From Nietzsche to Hegel: Concepts and Reality in the History of Philosophy: Tracing a Philosophical Error from Locke to Bradley. By Fiona Ellis


Pp. viii, 173 , London and New York , Routledge , 2005 , £100.00.

In her ambitious and powerful book, Fiona Ellis argues that at least since the time of Locke philosophers have been in the grip of ‘the syndrome’, the tendency to separate two concepts that essentially belong together. In particular, things in themselves (‘reality’) are conceived as quite distinct from, and not intelligibly related to, the experienceable things captured by our ‘concepts’, which are not genuinely independent of us, while independent reality eludes our grasp. The syndrome, even in the case of concepts and reality, takes a variety of forms. Locke, for example, oscillates between the syndromic view that ‘substances’ are quite separate from ‘ideas’ and inaccessible to us, while the things we perceive are collections of qualities grouped together by us, and the benign view that perceived things essentially presuppose substances and are therefore not constructed by us. To avoid the scepticism threatened by Locke, Berkeley introduces the notion of immaterial substance, but this, Ellis argues, shares the defect of material substance, that it does not secure the intrinsic unity of perceptible things, which remain, as before, collections of ideas grouped together by us. Nietzsche comes next, dislodged from his chronological position in virtue of his manifest infection by the syndrome: he regards our concepts as instruments that structure the data we receive from otherwise inaccessible things in themselves. His unacknowledged mentor, Kant, also tends towards the view, albeit with more subtlety and ambiguity than Nietzsche, that things in themselves outreach our cognition, thus confining us to knowledge of ‘appearances’.

It was, in Ellis's view, the much-maligned Hegel who finally diagnosed the syndrome and proposed a cure. Hegel repaired the separations between the concepts that Kant deployed, arguing that the thing-in-itself, when ‘abstraction is made of all that it is for consciousness, of all determinations of feeling, as well as of all determinate thoughts, … is completely abstract or totally empty’. The subjectivity of thought does not, for Hegel, entail that it is not objective: ‘although the categories (e.g. unity, cause and effect, etc.) pertain to thinking as such, it does not at all follow from this that they must therefore be something subjective of ours, and not also determinations of objects themselves,’ and ‘thoughts are not merely our thoughts, but at the same time the in itself of things.’ Such remarks might suggest that Hegel shares Bradley's view, that truth does not copy reality, but is identical with it. Ellis denies this, however, arguing that whereas Bradley believes that truth requires an apprehension of the whole of reality that involves the ‘suicide of thought’, Hegel accepts the unqualified truth of non-philosophical propositions (whether by identity or correspondence is of little consequence) and that he endorses a more fluid and open-ended account of philosophical truths: ‘the true is the whole’ in the sense that he transcends, but incorporates, the seemingly incompatible views of his predecessors, leaving open the possibility that his own thought will one day be treated in a similar fashion.

A particularly valuable part of the book is Ellis's analysis of the structure of the syndrome and of other cases where it may be found. The syndrome involves a seesaw-movement between two opposing views. Locke, for example, regards things in themselves as mind-independent but inaccessible. At the other end of the seesaw Berkeley, or a phenomenalist such as J. S. Mill, regards things in themselves as mind-dependent congeries of sensations. Both views share the assumption that our perceptual experience is not substance-involving, and it is the rejection of this assumption that enables us to dismount the seesaw. A related case is the opposition between the view that our beliefs are anchored to reality by a ‘given’ and the view that the most we can hope for is that our beliefs are coherent. This seesaw too can be dismounted by recognising that experience is conceptual – a view that Hegel holds more firmly than Kant. Some philosophers reduce values to facts, while others locate them in a Platonic heaven; both extremes are defused by the recognition that nature is not primarily the value-bereft nature that science describes but the value-ridden nature of our experience. Hume's view that causation is no more than contingent regularities and the opposing view that things are endowed with hidden powers are both defused by recognising that things essentially act on other things. In each case, dismounting the seesaw involves not only arguing against the shared assumption of the extremes, but repairing a separation between concepts, between concepts and intuitions, between experience and value, or between things and causal power. Ellis insists, however, that we should also argue for each of the opposing views – not simply because each contains a kernel of truth, but because, as Hegel holds, it is in arguing for a view that we see that, and how, it breaks down.

Ellis concludes by wondering whether God is embroiled in the syndrome, seesawing helplessly between inaccessible transcendence and a pantheistic reduction to the things of this world. Dismounting this seesaw would mean recognising that the world is God-involving. Her pursuit of this idea is perhaps hampered by her assumption that our relationship to things and our relationship to God are distinct questions. How can that be, if the very world is to be God-involving? Nevertheless, Ellis has written a splendid book. She is a veritable anima naturaliter Hegeliana, who shows how Hegel helps to solve philosophical problems, and restores him to his proper place in history. Perhaps one day she will do the same for God.