Hegel’s subjectum

I found this discussion of what Hegel means by substance and subject very helpful in Karl Marx: The Early Writings, ed Lucio Colletti.

(Comments by Colletti)

Hegel inverts the relationship between subject and predicate.  The universal or concept, which ought to express the predicate of some real object and so be a category or function of that object, is turned instead into an entity existing in its own right.

In other words, whenever we make a claim about something, say the ball is red, we ascribe the predicate or universal redness to the subject, the ball.  Hegel takes this one step further:  for him the universal (or predicate) is also a subject.

By contrast, the real subject, the subjectum of the judgment (the empirical, existing world) becomes for him a manifestation or embodiment of the idea–in other words, a predicate of the predicate, a mere means by which the Idea vests itself of reality (Colletti 19-20).

So what he is saying is that the Idea manifests itself through the subject.

We have Subject (A), in which the universal is predicate.  This generates a new moment:

Subject (B).  The original predicate is now a Subject.  So the structure is now a Subject of a Subject.  And so forth.  What’s the pay off?  Well, Hegel is able to show how Plato’s forms manifest themselves in history.  That’s something Plato couldn’t always do.

The downside is that the Idea/Subject/Universal seems to function a lot like what we would call “God.”  This would seem to mean that God needs the world (the Predicate needs predicates) to “be” God.



The Legacy of Idealism

Pinkard, Terry.  German Philosophy 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism.  Cambridge.

The more I think about Terry Pinkard’s work, the more I am inclined to say that Idealism facilitated modernity’s exhaustion. Kant introduced his paradox: exactly how coherent is it to say that we are subject to the laws we legislate for ourselves? This was the problem that all of the philosophers after Kant dealt with.

Perhaps one of Kant’s more interesting suggestions is found in his third critique:the experience of natural beauty gave us the indeterminate concept of the supersensible substrate of both nature and freedom. What is this substrate? Possibly the Absolute or something. And this is where Pinkard gives a summary of thinkers from Fichte to Schelling to Hegel.

More attention is paid to Hegel, obviously, and while Pinkard does offer some interesting insights, it is not much of a thorough analysis. He does anticipate, even if he doesn’t say so, later moves by Heidegger and Gadamer: We are “thrown” into a social space and when we ask and give reasons for reasons, we are usually asking (and answering) questions that have already been supplied to us.

All in all, it is a fine survey of German Idealism if at times it is a bit short. Interestingly, Pinkard’s account gives more attention to analytic philosophers than one would normally find in treatises on Idealism.

Phenomenology of Spirit (Review)

Where to begin a review on a book of this magnitude? While this might seem like a difficult question, the easiest answer is also the most Hegelian: start anywhere, for you will end up in the final moment of the dialectic. (Any parenthetical citations in this review refer to the paragraph numbers in the Miller translation) With that said, let’s begin:

Preliminary notes from Charles Taylor (Cambridge, 1975)

The problem in Hegel’s time:  man as the knowing subject faced a number of divisions.

  • separated from nature, which he now sees as brute fact
  • what can bridge the gap between mind and world?
  • self-consciousness leads the individual to distinguish himself from his community.
  • opposition between finite (free will) spirit and infinite (fate) spirit.

The goal: philosophy is to understand how these divisions overcome themselves. Oppositions arise out of an earlier identity.  An entity cannot be utterly distinguished from its “Other” because it cannot exist on its own.  Taylor:  “It is not related to an other but to its other, and this hidden identity will necessarily reassert itself in a recovery of unity” (Taylor 80).  

Hegel rejects Greek dualism and almost stumbles upon a biblical Hebraism.  He sees the Cartesian project as inherently mechanistic and incoherent (what connects mind and matter?  Cartesians have never really answered this).

Unfortunately, Hegel still sees the idea of a mind/soul in a body as a “dualist temptation.”  He does admit, though, that it is foreign to Greek thought (81).  

