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British Hegelianism: A Non-Metaphysical View?

  • Robert Stern (a1)


Of all the major episodes in Hegel's Rezeptionsgeschichte, British Hegelianism can seem the most foreign and outmoded, to have the least relevance to our current understanding of Hegel's thought. Even today, we are lead back to the Young Hegelians for the problems they pose in reading his work; we can sympathise with the concerns of Peirce, Royce and Dewey that drew them to him, and the interpretative picture they developed; we can take seriously the attempts by Croce and Gentile to bring about their “reforms”, given our contemporary ambivalence to his project; and we can see how in different ways the influence of Hegel on Kojève, Sartre, Lukács and the Frankfurt School have made some of his ideas central to our times. But few feel this sense of identification and illumination on encountering the work of Hegel's British interpreters from the turn of the century; rather, in their writings we seem to find a Hegel that is darker, more distant, more difficult for us to relate to contemporary concerns.

This is not true in every respect, of course. In particular, several recent commentators have stressed how far it is possible to find here a reading and assessment of Hegel's political thought that does connect directly with many current issues, and that in this respect the thought of T H Green, Bernard Bosanquet and Henry Jones is not dead, either as a tradition within political philosophy, or as an interpretative approach to Hegel's theory of the state. Nonetheless, even those who seek to defend the importance of British Hegelianism in this regard clearly recognize that this is a fairly modest claim: for it fails to resurrect and revitalize the more fundamental aspect of the their encounter with Hegel, which was with his metaphysics – on which, as for Hegel, their political theories were based, rather than being primary in themselves. Those concerned with the political thought of the British Hegelians have not tried to take on this wider issue, leaving unchallenged the assumption that in their appropriation of his metaphysics, the British Hegelians have little to offer us either interpretatively or philosophically.



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1 There is of course some difficulty in using labels like “British Hegelianism” (and “British Idealism”) when such groupings are mevitably ill-defined and retrospectively imposed. Nonetheless, in this paper I will leave such difficulties of classification to one side. For a general account of British Hegelianism as a “school”, see Robbins, P, The British Hegelians 1875-1925 (New York and London: Garland, 1982).

2 See, for example, Vincent, Andrew and Plant, Raymond, Philosophy, Politics and Citizenship (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984) and Nicholson, Peter, The Political Philosophy of the British Idealists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

3 Russell, Bertrand, A History of Western Philosophy, 2nd edn (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1961), pp 710–2. Russell's encounter with Hegel was strongly marked by the influence of several of the most important British Hegelians, who for a time even won him over to the idealist cause: see Hylton, Peter, Russell, Idealism and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) and Griffin, Nicholas, Russell's Idealist Apprenticeship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

4 Rosen, Michael, “From Vorstellung to Thought: Is a “Non-Metaphysical’ View of Hegel Possible?”, in Henrich, Dieter and Horstmann, R-P (eds), Metaphysik nach Kant? (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1988), pp 248-62, p. 255 (reprinted in Stern, Robert [ed], G W F Hegel: Critical Assessments, 4 vols [London and New York: Routledge, 1993], III, pp 329-344, p.335 ).

5 Findlay, J N, Hegel: A Re-examination (New York: Collier Books, 1962); Hartmann, Klaus, “Hegel: A Non-Metaphysical View”, in MacIntyre, Alasdair (ed), Hegel: A Collection of Critical Essays (Garden City: Doubleday, 1972), pp 101–24 (reprinted in Stern, Robert [ed], Hegel: Critical Assessments, III, pp 243–58); White, Alan, Absolute Knowledge: Hegel and the Problem of Metaphysics (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1983); Pinkard, Terry, Hegel's Dialectic: The Explanation of Possibility (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988). For a useful overview of the place of this non-metaphysical conception in the tradition of Hegel-interpretation, see Wartenberg, Thomas E., “Hegel's Idealism: The Logic of Conceptually”, in Beiser, Frederick C (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp 102–29.

6 Findlay, J N, Hegel: A Re-examination, pp 1718 . In general, recent Hegel scholarship has followed Findlay in seeing little value in the interpretative efforts of the British Hegelians; the attitude to McTaggart (for example) has been summarized as follows:

“His acquaintance with Hegel's writings was like the chapter-and-verse knowledge that out-of-the-way Protestant sectarians often have; the unanimous judgements of Hegelian experts appears to have been that McTaggart's interpretations of Hegel were as perverse as these sectarian interpretations of the Bible” ( Geach, P T, Truth, Love and Immortality: An Introduction to McTaggart's Philosophy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), p 17 ).

