Starting and ending with Hegel

Luka asked:

What is or where is the best place to start with Hegel?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

I would start with Hegel’s ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of History’ — especially the Introduction. This gives a general overview of Hegel’s Philosophy as Human History being the progress of the consciousness of Freedom, culminating in Reason realising itself in the Rationally ordered state.

I also think that the three books constituting the ‘Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences’ (Logic, Nature and Geist (Mind)) are much easier (though by no means without problem) to understand than the larger works such as the ‘Science of Logic’, ‘Philosophy of Law’ and ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’.

The first book of the Encyclopedia ‘Logic’ contains a shorter version of the ‘Science of Logic’.

In it, Hegel explains how the Mind of the Universe/ Nous/ God realises its thinking self from the immediacy of Being to a full, substantive understanding of itself and how it got there, in the Absolute Idea. Thus the foundational, epistemic and ontological certainty craved by Idealists, is arrived at. In ‘Encyclopedia Nature’, the Absolute Idea externalises itself in nature, making the processes of Nature intelligible. Finally, the externalised Absolute Idea, dialectically recovers itself in the ‘Encyclopedia Mind’. Here, Reason realises itself through human beings becoming conscious of themselves (in Geist or Thinking Thought/ Collective human consciousness) and in the construction of a Rational social order. The latter book can be described as a much briefer (and in my opinion, easier) account of themes contained in ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’.

Hegel described his Absolute Idealism as a ‘circle of circles’, so that when the end is reached, (i.e. a reading and understanding of his Philosophy of course!), the mundane beginning presents itself — whether everyday Being-now rationally understood and operating or, as living by Laws expressing Freedom in the good society as constituted by and arrived at in Mind Absolute.

Good luck Luka.

Life is not a dream

Carla asks:

To what extent does Descartes dream argument threaten our knowledge of the external world?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

In the first Meditation of his Meditations on the First Philosophy, (1641), Descartes is seeking for a secure, indubitable foundation on which to base human knowledge. He begins by exploring what he perceives by means of his senses.

The senses have been and are deceptive so cannot be afforded uncritical accuracy. Yet surely they cannot be excluded from providing perception tout court? Descartes writes that he is aware of him sitting by a fire, attired in a dressing gown with a paper in his hand. To doubt the truth of this would be an act of madness — on a par with people who suffer from delusions and hallucinations.

Yet when sleeping, Descartes remarks that he dreams of equally improbable things — such as being seated by the fire ‘whilst all the time I was lying undressed in bed!’. So, he concludes that there are no certain marks distinguishing waking from sleeping. Surely the images experienced in dreams are copies and compositions of perceptions experienced when awake as they do display a certain regularity. More, such copies and compositions are based on the corporeal nature of objects in the world experienced when awake. Objects of a corporeal nature display extension, shape, quantity and magnitude and endure through time and in space. Disciplines which deal with such objects such as arithmetic, geometry employ content that is ‘certain and indubitable’.

“For whether I am awake or dreaming, 2 and 3 are 5, a square has no more than four sides; and it does not seem possible that truths so evident can ever be suspected of falsity.”

So there are certain truths which, whether sleeping or awake, are beyond doubt. These deal with a real, independently existing world that continues to exist when we are sleeping. Objects are real and sleeping with dreams is precisely that. Unfortunately, such ‘a priori’ truths can be doubted as, contends Descartes towards the end of Meditation One, a malevolent demon can be deceiving him into thinking they are correct.

The ‘Dream Argument’ begins Descartes dialectic of questioning what can be construed as providing Truth and certainty. In itself, I don’t think it threatens our knowledge of an external world. Firstly, the distinction between dreaming and not dreaming is employed which betrays an already existing epistemological understanding between the two. This distinction is pace G.E. Moore, part of our everyday, natural living. Secondly, the distinction between dreaming and waking can be upheld on the grounds that regularity and order are experienced when awake; whereas dreaming is qualitatively different. Thirdly, the questions can only be asked by means of Language. Language is arguably socially acquired and used. This presupposes the existence of other human beings existing in a social world. So the very use of language refutes the sceptical doubts Descartes is pondering.

Solipsistic Egoism?