Hegel is drawing upon Herder’s expressivism.  Thought, language, etc does not exist without a medium.  Thus for Hegel, the subject, no matter how spiritual, is necessarily embodied.  This is true up to a point, but runs into problems in two areas:  God/Geist is not embodied (at least not God the Father and the Holy Spirit, though Hegel gets around that) and the soul exists in a disembodied state after death.
[1] What does phenomenology suggest? Something like the external world appears to me in a certain way and/or my mind constructs these categories. If so, how would a phenomenology of spirit be possible, since spirit is usually not associated with the external world? This is why Kant’s noumenal distinction is wrong. Just what is it that appears in appearance? Appearance is the showing forth of what something is.

[2] The short answer: Reason recapitulates itself. It doubles back. Take the category of abstract being or reason or spirit. In the abstract it is an empty category. To say that something is says nothing specific about it. Yet, it is not Nothing. Therefore, oscillating between this “Being” and “Nothing” is Becoming, which can account for particularity.

[3] Therefore, Reason must Reflect upon itself and become self-consciousness. As Glenn Magee notes, “Speculative Philosophy holds up a mirror (speculum) to the Idea itself: it allows the Idea to comprehend itself (Magee 88). In fact, following the Kabbalist tradition, the “mirror” allows one to behold the deeper essence of Spirit (120).

[4] This leads to the infamous Master-Slave dialectic: simple awareness of objects cannot produce consciousness of self. We can’t just know objects. We must act and overcome on them. Self-consciousness is only achieved when our desire is directed on other desires: when we see ourselves in the other. The master is actually serving the slave because he depends on the recognition from inferiors. His identity is based on what inferiors think of him.

[5] We come finally to Absolute Spirit. It manifests itself in three modes: Art, Religion, and Philosophy. The first two are inadequate because they use sensuous images and can only approach from finite vantage points. But philosophy is able to give self-knowledge that doesn’t depend on picture-thinking.

[6] Substance becomes Subject. It retains self-consciousness’s own self and can now be a predicate. Spirit is the unity between Subject and predicate. When Spirit remains just substance, it remains an object to itself. Spirit must become subject by uniting and sublating the object.

[7] Being is no longer an abstraction, as in [2]. It is now Being-as-Spirit. Its previous determinations [read: those moments when x is contrasted with y] have since been sublated. Hegel gives us a reversed chain of being (cf Magee, The Hegel Dictionary).

[8] If Spirit is now universal self-consciousness, then it is community (Hegel 781). Logos has now been refracted outward.

[9] If [6] holds then we have something like Gnosticism: Spirit empties itself of itself and falls into substance. As Subject, though, it goes out of that Substance and cancels out the difference between objectivity and content (Hegel 804). Like some strains of Gnosticism, this is a “fall into otherness and multiplicity and a return by means of “finding myself.”

The Good in Hegel:

*He has a good epistemological insight that the knower is always involved in the known object.
*Hegel anticipated all of the good insights made by communitarians. We do not possess our identity intrinsically, but only in relation to something else. Identity will always involve difference because identity consists of relations.
*His stuff on community is very good.

The Bad

~From a theistic standpoint Hegel appears irreconcilable with traditional theism. Much of what he says, if on the level of created reality, is quite good, but when you move this to the nature of God we have all sorts of problems: process theism, open theism, patripassianism.

Works Cited

Magee, Glenn. Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.
—————–. The Hegel Dictionary. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.

Taylor, Charles. Hegel. Cambridge, 1975.

The Hegel Dictionary

Rarely do you find a book that covers a dense topic in a remarkably lucid manner. This is such a book. The book is, as it says it is, a dictionary. It covers *some* terms in Hegelian studies. It does not cover all of them (being around 300 pages). Further, it is aimed at undergraduates, not specialists. With that said, I have found this the most useful introduction to Hegel. Below are some of the highlights.


Overview of Hegel’s Thought

“For Hegel human beings are the self-consciousness of existence itself” (Magee 2). Hegel inverts Aristotle’s chain of being. The lower gives way to the higher. The highest form of consciousness will include self-reflection. The goal of the Absolute is to posit enough in order for it to be an “idea of an idea,” all previous ideas having been sublated.

Earlier philosophers used absolutum to mean “God,” but god defined as a “coincidence of opposites” (Magee 19). Hegel: when the Absolute is conceived as the transcendent unity of all things (cancellation of differences), it is really an empty concept. The Absolute is the whole.
existence exists in order to achieve consciousness of itself (20). Perpetually gives rise to conditions for it to overcome. The final moment is when self-relatedness is achieved through self-consciousness.

