Hegel’s Platonism

Hegel’s admiration for Aristotle is well known, and he is often (though rather misleadingly) said to have revived serious philosophical consideration of potency and act. But there is at least one important matter on which Hegel sides with Plato against Aristotle.

In his Lectures on Natural Philosophy, Duane Berquist points out that Plato and Aristotle disagree on their answer to the following: ‘Does truth require that the way we know be the way things are?’ Plato answers ‘yes’ to this question. And therefore, since he notices that our knowledge of mathematicals (for example) is unchanging and separate from matter, he concludes that there are subsisting forms in reality, unchanging and separate from matter. Aristotle, on the other hand, answers ‘no’ to the question: he argues that the mind knows things in abstraction from matter, so that we can have unchangeable and universal knowledge of things that are in reality changeable and particular.

Hegel, like Plato, implicitly answers ‘yes’ to the question; he things that truth requires that the way we know be the same as the way things are. And since he notices that our knowledge begins with a vague and confused notion of being, and that it becomes more definite and distinct through a dialectical process of negation and negation-of-negation, he comes to the absurd view that reality itself begins with vague, potential, and unconscious being (rather than with God as pure act and perfect thought), and that being comes to itself through a dialectical history. As I have noted before, this leads Hegel into an error equivalent to that of David of Dinant.

2 thoughts on “Hegel’s Platonism

  1. Human knowing is through abstraction. St. Thomas tells us that the object of human knowing is the res naturalis known through the senses by abstraction. This balances two truths 1. That we know sensible things through the senses, and 2. That knowing is in itself something spiritual, that the sensible thing is raised by intellect to a spiritual condition by abstraction in the knower. Accordingly, taking this into account, we should not hasten into the expanded affirmation that knowing (as such) is through abstraction. What does one mean by that? If one means that human knowing is through abstraction one has not advanced. And to say that knowing as such is through abstraction is false (unless of course what one means to say is that human knowing is through abstraction. This leads me to prefer saying with Plato and Hegel, following Parmenides, I believe, that knowing and being are the same, and have the same form. This is the polar opposite of the thing that St.Thomas criticizes in David of Dinant: materialism. It is, rather, the key to metaphysical thought.


    • One can speak in terms of a duality: divine knowing versus our (human) knowing; but one can also speak in terms of a triangle: divine knowing, knowing taken absolutely, human knowing. Duality or triality. (And then there is that other triality which St. Thomas explores: human knowing, angelic knowing, Divine knowing.)

      And with regard to Hegel there appears the apparent dilemma: What must we do with him: unmask his error, or glean the nuggets of useful and deep hints and suggestions that he has offered to the philosophical mind? Or is this not rather a false dilemma; can we not do both things?

      Can we not show someone’s error without demonizing or saying “you fool”? We must think critically, and not allow ourselves to be swept up by the doxa and fashions of the times. But I do not think that perennial philosophy and critical thinking is served by the mere demonization of the moderns. Such demonizations only serve to perpetuate a Manichean myth of history, which has definite philosophical consequences.

      Pope St. Pius X did not tell us that we should demonize the moderns, but rather spoke of a definite error (or synthesis of all errors) which he called Modernism, and which is not interchangeable with Modernity.


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