On Hegel and German Idealism

By Bernard Bosanquet

Bosanquet earned the label of Neo-Hegelian Idealist for his adherence to the philosophical doctrine known as "German Idealism," as propounded from the works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Bosanquet authored three essays on various aspects of the school of German Idealism which sprang from the works of Georg Hegel (1770–1831).

Note: As travelers on the Via Christa, we do not espouse Hegelian Idealism, which has been co-opted by the atheist Marxists as a mainstay of their dialectical materialism. By definition, an idealist is not a materialist.

German Idealism

The three more strictly philosophical papers {in this volume} [On the True Conception of Another World, The Philosophical Importance of a True Theory of Identity, and On the Philosophical Distinction between "Knowledge" and "Opinion"], offer some considerations respecting the true nature of the "Idealist" revival in Germany and in England. As a return to the human and the concrete, finding its supra-sensuous world in the mind and activities of man, this intellectual impulse has been active amongst other vital forces in the nineteenth century movement. But like every great origination — Christianity is a case in point — it has developed a wealth of conceptions and formulae which have tended to become hostile to the spirit which generated them, and has thus made foes of friends, and friends of foes. Like Christianity, also, it has produced its effect in spite of misconceptions, and has everywhere carried with it the organic ideas of an enlarged and purified Hellenism.

I will take the freedom to insist a little upon this aspect of the so-called German Idealism, because, owing in a large measure to the abundance and energy of its achievements, which needed for their expression an elaborate philosophical terminology, the enlightened public is hardly, perhaps, aware to how great an extent, as a mere matter of fact, it originated in a human enthusiasm wholly antagonistic to remote Ontology. It is quite true that the form taken by the revolutionary effort was that of transferring ontology and orthodoxy into a sphere and medium in which they should have real significance, rather than that of making a clean sweep of them altogether. It is impossible to estimate the positive and negative aspects of such a transformation in a few sentences; but I wish to express my conviction, in contrast with the views which underlie certain recent criticisms of Hegel, that the human and vital import of his philosophy is its element of permanent value; and that the recognition of the human spirit as the highest essence of things, which is a stumbling-block to those whose hearts are with the orthodoxy which Hegel revolutionized, is the true and enduring result of the great epoch currently symbolized by his name. I will quote two passages from letters written by Hegel at the age of twenty-five; not that such letters, displaying as they do hesitation on essential matters, can be in any way decisive of controverted points in the philosopher's matured system of thought, but because they are startling illustrations of what, on reviewing the whole matter, I firmly believe to have been his dominant temper and purpose.

Hegel[1] to Schelling

January, 1795.

"… What you tell me of the theological and Kantian march of philosophy at Tübingen causes me no surprise. Orthodoxy cannot be shaken as long as its profession is interwoven with worldly advantage, and bound up with the structure of the State. An interest like this is too strong to be readily surrendered, and has an eflfect as a whole of which people are hardly aware. While this is so, it has on its side the whole troop — ever the most numerous — of clamorous devotees, void of thought and of higher interests. If a mob like this reads something opposed to their convictions (if one is to do their pedantic jargon the honour of calling it by that name), the truth of which they cannot deny, they will say, 'Yes, I suppose it is true,' and then go to bed, and next morning drink their coffee as if nothing had happened. Besides, they will lay hold of anything that presents itself, which will maintain them in their old routine. But I think it would be interesting to molest, in their ant-like industry, the theologians who are fetching up critical [Kantian] materials to prop their Gothic temple, to whip them out of all their refuges, till they could find no more, and should have to reveal their nakedness before the sun. Still, among the timbers which they drag off the Kantian bonfire in trying to arrest the conflagration of their fabric of dogmas, they will carry home with them some burning embers; they are bringing the terminology into general circulation, and are facilitating the general dispersion of philosophical ideas. I shall do all I can ; I am convinced that nothing but perpetual shaking and shocking on all sides gives a chance of any ultimate effect of importance; something will always stick, and every contribution, even if it contains nothing new, has its value as encouraging and reinforcing intercommunication and sympathetic labour. Let us often repeat your appeal, 'We do not mean to be behind.' . . . Our watchword shall be Reason and Freedom, and our rallying-point the invisible Church."

The Same to the Same

April, 1795.

"…From the Kantian system and its final completion I expect a revolution in Germany, starting from principles which are already present, and which only need to be systematised and applied to existing knowledge as a whole. No doubt there will always be an esoteric philosophy, and the idea of God as the absolute Ego will belong to it. In my most recent study of the "Postulates of Practical Reason" [Kant] I had had forebodings of what you plainly expounded to me in your last letter, and what Fichte's Grundlage der Wissenschaftslehre will completely open up to me. The consequences which will issue from these ideas will astonish a good many people. They will be dazzled at this supreme elevation by which man is so greatly exalted; yet why have people been so slow to form a higher estimate of man's dignity, and to recognise his capacity of freedom, which places him on a par with any spiritual beings? I think that there is no better sign of the times than this, that humanity is represented as so estimable in itself; it is a proof that the halo round the heads of the oppressors and gods of this world is disappearing. The philosophers will prove man's dignity, the people will learn to feel it, and will — not demand, but — simply appropriate their trampled rights.[2] Religion and politics have played each other's game; religion has taught what despotism desired, contempt for the human race, its incapacity for all good, its powerlessness to be anything in its own strength. But with the spread of ideas as to how all should be, the nonchalance of respectable people in accepting all as it is, will vanish.

… I constantly exhort myself out of [Hippel's] Lebenslaüfe, 'Strive upwards to the sun, my friends, that the welfare of humanity may ripen soon. What matter for the hindering leaves and branches! Struggle through to the sun, and if you are weary, never mind! You will sleep all the better.'"

Now I am convinced that the feeling which blazes out in these letters persisted through Hegel's life as the fusing heat of his system. It is improbable that he was in all respects consistent; and no sensible man, above all, no Hegelian, could suppose that the main work of philosophy, after the lapse of half a century, is to repeat the formulae in which his views were cast. But I believe that in the papers on philosophical questions which are printed in this volume I have rather understated than overstated the elements by which recent idealism is bound up with the humanising movement of this century, and will consequently affect the future of English philosophy.

Bernard Bosanquet, 1891


1^ Rosenkranz's Life of Hegel, p. 66 ff; and Hegel's Briefe, Herausgegeben von Karl Hegel, p. 11 ff.

2^ Almost the same expressions occur in the fifth of Schiller's letters on Esthetic Education, which are expressly referred to as a masterpiece in this same letter of Hegel. Hegel continued to consider these letters of Schiller as marking an epoch in the history of philosophy.

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Bernard Bosanquet
British Idealist Philosopher,
political theorist, social reformer
Professor of Moral Philosophy,
University of St. Andrews 1903–1907
Fellow of the British Academy 1907



Bosanquet, Bernard, M.A. "Prefatory Remarks," Essays and Addresses. 2nd ed., London: Swan Sonnenschein and Co., 1891.