Dr W Large

The World and its Beyond: Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion


The end of the philosophical concept of God is the end of the notion of an external reality on which our own existence depends, but of which we can have no knowledge or understanding at all, as though human nature were determined from the outside.[1] The only rational concept of God for Kant is the moral idea of God, but precisely as an idea, this God can only have an existence within us. Nonetheless it can be argued that Kant does not get rid of the externality of God completely, since he still holds on the possibility that there could be a God that really exists, but we simply cannot know. As we read in the Religion, both atheism and theism are irrational for Kant, so we cannot say that God does not exist. Moreover the distinction between the phenomenon and the thing in itself that is so important to the epistemology of The Critique of Pure Reason, seems to imply that there are two worlds: the world of human intuition, which is limited to the senses and the form of human consciousness, and the world on intellectual intuition, things as they really are, which are only available to the divine mind. We might read Hegel as the abolition of any faint dualism that is left over from Kant’s famous Copernican Turn. Reality is what we make of it, rather than we what reality (as created by God) makes of us.

      We are reading Hegel only to understand the disappearance of a certain conception of God, we are not studying Hegel on his own terms, which would mean that we do not have to explain or even understand every aspect of his philosophy. All we want to grasp is the general movement of his thought, especially as it diverges from Kant’s treatment of religion. As we shall see Hegel’s way of thinking is really quite different from Kant’s. In Kant’s universe everything is static. Thought is not involved in the world; rather it confronts it as though it were outside of it; something that has to be overcome in order to be understand, so that objectivity is dissolved into subjectivity, and what lies outside the subject is dead and lifeless. For Hegel, on the contrary, thought and the world are mutually dependent on one another. There are impossible with the relation between one another, and they come into being in this relation, rather than as two separate halves that have to be stuck back together again by philosophical reflection. The self can only make itself visible to itself in the world. Its activities and deeds transform the world into itself, but without this process the self itself would not come to any kind of self-understanding: I am my world, but my world is also me. This interrelation of the world and the self is the meaning of Hegel’s famous dialectic.

      The Phenomenology of Spirit, which is perhaps Hegel’s most famous book, what he has set himself out to explain is the nature of self-consciousness, for it is this which defines our subjectivity. Ordinarily consciousness is understood as opposing itself to the world. On the one side, there is the certainty and individuality of the ‘I’, and on the other, there is the inert existence of nature, the world, or what Hegel calls ‘life’. Life might resist me, but it only does so as something that gets in the way, not because it has its own freedom or desires:

Self-consciousness is, to begin with, simple being-for-self, self-equal through the exclusion from itself of everything else. For it, its essence and absolute object is ‘I’; and in this immediacy, or in this [mere] being, of its being-for-self, it is an individual.[2]

It is this self which is described in epistemology, and which we find in the pages of Descartes and Kant. Yet self consciousness does not just come against things in the world, it also comes across other individuals who are free like it; that is to say, have the same relation to the world that it does. Now although it is true to say that the world does not resist my appropriation, since I can know I can know and consume it, it is not true to say that other people do not, and what I receive from their independence is something that I cannot receive from things; namely recognition. The world of the self is first of all a relation between human beings, and only then does it become a relation of consciousness to a thing. Philosophy gets it the wrong way around starts with things, and ends up splitting the self from the world, because even other people are interpreted as things (they could just be automaton, as Descartes remarks).

This means that for Hegel, the relation to the other self consciousness has a completely different relation than the relation to the external world. In my relation to other individuals like myself what I seek is validation and legitimacy of my own being. It is not that I desire the other, like I desire other objects in the world, to consume or possess, rather I desire the desire of the other person. There are two ways in which this happens: one, I desire what the other desires – or what I desire can only have a meaning because other’s desire it, and what they do not desire has no meaning for me; second, I wish to become what the other values. I want my life to be the most important thing for them, more important even than the objects that they consume.

