenomenologists, critical theorists, or twentieth century French philosophers. This is a particular strength of the Blackwell Companion. It also has comparatively less to say about specific metaphysical topics treated in the Science of Logic; the Oxford Handbook is stronger here. To provide one more example, however, The Palgrave Hegel Handbook clearly offers more than the other collections when it comes to topics in Hegel’s epistemology and philosophy of mind. All four of the volumes that I have mentioned address all of the major aspects of Hegel’s systematic philosophy, but differences in focus such as those in the examples just provided demonstrate another way in which a reader with access to all of them will find that they complement one another. From this point on I will focus this review upon The Palgrave Hegel Handbook alone.
Before discussing the content of the volume, I will make one further remark concerning coverage. It would be unreasonable to expect such a volume to be truly exhaustive in term of the material with which it engages, and the editors make no such claim. Given, however, that the final section of the volume comprises entries on “Hegelianism and Post-Hegelian Thought”, and the editors’ commitment to assessing ‘contemporary controversies concerning his philosophy’ (l), one might think that this would be a good opportunity to include a substantive entry engaging with the already-sizeable and growing body of work concerning Hegel’s colonialism, sexism, and racism, not only in terms of the nature of the implications of his prejudices for the evaluation of his philosophical work, but also in terms of the positive uses made of the resources of Hegel’s thought over the last seventy or so years by those seeking to oppose and overcome such prejudices. Unfortunately, such topics are not treated here. In light of recent collections such as Monahan’s Creolizing Hegel (2017), some engagement with work of this kind would have made a valuable addition to the volume.
The volume opens with a helpful analytical table of contents which roughly indicates the content of each essay. Interesting material is also included in the form of appendices; I particularly enjoyed the schematic presentation of Hegel’s major works as they correspond to the various parts of his mature philosophical system. Importantly, the editors have included Hegel’s various lecture courses in Jena, Heidelberg, and Berlin in this context. Given the richness of many of the transcripts from these lectures, this amounts to a very useful pointer for further reading on the various topics covered in the volume. I was less sure of the editors’ “Agenda for Future Research”. Although the suggestions are certainly valid (and, in my opinion, interesting), and the editors note that this material is ‘suggestive, not exhaustive’ (581), there is no clear criterion according to which some possible projects have been included and others excluded. Why emphasise, for example, the possibility of distinctively Hegelian contributions to contemporary cognitive science (583), but say nothing of the possibility of introducing Hegel to contemporary metaphysical discussions of natural kinds, or of monism, as suggested by Kreines (2015), or of the possible value of Hegelian insights in considering contemporary social pathologies, as explored by Bunyard (2019)? Certainly, there is a multitude of avenues for further research available to those interested in Hegel’s philosophy, but I am not sure how valuable it is for the editors to pick just some and list them.
I also think that the short editors’ introduction to the volume is perhaps not as helpful as it could have been. It aims to provide a sketch of contents and significant goals of the various parts of Hegel’s system, but while this breadth of scope is appropriate here, the brevity of the introduction means that the key claims being singled out are often not explained in sufficient detail. Instead, one gets the impression that the introduction is rather hurriedly emphasizing those elements of Hegel’s philosophy which the editors, perhaps especially Westphal, take to be most significant for contemporary thought (the majority of the references to chapters in the volume are to those by Westphal). I was left feeling that it would have been better simply to indicate the themes of the chapters and let the reader get on with reading them, since there these technical claims receive more adequate and clearer treatment. One valuable addition, however, is a brief run-down of various senses in which Hegel deploys the term “dialectic”. It would have been even better if this account could have been extended with references to analyses of Hegel’s various dialectical arguments, conceptual explications, and the like, as they occur among some of the chapters in the book.
There are twenty-eight essays in this volume. It is impossible within the confines of even a reasonably long review to adequately address even the majority of them. I shall endeavour to say something about seven chapters, composing two of the volume’s eight parts. I will focus my attention on the material concerning Hegel’s engagement with his immediate forbears, his epistemology, and his Science of Logic. This emphasis reflects the interests and expertise of the reviewer and I acknowledge that a case could be made for arguing that some of the most noteworthy essays in the volume are not those which fall into these categories. I will briefly draw attention to what I considered to be some of the most worthwhile essays addressing other topics in the volume at the end of the review.
Part I considers Hegel’s intellectual background and the nature of his philosophical project. There is a short sketch of Hegel’s intellectual life by Bykova which covers more or less what one would expect it to. Particularly good is Bykova’s treatment of the evolution of Hegel’s philosophical aspirations, from an early enthusiasm for popular philosophy and the moral education of the people to his later, considered belief that the practical benefits of philosophy would be better accomplished on the back of a more thorough-going revision of its more abstract, theoretical underpinnings.