7 James, William, “On Some Hegelisms”, Mind, os 7 (1882), pp 186208, p 186. More recently (and more soberly) Anthony Quinton has drawn the same contrast: “In Germany by the 1840s the Hegelian school had disintegrated. By the mid 1860s it was alive only as a style in the history of philosophy, as practiced by Erdmann, Zeller and Kuno Fischer. In 1865, the year of Stirling's excited welcome to Hegel, Liebmann was issuing the call of ‘back to Kant’ which was to be the slogan of academic philosophising in German until well after the end of the century” ( Quinton, Anthony, “Absolute Idealism”. Proceedings of the British Academy. 57 (1971 pp 303-29, p 318; reprinted in his Thoughts and Thinters [London: Duckworth, 1982], pp 186206, p 198).

8 Muirhead, J H, The Platonic Tradition in Anglo-Saxon Philosophy (London: George Allen & Unwin/New York: Macmillan, 1931), p 322 .

9 For a helpful outline of Hegel's reception in Britain, see Bradley, James, “Hegel in Britain: A Brief History of British Commentary and Attitudes”, Heythrop Journal, 20 (1979), pp 1-24 and 163–82.

10 Stirling, James Hutchinson, The Secret of Hegel, 2 vols, 2nd edition (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1898), I, p 96 .

11 Ibid, p 95.

12 Feuerbach, Ludwig, “Towards a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy”, in Stepelevich, Lawrence (ed), The Young Hegelians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp 95128, p 121.

13 Hegel, G W F, Hegel's Logic: Part One of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, translated by Wallace, William, 3rd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), §24Z, p 37 .

14 For a discussion of how German academic philosophy moved away from Hegel in the 1830s, cf Köhnke, Klaus Christian, The Rise of Neo-Kantianism: German Academic Philosophy Between Idealism and Positivism, translated by Hollingdale, R G (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

15 For a more detailed account of Schelling's critique of Hegel, see Frank, Manfred, Der unendliche Mangel an Sein: Schellings Hegelkritik und die Anfänge der Marxischen Dialektik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975); Schulz, Walter, Die Vollendung des Deutschen Idealismus in der Spätphilosophie Schellings (Pfullingen: Neske, 1975); White, Alan, Absolute Knowledge: Hegel and the Problem of Metaphysics (Athens, Ohio and London: Ohio University Press, 1983) and Bowie, Andrew, “The actuality of Schelling's Hegel-critique”, Bulletin of the Hegel Society of Great Britain, 21/22, 1990, pp 1929 and Schelling and Modem European Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1993), pp 127–77.

16 Schelling, , Die Philosophie der Offenbarung, in Schellings Werke, edited by Schröter, Manfred, 13 vols (Munich: C.H.Beck, 19461959), VI th Supp. Vol, p 242 .

17 Schelling, F W J, On the History of Modern Philosophy, translated by Bowie, Andrew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p 147 ; reprinted in Schelling, , “Extract from Lectures on the History of Modem Philosophy ”, translated by Bowie, Andrew in Stern, Robert (ed), Hegel: Critical Assessments, I, pp 40-67, p 52 .

18 “God…expressly has to be what can only be ‘thought as existing’; his notion inolves being. It is this unity of the notion and being that constitutes the notion of God (Hegel, Hegel's Logic, §51, p 85). Hegel gives a more extended discussion of this issue in his Lectures on the Proofs of the Existence of God, in Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, translated by Speirs, E.B. and Sanderson, J. Burdon, 3 vols, reprint edn (New York: Humanities Press, 1974), III, pp 155367 .

19 Schelling, , On the History of Modern Philosophy, p 50 . This hostility to the ontological argument is also shared by Kierkegaard, and for similar reasons: see Kierkegaard, Soren, Philosophical Fragments or a Fragment of Philosophy, translated by Swenson, David F. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944), pp 2939 . For a discussion of Schelling's influence on Kierkegaard, see Thulstrup, Niels, Kierkegaard's Relation to Hegel, translated by Stengren, George L (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp 267–74.