Unfortunately the other person also desires the same thing as I desire. They want themselves to be the ultimate value. Thus the desire for recognition can only become a struggle for recognition. And yet if this struggle ends in the death of one person, or even the death of both, then recognition is no longer possible, for one receives no recognition from a corpse. Thus, for recognition to occur, one person must submit to the other, or to use Hegel’s language, one person must become the slave and the other the master.

Now one might think that is the master which is the truth of human consciousness, and the position of slave which is to be avoided, but in fact it is the other way around, and this is the point of Hegel’s complex analysis of the ‘Master/Slave dialectic’. Recognition means to see oneself in what is other to oneself. We can see this as a twofold movement. The first movement is an externalisation, or the placing of one’s consciousness outside of oneself. The second movement is the internalisation of this externalisation. I see myself in what I have placed outside of myself. For Hegel this is the only possibility of grasping the truth of what you are. For if you simple remain with in yourself (again Descartes it he perfectly example, alone in his room), although you might be certain of what you believe, you could never be quite sure whether you were not totally mad, unless these beliefs were verified by another being.[3]

The reason why the slave is the truth of consciousness and the master is not, is that the slave goes through these two movements, whereas the master remains closed in on himself. The master, as Kojève would say is static, whereas it is the slave which is the movement of history and becoming.[4] First of all let us look at the dialectic from the viewpoint of the master. The master risks his life for recognition, whereas the slave submits to the master in order to preserve his life and works for him. The master, therefore, relates both to the thing that the slave produces and to the slave himself.  The thing is the object of desire, and the slave is means by which to obtain the object of the desire. The master, however many things that he can consume, can gain no ultimate satisfaction from them. The things themselves are just things, inert and lifeless, since the master has put none of himself in them; they have been produced and cultivated by the slave. But nor can in gain any recognition from the slave, for he does not see in the slave anything of himself. The only recognition that he can have is from another master, but then the only outcome would be the death of the master or another slave. The master is therefore caught in an impasse which he cannot get out of it.

Things would seem much worse for the slave. Is he not at the beck and call of the master, has he no freedom or autonomy at all? And yet with the same two elements we can see that there is a way out for the slave. For he can see himself in the master – he can see that the master represent human dignity and freedom – the master is the ideal that the slave must reach in order to transform himself, to become also autonomous and independent. But to do so the slave does not need another master in order to compete with, and thus start the whole cycle over again. For the slave’s relation to the second element, the thing, is also different from the master. The master only consumes things, but the slave produces them. The slave, therefore, relates to nature not as something external and separate, but as something that has to be worked over.  Human reality is not given, but a product of human labour. The slave therefore does have the possibility of recognition. For the slave externalises himself in labour, but this in turn is internalised when he recognises himself in the products that he produces (my work is an expression of myself, both outer and inner, and not either/or). He sees the mark of his hand in the vessel that he has beaten out of metal, or the curve of the pottery that he has formed in the mould. Again as Kojève writes:

He forms things and the World by transforming himself, by educating himself, and he educates himself, he forms himself, by transforming things and the World.[5]

Rather then having two separate worlds, which relate to each other only from the side of two extremes, the slave knows the truth that the world is us, and we are the world. This realisation, as Hegel will say at the end of Phenomenology of Spirit, is absolute knowledge, which is the overcoming of the split between the kingdom of heaven and earth. This becomes clear in the next shape of self consciousness which Hegel calls ‘unhappy consciousness

      The whole of Hegel’s philosophy can be seen as analysis of the relation between the self and the other. The self is dependent on the other for being a self, but it constantly misrecognises the status of this other. It either annihilates the other, as the struggle for recognition, or it diminishes itself in relation to the other, as in unhappy consciousness. The solution to this problem for Hegel is to see that the relation between the self and the other is one of mutual interdependence. I recognise myself in the other, and the other recognises him or herself in me. The ultimate level of this recognition for Hegel is social. The relation between the self and society is no longer an abstract opposition, where I resist society, or in which society crushes me, but on the contrary society and the self are one, or as Hegel would say, the I is We and the We is I, which he calls Spirit. This insight, which is reached through the historical progression of humanity, is what he calls Absolute Knowledge. As he writes is The Phenomenology of Spirit,

