Hegel (Shao Kai Tseng)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Tseng, Shao Kai. Hegel. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed.

Alex Tseng has an impossible task. How does one summarize Hegel’s thought in under 200 pages? (How does one summarize Hegel’s thought at all?) Given his impossible task, he succeeds quite admirably. I highly recommend this text for beginners in Hegel’s thought. Tseng has a second, albeit subordinate concern: vindicate Cornelius Van Til’s usage of Idealist thought (more on that below).

To understand Hegel, one must begin with Kant, and Tseng’s treatment of Kant follows standard lines. Not content with the appearance of the real world, Kant developed the idea of representation: “the process by which a thing appears to us, rather than what a thing is in itself” (Tseng 19). In other words, there is a gap between content and method, just as there is a gap in knowledge itself.

It is this problem to which Hegel turned. If Kant’s project was transcendental idealism, Hegel’s was Absolute idealism, the view that the mind is everything; Hegel identifies human consciousness with its object, which is Absolute Spirit. Accordingly, Hegel overcame this gap by simply erasing it. Human consciousness and the world’s rationality are one.

To explain Hegel’s view, we have to look into the German more carefully. There is a difference between epresentational (Vorstellung) thinking: our thinking tries to grasp the essence of the thing and conceptual (Begriff) thinking: the knowability of the pure essences of the world. A concept’s rationality carries its own teleology (38). So far, so good. Unfortunately, perhaps for Christianity, this is only manifest through historical representations.

For Plato and Aristotle, essences were static things. It is Hegel’s unique contribution that essences are also “becoming.” The essence of a thing is that which determines “how the thing has become what it is at present, which is the same as what it will ultimately become” (40). For Aristotle, as Tseng notes, nature is the potentiality of a thing. “The actuality is determined by its potentiality” (52). For Hegel, being is determined by becoming.

Dialectic and Truth

Hegel never said what you think he said. That was Fichte. Rather, it is a negation of a negation. Truth is developmental, not static (but not relative, either). To understand this, we need a logic of mediation.

In substance metaphysics, as noted above, substances are static, abstract universals. This is true, but it does not describe the whole of reality. For example, you do not experience reality as a set of abstract forms. Truth is also a living subject.

To get at this one needs to understand Immediacy: “the stage in which truth is expressed merely as abstract universals” (49). It is Spirit an sich. For it to be Spirit fur sich, it needs a moment of self-objectivization (think eternal generation). At this moment, however, it also becomes alien to itself, which now contradicts the original moment. What is needed is a third moment, a moment of mediation that will allow it to be in itself and for itself–as Absolute.

In a relentless manner, Hegel draws the next conclusion: Organicism: truthful predications about reality within the context of a living subject (50). Tseng gives the example of the body of Christ, the church. This type of thinking was also latent in substantialist philosophers like Aristotle, who posited a telos to truth.

The Three Moments of Logic: The Dialectic of Sublation (Aufhebung)

Moment 1: the human mind conceives the world abstract terms.
Moment 2: the human mind understands the contradictions and limitations in seeing the world in such a way.
Moment 3: seeing the world as a reconciliation of the previous two.

Concrete Universal

The apologist Cornelius Van Til often used the term “concrete universal.” I have often asked presuppositionalists a) what Van Til meant by that and b) where he got it. I always knew Van Til got it from idealism. Even so, what he (or Hegel) meant by it is not always clear. Tseng’s comments are helpful.

Substance metaphysics says that universals are defined (or determined) by their abstract forms. Not only is such a process mechanical, it is empty. The abstract form of cat does not exist the way this cat does (87). When Hegel says abstractions do not exist, he is not a nominalist. Take the sentence

“This cat is small and that cat is big.” Each cat is an abstract particular. Having gotten our unity by generalizing, “by abstracting from particulars in order to include them into larger unities,” we have emptied these universal forms of any real definable content (Van Til). What Hegel (and Van Til) suggest is a concrete universal.

A concrete universal, then, “is conceptually comprehended as absolute spirit as a concrete living substance” (Tseng 89). It is “the organic unity of every particular thing, and it makes every particular meaningfully related to all others.”

That helps, but it is not the clearest. Here is my tentative effort. Instead of seeing “this cat” as an exemplar of the form “Cat-ness,” “this cat” is now a focal point to the universal reality of cat. Quite so, but what is the payoff for Van Til? Van Til wants to see the Trinity as a concrete universal. This might work, but Van Til’s often sloppy language prevents it from fully working.

As such, a divine person would be the particular that “fully exhausts” the divine essence. Perhaps, but one has to be careful in seeing a divine person as a “particular.”

Problems with Hegel:

“His god is not the unmoved mover, but movement itself.”

Hegel reduced the ontological trinity to the logical trinity.

Hegel’s philosophy is a shipwreck, and I do not mean that in a negative sense. It is literally a journey, for Geist had to find itself, and it found itself by successive historical manifestations. And the ship foundered on Christian theism (and Judaism and Islam). Can we salvage Hegel? I do not think we can on basic metaphysics. One could make an argument for his comments on aesthetics and politics, though, as his Philosophy of Right is a tortuous rewording of some concepts in Edmund Burke.
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