For Hegel universals and particulars are not separate “things.” Nor are universals “in” particulars. Rather, “particulars are within universals” (61). The universal has no reality apart from its concrete realization.

Spirit as self-consciousness has a dual object: the thing out there (given in perception) and itself, which is in opposition to the thing. The subject is moved to transform the object out of the desire to confront itself. When a subject wishes to know itself, it must split into a subjective side (which knows) and an objective side (known). Since we desire total self-reflection, this means transforming the object into a mirror of myself (70). This leads to postmodern violence.

Analysis and Conclusion:

Magee focuses on Hegel’s key works (each book given at least a two page treatment), with *most* of the key terms in the book. Key philosophers (Kant, Schelling, Marx) receive substantial treatment.

There is some repetition, but I suppose that can’t be help. Magee concludes with a short but useful bibliography.

Frame: Hegel

I’m always skeptical when people talk about “Hegel” for the large reason they have no clue what they are saying.  He isn’t an easy philosopher and his system has been sidetracked by facile interpretations.

Frame does a good job, though.


Hegel asks “if we cannot know anything about the noumenal, then on what ground should we affirm its existence” (Frame 270)?

Frame is further correct in noting, contra to conservative bloggers, that Hegel never said “Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis.”  What he means is that whenever you posit or examine something, it will always be somehow contradicted by another facet of reality, thus making way for a new positing.

The key terms here are aufheben (passive participle) and aufgehoben, which can mean something like “canceling” or “sublimating.”


The dialectic means God’s own coming to consciousness.  God himself is being, but whenever we think of being we also think of non-being.  To know being we have to distinguish it from nonbeing.  So to posit being (God) is also to posit nonbeing (God’s shadow).

Thus, God’s thought leads inevitably to a self-alienation (Frame 275).  When God announces “I Am” he divides his subjectivity from his objectivity.  Thus, God always has a negative side. (Frame doesn’t mention it, but this is why Hegel is an occultic thinker).

Risk and Intellectual Maturation

When people look at my reading lists, they usually get very nervous.  They see “dangerous” authors and ask why I am abandoning the gospel.  Such motives are always news to me.  But I think I understand the point of the question.  There is a legitimate reason for the question–a wrong one, to be sure–but understandable, nonetheless.  People who read nothing but dangerous literature usually become dangerous.  I hope that isn’t me.  We shall see.

Another assumption behind the question, one that is almost never identified, is the problem of the Other.  In other words, modern Reformed theology–especially the crude internetskii–needs an Other to maintain its own identity.  There is an identity and difference between “You” and the “Other.”

Self-consciousness is confronted by an Other. It perceives this other as an object and probably a negative moment.  Self consciousness exists in being acknowledged (Hegel sec.178).   They recognize themselves as being mutually recognized (185).  Yet, each seeks the negation (death) of the Other.  When self-consciousness first confronts the Other, it loses its simple unity.

Master/Slave Analogy

Master: consciousness that exists for itself (190), but it mediates this existence through another consciousness.  It sees the other as a thing.

Bondsman: self-consciousness in general.  It relates negatively to the Other.  

The master sees the bondsman as something unessential.

Man can only be self-conscious when he abstracts himself from the world.  But when he does that, he severs himself from the organic unity of life.  Reason and Life are thus opposites.  But they are opposites which can’t exist without the other.The ego posits the non-ego. The subject must be set against the object.

Conclusion to all of this:  Modern day Reformed theology lives upon negation and needs a bad guy in order to do theology.  Without Barth or NT Wright or R2k or Theonomy or Arminianism, Reformed theology wouldn’t have anything to talk about.

But enough of them.  My reading habits are diverse simply because…why the hell not?  Whenever I read a guy who is acknowledged to be an authority in the field, I usually go to the bibliography at the end and start working through some of those works.  This means I read scary stuff.   But God wants us to mature into Christ and not be babes.