Aleksander asked:

Can Max Stirner be considered a defender of “metaphysical solipsism” and “immaterialism”? Is there some relation between Stirner’s philosophy and George Berkeley’s philosophy? Is there some philosopher in history who defended “metaphysical solipsism”?

Answer By Martin Jenkins

To the first and second question — I don’t think so. To my knowledge, Stirner never writes that the world is immaterial or, advocates a variant of solipsism. He is understood as advocating a form of Egoism although this orthodox conclusion could be due to the translation of Eigen to ‘Ego’ when Stirner wanted to convey a wholly new philosophy.

His text might give the impression of solipsism as he does emphasise and write in ‘the first person’ — citing ‘I’, the Ego, me. The impression is misleading.

When Stirner writes about ‘Spooks’, he not saying the world is a ‘Spook’ and therefore immaterial, this is his description of Philosophies such as Christianity, Humanism, Communism which haunt the minds of people, which are wrongly posited as primary from which predicates or definitions of what is is to be human are derived. In this respect, he is following his contemporary Ludwig Feuerbach.

In criticising German Idealism and Hegel in particular, Ludwig Feuerbach observed that it practices the inversion of Subject and Object. Namely, instead of Thought being the predicate or object of the Human subject, the human becomes a predicate or object of Thought, where Thought is taken to be God, Reason, the Concept, Geist and so on.

Stirner continues this approach to Christianity etc, only what follows the inversion is not any universal human nature but only the ‘creative nothing’, a ‘Unique’. The ‘Unique’ is not a solipsist as s/he can associate with others for common aims in a ‘Union of Egos’. So ipso facto, solipsism is ruled out.


Any relation between George Berkeley and immaterialism? Berkeley’s philosophy can be described as a variant of Idealism. Stirner’s philosophy is regarded by some as the furthest development of Hegel’s Absolute Idealism. Indeed, in the early 1840’s Stirner frequented meetings of Young/Left Hegelians held at the Tippels Hostelry in Berlin, along with, amongst others, Frederick Engels.

Hegel’s held that historically and politically, Reason would dialectically supersede (Aufgehoben) its previous instantiations which had become unreason. Instrumental in achieving this was the Geist or collective consciousness of a people. That is, the Geist of a people would achieve self–consciousness of the unreason in society and act so as to reform it as instructed by Reason.

Not only does Stirner provide an account of History in the first part of The Ego and Its Ownness echoing Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but arguably, the collective Geist is transformed in the Ego of individuals; any vestige of Idealism is replaced by materialism and right becomes essentially, material might. So even here, Idealism has been negated by materialism.

So Aleksander, I don’t think there is any relation between Stirner and Solipsism, Berkeley and Immaterialism.

The ways of Aquinas

Carolin asked:

Hi, I wonder what the steps for Aquinas’ Causal Argument for the Existence of God are. Thank you.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

In his ‘Summa Theologiae’, Aquinas posits his proofs for the existence of the Christian God as the ‘Five Ways’.

The first argument is the argument from Motion. It can be observed that things in the world are in motion. A thing in motion does not cause itself to move or be sui generis (this prevails only if one remains within the categories of Aristotelian metaphysics where a thing cannot be both actus and potentia at the same moment) but is caused to motion by some other thing. Whilst the potential for motion lies within the thing B, its actual motion must arise from some prior existing thing A actually in motion, which actualises the potential inherent in B.

This leads to an infinite regress in which there is no first mover. If there is no first mover then ‘there would not be a first mover and consequently, any other mover’. To avoid this argument from absurdity, there must be a First mover which is itself, not moved by anything. This first mover is God.

However, why does Aquinas, in this argument, find it objectionable that motion is infinite? Could he be accused assuming the truth of that which has yet to be proved, (Peticio Principi) as it is equally possible that motion has always existed?

The Second Argument is that from Efficient Cause. Again, the senses perceive a series of Efficient causes (i.e. A causes B, B causes C and so on) in the world. A thing cannot cause itself into existence (causa sui), it would have to exist before it exists so as to cause its own existence — which is impossible. So things, as effects, are caused into existence by a prior existing efficient cause. So there is a series of Efficient causes in the world. However, an infinite regress of efficient causes is impossible because a regress rules out a first cause and without a first cause, there would not be a subsequent effect and so, nothing would exist – which is absurd. So there cannot be an infinite regress and there must be a First cause of the series of efficient causes and this, is God.

