George di Giovanni: Hegel and the Challenge of Spinoza

George di Giovanni. Hegel and the Challenge of Spinoza: A Study in German Idealism , 1801–1831. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 247 pp. + xii pp. ISBN: 978-1-108-84224-2.

Book review by Renxiang Liu (Tsinghua University). Published in Idealistic Studies 52.2 (2022): 107-113, Under permission of the publisher.

There have been historical accounts of German Idealism which depict Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel as constituting a linear development. There have been those which see them as representing mutually independent directions of development. The merit of di Giovanni’s treatise is that all the figures in it are presented as responding to the same set of questions—reason’s status in regard to nature, relation between rational theology and the positive history of the religious community, how classical metaphysics can be overcome, etc.—but are divided according to how they faced the challenge of Spinoza’s metaphysical monism. Hegel, while borrowing substantially from Fichte’s and Schelling’s breakthroughs, turned out to be the one who brought Kant’s transcendental philosophy to consummation. By contrast, Fichte and Schelling, each in his own way, tended towards a monism in which philosophy absorbs experience into God’s plan, as had been the case in classical metaphysics before Kant. What results in this book is thus a powerful re-evaluation of Hegel’s novelty, distancing him from the metaphysical project and highlighting the significance of becoming, self-validation, and the irreducibility of the community in Hegel’s thought.

Roughly speaking, the tasks di Giovanni undertakes in the book can be divided into two kinds. The first is to set up the stage for Hegel’s breakthrough, and this sometimes means extensive exposition of Fichte’s or Schelling’s works. Cases in point are Fichte’s Bericht (1801), 1801/1802 Wissenschaftslehre, 1804 Wissenschaftslehre, Grundzüge (1806), and Anweisung (1806); Schelling’s Darstellung (1801), Fernere Darstellungen (1802), freedom essay (1809), and Die Weltalter (1813). The second kind is to thematically interpret Hegel’s works (notably the Phenomenology and Logic) so as to show how Hegel’s ideas were highly contextualized and, as such, irreducible to those of Fichte or Schelling. While the second kind contributes more directly to our understanding of Hegel, here I shall focus mainly on the first, for that is what makes the book’s account a properly historical one—moreover, it allows us to appreciate the full spectrum of positions in German Idealism and then to situate Hegel’s novelty within it.

The most general backdrop of the debates in this period was made clear by the pantheism controversy: the rationalism of the Enlightenment came into conflict with the historical positivity of revealed religion, that is to say with the personal relation between the human individual and God. Jacobi had already framed Spinoza as the philosopher who brought classical, rationalist metaphysics (which subjected things in themselves to a priori principles) to its most consistent conclusion: a monism in which individual personality became trivial, even illusory. (2–4)

The image of Kant in this debate was twofold. On the one hand, with his critique of rational metaphysics, Kant initiated a tradition of transcendental philosophy which sought the truth of experience from within it, instead of from a perspective beyond it. This “Copernican turn” was by no means a mere return to Berkeleian subjective idealism; the genuine breakthrough consisted in ‘bracketing’ the inexplicable basis of experience while attending to how subjectivity constitutes experience as objective (i.e., as about objects). In this way, the account of individual personality and freedom may be dissociated from any overarching metaphysical plan (11).

On the other hand, while blocking speculative reason’s claim to knowledge of the thing-in-itself, Kant kept the latter as a legitimate aim. An intellectual intuition of it was possible, though this was reserved for God. As for finite beings like us, the access was permitted via practical reason’s subjective act of positing. In doing so, Kant left intact a criterion of knowledge outside of experience, a criterion allowing us to tell whether knowledge is ‘truly true’ (9).

In the post-Kantian context, the latter tendency of Kant posed for his successors the challenge to bridge the gap between a self-contained truth (the thing-in-itself as a postulate) and whatever reason was capable of predicating of it in actual experience. It led the generation to ask about the pre-subjective source of subjective positing. In doing so, however, they were tempted to think of an unknown substance which already contained all possibilities of experience. It served as a pre-history of experience, a silent ground. Once this ground was interpreted philosophically as pre-determining experience, a metaphysical monism would ensue again (12–16).

