Fackenheim was certainly not far off the mark when he suggested, in The Religious Dimension of Hegel's Thought, that ‘theologians have never taken Hegel seriously.’1 The exception to this rule, more often than not, at least in America, comes from those theologians who treat Hegel as a serious threat to what they consider sacred. And yet Hegel's entire philosophical system could – and perhaps should – be read as fundamentally theological in its orientation, since it is preoccupied to the extreme with God construed as ‘the Absolute.’ Indeed, the inspirational economy behind the aphorism for which Hegel is best known, i.e., that ‘the truth is the whole,’ was at least initially a theological ideal in which God was conceived of as ‘an eternal desire for self-revelation.’ Although one might be tempted to agree with Laurence Dickey when he claims that the Frankfurt school strategy of ‘going back to the text’ is misguided, since so much of the intellectual context of what Hegel wrote is unfamiliar to us,2 I am convinced that ‘going back to the text’ is indispensable to understanding Hegel's philosophy of religion.

In the following essay I want to suggest that the birthplace of Hegel's so-called ‘mature system’ is not to be found in the Phenomenology but rather one of his Jena-period essays – namely, ‘Faith and Knowledge’ (1802a). But more than that, I wish also to show that the central insight animating his ‘Faith and Knowledge’ essay, and subsequently the entire system, was animated by a theological description of divine cognition that Hegel encountered as a seminarian. In order to accomplish this, I will summarize in § I what I consider to be Hegel's earliest formulation of the speculative enterprise, discuss in § II the positive sense inherent to the negativity disclosed in the activity of reflectivity, draw attention to what we learn about the role of the Idee in Hegel's speculative religion in § III, draw attention to the theological precedent – namely, Oetinger's ‘Zentrallerkenntnis’– for Hegel's philosophical ideal of absolute knowledge in § IV, and then conclude with several rather modest observations about what we might still have to learn from Hegel's early Religionsphilosophie.


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  4. III. The Role of the Absolute Idea in Speculative Religion

Bergson occasionally quipped, as did Heidegger, that strong philosophers are preoccupied to the extreme with a singular yet inexhaustible thought, an idée fixe, and the accompanying ideal of expressing or otherwise presenting that idea consistently, completely and coherently. Perhaps the idea in service of which Hegel worked so diligently to express, the string upon which he strummed, time and again, with cadenced pathos, is captured best in his preface to the Phenomenology (1807):3

The true is the whole [Das Wahre ist das Ganze]. But the whole is nothing other than the essence consummating itself through its development. Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result that only in the end is it what it truly is …. Reason is, therefore, misunderstood when reflection is excluded from the True, and is not grasped as a positive moment of the Absolute. It is reflection that makes the True a result, but it is equally reflection that overcomes the antithesis between the process of its becoming and the result …

And while this citation may well serve as a fitting epigram for the Hegelian pantology, as it does in the Hegel museum in Stuttgart, it is hardly the whole truth about Hegel. Compare this passage, taken from Hegel's Foreword to the Phenomenology, with his comment in ‘Faith and Knowledge’ (1802)4:

[The reflective philosophies of subjectivity] have their positive, genuine though subordinate, position within true philosophy …. For they recognize that thinking is infinity, the negative side of the Absolute. Infinity is the pure nullification of the antithesis of finitude; but it is at the same time also the spring of eternal movement, the spring of that finitude which is infinity, as out of the secret abyss that is its birthplace …. But on the other hand, these philosophies of reflection cannot be prevented from fixating infinity, the Ego, and turning it into subjectivity instead of letting it directly somersault into the positivity of the absolute Idea.

The central thesis of ‘Faith and Knowledge’ is not unlike the remainder of the Hegelian corpus. But as is often the case with an early formation of a leitmotif, the thesis is less elaborate and elegant than in the latter stages of its articulation; it is, however, perhaps for this very reason, a remarkably clear expression of the programme that would busy if not haunt Hegel for the rest of his days. Hegel's ‘Faith and Knowledge’ essay serves as both a beginning and an end: Although recent Hegel scholars concur that ‘it was during the Jena years that Hegel made his weightiest decisions,’ and that there appears to be an ‘astonishing consistency’ between the Jena-period manuscripts and his mature system, it must be admitted also that ‘this development has not yet been investigated as it should, and it has not infrequently been entirely disregarded.’5 Following Hodgson, ‘the basic conceptual decisions’ concerning the theory of the divine as the unification of the infinite and finite ‘were made during Hegel's tenure in Jena and completed by the time of writing the Phenomenology of Spirit.’6 In his earlier theological writings, Hegel repeated deferred – with the proviso that it was something that would need to be ‘settled elsewhere’– the conceptual elucidation of the relationship between the human and the divine, which ‘in the end [required] a metaphysical treatment of the relationship between the finite and the infinite.’7‘Faith and Knowledge’ belongs to the ‘elsewhere’ in question by providing – in content and contour if not also the definitive form of its systematic development8– a metaphysical treatment of the concept of God.