20 Cf Feuerbach, , Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, translated by Voegel, Manfred (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), §24, pp 38–9:

“The identity of thought and being that is the central point of the philosophy of identity is nothing other than the necessary consequence and elaboration of the notion of God as the being whose notion or essence contains existence. Speculative philosophy has only generalized and made into an attribute of thought or of the notion in general what theology made into an exclusive attribute of the notion of God. The identity of thought and being is therefore only the expression of the divinity of reason – that thought or reason is the absolute being, the total of all truth and reality, that there is nothing in contrast to reason, rather that reason is everything just as God is, in strict theology, everything, that is, all essential and true being. But a being that is not distinguished from thought and that is only a predicate or determination of reason is only an ideated and abstracted being; but in truth it is not being. The identity of thought and being expresses, therefore, only the identity of thought with itself; that means that aboslute thought never extricates itself from itself to become being. Being remains in another world. Absolute philosophy has indeed transformed for us the other world of theology into this world, but in turn it has transformed for us this side of the real world into the other world”.

21 Cf Hegel's notorious remark that “It can therefore be said that this content [of the Logic] is the expression of God as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of nature and a finite mind” ( Hegel, , Hegel's Science of Logic, translated by Miller, A V (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1969), p 51).

22 “Without sensibility no object could be given to us, without understanding no object could be thought. Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” ( Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Smith, Norman Kemp [London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1933), A51/B75, p 93 ).

23 Kant, , The Critique of Judgment, translated by Meredith, James Creed [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952], §76, p 57 .

24 For a recent interpretation of Hegel that endorses this critique, see Guyer, Paul, “Thought, and Being: Hegel's Critique of Kant's Theoretical Philosophy”, in Beiser, (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Hegel, pp 171210 .

25 Stirling, , The Secret of Hegel, p 599, p 678 .

26 Cf Rosenkranz, Karl, Hegel als deutscher Nationalphilosoph (Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1870), pp. 119–42; translated in Stern, Robert (ed), Hegel: Critical Assessments, I, pp 279–98.

27 In fact, Stirling (who had studied in Germany for a year in 1856) was not unaware of the critique of Hegel mounted by Schelling, Haym and Trendelenburg, and addresses them in The Secret. In general, he seems to have felt that although the Hegelian cause had been set back in Germany as a result of these criticisms, it was due for a revival there, as the rise of Kantianism would inevitably lead German thought to make the transition from subjective to objective idealism, and thus to Hegel. See The Secret of Hegel, pp xxviii-xxxi.

28 In 1898, Seth changed his name to Pringle-Pattison, as a condition for succeeding to an estate.

29 For some comments on Lotze's influence on British Hegel-reception, see my introduction to Volume II of Stern, Robert (ed), G W F Hegel: Critical Assessments, pp 23 .

30 Seth, Andrew, Hegelianism and Personality (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood, 1887), p 111 and p 118 .

31 Seth refers approvingly to Schelling on p. 107 of Hegelianism and Personality.

32 Ibid, p 115.

33 Ibid, p 147.

34 Bradley, James, “Hegel in Britain”, p 166 .

35 Seth, , “Hegelianism and Its Critics”, Mind, ns 3 (1894), pp 125, p 14.

36 Jones, Henry, “Idealism and Epistemology”, Mind, ns 2 (1893), pp 289-306 and 457–72, p 294.

37 Ibid, p 302. For a recent discussion of Jones's dispute with Seth, and of Jones's philosophy as a whole, see Boucher, David and Vincent, Andrew, A Radical Hegelian: The Political and Social Philosophy of Henry Jones (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1993), especially Chapter 2.

38 Ritchie, D G, “Darwin and Hegel”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1 (18901991) pp 5574, p 61. Cf Hegel, G W F, Hegel's Science of Logic, translated by Miller, A V (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969), p 37 : “As impulses [als Triebe] the categories are only instinctively active. At first they enter consciousness separately and so are variable and mutually confusing; consequently they afford to mind only a fragmentary and uncertain actuality; the loftier business of logic therefore is to clarify [zu reinigen] these categories and in them raise mind to freedom and truth.”

39 Caird, Edward, Hegel (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood, 1883), pp 157–8.

40 Seth, , “Hegel: An Exposition and Criticism”, Mind, os 6 (1881), pp 513–30; Seth, , “Philosophy as Criticism of Categories”, in Seth, Andrew and Haldane, R B (eds), Essays in Philosophical Criticism (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1883), pp 840 .