Such, di Giovanni argues, was the case for both Fichte and Schelling after 1800. The two came into dispute over the notion of nature, which in Kant referred exclusively to the phenomenal world. In the search for a presubjective ground of experience, nature was construed either as this very ground, hence exceeding and giving birth to conceptual understanding (as in the Schelling of the period of Naturphilosophie), or as the yet indeterminate resistance which the “I” encountered in its assertion of self-identity (as in the Fichte of the 1801/02 Wissenschaftslehre). From Fichte’s perspective, Schelling’s nature was something ready-made, yet according to laws which are not nature’s own; as Schelling saw it, however, Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre had nothing to do with reality, while the “I” was in fact itself a development of nature (38–39).

In this dispute, one thing became decisive. Both philosophers were adopting an implicit monism, and thus they were faced with the difficulty of deriving multiplicity (observed in experience) from the presupposed One. The question was, in other words, what warranted the introduction of distinctions? Since the intellectual intuition of the One, as a theoretical device, did not solve the question but only postponed it, both Fichte and Schelling were moved to further clarify their monism in the period that followed.

In the case of Fichte, the response to the question was summarized under the name “transcendental Spinozism.” While Fichte was faithful to Kant’s project in that he stayed within the bounds of possible experience, he identified the transcendental condition of experience with the One—more precisely, with a light which made possible the visibility of all truths (63). According to this view, the coincidence of the subject and its object was right there at the beginning, for they were but One and remained in One (65). Their separation, on the other hand, was an illusion, at best an epiphenomenon generated by reflection, which itself was a gratuitous event.

What Fichte called a hiatus irrationalis, i.e., the gap between truth (the One) and its appearance (the Many), was according to Fichte not really there (76). There was, in fact, no gap to traverse to begin with; the task of philosophy was to let us realize this. In other words, Fichte’s was an ontological quietism, the idea that we are always already bathed in the Absolute (84).

Accordingly, the point is not to express the truth (for that would introduce distinctions and obscure the truth) but to live it existentially (85). Fichte considered himself already living in the bliss, as if sub specie aeternitatis; he was committed to bringing the entire humankind to that state (128).

When it came to the significance of religion, Fichte’s monism demanded that we first have the right feelings for the One. The positive details of the sacred history, by contrast, were at best superfluous; compared to the eternity of God, they were governed by a nothingness unique to representation. Multiplicity as exhibited in history arose (more precisely: seemed to arise) only because of the imperfection of manifestation, while the Oneness of God remained unaffected; God knew of no outside. The unfolding of history was thus subject to universal and immutable laws; history was already written in what was ahistorical. The story of the human race was in fact that of God’s own knowledge, and love, of himself; as such, the story followed a necessity already written. Human individuals were the means of God’s self-knowledge and self-love; they vanish into God’s monologue (183–92).

Schelling’s position is characterized in the book as a “prophetic Spinozism.” Schelling saw classical metaphysics as an obsession with negativity, i.e., an identification of things with the conceptual determination thereof (92). Schelling’s discontent with this was inspired by Jacobi’s emphasis on the positive history of religion, though Schelling rejected Jacobi’s philosophy of feeling which squarely opposed reason to faith. Schelling’s task was to deepen reason so that it become capable of the historical.

Schelling’s approach was to reform the image of reality and to allow for it the ceaseless production of oppositions in constant growth. For this, he redefined evil, giving it a ‘positive’ role which it played as evil (96). Evil played a positive role, because only so would freedom be real—otherwise, freedom would vanish once we turn to the viewpoint of a “grand design” of history. However, Schelling understood this freedom above all as God’s freedom, indicating that his creations (appearing in our factical experience) could have been otherwise. That God ‘pursued’ a particular path in history exhibited God’s freedom (100).

In doing so, Schelling let his God interiorize the struggle between the One and the Many, transforming it into that between his undifferentiated being (Seyn) and his definite existence (Dasein), between gravity and light, between a “causa before causa sui” and a full-fledged causa sui (103). The problem was that, once God’s eternity was reintroduced in the latter half of Schelling’s freedom essay, the time of human history could only be defined as “nothing but a constant yearning for eternity” (120). In a spirit akin to that of classical metaphysics, Schelling held on to a fundamental union indifferent to determinations that otherwise generated time. This union was the Eternal, and time was only its external manifestation. Historical becoming (which allowed for freedom and evil) was only a stage of static being.