Hegel entered the ‘literary revel’ that was Jena as an enthusiast of the much anticipated Schellingean system within which the true shape of philosophy was to emerge, in which the absolute –‘there, where all is one’– was to be apprehended, and ‘the two most opposite systems … unite in the absolute, i.e., where they cease as opposite systems.’9 The Critical Journal, which Schelling and Hegel co-edited in Jena, was an attempt to provide a critical forum which examined the present state of philosophy and, in the process, cleared away the ‘abundantly flourishing weeds’ which at that time threatened the ‘few good seeds that had been sown.’10 The ‘genuinely scientific concern [of the Journal was] to peel off the shell that keeps the inner aspiration from seeing daylight’11; this brand of philosophical criticism, for Hegel, though not for Schelling, consists in recounting how the reflective philosophies of subjectivity ‘confess their non-being.’12 In short, the speculative goal of philosophy is the apprehension of the absolute – i.e., speculative cognition. But if Düsing's analysis of the Jena-period collaboration is correct,13 Schelling and Hegel disagreed sharply on the prospects of this cognition – in particular, they disagreed significantly on the positive relationship between common cognition and philosophy. And while Schelling was firmly convinced that there is ‘no path which leads from [common cognition] to philosophy,’ it was upon such a path that Hegel spent his life. Whereas the Schellingean conception of the Absolute, like that of the Spinozistic, is one which excludes all genuine negation (i.e., identity simpliciter or schlechthin), the distinctively Hegelian version of speculation is one in which the absolute necessarily involves a theory of negation – i.e. for Hegel, not unlike Fichte, ‘the identity of the Ego=Ego is no pure identity.’14 In his Darstellung meines Systems der Philosophie, and as a logical consequence of this conception of the absolute as an absolute and pure identity, Schelling says that ‘the absolute as such can never become the object of knowledge, thought and philosophy.’15 The Hegelian corpus is, successful or not, a sustained effort to refute this Schellingean conviction. The task of unfolding a system of the sort envisioned by the critical journalists, as ‘a complete appearance of philosophy in all its richness,’ would require – as Hegel put it in the Phenomenology–‘the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative.’ The Schellingean system announced the transition to a new era, the world of spirit, but in Schelling it remained merely the principle of a system, i.e., in the inwardness of aesthetic insight. But this ‘new world,’ says Hegel, ‘is no more a complete actuality than is a new born child; it is essential to bear this in mind.’16 In retrospect, thought Hegel, the Schellingean system – profound in its vision – remained undetermined and thus esoteric.

Schelling insists – in his Über das Verhältniss der Naturphilosophie zur Philosophie Überhaupt, Ideen, and System essays – that the ‘original and pure identity’ [ursprüngliche und reine Identität] is impenetrable to all reflective efforts and the identities constructed by the understanding [Verstandes-Identität]. And although Schelling's conception of speculation varies from text to text, it is – both before, during, and after the Jena period collaboration – understood primarily as an immediate apprehension and never the mediated result of reflective processes; this points to a significant difference between the Hegelian and Schellingean perspective on the relationship of reflection to speculation. Hegel maintains that reflection is central to the speculative enterprise, i.e., borrowing a felicitous phrase from Heidegger, that it is only by means of reflection that we reflect our way out of reflection [‘sich aus dieser Reflexion hinauszureflektieren’].17 On this point, at least, on how to ‘think pure being,’ Hegel was much closer to Fichte than he was to Schelling; in the Wissenschaftslehre, first published in 1797, Fichte claimed that

… the concept of being is by no means a first and original concept, but rather derivative – as a concept derived specifically through opposition to activity, and therefore as merely a negative concept.18

For Hegel, subjecting the reflective philosophies of subjectivity to systematic scrutiny is not simply a matter of watching them collapse in on themselves – by means of exposing the contradiction inherent in the constructs of the understanding – and thereby stripping away the empty husk of reflection so that the substance of absolute philosophy might be presented without distortion; on the contrary, careful attention to the antinomies indicative of reflection is itself the disclosure of speculative cognition or absolute knowing. The theory of negation to which Hegel subscribed was perhaps first articulated, poetically, by Hölderlin. (There is precedent also in Goethe and Fichte.) In the Preface to his Hyperion, for example, which was published during the time that Hegel joined the poet in Frankfurt, Hölderlin claims that ‘the blessed unity, Being, in the only sense of the word, is lost to us and we had to lose it if we were to strive for it and win it.’

Although Schelling originally wrote the following passage prior to his collaboration with Hegel in Jena, he may have had Hegel in mind when he amended the following passage for the 1803 edition of the Ideen:

The philosopher who employs his entire life, or a part of it, following [reflective philosophy] into its endless oppositions in order to abolish its last opposition, earns through this service that which, when it remains negative, is reserved for the best among those similarly respected – a relatively dignified position, assuming that he should not have enough in himself to resuscitate philosophy from the raggedness of [reflection] and into its absolute form.

But it may have been Schelling who missed the critical point. Kroner thinks that Fichte was right when he reprimanded Schelling – in a letter from May of 1801 – that his highest principle ruins all positivity, that the absolute point of indifference was only an abstraction, that his system lacked movement and that he privileged intuition over thought [‘das Denken über das Anschauen vernachlässigt hätte’].19 (Fichte is responding to a letter from Schelling, in which Schelling described his conception of the Absolute ‘als etwas, dessen Anschauen im Denken, dessen Denken im Anschauen ist20; the identity of thought and intuition was, allegedly, at the very heart of the speculative system.) The Hegelian system might well be read as a corrective to this intuitionist strain in the Schellingean system.

