DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC037-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

5. Hegelianism outside Germany in the nineteenth century: America and Britain

America. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Hegel’s ideas came to play an important part in the intellectual life of the USA, where two centres of Hegelian thought began to develop. The first was a loosely associated group of friends and acquaintances based at this time in Cincinnati, Ohio, the most important of whom were John Bernard Stallo (1823–1900), August Willich (1810–78) and Moncure Conway (1832–1907). Broadly speaking, the Cincinnati Hegelians offered a left-wing interpretation of his views, which stressed his conception of a cosmos ‘full of life and reason’ (as Conway put it), in which scientific and social progress were possible, leading to a more liberal and rational political and religious order.

A similar outlook can be found in the second centre of Hegelian ideas at this time, in St Louis. The leading figures here were Henry Conrad Brokmeyer (1826–1906) and William Torrey Harris (1835–1909). After the Civil War, members of the Kant Club in St Louis formed the Philosophical Society, inaugurated in 1866 with Brokmeyer as president, Harris as secretary, and Denton Snider (1841–1925), G.H. Howison (1834–1916), A.E. Kroeger (1837–82) and Thomas Davidson (1840–1900) among its leading members. All were to contribute articles and translations to The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, which Harris edited from 1867 to 1893. The Journal had considerable influence in making Hegelian ideas part of the mainstream philosophical discussion in America, while Harris’s own large output made a major contribution to the study of Hegel’s works. Many of the St Louis Hegelians (including Brokmeyer and Harris) also had important institutional positions, in which they tried to apply his ideas in the fields of government and education.

Of this group, Harris was perhaps the most successful in developing a general philosophical outlook that is clearly Hegelian in character. He argued that in its highest stage, knowledge reveals ‘independence and self-relation underlying all dependence and relativity’ (Easton 1966: 481); and he used this structure, as Hegel had done, to develop a dialectical conception of ‘identity-in-difference’ that provided the basis for his account of the universe, God’s relation to the world and the place of the individual in society.

By the end of the nineteenth century, many of the major academic posts in America were occupied by self-styled idealists, who accepted Hegel’s central place in this tradition of thought. At this time, Hegel in particular and idealism in general were used to come to terms with the growing impact of Darwinian ideas on theology and philosophy, in part by using the notion of the dialectic to find reason in the process of evolution itself.

From the 1880s onwards, however, the claim by Hegel’s earlier American disciples that he represented the highest point of German thought began to be challenged, as pragmatism started to make its mark in academic philosophical circles (see Pragmatism). This drew on a much broader range of idealist thinkers than just Hegel, who was no longer viewed as the culminating point of the tradition. Thus, for an influential figure such as William James, the less rationalistic and metaphysical idealism of Kant, Schopenhauer and Lotze was more congenial to his pragmatic outlook. The central target of James’ attack was Hegel’s ‘vicious intellectualism’, to which he opposed his own radical empiricism (James 1909: 105). James argued that the concrete world of experience has a different structure from the world of thought, and that the particularity of things can never be adequately conceptualized. He criticized intellectualism for substituting ‘a pallid outline for the real world’s richness’, and (like Kierkegaard) claimed that it sought to transcend becoming and temporality by abandoning the human point of view. In voicing these misgivings about Hegel’s alleged essentialism, James was developing a familiar line of criticism, but in a way that was new in the American reception of Hegel’s work.

The effect of this critique can be seen in the writings of James’ Harvard colleague and contemporary, Josiah Royce. Unlike James, Royce was prepared to follow through the developments in idealism that led to Hegel, and so became his most sympathetic and sophisticated interpreter in this period, basing his conception of the Absolute on Hegel’s account of the concrete universal as an organic unity of individual minds. In his posthumously published lectures on ‘Aspects of Post-Kantian Idealism’, delivered in 1906, Royce broke new ground by laying greater stress on the Phenomenology of Spirit than the Logic, emphasizing the voluntaristic aspects of the former, as showing that ‘for Hegel, thought is inseparable from will’ (1919: 145). By adopting this approach, Royce hoped to show that Hegel’s real intention was to portray a ‘logic of passion’, and of the conflicts of the will, and not a system of abstract thought; this would demonstrate the continuity of Hegel’s ideas with the outlook of pragmatism.