But someone will say, aren’t you throwing away your Reformed heritage?  I don’t think I am, but if a person says that, he is free to make a logical argument to the effect.  I’ve learned not to hold my breath, however.  But here is my background in theological reading, if it matters.  These texts are generally recognized as the standards in the field.

  • Calvin, John.  Institutes.   I’ve read them at least 3x through.  I’m working on some of his commentaries, too.   Btw, a lot of them were edited by TF Torrance.
  • Bavinck, Herman.  I’ve read through Reformed Dogmatics volumes 1-3, and volume 2 at least three times.
  • Muller, Richard.  His book on Arminius, volumes 1-3 of Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, his Dictionary at least several times through.  And most of his scholarly articles.
  • Berkhof, Louis. Reads like a Dutch and German language dictionary.
  • Hodge, Charles.  Systematic Theology.
  • Shedd, WGT.  About 400 pages of his theology.
  • Church Fathers.  Somewhere between 10,000-15,000 pages.
  • Dabney, Robert.  Systematic Theology, along with volumes 3-4 of his discussions.  And now a bunch of Internet Covies start have nervous breakdowns.  And I’ve read his bio on Jackson and his Sensualistic Philosophy.
  • Berkouwer.  Man the Image of God and The Person of Christ.
  • Turretin, Francis.  Volumes 1-2.
  • Bucer, Martin.  De Regno Christi.
  • Luther, Martin.  Bondage of the Will.  Three Treatises.  First volume of his commentary on Genesis.
  • Owen, John.  Communion with God.
  • Van Til.  Almost everything he has written.
  • Watson, Thomas.  A Body of Divinity.
  • Edwards, Jonathan.  Religious Affections, The End for which God created the world, The Nature of True Virtue.


Through Hegel, Fire, and Sword

(With proper acknowledgments to Lewis Ayres for the title).

Consistency in life and doctrine is a mark of the gospel.  The godly man  does not flit from doctrine to doctrine.   That represents an unstable mind.  However, consistency of doctrine is not the same thing as sameness of thought.  God expects us to grow in knowledge.  And there is the danger.  Growing in knowledge means opening ourselves to new situations.  The future is no longer controlled by us.

Have I been consistent in doctrine over the last decade?  Yes and no.  The best way to explain it is by way of an “autobiographical bibliography.”  Books and lectures have more of an impact on me than anything else.   To answer my question I have changed in some ways.  I want to say I stand within the Reformational tradition. Some might question how Reformed I really am.  Fair enough.  

Focal Point #1: N. T. Wright

When I was an undergrad I majored in history and minored in New Testament and Languages.  My school, Louisiana College, was still in captivity to Theological Liberalism.  This is what led me to read N.T. Wright.  In many ways N.T. Wright remained the anchor for the next ten years.  I will go ahead and advance my conclusion:  N.T. Wright and Karl Barth (by means of Bruce McCormack) kept me from fully converting to Eastern Orthodoxy and ultimately brought me back to the Reformational tradition.  

Several points should now be obvious: I was a student of N.T. Wright before I was Reformed.  Therefore, I didn’t leave the Reformed faith for N.T. Wright.  But please do not label me as “New Perspective on Paul.”  It’s a lot more complex than that and there are areas where I think Wright is open to serious critique.  

I graduated from LC in 2005 and went to Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.  It was underwhelming.  I’ve criticized it fairly severely in the past and see no reason to do so again, except to say I learned very little and didn’t begin to read seriously until after I left.  However, I did come across Oliver O’Donovan.

Focal Point #2: Oliver O’Donovan

O’Donovan was by far the most challenging author I have read.  He wrote in dense but glorious prose. But he was a rigorous thinker, bringing the whole of Western ethical reflection to bear upon any single project.  He was also an Anglican steeped into the High Tradition of the church.  

Exile to the Orthodox Lands

I left seminary disillusioned.  While I had made a lot of intellectual mistakes there, academically it was not the best (in terms of actually doing scholarship).  I didn’t want to say that the Reformed faith was wrong, despite RTS’s best efforts to make it so, but I knew there was something more.

For reasons I don’t entirely remember, I was reading Thomas Aquinas as I left seminary.  I had one foot in the door for medieval and patristic theology.  I am not sure how I first heard of John Milbank.  I do remember reading about him in James K. A. Smith’s Introducing Radical Orthodoxy.  This was late 2006, early 2007.