For Hegel, the reflective if not negative side of the absolute draws the positive side into the scope of determinate thought – i.e., it is precisely in our cognition of reflective negation that we become cognizant of the speculative absolute.21 According to the Encyclopedia Logic,

restriction and defect are only determined as restriction and defect by comparison with the Idea that is present … It is only lack of consciousness therefore, if we do not see that it is precisely the designation of something as finite or restricted that contains the proof of the actual presence of the Infinite or Unrestricted ….22

The finitude indicative of the reflective philosophies of subjectivity – or indeed of any consciousness, however confused and impaired it might be23– is nevertheless a trace of the infinite: and yet, it is only by sublimating the illusions characteristic of reflectivity that the speculative purpose is fulfilled. The difference between Hegel and Schelling rests on the function, value, and interpretation of the activity of sublating [aufheben] that illusion (i.e., finitude or error). Said all at once, Hegel's mature view is that

the Idea produces the illusion in which we live for itself; it posits an other confronting itself and its action consists in sublating that illusion. Only from this error does the truth come forth and herein lies our reconciliation with error and finitude.24

This metaphysical insight, namely, that ‘the inward movement of thought that results from reflection on the finite as the vehicle for navigating the passage between the finite and the infinite,25 is significant also to the design of the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (1821 – 1831): ‘It is the finite content from which we pass over to God, from which we relate ourselves to the absolute, infinite content and pass over to it.’26

Hegel considers scientific systemization to be indispensable to an adequate apprehension of the absolute – i.e., as necessary to the transition from philosophy as the love of knowledge to philosophy as the actual possession of knowledge; for him, ‘to know is to think,’ to think is to think determinately (i.e., ‘thought is systematized reflection’), and to think determinately involves ‘the labor of the negative.’ As he put it in the Differenzschrift, ‘unknowing becomes knowing through organization.’27


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  4. III. The Role of the Absolute Idea in Speculative Religion

The new born peace that hovers [schwebt] triumphantly over the corpse of faith and reason, uniting them as the child of both, has as little of Reason in it as it has of authentic faith.28

Hegel's ‘Faith and Knowledge’ essay provides a revisionist reading of three prominent faith philosophers [Glaubensphilosophen]: Kant, Jacobi and Fichte. The ‘corpse of faith and reason,’ to which Hegel is alluding in the above quote, is the casualty of what Hegel considered to be an unfortunate compromise between faith and reason: The rational faith for which the critical philosophy made room, by limiting the reach of reason,29 which constituted a clever but ultimately inadequate solution to a difficult problem, writes Hegel, ‘no longer appeared to be worth the bother.’ And victorious but deflated reason, let us call her enlightened, hovering but by no means soaring, suggests Hegel, no longer seemed to be ‘worthy of the name.’ Hegel's analysis of the reflective philosophies of subjectivity demonstrates the dialectical somersaults by which finitude (read: one-sidedness and error) ‘emerges in its own proper shape.’30 Indeed, it is only by following reflection along her path – or ‘highway of despair’– from common understanding to rational knowledge that one discovers the teleology or essence inherent in that original unity from which one-sidedness and finitude were initially extracted. That is to say, the Idee– or that mode of cognition which is, allegedly, ‘philosophy's sole knowledge’– is one that will ‘consume and consummate finitude’ [‘die Endlichkeit aufzuzehren’],31 in which the essence of the finite overcomes its own finitude, subliniting or otherwise negating its own negation, reflecting itself beyond reflective understanding, and disclosing itself to be essentially infinite. This double negation displays, following Hegel's speculative method, the forms of determinateness within the simple albeit indeterminate infinite in Kant on the one hand (i.e., the bad infinite) and Schelling on the other (i.e., an abstract universality, the Idee only in its notional form).

According to Hegel's terse conclusion to ‘Faith and Knowledge,’ the reflective philosophies of subjectivity considered in his analysis recast the ‘dogmatism of being’ into ‘the dogmatism of thinking’; in this way, dogmatism merely assumes a ‘hue of inwardness.’ This was almost as true of Schelling at this stage in his career as it was of Kant, Jacobi, and Fichte; indeed, Schelling wrote to Hegel that ‘whereas for Spinozism the object itself [das Objekt schlechthin] was everything, for me it is the subject.’32

The critical journalists argue that the shared assumption ‘ineradicably implanted’ in the reflective philosophies of subjectivity is the conviction that “in order to be genuinely real, the ‘in itself’ must be independent of the Ego outside it.”33 This supposition is inherent also in those forms of idealism which, by the method of simple conversion, cheaply earn their name by immediately dismissing the ‘in itself’ and insisting instead on the utter independence of the Ego; in this brand of idealism, the “in itself is denied in theoretical philosophy – the Ego neither posits it within itself, nor genuinely posits itself in it, rather the ‘in itself’ is simply superseded, and its reality is entirely disavowed.” This disavowal goes unnoticed as a result of what Hegel would later call ‘edifying philosophy’– i.e., a brand of philosophy that ‘introduces the Absolute as faith through the back door.’ In this way, the reflective philosophies of subjectivity try to answer the need of their age not with knowledge of what is (i.e., ‘to think pure being’) but rather with compensations for a lost sense of solid and substantial being (i.e., edification).34

The edifying philosophers meet the demand of their age by carefully crafting an absolute being ‘which is all and does all, but never itself makes an appearance’; rather than making an appearance, the absolute is hurriedly escorted into an unattainable beyond. This enterprise is doomed, thinks Hegel, not only because the reconciliation is precarious and insubstantial but also because a faith of this sort, one steeped in a reflective attitude toward finitude, cannot – in principle – lift itself above its subjectivity. When the light dove of reason ventures out on the wings of the ideas,35 when she reclaims her existence in the absolute, she will also reshape our understanding of religion. An adequate (read: speculative) religion would demonstrate in some manner that though ‘[w]e usually suppose that the absolute must lie far beyond, it is precisely what is wholly present.’36

III. The Role of the Absolute Idea in Speculative Religion

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  4. III. The Role of the Absolute Idea in Speculative Religion

Enlightened Reason won a glorious victory over what it believed, in its limited conception of religion, to be faith as opposed to Reason. Yet seen in clear light the victory comes to no more than this: the positive element with which Reason busied itself to do battle, is no longer religion, and victorious Reason is no longer Reason.’37