Also featured here is an essay by Baur which carries out the task, crucial in a volume which treats the key themes of Hegel’s epistemology and metaphysics, of reconstructing the major philosophical developments which took place in Germany between the publication of Kant’s first Critique and Hegel’s Phenomenology. This is important because many of the major disputes in the interpretation of Hegel’s work (especially his metaphysics) since at least as far back as the 1970s have turned on how to understand his relation to his forbears, especially Kant. This is a lot to address in one essay and there are elements of the account that could have been made clearer: Baur spends some time, quite properly, explaining Kant’s rejection of the possibility of intellectual intuition for human cognition, but then does not explicitly mention intellectual intuition in his treatment of Fichte or Schelling, despite its crucial importance for their projects. More problematically, he suggests that Schelling and Hegel’s idealisms move away from the more subjective idealisms of Kant and Fichte because the former two come endorse the Spinozistic claim that ‘mind and world are fully co-extensive’ (37), but provides no clear argument as to why they might have been justified in endorsing such a claim. This risks giving the impression that Schelling’s and Hegel’s projects amount to a reversion to pre-critical dogmatism, despite the fact that Baur wants to claim that they do not (23). Still, it is necessary to paint with broad brushstrokes in an essay of this kind, and I think that Baur largely succeeds in characterising the idea of Hegel’s project in the Phenomenology as a series of determinate negations intended to persuade his opponents of the validity of metaphysics which can ‘combine the pre-Kantian thought of Spinoza with the post-Kantian thought of Fichte’ (23).
Westphal also includes an article of his own here which distils some of the key points of the interpretation of Hegel’s epistemology that he has been developing for some decades, most recently and thoroughly presented in his (2018). Westphal’s impressive scholarship is on display here as he relates the project of Hegel’s Phenomenology to key philosophical developments both before and after its publication. I shall not discuss the contents of the essay here: a critical engagement with Westphal’s account of Hegel’s project demands more space than a book review of this kind can accommodate. I will say, however, that although Westphal’s writing is clear, this article is something of a whirlwind of references to various works and topics, and at times demands a not insignificant amount of relevant knowledge on behalf of the reader (although, to be fair, it also provides plenty of references for further reading). While there are articles in this volume that would be useful for students with an interest in Hegel’s work, I would not be quick to direct a student towards this one.
Somewhat oddly also placed here is a piece by Varnier on Hegel’s epistemology. The immediate value of this essay is that it encourages those looking to identify Hegel’s epistemological positions to direct their gaze beyond the 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit, and particularly towards the section of Hegel’s Logic on cognition and the material on theoretical spirit in the Philosophy of Spirit. In fact, Varnier does not go far enough concerning this crucial point; it should be remembered that the primary function of Hegel’s argument in the Phenomenology is to provide (immanent) criticism of the various positions of “natural consciousness” opposed in various ways to Hegel’s own idealist position. Identifying distinctive Hegelian epistemological positions in the arguments of the Phenomenology, therefore, is at the very least a rather murky procedure, as what is identified as an internal problem for a particular shape of consciousness in that work need not automatically imply clear positions that we can take Hegel to endorse. It seems to me that Westphal, in the previous essay in this volume, does not do enough to address concerns of this kind.
Varnier’s article concerns itself principally with two topics. Firstly, he seems to accept something like the metaphysics-first metaphilosophy attributed to Hegel in (Kreines 2015) when he suggests that relevance to epistemology of Hegel’s Logic is that it provides a ‘theory of all ontological structures of science and of common knowledge, which make knowledge possible and certain’ (67). In this context, by asking about how Hegel defends this metaphysical project itself against scepticism Varnier seems to be engaging with important questions about Hegel’s views on the epistemology of metaphysics. Secondly, Varnier also treats Hegel’s views on traditional epistemological matters such as the justification of everyday beliefs and the definition of knowledge. Regarding the first topic – the epistemology of Hegel’s metaphysics – Varnier appeals to various “introductions” Hegel provided to his systematic philosophy, the arguments of which are presumably intended to go some way towards securing the metaphysical claims made in the latter (67). This is not an unusual view, and nor is Varnier’s suggestion that the various determinate negations of natural consciousness carried out in the Phenomenology vindicate thought’s claims about the nature of objective reality (71). Given that this essay is preceded by two others which also address the introductory function of Hegel’s Phenomenology, I would suggest that less time could have been spent on this aspect of the epistemology of Hegel’s metaphysics, in favour of topics that have received less attention, perhaps concerning the matter of how to evaluate the claims to knowledge made in the context of Hegel’s Logic itself, or in his Realphilosophie, for example.
