Absolute Idealism

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G. W. F. Hegel (1770—1831) German philosopher

F. H. Bradley (1846—1924) philosopher

Friedrich von Schelling (1775—1854)


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19th-century version of idealism in which the world is equated with objective or absolute thought, rather than with the personal flux of experience, as in subjective idealism. The doctrine is the descendent of several ancestors, including the Parmenidean One, the theological tradition of an unconditioned and unchanging necessary being responsible for the contingent changing world, Spinoza's pregnant belief that there is just one world with the characteristics of facts and things on the one hand and of ideas on the other, the transcendental idealism of Kant, and the emergence of activity and the will as the main determinants of history. Other influences include a dynamic conception of nature as an organic unity tending towards a goal of perfection, a belief that this process is mirrored in the spiritual education of the individual, and the belief shared by many German thinkers at the end of the 18th century that ordinary thought imposes categories and differences that are absent from the original, innocent immersion of humankind in nature, and due to be transcended when this ideal unity is recaptured.

Talk of the Absolute first appears in Schelling's System des transzendentalen Idealismus of 1800. The idea of a Spirit sweeping through all things was by then an integral part of the Romantic movement, deeply influencing such metaphysically-minded poets as Shelley and Coleridge. Hegel complained that Schelling's Absolute was, like Kant's noumenon, unknowable, and in his hands the Absolute became that being which is progressively manifested in the progress of human history, a definition that has been taken to fit many things, including ordinary human self-consciousness. The idealist elevation of self-consciousness, first seen in Fichte, undoubtedly encourages this equation. But human self-consciousness cannot be the only ingredient in the Absolute, since Hegel also held the doctrine that the merely finite is not real. Apart from Fichte few have been satisfied that human consciousness is the spirit that is responsible for the entire cosmos. Green wrote of Wordsworth looking to ‘the open scroll of the world, of the world, however, as written within and without by a self-conscious and self-determining spirit’ (Works, iii. 119), and such a spirit transcends the human mind. In any event, the culminating point of history is one at which ‘mind knows mind’, or final self-conscious freedom is grasped. Hegel also insists on holism, implying that a mind capable of knowing any truth must have the capacity to know all truth, since partial and divided truth is dead or non-existent.

The most influential exponent of absolute idealism in Britain was Bradley, who actually eschewed the label of idealism, but whose Appearance and Reality argued that ordinary appearances were contradictory, and that to reconcile the contradiction we must transcend them, appealing to a superior level of reality, where harmony, freedom, truth and knowledge are all characteristics of the one Absolute. An essential part of Bradley's case was a preference, voiced much earlier by Leibniz, for categorical, monadic properties over relations. He was particularly troubled by the relation between that which is known and the mind that knows it. The consolations of progress and unity with the universe prompted the not wholly hostile verdict by James that the Absolute was the banisher of cosmic fear, and the giver of moral holidays. Absolute idealism was a major target of realists, pragmatists, and of Russell and Moore in much of their writing at the beginning of the 20th century, although it continued to be influential for another twenty years.


Subjects: Philosophy.

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