Following Kant's famous dictum, the reflective philosophers of subjectivity ‘found it necessary to limit the reach of reason in order to make room for faith’: For Kant, the supersensuous qua noumenon lay beyond the reach of reason; for Jacobi, not altogether unlike Schleiermacher, reason is reduced to a corrupt instinct and the absolute is known only by feeling; and in Fichte, according to Hegel's reading of the Bestimmung des Menschen, knowledge knows nothing save that it knows nothing. As a means of recovering from ‘a lost sense of solid and substantial being,’ these philosophers seek refuge in faith. For them, the absolute is no more against reason than it is for it: it is beyond [jenseit] reason. As a consequence, says Hegel,

religion builds its temples and alters in the hearts of the individual. In sighs and prayers he seeks for the god whom he denies to himself in intuition, because of the risk that the intellect will cognize what is intuited as a mere thing, reducing the sacred grove to mere timber.38

This religious posture, which Hegel considers to be characteristic of Protestantism, or ‘the principle of the north,’ is the result of a principle of subjectivity by which reason renounces – because immersed in finitude – intuition and cognition of the eternal. As Hegel puts it, ‘[i]t is precisely through its flight from the finite and through its rigidity that subjectivity turns the beautiful into things, the grove into timber.’39 Hegel's point: Denying or otherwise limiting knowledge, which was Kant's strategy for making room for faith, has the unintended consequence of undermining faith. As part of his critique of Jacobi, Hegel asks ‘whether a faith that has this reflective attitude to finite knowledge is truly able to raise itself above subjectivity and finitude, since no rational knowledge is supposed to be achievable.’40

To reflect oneself beyond the limits of reflection, which is how Heidegger characterized the Hegelian strategy, one must reflect on the limits of reflection as well as the possibly self-imposed over-determinations or over-delimiting estimates of the reach of reason and the understanding; this was the ostensive purpose of ‘Faith and Knowledge.’ But Hegel is interested also in the process by which the infinite consumes and consummates finite; this is what one finds in the Phenomenology. The finest expression of Hegel's speculative religion is found in his Foreword to H. Fr. W. Hinrich's 1822 Die Religion im inneren Verhaeltnisse zur Wissenschaft and the Berlin Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion.

For the reflective philosophers of subjectivity, which for Hegel is ‘by no means a restricted expression of the spirit of a brief epoch or small group,’ philosophy no longer aimed at the cognition of God but rather – and only – the cognition of the person. At this stage, the person is no longer a glowing spark of eternal beauty, or a spiritual focus of the universe, but an absolute sensibility. When steeped in finitude, religion has its sublime aspect in feeling; resigned to its restriction to the sensuous, wrote the critical journalists, ‘philosophy prettifies herself with the surface color of the supersensuous by pointing, in faith, to something higher.’ At its best, these philosophies acknowledge that although the absolute identity exists only for faith, it ought to exist for cognition and knowledge; the task of constructing identity and integration simply cannot be performed. In these philosophies, then, the supersensuous world is only the flight from the sensuous world. Cognizant only of the fact that it cannot cognize the absolute, philosophy takes up an edifying role and tries to meet the need of the age by slipping God in ‘through the back door of faith.’41 In an attempt to tear persons away from the sensuous and to direct their gaze to the stars, suggests Hegel, the reflective philosophies of subjectivity reaffirm what thought had put asunder and restore the feeling of essential being; in this way, these philosophies arouse the desire to bite, but offer nothing to eat.42 In pre-speculative philosophies,

spirit shows itself as so impoverished that, like a wanderer in the desert craving for a mere mouthful of water, it seems to crave for its refreshment only the bare feeling of the divine in general. By the little which now satisfies Spirit, we can measure the extent of its loss.43

This, then, is the life of spirit for an age which denies itself the rational cognition of the absolute; even worse, this resignation to finitude is construed as piety: ‘by drawing a veil over self-consciousness and surrendering understanding’ we become the beloved of God. The intensity of our feeling, because it is without a core, is ‘a rapturous haziness’ that ‘is in no way distinguishable from superficiality.’ The religious attitude considered here is one which rests upon, in its flight from, the feeling that ‘God Himself is dead’ and where nature is such that ‘it signifies everywhere a lost God both within and outside man.’44 Emptied of objective content, faith and reason are inadequately – because unsustainably – reconciled. In ‘Faith and Knowledge,’ argues Hodgson, “the concept of absolute spirit is present – it is the true infinite that includes finitude within itself and overcomes it – but the category ‘spirit’ is itself lacking.”45 By the time he wrote the Foreward essay, Hegel was committed to a notion of faith ‘as involving both phases [objectivity and subjectivity], the one just as much as the other, and I place them together, bound up in a differentiated unity [in unterschiedener Einheit].’46

The goal of speculative religion, says Hegel, consists in sublating the ‘negation of my particular, empirical existence.’47 Speculative thought overcomes the decisive one-sidedness of human subjectivity as manifested in, say, Pietism or the Enlightenment and conceptually cognizes the unity of the finite and the infinite.48 As Hegel puts it in his 1821 lecture series, philosophy should conceive of religion as reconciled with reason: ‘Instead [of allowing] reason and religion to contradict themselves, [we must] resolve the discord in the manner [appropriate] to us – [through a] reconciliation in philosophy.’49 Within the sphere of religion, spirit is steeped in interiority, but

the interiority of devotion limited to emotion and representation is not the highest form of interiority. It is self-determined thinking which has to be recognized as this purest form of knowing. It is in this that science brings the same content to consciousness and thus becomes that spiritual worship which, by systematic thinking, appropriates and comprehends what is otherwise only the content of subjective sentiment or representation.50

Thus, what was originally interior becomes even more internalized by being lifted up into self-determining thinking without losing its sense of adoration.51