Varnier’s treatment of the second topic is briefer that his treatment of the first, which is a shame. He provides a lengthy passage on the nature of knowledge from the Philosophy of Spirit but decides not to ‘dissect’ it (74). Instead he suggests rather briefly, and in a manner that was not clear to me, that Hegel is arguing both for the strong claim that our use of concepts tracks reality in a manner constitutive of knowledge as a matter of ‘necessity’ (74), and for the ‘irreality… of any and every finite standpoint’ (76). In order for these two claims not to be in tension with one another, it seems that the knowing subject in the former case must not be any individual, finite knower, but somehow the historically developing community of interdependent, human, knowing subjects that might be labelled ‘absolute spirit’ in Hegelian language. Indeed, Varnier suggests that, for the collective subject of absolute spirit, ‘the knower and the known are fully adequate to each other’ (75). Peculiarly, however, he then goes on to suggest that absolute spirit itself is also just another finite perspective, adherence to which invites scepticism (76). It is not obvious to me how to reconcile these two claims. Varnier also suggests that the transition from “essence” to “concept” in the Logic might constitute an argument against the sceptical suggestion that our knowledge might be restricted to appearances, and therefore that we might not know how reality really is, but again he refuses to explore that argument (76). He concludes with some highly interesting remarks on the connection between knowledge and practical reason in Hegel’s work, and suggests a possible connection to be drawn with contemporary virtue epistemology (78), but these promising ideas are, frustratingly, left undeveloped here.
I pass over Part II, which focuses on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, to consider Part III, which focuses mostly on Hegel’s Science of Logic. As I mentioned earlier, this volume does not include dedicated contributions on Hegel’s specific treatment of various historically significant logical or metaphysical topics. Instead this section includes helpful and interesting essays by Nuzzo and Burbidge, on the method of Hegel’s logical investigations and on his infamous use of Aufhebung, respectively, followed by a rather informal essay by Southgate which attempts to provide a big-picture overview of an account of metaphysical holism developed in the Doctrine of Essence and to connect it to Hegel’s account of freedom.
Southgate’s piece is a curious addition to this volume. Unlike the other chapters, it does not really represent an intervention either into debates in the secondary literature concerning Hegel’s position or argument on some philosophical issue, or into philosophical work on some topic along Hegelian lines. As such, although its principal topics are metaphysical holism, human freedom, and the connection between the former and the latter in Hegel’s thought, there is no real discussion of debates between those who consider Hegel to be a holist in the relevant sense and those who do not, for example. The major focus of the chapter, instead, seems to be to sketch a way in to Hegel’s thought, aimed at illustrating its importance for those uncertain as to whether or not to spend the time working their way through his famously difficult prose. As such, this chapter, more than any other in the volume, appears to be aimed at students approaching Hegel for the first time, or, possibly, academics considering how to introduce Hegel to such students.
With this goal in mind, I think that Southgate does quite a good job here, although some may find his style a little grating. There is a helpful discussion of Hegel’s account of freedom, aimed at defusing the tendency to suppose that Hegel is arguing naively that it is in fact possible to peacefully view all tragic events as merely the outcome of our own development and to assume responsibility for them (187-88). Southgate redirects the reader towards Hegel’s treatment of those relations which seem to actualise and illuminate freedom in the sense of “being with oneself in the other” and provides a helpful discussion of this vital notion (188-89). One might express the concern, however, that, in his attempt to emphasise to the reader the existential significance of Hegel’s notion of freedom, Southgate’s presentation can come across as rather too heavily focused on the individual’s own attitude towards freedom, at the cost of playing down Hegel’s emphasis on the objective social structures required for such attitudes. I should add that I think that few readers will find his attempt to reverse engineer an account of metaphysical holism from this account of freedom, or to try to provide a sense of it by appeal to the experience of running an ultramarathon to be successful (Southgate seems to think that Hegel’s position is in some important sense ineffable, but I do not know why).
Nuzzo’s chapter on the method of Hegel’s logical science is a valuable addition to this volume, drawing as it does on her sustained work on this topic over several years. Nuzzo helpfully situates the discussion of Hegel’s dialectical logic in relation to both Kant’s transcendental logic and to traditional, Aristotelian logic. Of especial value here is her account of Hegel’s critique of the formality of transcendental logic in terms of what he judges to be a ‘failed relation to the object’ (156) because of Kant’s separation of sensibility and understanding. Here Nuzzo’s account helpfully explains that Hegel is not simply ignoring or conflating Kant’s distinction between general and transcendental logic (as it might appear, at times).
