Dr W Large

Hegel and the Unity of Opposites

What world is presented in Descartes’ Meditations? It is a world that is divided between a subject and the object, but where the object has been completely annihilated. For all I know, reality might be a dream or a hallucination that an evil demon has placed in my mind:

Some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things [AT VII, pp. 22-3].

Descartes solves this problem by proving the existence of God through the ontological argument, who, unlike this ‘malicious demon’ cannot be evil, and therefore ensure that what is real and what I think is real are one and the same thing. We start, therefore, with the philosophical opposition of the subject and object, which is then overcome by a theological manoeuvre. It is precisely this theological solution that is denied by Kant in the transcendental dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason. Proves of the existence of God are illicit because they imply that one can jump from an idea of something to the existence of something (which is precisely what the ontological argument claims to do), but this would be to leap over the limits of human knowledge. God, therefore, for Kant is a idea and not an object, and it is an idea that only has a moral and not a ontological significance as it does in Kant.

Can morality make up this ontological lack, and doesn’t Kant’s morality repeat the oppositions of thought at another level? These are Hegel’s questions to Kant. When we look at Kant’s picture of knowledge aren’t we left with the disunity of opposites which Descartes’ God was meant to resolve? For Kant, I cannot know the world as it is in itself, but only as it appears to me, and this appearance is constituted by pure intuition (space and time) and the categories of the understanding. Though the subject and the appearance are one, since the meaning of the appearance is given by the subject itself, the thing in itself, which must be the cause of the appearance, remains external and outside of the subject. It is, to use Hegel’s language, something that is dead to me. Isn’t this opposition between the appearance and thing itself, however, not a false opposition, because it is an opposition of thought and not reality. In other words it is the subject that first says that there is division between the appearance and the thing in itself, and then goes onto to add that the second part of this division is something that cannot be known. The thing in itself is not something real which stands outside of the self, it is an idea of the self, which it has emptied of any content.

We might think of Hegel’s philosophy in general (and it goes without saying that this is most general and superficial summary) as new way of thinking of the relation between the subject and the object, not in terms of an opposition which is then overcome through a one sided unity (either from the side of the subject, or from the side of the object), but as a reciprocal determination. Such is the way, in an early text, Hegel thinks of the relation of love.[1] We remember Aristophanes’ story about love in the Symposium. There he tells of the myth whereby the gods struck down the arrogance of the circular beings by cutting them in half. From then on, each of us is seeking the other half in order to complete ourselves. Love is a fusion of two parts in order to make a whole. Yet this would mean that love would be loss of the independence, for I only find myself by losing myself in the other, and the other only finds themselves by losing themselves in the other. For Hegel, on the contrary, love is the paradox that one maintains one separation in the union. I do not become the other, and the other does not become me, but I am I in my relation to the other and the other is other in relation to me, and from the other perspective, I am other to the other, who is an I to my other:

In love the separate does still remain, but as something united and no longer as something separate; life [in the subject] senses life [in the object].[2]

I am enriched by love only the extent that I give to the other who gives back to me. What I love in the other is the love that the other loves me with, and so to for the other who is also an ‘I’.




[1] G. W. F. Hegel, ‘Love’, Early Theological Writings, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961), pp. 302-8.


[2] Ibid 305.