The speculative task consists in articulating conceptually what is already experienced in religion. According to the 1824 Concept of Religion, ‘religion is the self-knowing of divine spirit through the mediation of finite spirit’; in the 1824 lectures, religion is the ‘consciousness of the true in and for itself’ and ‘the self-consciousness of absolute spirit.’ The speculative philosophy of religion is one which recognizes that the two sides [one which treats merely the objects as such as God and forget the subjective side as did the Enlightenment, and one which considered and comprehended religion only as something subjective as does Pietism] are united together in a dialectical relationship that is the totality of religion. This dialectic is one grounded in thought: it is necessary to understand that ‘God and religion exist in and through thought – simply and solely in and for thought.’ The unity of these two sides takes place within religious consciousness:52

In religion, I myself am the relation of the two sides [the singularity of the individual human subject and the absolute universality of this other – the two-sided relation implicit in consciousness] thus defined. I the thinking subject, and I the immediate subject, are one and the same I. And further, the relation of the two sides that are so sharply opposed [of utterly finite consciousness and being and of the infinite] is present in religion for me.53

And again,

In thinking, I raise myself above all that is finite to the absolute and am infinite consciousness, while at the same time I am finite self-consciousness, indeed to the full extent of my empirical condition.54

In essence, the subject experiences a simultaneous internal rupture and consociation: ‘I am the conflict … and their bonding together.’55 Because the inner conflict exists as relation and as unity, it is also a unity-in-difference. It is in these terms, then, that we are to understand the relationship of – drawing on Fichte's description of intellectual intuition –‘the I as the knowing and the known object’56 and – drawing on Aristotle's description of divine activity –‘thought thinking itself.’57

The speculative reconciliation of faith and reason relies on a conception of religious consciousness as the concurrence of subjective feeling and objective content. And indeed, this conception of religious consciousness is not new to the later corpus; in his so-called ‘Tübingen Fragment’ (1793), Hegel claims that ‘the Ideas of reason enliven the whole web of human feeling – their operation penetrates everything, like subtle matter and gives a peculiar tinge to every inclination and impulse.’58 The Hegelian reconciliation between faith and knowledge involves a systematic understanding of the relationship between feeling and thought and, with that, the unity of the particular and the universal in religious consciousness. Within the sphere of religious consciousness, the consummation of the finite with the infinite requires philosophers of faith to move beyond a merely historical attitude towards the Absolute.59 By piously adhering to ‘the unconditional requirement that the Absolute be kept outside oneself,’ by identifying the real with that which is independent or transcendent, the reflective philosophers of subjectivity inadvertently commit – suggest Hegel and Schelling –‘the highest form of irreligiosity.’60 Hegel's theory of negation provides, speculatively, a reclamation of what was lost as a consequence of the irreligiosity in question; speculative dialectics, in Hegel, provides a path leading toward that which

supersedes all dichotomy, for only that is in truth One and unchangeably the same. From it alone can a true universe of knowledge evolve, an all-encompassing structure. Only what proceeds from the absolute unity of the infinite and finite is … capable … of what every philosophy strives after, i.e., of becoming in religion, or objectively, an eternal source of new intuition, and a universal model of everything in which human action endeavors to express and portray the harmony of the universe.61

Genuine philosophy, writes Merklinger, attempts to ‘mirror speculatively the dialectical correlation of the finite human subject and the infinite divine object that takes place in and through religious consciousness.’62 In this way, faith is transformed into vision. The moment of union, which is the result of intermediary stages, consists in the sublation of the division or scission of the finite and the infinite. The intermediary stages of this reconciliation, however, ‘cannot determine the meaning and the direction of the whole.’63


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The central task of Hegel scholarship since the time of Dilthey, suggests Dieter Henrich,64 has consisted in solving the ‘secret of Hegel’ by means untangling [enträtzeln] the historical influences on Hegel in addition to the systematic interpretation of his texts. The traditional way of reading Hegel's Religionphilosophie claims that philosophy sublimates of appropriates religion by ‘retaining the content’ (i.e., “the same object, the absolute truth, God”) while ‘altering the form’ (i.e., moving beyond imagination and feeling to philosophical conceptualization) of religious thought.65 At least in part, Hegel inherited the content of his central insight – that the truth is the whole, with the proviso that the whole is itself a result – from speculative Pietism. Hegel's early theological works, as well as the ideal of his youth, are – claims Magee –‘alive with the sort of issues and questions that were characteristic of Württemberg Pietism.’66

Fredrich Christoph Oetinger (1702 – 1782), a parish clergyman in Württemberg, known not only for his popular sermons (published as Evangelische Rauchwerk in 1753) and prayer books but also for his utopian writings (e.g., Die güldene Zeit in 1759), was –‘by most estimates,’ writes Stoeffler –‘the most original theologican of the eighteenth century in Württemberg and perhaps in all of Germany.’67 Oetinger was also influential on the Tübingen Stift,68 where Hegel and Schelling studied theology and philosophy, though it is possible that Hegel was not exposed to Oetinger's teachings at that time.69 But even if Hegel did not encounter the writings of Oetinger at Tübingen, which seems unlikely, he was quite likely to have been familiar – at least indirectly, through Hölderlin or Schelling – with Oetinger's teaching by the time that he wrote the Phenomenology.70 Oetinger was himself influenced by the theosophy of Jacob Böhme71 and Jewish Kabbalism.72