We already have before us the concept of Spirit. What remains for consciousness is the experience of what Spirit is – the absolute substance which is the unity of the distinct, self-existing [für sich seiender] self conscious individuals in the perfect freedom and independence of their otherness to one another. Spirit is that I which is We and that We which is I. Consciousness first finds in Self-Consciousness as the concept of Spirit its turning point, where it leaves the colourful show of the sensible present [Dieseits] and the empty night of the supersensible beyond [Jenseits] to enter the spiritual daylight of the present.[6]

This same distinction can be applied to religion. The self understands itself through its other, in this case God, but it alienates itself from itself by placing this understanding in a ‘beyond’, which by definition is unreachable. Consciousness only becomes self consciousness; that is to say, understands itself, through its object (self relation only exists through a relation to another), but by splitting its object from itself, it ensures that misunderstanding and lack of knowledge is its only possibility. What it has to realise, of course, is that it is the cause of the split between itself and the other, and thus the ‘beyond’ is not a real beyond at all, but its ‘beyond’. Is this not already implied, even if he himself would not have seen it this way, in Kant’s insistence that the rational definition of God must be the idea of God, rather than God as mysterious transcendent and external being. God is internal to the human heart and not an alien, tyrannical, and mysterious creature that lives in the sky above us and to whom we have to abase ourselves. This truth is already the content of Christianity, though it is the task of philosophy to think it, so that Christianity, through its actions and deeds, becomes the Kingdom of God on earth rather than in heaven.

Hegel had already spoken against this transcendent God, in what are called the Early Theological Writings, when he wrote about human love. What is true about human love is that to love another human being is not to possess them. In other words the beloved does not disappear when I love them, but they retain their independence and autonomy, just as much as I do. Equally, however, if I am truly in love, then I only find myself in this other person. Love, then, is the paradox of both belonging and not belonging to other, of being equally independent and dependent. ‘Those who love,’ as Merold Westphal writes, ‘know themselves to be the unity of what nevertheless remains distinct, an incomprehensible wonder.’[7]

The point is, at least in the development of self consciousness in the Phenomenology of Sprit, the self does not know that it is constituted in the other and the other is constituted in it. It continually falls back into abstract oppositions which are its own creation. Thus, at the end of the master slave dialectic, in which it realises that through labour and thereby the mastery of nature it is more independent than the master it venerates, this independence, autonomy and freedom, becomes merely a thought rather than an activity:

In thinking I am free, because I am not in an other, but remain simply and solely in communion with myself, and the object that is for me the essential being is in undivided unity my being-for-itself; and my activity in conceptual thinking is a movement within myself.[8]

This is Hegel’s definition of stoicism.[9] It is only a thought, because really the slave is not free – he or she is tied to the master. She knows that the world is the result of her labour and not the master’s, but in reality the world is owned by the master, even though he does nothing but consume the fruit of her labours. To negate the bondage to the master the slave must retreat from the world that she owns because it is the result of her labour. She must reject ‘life’ so as to escape into thought, which is the most free world of all. Thus what ever the master does to me he cannot make me think anything at all, for I can always say whatever he wants me to say, whereas at the same time thinking absolutely the opposite.

But what exactly is it that I am meant to think? Freedom in thought has only pure thought as its truth, a truth lacking the fullness of life, and, therefore, nothing is determined in the content of its truth. In the very movement away from life into thought, life itself is turned into nothing, nought and zero. Life no longer has any meaning for me. I have negated it. Such an escape into thought, for Hegel, therefore, is the condition for scepticism. The freedom of thought of stoicism is just as abstract freedom, which develops into the negativity of scepticism. This is the negative side of the freedom of thought in which the inessential nature of the other becomes apparent. Thought annihilates the being of the world. Rather than the mutual relation of the self and the other, in which the self recognises itself in the other, and the other in the self, the relationship between the self and the other has collapsed back into an opposition and disagreement. I am indifferent to the world, but the world is equally indifferent to me.