There is a lot wrong with Radical Orthodoxy, but there is a lot right–and a lot that is just plain fun.  So what that they over-interpreted Aquinas as a Neo-Platonist?  They got all the right people in academia angry, and that is good.  For me they introduced me not only to a wider world of theology but also to ask different–deeper–questions of church history.

I dove right in.  And made mistakes.  But I also latched on to key points: how Christology shapes everything.  (Some Eastern Orthodox guys played that card as a front to justify going to Eastern Orthodoxy when in reality they wanted smells and bells, but that is another story).  Anyway, I realized that Systematic Theology didn’t have to follow the outline of Berkhof (Berkhof is useful but limited to a certain context, namely a seminary classroom).

Before continuing on the RO line, I should probably address a common criticism:  Did RO read Reformation metaphysics correctly, namely that Western theology took a nominalist turn with Scotus and the Reformation crystallized it?  Obviously, anyone who advances that reading today will be laughed at. So we can say RO was definitely wrong on that point.  Further, not all of Milbank’s criticisms in “Alternative Protestantism” hold water (or at least they might attack Reformation ontology but not where Milbank thinks they do).

This was around 2008-2009.  I was able to read the Fathers without pretending that the Fathers were a complete deposit who taught a unified, identifiable theology across time and space.  Moreover, I was able to honestly say, “St ______ is wrong here.  That’s okay.  I can still benefit from what he says elsewhere.”  Side note:  Remember that stupid facebook meme that has the Nicene Fathers pictured and the caption reads, “So these guys are right about the canon but wrong about everything else?”  The epistemological howlers in that statement are too painful to mention.

Back to the Fathers.  Since I didn’t (at the time) believe the Fathers taught a unified, ahistorical body of truth, that meant I didn’t have to play East and West against each other.  I could say guys like Anselm, Aquinas, and Wycliff were good guys.  And I could benefit from the modern John Wycliff, Oliver O’Donovan.  While some Ecumenist Orthodox guys will speak kindly of the aforementioned gentlemen, technically speaking they are heterodox (or heretics!), so good luck with that one.  The harder-line folks will say that they (and by extension, you and me) are deprived of grace.

Towards the end of 2010 I moved into a harder, Eastward direction.  I never officially became Orthodox.  It wasn’t viable for a number of reasons.  While this meant I accepted Orthodox doctrines like anti-Filoque and icons, the main problem is I had to cut off my theological past.  Another problem is I had to place the Fathers within the received tradition of the church.  This implied a number of cognitively dissonant positions:

  • The Fathers are part of Holy Tradition but I must interpret which Fathers are speaking Orthodoxically by Holy Tradition.  I couldn’t square the circle.  All of the Orthodox problems with Sola Scriptura would come crashing down on Tradition.
  • This meant that the Fathers probably didn’t disagree about “big stuff.”  
  • So what was I supposed to do when I came to issues where the Fathers sounded “Western” or were plain wrong?  

The dissonance was building up.  Move on to the end of 2011. I was beginning to be more “Western” in terms of cultural outlook.  I just didn’t feel right “negating” my Western heritage.  I know that no one was “making” me to do that, but the cultural enclave mentality among a certain denomination is just too overwhelming.  I was by no means Protestant, of course, but possibly Western.

My daughter was born in 2012.  My life was turned upside down and I really had to put theology on the side.  And life was hard–all of which made me reevaluate everything.

By May of 2012 I was firmly in the Protestant, even Reformed camp (again).  From 2012-2015 (now) I have been in the Protestant camp and plan to stay there.  There are problems with Reformed theology–some big ones actually.   But there are also key gains that outweigh the problems and the Reformed tradition can be the Reformational Tradition.

The Federal Vision Problem

One of the difficulties that many of us in seminary faced–difficulties that are concurrent with many of these changes–is the inevitable glut of ideas.  Compounded with that  is that seminaries which are denominationally- or quasi-denominationally affiliated are inadequately prepared to deal with these various theological currents.  If your goal is to churn out “preacher boys,” then many cross-currents of scholarship will drown you.