Again, it is equally possible that there was no first cause and that what exists has always existed. Pace Spinoza…

The Third Argument is based on Possibility and Necessity. Things both exist and cease to exist, are generated and destroyed. If every thing was like this, then not existing is possible. If everything is such that not existing is possible for it, then at some time there was nothing in existence. But if nothing existed in the past, there would be nothing presently in existence for, from nothing comes nothing (ex nihilo nihil fit). Yet this is false, as we are here answering this question. Thus it is not true that all things exist possibly. There must be beings which necessarily exist. Some beings exist necessarily because they were caused to exist by other beings. But the problem of infinite regress applies here as it does in the Second Argument. So, there must be a being which exists by necessity and is not caused to exist by anything else. This being is God.

The fallacy committed here is in the drawing of the conclusion that nothing exists follows on from the fact that contingent beings exist. For whist some beings might not exist at any given time, others do exist. Possible existence does not give rise to the impossibility of existence — an erroneous position which then invites the need for a necessary being — God.

The Forth Argument is based on the degrees of reality or eminence found in existing things. That is, things display different quantitative levels in relation to an optimum. There are varying levels of existence, goodness and perfection in living things. God as the maximum epitome of existence, goodness and perfection is the cause of such things.

This line of argument is found in Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics’. It argues that the cause of an effect must have sufficient perfection and reality to cause such effects and that the cause is present in those effects in a sliding scale of greater or lesser degree in relation to the cause itself.

The Final and Fifth Argument is a nascent Argument from Design/Teleology as a proof for the existence of God. Again, like all of the arguments in the Five Ways, it has its origin in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Non-thinking things can be observed to act in a purposive, directed way which, is always for the best outcome. It is not by chance that they act like this. If not by chance, it is because there is an intelligent being which directs non-thinking beings toward their ends (telos). The intelligent being is God.

God’s ‘Watermark’

Baseer asked:

How does Descartes use the Watermark argument to prove the existence of the external world?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

The Watermark or ‘mark of the craftsman’ argument is employed by Descartes as one of his arguments or proofs for the existence of God, not directly to prove the existence of an external world per se. The existence of a good, benevolent God would guarantee the continuous and independent existence of a world beyond the senses.

Its import is that what is in the effects of an act, must be in the cause of that act. An argument which can find its origin in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The influence of this approach can be found in later Cosmological proofs and Arguments from Design for the existence of a creator God.

Anyway, to the 3rd Meditation and we find Descartes, after establishing that he is an existing because thinking thing, is searching for anything else which can be discerned by ‘clear and distinct’ apprehension.

He has images of things and a world that exists beyond him. He has no control over such images and, he has been taught by nature that such a world exists — its common sense, so to speak. Yet the ‘teachings of nature’ have previously misled him so, they are not indubitable. Again, it is possible that such images are undistinguishable from dreams. So, no conclusive, indubitable conclusions about the existence of a world existing independently of him.

What of ‘Objective Ideas’ as so concluded by his Judgement about ‘the Wax’ (see the Second Meditation). These must have as much reality in their effects as in their causes, as from where else would such reality in the effects arise from? The cause powers the effects, for out of nothing comes nothing (ex nihilo nihil fit) so an effect must draw its reality from an existing or, prior existing cause. The examples of the stone and of heat follow.

In light of this, Descartes then considers considers the idea of God. God is infinite. Only what is infinite cause can create infinite effects. The creation of the infinite cannot proceed from what is less perfect, from which contains less reality — it cannot emerge from anything finite. This is clear and distinct reasoning.

Arguing that he has not obtained the idea of God by means of his sense-organs, nor is it a fiction or product of his mind, Descartes concludes that the idea is innate.

“Certainly I ought not to find it strange that God, in creating me, has placed this in me, to be as it were, the mark of the craftsman imprinted on his work.”

A thinking Descartes could not produce the reality of the idea of God, (finite, imperfect cannot produce the infinite, perfect) so this God must exist and must have put the idea of himself in Descartes along with, the ‘natural light’ of ‘clear and distinct’ thinking which evidences the Idea and nature of God. For God has made him in his image and similitude.