Interestingly, on the basis of Hegel’s claim that Kant’s transcendental logic, dependent as it is on the input of sensibility for its objects, is unable to deliver the truth about those objects, Nuzzo moves to suggest that Hegel’s dialectical logic is in fact closer to general logic, precisely because it does not involve transcendental logic’s necessary reliance upon an object given to it from elsewhere (Incidentally, the claim Hegel’s new logical method is prompted by what he sees as the failure of Kant’s transcendental logical method does not seem to fit with Nuzzo’s stated rejection of readings of Hegel which have him construct an ‘path alternative to the generally accepted Kantian one’ (154), but I think that it is the former claim which is more important to her argument). In the case of general logic, of course, this is simply because it can be carried out completely abstractly, without reference to real objects, while Hegel sets for dialectical logic the ambitious task of a thinking that, like general logic, is pure in that it requires no input from externally given real objects, but at the same time delivers the truth about real objects nevertheless.
Nuzzo’s account of the method of such a dialectical logic accurately captures the Hegelian claim that the content of logic should not be separate from its form, and that logical thinking can generate its own content. Of course, even if one accepts Nuzzo’s characterisation of Hegel’s method in terms of the generation of logical content from the dynamic movement of thought itself, the question remains, particularly after the treatment of Hegel’s criticism of Kant, as to why one should suppose that this immanently generated logical content accurately tracks reality. Nuzzo rightly points out that Hegel takes his logical science to amount to an ‘objective thinking’ (161), but the reader may well wonder why this does not amount to anything more than an interesting new style of pre-critical dogmatism. To be fair to Nuzzo though, her chapter is concerned with the method of Hegel’s logic, and not with the question of how that logic also amounts to a metaphysics. This latter question has received plenty of attention in recent work on Hegel, and I think that Nuzzo’s essay succeeds admirably in shedding some light on its chosen subject-matter.
I should point out that there is a slightly misleading slip in the language of this paper. Nuzzo describes the relation between the question of the relation between Hegel’s dialectical logic and his attitude to Kant’s transcendental logic and the question of the relation between the conclusion of the Phenomenology of Spirit and the idea of logic present in the Science of Logic as ‘all but self-explanatory’ (155), where she means “anything but self-explanatory” (She does go on to provide an excellent explanation later in the chapter). Unfortunately, although no one paper in the volume exhibits a high volume of typos, mistakes, or awkward phrasings, there is quite a number of such things spread across the book as a whole. In general, the Palgrave Hegel Handbook would have benefitted from more careful editing on this score.
Burbidge, in his contribution, provides an illuminating discussion of Hegel’s use of the term Aufhebung, which describes the kind of transitions or inferences key to every part of Hegel’s mature philosophy. Burbidge’s chapter compliments Nuzzo’s. Whereas she focused on Hegel’s attempt to present a logical science that generates its own content, his attention is on the nature of the development of that content. In particular, he is concerned to explain how it is that Hegel is able to argue that more complex thought determinations emerge out of simpler and less determinate ones, without surreptitiously assuming those more complex determinations as a goal in advance. Of course, this has always been a common complaint made against Hegel’s procedure, and Burbidge makes quite a good case for thinking that it is unfounded. He shows, particularly by appealing to remarks Hegel makes towards the end of his treatment of quantitative concepts, and in his account of the absolute idea, that the basic parts of a move that can be described as an Aufhebung, the movement, that is, through which more complex determinations are generated from simpler ones, are firstly the immanent negation of some determination, followed in turn by the negation of the determination to which the first negation gave rise. This ‘doubled transition’ (171) amounts to a slippage between the two determinations in question, with each implying but excluding the other. Finally, this slippage between determinations can be grasped as a single unity, in which the one-sided conceptions of the previous determinations have been replaced with a conception that grasps them as belonging to this new determination in such a way that they have been both “annulled” and “preserved”, as the verb aufheben can suggest.