Opposed to the mechanistic materialism and the rationalism typical of the enlightenment, Oetinger espoused a form of Böhmean vitalism in which God is conceived as ‘an eternal desire for self-revelation’ [eine ewige Begierde sich zu offenbaren].73 Though indirectly, Oetinger's teaching on Böhme may have exercised an influence on Hegel's disenchantment with Spinoza.74 According to Oetinger, ‘[t]he Ancients saw God as an eternal process in which He emerges from Himself and returns to Himself; this is the true conception of God and of His Glory; it is the true conception of His infinite life and power which issues in the Blessed Trinity.’75 The spirit of the absolute, or the absolute spirit, is what Oetinger called an Intensum: ‘a complex whole that dissolves when it is divided into its constituent elements.’ The problem of how to understand the whole without dissecting it, and thus changing its nature from organic to inorganic, from something alive to something distorted if not dead, was the task of Hegel's system and method. For Oetinger, the Zentrallerkenntnis consists in ‘an unmediated, synoptic vision in which the mind momentarily sees existence through the eyes of God.’76 The relation of the finite to the infinite, in Oetinger as well as Boehme, is explicable in terms of the ‘ewige Selbstbewegung’– i.e., the ‘Zusammenziehung’ and ‘Wiederausdehnung’– of God.77

How does one understand this complex whole, how does one grasp the truth that is the whole? Oetinger suggests, and Hegel follows his lead, that the preferred method is generative and consists in grasping – through familiarity – the various stages of that organism's unfolding as well as the vitalistic or teleological logic by which developmental stages emerge ‘as plants do from their seeds.’78 Hegel's ‘Das Wahre ist das Ganze,’ the well-known passage from the Preface to the Phenomenology discussed at the outset of the present essay, sends the student of theology back to Oetinger's teaching that “[t]he truth is the whole; when one finally receives this total, synoptic vision of the truth, it matters not whether one begins by considering this part or that.”79 It seems plausible to suggest that this Zentrallerkenntnis contributed to ‘the ideal of [Hegel's] youth'80 if not the singular yet inexhaustible thought that secretly animated, in various ways at different stages in his own philosophical development, the entire Hegelian system. Oetinger's Zentrallerkenntnis resurfaces, though transformed into a speculative system, in Hegel's ‘Preface’ to the Phenomenology (1807):81

The true is the whole. But the whole is nothing other than the essence consummating itself through its development. Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result that only in the end is what it truly is …. Reason is, therefore, misunderstood when reflection is excluded from the True, and is not grasped as a positive moment of the Absolute.


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  4. III. The Role of the Absolute Idea in Speculative Religion

Hegel's ‘Faith and Knowledge’ is important to our understanding of the remainder of the Hegelian corpus: it serves as a bold expression of the programme that was to preoccupy if not haunt Hegel for the rest of his days. Hegel here implements for the first time the dialectical strategy by which philosophical reflection was to set about reflecting itself out of the limitations of reflection itself; that strategy aimed not only at apprehending the Absolute, but apprehending it in such a manner as to keep it on this side of consciousness – i.e., ‘completely determined, exoteric, comprehensible, and capable of being learned by all.’82 Without a systematic sublimation of the illusion, thought remains indeterminate, esoteric and incomprehensible; until the infinite ‘consumes and consummates finitude,’ philosophy collapses into poetry – i.e., philosophers become, as Plato put it, ‘diviners and soothsayers who say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them.’83

Hegel had longed since his days at Tübingen for ‘the free upsurge of the most various living shapes in the philosophical gardens of [ancient] Greece,’ but all around him he saw only ‘the tortures of the damned.’ From this acute extreme, Passover Friday or the dark womb of the deep, Hegel considered the transition to genuine philosophy to be all the easier – it is at such moments, he thought, that the spirit of philosophy feels the strength of her growing wings most acutely. The triumphal free flight of the spirit of philosophy by which the corpse of faith and reason was supposed to be resurrected is, however, no easy task; indeed, as a result (that is, as the product of the ‘seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative’), it is – says Hegel, perhaps thinking of Spinoza's claim that all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare –‘the hardest thing of all.’84

  1. 1 Emil L. Fackenheim, The Religious Dimension in Hegel's Thought (Boston: Beacon Press. 1967), 119.

  2. 2 Laurence Dickey, Hegel: Religion, Economics, and the Politics of Spirit, 1770–1807. Cambridge University Press (1987), viii.

  3. 3 Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 11–12.

  4. 4 Hegel, ‘Faith and Knowledge or the Reflective Philosophy of Subjectivity in the Complete Range of Its Forms as Kantian, Jacobian, and Fichtean Philosophy’ (hereafter ‘Faith and Knowledge’ or Hegel 1802a) trans. Walter Cerf and H.S. Harris (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), 190; ‘Glauben und Wissen oder Reflexionsphilosophie der Subjektivität in der Vollständigkeit ihrer Formen als Kantische, Jacobische und Fichtesche Philosophie,’Werke in zwansig Bänden, II, pp. 287–433.

  5. 5 W. Jaeschke, Reason in Religion, trans. J. Steward and P. Hodgson (Berkeley, 1990),126 – 127; also, W. Jaeschke, Hegel Handbuch: Leben – WerkWirkung (Verlag – J.B. Metzler, 2003), 451; Hodgson, Hegel and Christian Theology (2005: Oxford), 14–18; Beiser, Hegel (2005, Routledge: New York), 125. Holger Gutschmidt's Vernunfeinsicht und Glaube: Hegels These zum Bewusstsein von etwas ≫Hoeherem≪ zwischen 1794 und 1801 (Neue Studien zur Philosophie, Band 20, Herausgegeben von Bubner, Cramer und Wiehl: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: Goettingen 2007).

  6. 6 Hodgson, Hegel and Christian Theology (2005: Oxford), 14.