Examination by the reasoning Mind upon the nature of God, upon his perfect, ultimate nature -which is free from defects — further concludes:

“And from all this it is sufficiently evident that He cannot be a deceiver, it being manifest by the natural light that all fraud and deception proceed from defect.”

God cannot deceive. He has created the real, existing world of object that Descartes has questioned. Additionally, God has imbued Descartes and human beings generally with the faculty of reason (clear and distinct ideas) by which the truth of things can be concluded. Finally, God has created the order of Nature — including the human body. What Nature teaches can be taken to be created by God and be discerned by thinking beings as Natural Laws.

Baseer, I hope this helps.

Was Fichte a solipsist? (contd.)

Lucy asked:

I was reading about the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. I don’t know if I just read it wrong but to be he comes across as someone who agrees with solipsism. What is your opinion?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Lucy, I entirely sympathise with your question!! It is entirely understandable to read Fichte as proffering a variant of solipsism. I often used to struggle with the same issue.

Confusingly, in the first section of the Science of Knowledge, ‘Foundation of Theoretical Knowledge’, Fichte frequently uses the terms ‘Absolute Self’ and ‘Consciousness’. This concerns the synthesis of the Transcendental Categories to empirical Intuitions. This is achieved by a dialectic between the Absolute Self and Non-Self. This occurs unconsciously. It is how our perception of the world happens and it is happening now, as you read this answer.

In the second part of the Science of Knowledge, ‘Foundation of Knowledge of the Practical’, the ‘Intelligent Self’ is discussed. This is how the Self becomes aware of itself. The infinite striving of the Absolute Self encounters opposition with the Not-Self. The latter limits the former. Instead of striving outwards, the Absolute Self now strives inwards, concentrating on the finite Self. The intermediation with the Non-Self furnishes knowledge of it and importantly, knowledge of the finite Self itself.

On this basis, a conclusion of solipsism could be drawn.

However, an aspect of the Non-Self that limits the finite Self is of course, another Self or selves. Admittedly, this is not discussed in the ‘Science’ but, is discussed at greater length in Fichte’s later work ‘Foundations of Natural Right’. (1797). Here, the Second Theorem states:

“The finite, rational being cannot ascribe to itself a free efficacy in the sensible world without ascribing itself to others and thus, without also presupposing the existence of other finite rational beings outside of itself.” (P. 29 ibid)

In other words, the finite self can only become self-conscious of itself in the presence of other, finite selves. Any awareness of a self presupposes other selves, the social ‘We’ precedes the individual ‘I’. This obviously rules out allegations of Solipsism.

Fichte’s account of self-consciousness and others is elaborated upon and developed in the second section of FWJ Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) and both chapters on ‘Consciousness’ and ‘Self-Consciousness’ in GWF Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807).

Hope this is of use Lucy.

Socrates a decadent?

Christine asked:

In his essay The Birth of Tragedy Fredrick Nietzsche has some fairly negative comments to make about Socrates. Based on Socrates’ Ideas do you think that Nietzsche’s remarks are fair and balanced?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

The Birth of Tragedy.

Within nature, there are two forces: The Appolinian and the Dionysian. The former gives form (Principium Individuationis) to nature, creating objects in the world and the world itself – including distinct human beings. The Dionysian is, following the insights of Arthur Schopenhauer in his The World as Will and Representation, the endless striving creative and destructive Will of nature that lies behind the appearance/ illusion of the Appolinian. The Dionysian is important for Nietzsche as it plays an important role in Hellenic culture, it furnishes Tragic art, Tragedy.

It is here, in states of heightened human experience reached in singing or dancing, Apollinian form breaks down. Dionysian revelry particularly in the Satyr chorus – melts the Appollinian Principium Individuationis. Accordingly, separate, individual human beings become at one in the Primal Unity (Ur-eine). The death of heroes such as Oedipus, reminds the participants of the terrible nature of the Dionysian, of the transient quality of life and the illusion of the Principium Individuationis. In such states, humans are identical with each other and, identical with Dionysian nature. Concepts and symbols germane to the Appollinian realm dissolve before the felt intensity of the Dionysian achieved by chourus, by music. There is a shared unity reminding each and all that eventually, we will each and all return to the Primal Oneness.