The other leading American pragmatists, C.S. Peirce and John Dewey were also influenced by their encounter with Hegel. While Peirce was quick to distance himself from American Hegelianism as a school (entering into a sharp critical exchange with W.T. Harris in 1868), he none the less acknowledged the affinities that existed between Hegel’s outlook and his own, while more broadly he may be seen as a Neo-Kantian. The greatest convergence comes in Peirce’s phenomenological deduction of the categories of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness, and his demonstration that our immediate perceptual judgments (Firstness) and our relational judgments (Secondness) require mediation by reference to generalities (Thirdness); as Peirce admits in his Lectures on Pragmatism (1903), this deduction echoes Hegel’s opening arguments in the Phenomenology (see Peirce, C.S. §7). None the less, Peirce complains that Hegel appears to reduce Firstness and Secondness to Thirdness, instead of recognizing that all three categories must be present in any coherent conception of the world. In Dewey, the influence of Hegel is more diffuse, as he was attracted more to his ‘dissolution of hard-and-fast dividing walls’, rather than any particular doctrine, although he was prepared to defend Hegel’s criticisms of Kant in his important early essay ‘Kant and Philosophic Method’ (1884) (see Dewey, J. §1).

Britain. If the pragmatists took Hegel seriously, this was not just because of his impact in America, but also because of the importance of Absolute Idealism in Britain in the 1880s and ‘90s, which represented the high point of Hegel’s influence there.

In Britain, the initial reception of Hegel’s work came relatively late. His ideas were given some limited attention in the writings of William Hamilton and James Ferrier, and figured briefly in the historical accounts of German Idealism by J.D. Morrell and G.H. Lewes, while the first translation (of part of Hegel’s Logic) appeared in 1855. It was not until J.H. Stirling’s The Secret of Hegel (1865), however, that any substantial sympathetic treatment of Hegel’s work became available, and it marks the real beginning of Hegel’s influence. While he was aware of the sustained critique of Hegel as a Platonic idealist and essentialist that had gained currency in Germany in the 1840s and ‘50s, Stirling still adopted this reading, proclaiming that for Hegel ‘organic Reason (is) a self-supported, self-maintained, self-moved life, which is the all of things, the ultimate principle, the Absolute’ (Stirling (1865) 1898 I: 96).

Stirling’s book was followed in 1874 by a translation of Hegel’s Encyclopedia Logic by William Wallace (1844–97), together with a long introduction entitled Prolegomena to the Study of Hegel’s Philosophy. Like Stirling, Wallace sought to use Hegel in the critique of positivism and scientific naturalism, and interpreted his idealism as a kind of thoroughgoing holism, while, like his American contemporaries, he sought to show how Hegel’s notion of the dialectic might be used to bring out the rationality of Darwinian evolution. A similar set of concerns is reflected by Edward Caird (1835–1908) in his Hegel (1883), for whom ‘the task of philosophy is to gain, or rather perhaps to regain, such a view of things as shall reconcile us to the world and to ourselves’ (Caird 1892 I: 191). It was this search for unity that Caird found in Hegel’s work, particularly in relation to the opposing claims of freedom and necessity, subject and object, God and the universe, and he therefore interpreted Hegel’s Absolute as such a reconciling principle.

As well as these published accounts of Hegel’s thought, a positive view of Hegel also began to emerge more indirectly, as he was taken up by the important group of idealist thinkers who were becoming increasingly influential at this time. One of the first of these was T.H. Green, who was led to read Hegel by his tutor and later colleague at Balliol, Benjamin Jowett. Green’s critique of empiricism had both Kantian and Hegelian elements, while his account of self-consciousness as a single, actively self-distinguishing spiritual principle which expresses itself in temporal human intelligence reflected his understanding of Hegel’s conception of Geist. None the less, Green declared himself unhappy with Hegel’s method for arguing to this conception, stating that ‘it must all be done again’. Likewise, while he was clearly helped to his own account of freedom by his reading of Hegel, he remained suspicious of what he took to be the latter’s uncritical acceptance of the modern state, in which this freedom was to be realized.