  7. 7 Hegel, Early Theological Writings, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 176; also see Jaeschke who suggests in Reason in Religion that ‘[i]t is only in the Berlin Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion that the doctrine [of God] attains what is for Hegel its final form. But the two preceding decades did not remain empty as far as the philosophy of religion was concerned. Specifically, the Jena period contains a continuous development of the philosophy of religion within the elaboration of the system as a whole’ (126 ff.).

  8. 8 W. Jaeschke, Hegel Handbuch: Leben – WerkWirkung (Verlag – J.B. Metzler, 2003): ‘Waehrend die Jenaer Jahre gewinnt sie fortschreitend an Inhalt und Kontur, ohne jedoch eine eigene Form der systematischen Entfaltung zu finden’ (450–451). For more on the relationship of ‘Faith and Knowledge’ to the earlier theological writings, see William Desmond's Hegel's God: A Counterfeit Double? (Ashgate 2003), 43 ff.

  9. 9 Schelling,Werke, I, 333.

  10. 10 Hegel and Schelling (1802b), Introduction, in Between Kant and Hegel: Texts in the Development of Post-Kantian Idealism, trans. G. Giovanni and H.S. Harris (Albany: SUNY Press, 1985), 276.

  11. 11 Ibid, 278.

  12. 12 Ibid., 277.

  13. 13 Klaus Düsing, ‘Spekulation und Reflexion: Zur Zusammenarbeit Schelling und Hegels im Jena’, Hegel-Studien, vol. 34, Spring: 1969, pp. 34 – 61; also see Düsing, ‘Die Entstehung des Spekulativen Idealismus’ in Tranzendentalphilosophie und Spekulation: Der Streit um die Gestalt einer Ersten Philosophie (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1993), pp. 144 ff.

  14. 14 Hegel (1801), Difference between Fichte's and Schelling's System of Philosophy (hereafter referred to as Differenzschrift), trans. H.S. Harris and Walter Cerf (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), 64.

  15. 15 Schelling, Darstellung meines Systems der Philosophie, IV, 136 & 144 Anm.

  16. 16 Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, Vorrede, XXII, 21.

  17. 17 Heidegger, Was Heißt Denken? (Reclam: Stuttgart, 1992), 15.

  18. 18 Fichte, Wissenschaftslehre, in Sämtliche Werke I, ed. J.H. Fichte (Berlin: Verlag von Veit und Comp, 1845), 498–499.

  19. 19 Kroner, Von Kant bis Hegel, II, 135. Harris reads Hegel's Phenomenology as ‘an explicit rebellion against [Schelling's] intuitionism’ (1985, 267).

  20. 20 Schelling an Fichte, 3.10.1801, in J.G. Fichte, Gesamtausgabe der Beyerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, III, 5, 80–81.

  21. 21 See Eckhart Förster (2003), ‘Hegel in Jena’ in Das Interesse des Denkens: Hegel aus heutiger Sicht, Wolfgang Welsch and Klaus Vieweg (Wilhelm Fink Verlag), 109–130.

  22. 22 Hegel, Encyclopedia Logic: Part I of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (hereafter referred to as EL), trans. T. F. Geraets, W. A. Suchting, and H.S. Harris (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1991), §§ 60, 60A, pp. 104–106 (my italics).

  23. 23 Ibid., 288, Sec. 213 Zusatz.

  24. 24 Ibid., 286, Sec. 212 Zusatz.

  25. 25 Patricia Calton, Hegel's Metaphysics of God (Ashgate Press, 2001), 58.

  26. 26 Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, I, 414.

  27. 27 Differenzschrift, 34.

  28. 28 Hegel (1802a), ‘Faith and Knowledge,’ 55.

  29. 29 Hegel finds it necessary to limit faith in order to make room for reason; see Jensen, ‘Making Room for Reason: Hegel, Kant, and the Corpse of Faith and Knowledge’ in Philosophy and Theology, Summer 2001, pp. 119 – 136.

  30. 30 Hegel (1802a), 84.

  31. 31 Ibid., 66.

  32. 32 Schelling, Schelling an Hegel in Hegel Briefe, I, 22.

  33. 33 Schelling and Hegel (1802c), On the Relationship of the Philosophy of Nature to Philosophy in General, in Giovanni and Harris (1985), 368.

  34. 34 See Hegel, Phän., Vorrede. Hegel adds, ‘But philosophy must beware of the wish to be edifying.’

  35. 35 Recall Kant's claim that ‘The light dove [reason], cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space. It was thus that Plato left the world of the senses, as setting too narrow limits to the understanding, and ventured out beyond it on the wings of ideas, in the empty space of the pure understanding. He did not observe that with all his efforts he made no advance – meeting no resistance that might, as it were, serve as a support upon which he could take a stand, to which he could apply his powers, and so let his understanding in motion (CPR, A5=B9).’

  36. 36 Hegel, EL 59, Sec. 24 Z2.

  37. 37 1802a, 55.

  38. 38 Ibid., 57.

  39. 39 Ibid., 58.

  40. 40 Ibid., 141.

  41. 41 Schelling and Hegel (1802c), 369.

  42. 42 This is how Hegel characterizes the reflective philosophies of subjectivity in his Preface to the Phenomenology, see pp. 4–6, Sec. 7–10.

  43. 43 Hegel, Phaen., VIII.

  44. 44 Hegel (1802a), 190; Hegel is here citing Pascal's Pensees, 441 (Brunschvicg). For an excellent analysis of Hegel's utterance that God is dead, see Deland Anderson's Hegel's Speculative Friday (Scholars Press, 2003). Also see Cyril O'Regan, ‘Philosophy of Religion in the Context of Hegel's Philosophy’, Owl of Minerva, 2006, Vol. 37, 1, 24: ‘In opposition to the rationalistic reduction of faith, which Hegel regarded as characteristic of Enlightenment culture, true philosophical knowledge depends on the religious consciousness and experience of the absolute – not an alien, transcendent, other-worldly absolute but an immanent absolute that subjects itself to negation in the historical Good Fridays of this world.’