The Federal Vision controversy was raging when I was in seminary, and I confess I did not always make wise choices.  Federal Visionism itself didn’t really make too much of a connection with me, at least not confessionally and ecclesiologically.  What some FV writers did, however, was weaken the confessional moorings, from which I drifted and began reading outside my tradition.

On one hand that’s healthy.  We shouldn’t seek theological inbreeding.   The problem I faced was that no one was capable of guiding me through these issues.  Once I was jaded enough, combined with a lot of real grievances from said seminary (which I won’t go in here, but they do deal with objective, financial realities), it wasn’t hard to seek out so-called “Christological alternatives to Calvinism.”

Many Eastern Orthodox apologists were saying that we should do all our theology around “Christology.”  Translation: the ancient Christological creeds, if interpreted consistently, will lead one away from Calvinism.    I’ll deal with that claim later.

And so for the next few years I read through–cover to cover–about ten volumes of the Schaff Church Fathers series, as well as most of their leading interpreters.  One of the problems, though, was I was unaware of the high, magisterial Protestant tradition.  Of course I had read Calvin.  Three times, actually.  All the way through, even.  Unfortunately, I was not familiar with the second- and third generation Protestant Scholastics.

I suspect most of us aren’t familiar with them, and how could we be?  The average Evangelical publisher won’t touch these writers.   Banner of Truth, specifically, won’t deal with the uncomfortable aspects of Rutherford, Gillespie, and the Scottish Covenanters.  

Taking the Scholastics Seriously

When I was reading through a lot of Orthodox sources, an argument I kept seeing was that all Western traditions hold to the Thomistic doctrine of absolute divine simplicity, which reduces to absurdity; therefore, Protestantism is philosophically absurd.  The problem, though, is that I started to see several things:   a) some fathers held to a similar thesis (Nazianzus, Athanasius), b) some Reformed writers might have held to that thesis, but there wasn’t enough evidence either way to convict them, and c) the Reformed writers who did hold to that thesis had very good reasons for doing so (archetypal/ectypal).

The doctrine of authority was always looming in the background.   Anchorites have several sharp arguments against sola scriptura.  I bought in to some of those arguments, but I had done so without reading the Protestant Scholastic responses to them.   Once I began to see that a) many Protestant Scholastics could not be seen as breaking with the medieval tradition on the canon, and b) the archetypal/ectypal distinction when applied to epistemology, leading to Scripture as the principum cognoscendi, I was then able to embrace sola scriptura with integrity.

Corollary of the above point:  how many convertskii have read Richard Muller?  Once I read Richard Muller I realized that much of what I had been parroting was wrong.  Corollary #2:  How many “Calvinists” in the Gospel Coalition or TG4 have read Muller? Probably the same number.  

The Institutional Problem Reasserted

It is my personal belief that Richard Muller’s four-volume Reformed and Post Reformation Dogmatics will go down as one of the game changers in Reformed historiography.  Unfortunately, most remain unaware.  Bakerbooks should issue this set in singular volumes, better allowing seminaries to use volume one as an introduction to Reformed theology course.  First year seminarians, even the better-read ones, are woefully unprepared.

Barth and Speech-Act

I need to bring this to a close.  So here is where I am now.  I hold to Barth’s view of election.  I hold to it for ontological reasons, though I can point out some exegetical problems with the traditional Reformed and Arminian readings.  But I don’t want to say I am a Barthian.  Why should I?  

Something else happened around 2014:  I discovered Kevin Vanhoozer’s speech-act ontology.  This allowed me to combine the best of traditional metaphysics with Barth’s exalted view of preaching.

I have wandered a bit in my “journey.”  But I never let the anchors. N.T. Wright was too superior a theologian and exegete for me to dismiss him in my hyper-Eastern days.  EO simply had no exegete who could compare with him.  That meant whenever I compared Wright’s analysis with some EO scholars, I usually defaulted to Wright.  That was true in 2008, 2010, and 2015.  

So where was Hegel in all of this?  I’ve been reading Hegel for about six years now. He is so very wrong on so many points, but more people are influenced by him than they realize.  I think Hegel’s discussion of self-positing and self-posited can serve Trinitarian terminology at least on a definitional level.