This is important for Nietzsche as it is by means of Tragic art and music that the essence of nature is experienced. Its conclusions are that life is terrible and yet, according to Nietzsche, the pre-Socratic Greeks celebrated and affirmed this. This is an act of primal, instinctive strength in the face of the absurd and the terrible.


“The irreverent idea that the great sages are types of decline first occurred to me precisely in a case where it is most strongly opposed by both scholarly and unscholarly prejudice I realized that Socrates and Plato were symptoms of degeneration, tools of the Greek dissolution, pseudo-Greek, anti-Greek (Birth of Tragedy, 1872). The consensus of the sages — I recognized this ever more clearly — proves least of all that they were right in what they agreed on: it shows rather that they themselves, these wisest men, shared some physiological attribute, and because of this adopted the same negative attitude to life — had to adopt it.” (Nietzsche. The Problem of Socrates. Twilight of the Idols)

For Nietzsche, Socrates and Plato, heralded as the great founders of Western Philosophy were on the contrary, representatives of physiological degeneration. Physiological degeneration is that state when the drives of a human being, or a collection of human beings are disaggregated, are in a state of chaos. This lowers the coherency and effectivity of Will to Power (which is inherent to each drive) leaving beings exhausted, weary of life: reactive. In a healthy human being, says Nietzsche, the drives are ordered hierarchically with the strongest drives/will to power marshalling and incorporating the weaker ones in its service. This provides for optimum will to power, provides for a strong, healthy, affirmative being/s. Valuations are expressive of the reactive/affirmative states respectively. If the drives are in chaos -’anarchy of the drives/will to power’ ensues with corresponding values of decline, exhaustion.

Nietzsche’s contention is that Socrates and Plato displayed such physiological degeneration and, like the slaves of the so-called slave revolt, need a panacea to address their degeneration. (see Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality) For the slaves, the panacea is Ressentiment. For Socrates and Plato, it is Reason/Nous. Yet their cure has led life awry, its has allowed errors to be taken for truths, for the earth and life to be devalued and the otherworldly to be valued more highly. This obsession with ‘Reason’ has been detrimental and misleading. (see ‘Reason In Philosophy, et alibi Twilight of the Idols). Subsequent thinkers follow on and endorse this trajectory: as A.N. Whitehead is said to have remarked ‘Western Philosophy is but footnotes to Plato…’ and Nietzsche cites the source of this mistake as lying primarily with Socrates.

Western Philosophy inverts the Earth and human life in seeking the meaning of it all as lying beyond it: in the Forms, in God and Heaven, in Thinking substance distinct from physical body yet able to access the Truth by means of Natural Reason and so on. Naturalism is neglected in preference for Metaphysics. Metaphysical system after Metaphysical system is constructed with no apparent progress made, as Kant highlighted with his own solution to the problem of Metaphysics.

Further, Nietzsche contends that such ideas have been harmful as they have prevented human beings from becoming greater than they actually are. This for Nietzsche, would be an Aristocratic society with everyone contented in their social position; mirroring his physiological view of the body informed by respective, hierarchical levels of Will to Power, as mentioned above. Noblesse Oblige… Instead, decadent inspired ideas have been hegemonic for over two thousand years suppressing difference, suppressing the expression of life with the prescriptins of ressentiment fuelled levelling. Natural instincts have been condemned as ‘Evil’ and wrong. Timidity, inhibition, the negation of natural life and strength (not to be conflated with the physical) is valued as ‘Good’ by the influence of ressentiment fuelled morality. He clearly attributes the influence of Socrates as significantly contributing to this. Hence Nietzsche strong disapprobation in The Birth of Tragedy and elsewhere.

Of course, Nietzsche is valuing Socrates from the standpoint of his own Philosophy. Nietzsche’s Philosophy — particularily his theories of Evolution and Physiology — is questionable, as I’ve written elsewhere:

Yet, he is not alone on revaluating the value of Reason. The value and consequences of ‘Reason’ has been evaluated and critiqued by other Philosophers such as Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Martin Heidegger. The latter who ironically, referred to Nietzsche as the ‘last Metaphysician’…