The only content of the thought of the sceptic is negative. Everything is a ‘not this’ or ‘not that’. But this independence is absolutely meaningless and self-contradictory. I cannot be myself by rejecting the world, for there would be no actual self left at the end of this process. Scepticism makes the otherness of reality disappear. But it is not just the world as such which disappears, but its relationship to it. In so doing the very truth that it has created is in danger of disappearing. It passes between one extreme and the other, ‘thoughtless rambling’ on the one hand, and ‘self-identical consciousness’, on the other. It declares everything as null and void, but in so doing, it becomes null and void - it declares every perception as false, but it is this perceiving, so it too must be false; it declares every ethical principle a  lie, but it lives this ethics, so it to must be unethical. At this stage of the dialectic, Hegel says, self consciousness knows that it has reached an impasse but it cannot get out of it. It just shuttles from one extreme to the other. It has become a divided self. It can neither accept its dependence on the world and others, but at the same time it is not happy or content with its own independence.

The solution to this misery is sought in a ‘beyond’ in which this opposition will be resolved, since it would be an absolute resistance to sceptical thought. Self consciousness, therefore, seeks a world beyond this world, which is fixed and unchangeable and which rise above the inconsistencies of perception and belief. This world might not be true, but the world of the ‘beyond’ is. But there is something absurd right at the heart of this project, for the very ‘beyond’ that self consciousness posits as the solution to is depression, isolation and separation, by definition cannot be found, for if it could then it would not be a ‘beyond’ at all, but just another one of its ‘contentless’ thoughts, which led it into this confusion in the first place. ‘Where that “other” is sought,’ Hegel writes, ‘it cannot be found, for it is supposed to just a beyond, something that can not be found.’[10]

The solution to this problem, which is not a real problem but one produce by thought itself, is for self consciousness to realise that it itself is the origin of this beyond, and that without it, it would have no existence at all. Rather than the beyond being ‘other’ than the self, in this false sense, it is the self, and here we reach the insight of Sprit once again, that the self is other, and the other is self. As Robert Pippen brilliantly explains, the aim of Hegel’s philosophy is as follows:

In general, what he tries to show is that self-consciousness realises (or must realise in order to avoid the incoherence into which it is otherwise led) that the “object” of its devotion and hope, the source of the worth and the warrant for the truth of its various “independently” determined practices, is itself.[11]

Religion, therefore, rather than being the description of some mysterious realm beyond this world, which is meant to solve the dissatisfactions of this world, is the very same world it denies. We must learn ‘to say of man,’ quoting Westphal quoting Kojève, ‘everything that the Christian says of his God.’[12]











[1] As Feuerbach writes, atheism is the though that there is nothing outside of human beings which could limit their infinite determination. As L. Dikey glosses, ‘the “essence” of a “human being” is “undetermined, but capable of infinite determinations.”’ (Feuerbach in Young Hegelians). Quoted in L. Dikey, ‘Hegel on Religion and Philosophy’, in Cambridge Companion to Hegel, ed. F. C. Beiser (CUP, 1993) 345, fn., 146.

[2] G. W. F. Hegel ‘The Truth of Self Certainty’ in the Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V Miller (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1977) p. 113 [hereafter PS].

[3] Also language is a social activity, so even my inner convictions are social. See, A. Wood, ‘Hegel’s Ethics’, in Cambridge Companion to Hegel, op. cit., 224.

[4] A. Kojève, ‘In Place of an Introduction’ in Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (New York, Basic Books, 1969) p. 23


[5] Ibid p. 25.

[6] Phenomenology of Spirit, 227

[7] Merold Westphal, History and Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology (New York: Humanities Press International, Inc.: 1979) p. 82.

[8] Phenomenology of Sprit, 120.

[9] The following explanation is heavily dependent on Robert B. Pippin, Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness (Cambridge: CUP, 1989) pp. 163-71.

[10] The Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 131.

[11] Hegel’s Idealism, p. 166 [author’s emphasis].

[12] History and Truth, p. 217.