  45. 45 Hodgson, Hegel and Christian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 18.

  46. 46 Hegel, Die Religion im inneren Verhaeltnisse zur Wissenschaft, 491.

  47. 47 Hegel (1802a), 218.

  48. 48 See Merklinger, 41; LPR1, 1821, 221–2.

  49. 49 LPR, 111.

  50. 50 Hegel, Vorstellung über die Aesthetik, vol. 1, 143; Quoted in Lauer's Hegel's Concept of God, 36–7.

  51. 51 In direct response to Schleiermacher, Hegel claims – LPR11, 1824, 263 – that ‘only when the thought is true are one's feelings truthful too’ (quoted in Merklinger, 208, ftn.13).

  52. 52 Hegel insists time after time that ‘religion is human religion,’ see LPR111, 1824, p. 189.

  53. 53 Hegel, LPR1, 211.

  54. 54 Ibid.,212.

  55. 55 Ibid., 213.

  56. 56 Ibid., 210.

  57. 57 Ibid., 208.

  58. 58 Hegel, ‘Tübingen Fragment’ (1793), trans. H.S. Harris, in Hegel's Development, p. 511–512.

  59. 59 See LPR, p. 128; VPR1. p. 44.

  60. 60 See Schelling and Hegel (1802c), 368 ff.

  61. 61 Ibid., 373.

  62. 62 Merklinger, Philosophy, Theology, and Hegel's Berlin Philosophy of Religion, 1821–1827, 23.

  63. 63 Schelling and Hegel (1802c), 376.

  64. 64 Dieter Henrich, Hegel im Kontext (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1975). 41.

  65. 65 See, e.g., Lauer Hegel's Concept of God and Williamson An Introduction to Hegel's Philosophy of Religion.

  66. 66 Magee, 71.

  67. 67 Stoeffler, German Pietism during the Eighteenth Century (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973), 107.

  68. 68 Nicholas Hope, German and Scandinavian Protestantism 1700 – 1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 193.

  69. 69 Brecht and Sandberger argue – in ‘Hegels Begegnung mit der Theologie im Tübinger Stift: Eine neue Quelle für die Studienzeit Hegels’– that Hegel was unfamiliar with and indeed not at all influenced by Schwäbian Pietism in general or Oetinger's theological teachings in particular (Hegel-Studien, Bd. 5, Bonn 1969, 48 ff.). Meinhard Prill, however, suggests that the ideas of Oetinger, Fricker and Hahn ‘constituted an Alltagswissen in Würtemberg’ (Bürgerliche Alltagswelt, 13).

  70. 70 Schelling was certainly familiar with the teachings of Oetinger by 1806 (see Plitt, Aus Schellings Leben in Briefen, 2 Bde., Leipzig 1869–1870, Bd, II, 201). For more on the question of Oetinger's influence on Hegel, see Ernst Benz (Mystical Sources of German Romantic Philosophy) and Robert Schneider (Schellings und Hegels schwäbishe Geistesahnen); also Hayden – Roy, ‘New and Old Histories: The Case of Hölderlin and Würtemberg Pietism,’ Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of German Language and Literature Papers, University of Nebraska – Lincoln (1992).

  71. 71 Oetinger's first publication was a commentary on Böhme: ‘Aufmunternde Gruende zur Lesung der Schriften Jacob Böhmens’ (1731).

  72. 72 See Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (London and Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), especially ‘The Sorcerer's Apprenticeship,’ pp. 64 ff.

  73. 73 Oetinger, Biblisches und emblematishces Woerterbuch (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1969), as quoted in Magee, 65.

  74. 74 See Cosmann, Peggy (1998). ‘Der Einfluß Friedrich Christoph Oetingers auf Hegels Abrechnung mit Spinoza’ in the Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte, Volume 50, Number 2, pp. 115–136 (22).

  75. 75 Quoted in Hanratty, ‘Hegel and the Gnostic Tradition,’ II, 314.

  76. 76 See Sigrid Grossmann (1979), Friedrich Christoph Oetingers Gottesvorstellung: Versuch E. Analyse seiner Theologie, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, especially 100 ff.; also Magee, 67.

  77. 77 Oetinger, Die Lehrtafel der Prinzessin Antonia, Texte zur Geschichte des Pietismus, Berlin: New York (1977), 128.

  78. 78 Magee, 67; Priscilla A. Hayden-Roy, ‘A Foretaste of Heaven’: Friedrich Hölderlin in the Context of Württemberg Pietism (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994), 45.

  79. 79 Oetinger, Sämtliche Schriften, vol 5, ed Karl Chr. Eberh. Ehmann (Stuttgart: Steinkopf), 45, as quoted in Magee 67.

  80. 80 In a now well-known letter addressed to Schelling, a letter that secured his invitation to Jena in 1800, Hegel claimed that ‘the ideal of my youthful period was likewise bound to transform itself into the form of reflection, into a system.’ Most scholars, e.g., Harris, read this as an allusion to the hen kai pan teaching.

  81. 81 Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 11–12. For Oetinger, the term phenomenology refers to the study of the ‘divine system of relations’ (see Benz, Christian Kabbalah: Neglected Child of Theology).

  82. 82 Hegel, Phänomenologie., Vorrede, XIII,

  83. 83 Plato, Apology, 23.

  84. 84 Hegel, Phenomenology, 14: ‘To judge that a thing has substance and solid worth is quite easy, to comprehend it is much harder, and to blend judgment and comprehension in a definite description is the hardest thing of all.’