Hegel on the Proofs and Personhood of God

Studies in Hegel's Logic and Philosophy of Religion

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Robert R. Williams
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is talking about when he talks about “God” has divided interpreters of Hegel from both the “Left” and “Right” Hegelians of the nineteenth century forward, through the “substance metaphysical” and “social-practical” Hegelians of our own time. Should we read Hegel as coyly adumbrating Ludwig Feuerbach’s reduction of theology to anthropology, or as defending a theology in which a divine agent—ontologically independent from humanity—realizes and redeems itself through humanity? Robert Williams’s Hegel on the Proofs and Personhood of God does helpful work, particularly appropriate for scholars already familiar with Hegel’s corpus, in demonstrating a third interpretive option that aims to undermine both the idea that theology is anthropology and that Hegel is straightforwardly defending Christian theology. Rather, as Williams explains, Hegel’s aim is to reconstruct theology within the terms of his own absolute idealism in a manner that proves the philosophical justifiability of religion—or at least “the consummate religion,” Christianity—while simultaneously purging its metaphors of metaphysical illusion and, in particular, the idea that God lies in an unknowable beyond. Ultimately this leads Williams to offer an account of Hegel’s theology that hinges on the “personhood” of God and the “identity in non-identity” of God with the human community of spirit. This recapitulation of Hegel’s “speculative identity” as a conceptual relation between human and divine may still leave modern readers wondering just what such an “identity in non-identity” amounts to. Yet if one still has questions for Williams, those questions legitimately emanate from Hegel’s original position, even as one may still be grateful to Williams for allowing one to state those questions more perspicuously.

This book is divided into two parts: the first explores Hegel’s project in the Lectures on the Proofs for the Existence of God and, in particular, the ontological argument for the existence of God; the second, Hegel’s claim for the “personhood” of the absolute idea. Hegel’s account of universality, particularity, and individuality, spelled out in Hegel’s works on logic, provide an interpretive key to link these two parts. Chapter 1 turns to Norman Kemp Smith’s commentary on the first Critique to lay out Immanuel Kant’s objections to the ontological argument [“A hundred real thalers do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible thalers” (B627)], to which Hegel responds. Hegel’s response hinges on an account of the conceptual that undermines the tidy Kantian distinction between the concepts we subjectively entertain and those whose objectivity is vouchsafed by experience. As Williams explains, if Kant granted epistemic authority to the finite entities given in experience over and against the contradictions he thought derived from—merely subjective—reason, Hegel argued that the intelligibility of those very entities only made sense in terms of the role they played as parts of an organically self-related conceptual whole––the “concept,” which itself renders intelligible, and in that sense “overcomes,” the contradictions that Kant attributed to subjective error. This lays the ground for the argument of the following chapters, that “for Hegel the activity of positing and resolving contradictions is God’s own ontological proof” (39).                       

Chapter 2 presents Hegel’s argument that the philosophical explication of religion’s content constitutes nothing less than the “elevation” of a community to God. This explication overcomes a Kantian skepticism in favor of a reconstructed version of Kant’s own “fact of reason”: we are left with Williams’s “fact of religion,” in which an examination of our own categorial capacities drives us to see how our use of finite categories only makes sense in terms of their mediation by the “true infinite.” As Williams explains, “There is no fixed unbridgeable gulf between finite and infinite. Nor is the religious relation constituted one-sidedly from subjective spirit, because ‘God is not jealous,’ but rather self-communicating” (53). With this account in hand, chapter 3 explains Hegel’s account of the concept and its realization as “the idea.” The “self-movement of the concept” out of its own drive generates both logical and real, in the sense of actual, possibility—this is why Hegel’s logic is both a logic and a metaphysics. Chapter 3 will be particularly tough going for those unfamiliar with Hegel’s works on logic, but it is, relatedly, interesting for advanced readers who are concerned about whether the post-Kantian Hegel of Terry Pinkard, Robert Pippin, and Robert Brandom devolves into a subjective idealism––Williams thinks it does.

Chapter 4 again turns to the logic of the concept and, in particular, the triune relationship between universal, particular, and individual as a key to understanding Hegel’s account of the personhood of God. Personhood for Hegel, as Williams rightly explains, refers to a determinate social status or “achievement” (169). For Williams that “achievement” is largely the product of divine agency, “The descent of God into human personhood (incarnation) is the condition of possibility of human spirit becoming eternal” (159). While Williams understandably does not have the space to address Hegel’s various historical accounts of that achievement—offered in his philosophy of history and his aesthetics—those historical accounts, in all their gritty human detail, deflate some of Hegel’s incarnation talk in a way that Williams should address.

The account in chapter 4 lays the groundwork for chapter 5, which defends the claim that, “The personhood of the concept is the self-developing ground and telos into which all its determinations and conditions return” (200). The bulk of the chapter consists of Williams’s explication of how the conceptual relations of universal, particular, and individual provide the key to grasping Hegel’s idea that the absolute is mediated in the relation of a religious community to God: a relation in which God is grasped by a human community, and in which the difference between God and that community is both posited and overcome.

Chapter 6 explores how absolute spirit, realized as a community of mutually-recognizing persons that maintain a speculative identity with God, recapitulates the logical moments of universality, particularity, and individuality: as absolute spirit, spirit sublates both abstract universality and abstract particularity in order to grasp itself and its members as an individuality that mediates these moments. Williams emphasizes the trinitarian theology that also makes use of these conceptual relations: God the Father functions as the abstract universal, the Son marks the moment of internal cleavage and incarnation, and the Holy Spirit marks the conceptual relation that mediates between the two. The conceptual relations that underlie the speculative identity establish the parameters within which Williams’s more robust theological vision emerges, one in which a suffering God establishes the conditions for both separation—the “death of death”—and the consolation, or Trost, that God is able to establish with humanity.

In aiming to bridge the austere logical relations that underlie this richer theological picture—which is an important project—Williams reopens the central issue of what theological content Hegel is actually endorsing and what serves a merely propaedeutic function. That issue remains unresolved. Williams’s readers may wish to have a more explicit account of the meta-interpretive values according to which Hegel redeems some, but not all, content. Still, this book advances a discussion that is too often mired in overly broad conceptions of what it means to take Hegel’s theology and, relatedly, his philosophy seriously.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Lê is a recent graduate of the religion and critical thought doctoral program at Brown University.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert R. Williams is Professor Emeritus of Germanic Studies, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is Past President of the Hegel Society of America (1998-2000). His publications include Tragedy, Recognition, and the Death of God: Studies in Hegel and Nietzsche (Oxford University Press, 2012), Recognition: Fichte and Hegel on the Other (State University of New York Press, 1992), and Hegel's Ethics of Recognition (University of California Press, 1998).

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