This equivocal attitude is also reflected in the relation of one of the other leading British Idealists to Hegel, F.H. Bradley. Hegel’s influence can be traced in Bradley’s critique of Kantian ethics in his early Ethical Studies (1876); in his hostility to the classical empiricist’s view of our experience of reality as divisible into discrete simple elements; in his treatment of judgment, the concrete universal and the problem of relations; and in his conviction that from the perspective of the Absolute, all aporiai in our understanding of reality would be overcome. None the less, Bradley remained critical of central aspects of Hegel’s thought and method, famously dismissing his Logic as an ‘unearthly ballet of bloodless categories’, and with it the panlogist metaphysics this seemed to represent.

Bradley’s contemporary Bernard Bosanquet was less openly critical of Hegel, as he developed Bradley’s Hegelian approach to the logical forms of thought (such as judgment and syllogism), in order to show how in these forms, all abstraction from the whole turns out to be incoherent. Bosanquet carried this holism over into what was seen as a Hegelian conception of the individual and society, claiming that for human beings ‘their true individuality does not lie in their isolation, but in that distinctive act or service by which they pass into unique contributions to the universal’ (Bosanquet [1899] 1923: 170). In his work on aesthetics, Bosanquet focused attention on this aspect of Hegel’s system, with his translation of the introduction to Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1886), and his account of Hegel in his influential History of Aesthetics (1892).

Bosanquet was not alone among the British Idealists in offering interpretative commentaries on Hegel’s work, although towards the end of the 1880s, these became increasingly critical and critically informed. A decisive moment came in 1887, with the publication by Andrew Seth (later Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison) (1856–1931) of Hegelianism and Personality, in which he followed Schelling, Trendelenburg and others, and criticized Hegel’s apparent panlogicism; following the Left Hegelians, he gave this attack an ethical and political dimension, arguing that by hypostatizing universality, Hegel gives priority to the species over and above the individual, a move which Seth set out to oppose with his own so-called ‘Personal Idealism’. For Hegel’s followers in Britain Seth therefore represented a parallel to the existentialist critique of his system already developed in Germany, but which had not been properly addressed by the British Idealists before.

In response, interpretations of Hegel emerged which played down his apparent panlogism, and instead began to treat the Logic as a kind of category theory. For example, in an influential article on ‘Darwin and Hegel’ (1890–1), D.G. Ritchie (1853–1903) argued that Hegel does not have to be read as a speculative cosmologist; rather, ‘we (will) find that his logic and the whole of his philosophy consist in this perpetual “criticism of categories”, i.e. in an analysis of the terms and concepts which ordinary thinking and the various special sciences use as current coin without testing their real value’ (Ritchie 1890–1: 61). This approach was most fully developed in the commentaries on Hegel’s system by J.M.E. McTaggart. McTaggart argued that the aim of Hegel’s dialectic was to show how the categories of ordinary thought provide only partial or imperfect conceptions of the truth, which point towards a highest form of thought – the Absolute Idea – in which these imperfections are finally overcome. Where McTaggart criticized Hegel was for underestimating the difficulty which we have, as limited intellects, in conceiving of the world in these terms, so that although he accepted the Hegelian claim that a resolution of all aporiai must be possible, he questioned whether such a view of reality was achievable by us. This approach to the reading of Hegel led McTaggart to emphasize the many apparent contradictions in how things appear to us (most famously, as events occuring in time), and to claim that therefore these appearances must be unreal, opening the way for him to indulge in extravagant metaphysical theorizing about ultimate reality at odds with our experience of the world.

By the beginning of the First World War, the taste for such theorizing had changed, as the Idealist’s claims about the contradictory nature of how things appear to us seemed increasingly spurious, thereby disposing of the need to overcome these contradictions in a view of reality as somehow monistic, atemporal, changeless or immaterial. Anglo-Hegelian idealism was therefore increasingly viewed as irrelevant and poorly grounded by the leaders of the next generation of philosophical thinkers (such as Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore), while at the same time the ‘New Liberals’ (such as J.A. Hobson and L.T. Hobhouse) submitted the idealist’s theory of the ‘organic’ state to merciless attack, an attitude which hardened once the war against Germany had begun.

Citing this article:
Stern, Robert and Nicholas Walker. Hegelianism outside Germany in the nineteenth century: America and Britain. Hegelianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC037-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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