Burbidge’s account of the dialectical transitions which make up the argument of Hegel’s Logic does not require Hegel to assume in advance the outcome of those transitions, but there are other worries that might be expressed about it. It is not obvious what it is that gives rise to the moment at which the continual slippage between opposing thought-determinations is grasped as a whole. Burbidge invokes the unifying function that Kant attributes to the categories in the transcendental deduction, but it is not clear how helpful this is. Burbidge himself acknowledges that Kant’s discussion of how the categories unify sensible intuitions that have been synthesised by the imagination is somewhat removed from Hegel’s focus on the relations between concepts alone. What Burbidge seems to want from Kant is a discussion of the understanding, since it is the unifying activity that Kant attributes to the understanding that Burbidge sees in Hegel’s Aufhebung. But even then it is not clear exactly what or who is responsible for this unifying activity in Hegel’s case. What is more, Burbidge seems to slip rather too quickly between Kant’s account of the understanding as a faculty for unifying the deliverances of sensibility under concepts and Hegel’s insistence that the understanding is (primarily) a kind of thinking that separates and statically opposes thought determinations, risking giving the impression that Kant and Hegel are talking about the same thing. This cannot be right, but Burbidge’s suggestion that it is ‘understanding’s “power of the negative”, which collapses the double transition with its inherent contradiction and infinite progress into a simple, unified concept’ (172) is mystifying because it gives precisely this impression. What this account seems to require is a discussion of the kind of thinking Hegel describes as “reason”, but this is strangely absent.
Burbidge goes on to provide a useful overview of some of dialectical transitions which occur early in the first book of Hegel’s Logic. In fact, I think that it would have been better still if he had spent a little more time spelling some of these out, rather than focusing on the account of the concepts of being, nothing, and becoming as his most detailed example of an instance of a logical Aufhebung. In the case of this first dialectical transition it is uniquely difficult to see how the original, one-sided determinations of being and nothing are opposed at all, and thus to get the transition on the move. Things become much clearer in the case of, for example, the treatment of the (qualitative) finite and infinite, which Burbidge treats only briefly.
Turning from the Logic to the metaphysics of nature, Burbidge proceeds to provide a whistle-stop tour through some notable features of contemporary particle physics, biochemisty, and biology (which I am not competent to assess), suggesting that these provide evidence for thinking that the kind of dialectical transitions that Hegel explores in his Logic may appear in the activity and development of nature in ways that Hegel did not anticipate. Burbidge thinks that this amounts to a challenge to Hegel’s view that ‘the universe is grounded in a rational structure that is prior to, and independent of nature’ (180). It is not clear to me that such developments need push Hegel to abandon the idea that logic can be treated as an a priori science, independent of the study of nature, but one whose metaphysical implications might be expected to govern nature. Certainly, we might concede to Burbidge that if nature does indeed appear to run on Aufhebung-like processes, then a thinking which takes its cue from the presence of such dialectical transitions in nature and reflects upon them in an abstract context might come to resemble Hegel’s Logic, but this does not guarantee his conclusion that ‘there is no a priori logical structure, but human thought is affected by what it discovers in the changes and transformations of nature’ (181). Aside from the challenges mounted by Kant, Hegel, and others to conceiving of logic on such an empirical basis, it remains the case that if (and admittedly it is a big “if”) Hegel can make a case for the development of such a logic a priori and show that it has metaphysical implications, then he should not be too troubled by the discovery of natural processes which conform to the structures of thought. Burbidge is right to draw attention to outdated claims and failings in Hegel’s own philosophy of nature, but I do not think that these need to cause problems for Hegel’s big picture concerning the relation between thought and reality and the way that Burbidge seems to think that they might.
With that, I draw my discussion of just some of the essays assembled in this volume to a close. As additional highlights not addressed here, I would direct the reader’s attention to an essay by Collins which considers the role of Hegel’s account of religion in the context of the argument of the Phenomenology (85-108), an essay by Testa on Hegel’s treatment of embodied cognition and agency (269-95), an essay by Yeomans on the relation between Hegel’s logic and his political thought (373-88), and Motroshilova’s account of the development of Hegel’s treatment of the history of philosophy (485-517). By way of conclusion I shall simply state that there is a great deal in this volume that will be of interest to Hegel scholars and students, and that the Palgrave Hegel Handbook provides a valuable addition to the resources available to anyone engaging seriously with almost any facet of Hegel’s work.
Baur, M. and Houlgate, S. 2011. A Companion to Hegel. Oxford: Blackwell.
Bunyard, T. 2019. “Demagogy and Social Pathology: Wendy Brown and Robert Pippin on the Pathologies of Neoliberal Subjectivity.” Araucaria, Vol 21 Issue 42: 505-527
de Laurentiis, A. and Edwards, J. 2013. The Bloomsbury Companion to Hegel. London: Bloomsbury.
Kreines, J. 2015. Reason in the World: Hegel’s Metaphysics and its Philosophical Appeal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Moyar, D. 2017. The Oxford Handbook of Hegel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Monahan, M. 2017. Creolizing Hegel (London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Westphal, K. 2018. Grounds of Pragmatic Realism: Hegel’s Internal Critique and Reconstruction of Kant’s Critical Philosophy. Leiden: Brill.