Viewed from the perspective of God, becoming was thus “a becoming that had fully become”; God in this completed state carried with him the entire past of his becoming (104). Such was a becoming affected by no actual lack; likewise, God was not affected at all by human (temporal) finitude. His Word was a System from the start; all that happened in creation was predetermined and presciently known by God (116).

Meanwhile, the human individual became the vehicle of evil. As a singular realization of the dark principle, the evil individual was posited by the principle of light as an opposing, and indeed vanishing, stage (111; 114). Human history was thus a means for God’s freedom; historical narrative was an account of the fall from, and return to, an original divine life beyond reason (176). In this way, while evil belonged to the human individual, freedom was in effect denied of her, for freedom happened only on a cosmic scale, indicating the gratuity of God’s creation (176; 197).

For both Fichte and Schelling, to sidestep the hiatus irrationalis meant to stick to a monist view of reality and to make the individual Many vanish in an “always-already” (127). The history of humankind was in this sense only a retrieval [Wiederholung] of this accomplished past; at bottom, there was no such thing as human creativity (128).

It is against this backdrop of metaphysical monism that di Giovanni frames Hegel’s novelty. The first argument he makes is that reason was not fully autonomous with Kant, Fichte, or Schelling. They all subordinated reason to a source which transcended it. While reason generated an intelligible space once it came on the scene, that this would occur at all remained an unexplainable fact because outside of reason’s reach (131). Reason’s provenance was not in its own radiance.

In rediscovering in reason itself the source of its own facticity, Hegel dispensed with the idea of a transcendent, anonymous reality. He stayed within reason, and reason alone (56). This might seem prima facie an extremely dogmatic metaphysics, one which claimed that being must conform to the pattern of thinking. Such was the accusation from Schelling, Marx, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger; some interpretations of Hegel, still prevalent today, have also encouraged this reading of Schelling’s metaphysical project into Hegel’s work.

But Hegel’s interest was not at all in the relation of the cosmos to the transcendent creator. It was in the universe of meaning made possible by a rational activity capable of reflection (137). In this universe of meaning, we find the re-presentation of what is otherwise nature; re-presentation makes the latter “fall upward” into the medium of concepts, possibilities, and norms. Nature was thus made ‘softer’ and ‘richer’ with mediation. Nothing in the universe of meaning would claim absolute transcendence or incomprehensibility; moreover, this is not a claim competitive with classical metaphysics (138).

What followed this reorientation of philosophy was that the truth of experience was to be found nowhere except in the course of its events; unlike in Schelling, they did not presuppose an atemporal and completed basis. In this, di Giovanni observes a return to the first aspect of Kantian philosophy mentioned at the beginning, i.e., to a genuinely transcendental inquiry.

But this circumvention of the problematics of traditional metaphysics was only possible thanks to two breakthroughs on Hegel’s part: the replacement of Fichte and Schelling’s metaphysics of being with a metaphysics of becoming, and the replacement of their divine monism with a human pluralism when it came to the definition of reason.

The metaphysics of becoming means that a being is what it is only by becoming it. Its being is therefore already an achievement of self-validation; in this self-validation, the being transforms determinations and conditionswhich would otherwise affect it only externally—into its own being, its own identity (222). The reality of an actual being comes from its very coming-to-be [ἐνέργεια] (224-25). In this sense, historical events are fragile creations at the level of rational activity; they are contained in the universe of meaning (intelligibility), and there is no need to go beyond them to discover a predetermined script (176–77). The creative negativity of reason makes the events both explicable (in retrospect) and unpredictable (in prospect).

Through this lens, we see how Hegel’s Phenomenology was not narrated from the standpoint of God but from that of the “we”, a historically achieved rational community. Individual, rational intentions ran across historical events; this alone made them intelligible to “us”. Instead of leaving human plurality behind, rationality here flourished upon it (176).