41 Seth, , “Hegel: An Exposition and Criticism”, p 522 .

42 “Knowledge is not a collection of facts known as such once for all, and to which we afterwards add other facts, extending our knowledge as we might extend an estate by adding acre to acre. This is not a true picture of the march of knowledge. On the contrary, every advance of science is a partial refutation of what we supposed we know; we undertake in every new scientific theory a criticism and rectification of the conceptions on which the old was constructed. On the largest scale the advance of knowledge is neither more nor less that a progressive criticisms of its own conceptions. And, as we have seen, this is not all. Besides the continual self-criticism carried on by the individual sciences, there is the criticism which one science or department of inquiry passes upon another. The science of life cannot move hand or foot without the category of development, which in its biological acceptation is foreign to the inorganic world; and the science of conduct is founded upon the notion of duty, of which the whole world of nature knows nothing. But so long as this mutual criticism is left in the hands of the separate sciences themselves, it tends to degenerate into a strife in which there is no umpire. Philosophy, as theory of knowledge, can alone articulate between the combatants, by showing the relation of the different points of view to one another, and allowing to each a sphere of relative justification. When physical science, for example, begins to formulate its own results and to put them forward as an adequate theory of the universe, it is for philosophy to step in and show how these results depend entirely upon preconceptions drawn from a certain stage of knowledge and found to be refuted in the further progress of thought. Philosophy in the capacity of a science of thought should possess a complete survey of its categories and of their dialectical connection; but this ‘Wissenschaft der Logik’ will probably never be completely written. In the meantime it is perhaps better if philosophy, as critic of the sciences, is content to derive its matter from them and to prophesy in part” ( Seth, , “Philosophy as Criticism of Categories”, p 39 ). This passage echoes several central claims made by Hegel, and ones that are often taken to be particularly important for the category-theory interpretation: cf. Hegel's Logic, §§9-12, and Hegel's Philosophy of Nature, translated by Petry, M.J., 3 vols (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1970), §246.

43 Seth, , Hegelianism and Personality, pp 8890 .

44 Bradley, F H, “On Truth and Coherence”, in Essays on Truth and Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1914), pp 202-44, p 203 .

45 McTaggart, , “The Changes of Method in Hegel's Dialectic”, Mind, ns 1 (1892), pp 56-71, 188205, pp 199-200. A corresponding passage can also be found in Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), pp 207–8. See also ibid, p 17:

“The consideration of pure thought, without any reference to experience, would be absolutely sterile, or rather impossible. For we are as unable to employ “empty” pure thought (to borrow Kant's phrase) as to employ “blind” intuition. Thought is a process of mediation and relation, and implies something immediate to be related, which cannot be found in thought. Even if a stage of thought could be conceived as existing, in which it was self-subsistent, and in which it had no reference to any data - and it is impossible to imagine such a state, or to give any reason for supposing thought thus to change its essential nature - at any rate this is not the ordinary thought of common life. And as the dialectic process professes to start from a basis common to every one, so as to enable it to claim universal validity for its conclusions, it is certain that it will be necessary for thought, in the dialectic process, to have some relation to data given immediately, and independent of that thought itself. Even if the dialectic should finally transcend this condition it would have at starting to take thought as we use it in every-day life - as merely mediating, and not self-subsistent. And I shall try to show later on that it never does transcend, or try to transcend that limitation.”

46 Cf Bedell, Gary, “Bradley and Hegel”, Idealistic Studies, 7 (1977), pp 262-90, pp 283¬4.

47 Bradley, F H, The Principles of Logic, 2nd edition, revised (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928), II, pp 590–1.

48 As a result of this, in his attacks on Hegel's apparent panlogicism, Seth took Bradley to be an ally. See, for example, Hegelianism and Personality, p 130; Scottish Philosophy, 2nd edition (Edinburgh and London: Blackwood, 1890), p 203 ; and A New Theory of the Absolute”, in Man's Place in the Cosmos and Other Essays, 2nd edition (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood, 1902).

49 Cf Bradley's well-known comments in the Preface to the First Edition of The Principles of Logic:

“I fear that, to avoid worse misunderstanding, I must say something as to what is called ‘Hegelianism’. For Hegel himself, assuredly I think him a great philosopher; but I never could have called myself an Hegelian, partly because I can not say that I have mastered his system, and partly because I could not accept what seems his main principle, or at least part of that principle” (The Principles of Logic, 2nd edition, revised, p x).

50 McTaggart, , Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic, pp 52–4.

51 McTaggart, , Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic, pp 2930 .

52 A longer version of this paper, which contains a discussion of McTaggart's attempt to develop a category-theorist response to Schelling's question of existence (Why is there anything at all? Why is there not nothing?”) can be found in the European Journal of Philosophy, 2 (1994), pp 293321 . The above extract from this article is reprinted by permission of Basil Blackwell Ltd. and the editor of the European Journal of Philosophy.


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