This brings us to the role of human plurality. While historical processes are affected by contingency (such is the demand of genuine, human freedom), reason’s norms have nonetheless been at play in them, though these norms can only be explained ex post facto, such as in the Phenomenology. Experience is at once temporal and inherently rational—not in the sense of reflecting ready-made eternal truths for an atemporal reason, but in the sense that the subjects engaged in it are rational agents. Rationality here is metaphysically ‘groundless’ and essentially pluralist, as it is only discovered and created, bit by bit, by a multitude of historical, individual agents (139–40).

Accordingly, the upshot of the Phenomenology consisted, not in a metaphysics supposedly underlying the movement it documented, but in a doubling [Doppelung] of an otherwise natural structure in conceptual mediation and personal recognition. The development the book narrated was from what was merely singular [Einzeln] to self-standing individuals [Individuum] (145), thanks to the mediation of language, an entire web of meaning. Language permitted the sharing of individuality in the full sense, above all because it allowed for the differentiation and localization of identity (149; 226).

If it seemed in this narrative that normativity transcended nature, this was not because normativity was of a metaphysical order higher than nature, but simply because “nature”, in the universe of meaning, had been construed in the first place according to a specific, albeit vanishing, norm—namely, that of the Ansich (161).

How is evil explained in Hegel’s narrative? It is referred to the moment when a singular agent claims universal validity for its particular existence. Thus, violence and evil necessarily accompany our rationality; they are the by-product of individual personality. As di Giovanni puts it, “we are evil because we are rational” (175).

The vocation [Bestimmung] of the humankind, however, consists in the capability of reconciliation. Humanity means creating a fold or depth to contain, rather than abolish, violence (162). This remedy for violence comes from within reason—more precisely, from the intervention of the community (174–75).

When we apply this overall account of reason to the issue of religious life, we see that religious life is indeed rational, but this through feeling—in other words, the mediations are displayed in an immediate relationship (202). In it, Spirit, i.e., the historical achievement of reason (pluralist in nature), is seen, heard, and felt (214). The positivity of what is seen, heard, and felt, e.g., the figure of the Christ, must moreover be approached as historical. Historical positivity is sacred, not superfluous.

In this immediate yet incredibly folded religious life, individuals finally count as individuals. The religious community then makes possible the confession and forgiving of evil—not by outstepping the human situation in a forgetfulness, but by a commitment to a new start (218).

Lastly, Hegel was very clear that comprehending reconciliation was not the same as reconciling. Philosophy concerned the former alone, and so it would never replace religion or living in general. Comprehension objectifies and aims at universalization, while religion is about the self-validation of identity. The latter cannot be absorbed into a discourse of the universal (220). This, in my view, is the “Kierkegaardian” moment of di Giovanni’s interpretation of Hegel, except that, for di Giovanni’s Hegel, the “existential pull” of religion, which is lacking in philosophical inquiries, concerns not only the human individual but also the community composed of a multitude of such individuals. Only in this arena of lived and living plurality is reconciliation called for as an inaugural act—an act to start anew from the conflict and violence, which themselves are inevitably implied in plurality.

Accordingly, Hegel’s Logic was not a metaphysics imbued with logicism but a Kategorienlehre. Pervasive for him was only a logicality/logicity [das Logische], i.e., what must be said of an object in general so that it stands in its objectivity. This is a “realm of shadows,” the study of which only follows behind historical experience. Instead of prescribing according to a monist principle how things must be, how we should act, or how history will proceed, the Logic only discovers, and this often in retrospect only, what patterns our experience must exhibit so that it be intelligible. Moreover, the categories are not subjective in a psychological sense (as in Kant). The norms of intelligibility are not applied externally to immediate experience; rather, the latter is generated by the categories (233–34).

Thus traversing questions like the role of reason, the notion of nature, the positivity of historical events, the irreducibility of personal freedom, and the excess of religious life over philosophical (logical) reflection, di Giovanni shows how Hegel has met the “challenge of Spinoza”: to save the possibility of human personality, once undermined by classical metaphysics, with a conceptual clarity comparable to that of Spinoza (236). What neither Fichte nor Schelling accomplished was to make evil a human creation out of rationality, thus making evil real—for what is real is what is achieved.

Published by Renxiang Liu

Philosopher, Phenomenologist, Humanist.

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