Certainly, the concept of a system had a long history before Kant’s philosophical system, going back even to ancient philosophy and Greek language. Usually, it meant a whole in which the composing elements are integrated organically. Therefore, they depended on each other, as organs depend on each other in an organism.
The representation of such a whole was then easily borrowed into human knowledge. Indeed, philosophers like Leibniz or Wolf, predecessors of Kant, conceived of human knowledge and reality as systems.
However, the main difference between them, or other philosophers of the past who cherished a systematic view about reality and knowledge, and Kant, was that the principles on which they built those systems were not thought of as entirely centered on themselves.
They were regarded as centering on an external entity or authority, usually God. In Kant, on the contrary, the system of reason was grounded on principles that legitimized themselves without any external support.
The concept of a philosophical system was essential for the philosophers of German Idealism. But it was the hard meaning of ‘system,’ and not its rather soft meaning, in the sense that the system of knowledge had to ground itself and not be grounded on external content.
However, in this context, a new issue arose, namely that of access to the first principle. Indeed, existing within a system is like existing within a monad devoid of any windows to external reality. But then, how can you claim any identity with that reality, as Leibniz did, or how can you know the principle on which the system is grounded?
Leibniz’s idea of parallel worlds equated to a leap outside the interiority of the monad. Still, Fichte’s subjective radical idealism was nothing less than that because it started with positing the principle of the subjective system as if one could see from outside the entire internal hierarchy of the system.
This is why Hegel criticizes Fichte in his Phenomenology of Spirit, that he started philosophy as if with a ‘shot of a pistol’ by starting from the first principle.
Existing within a monadic system, you only deal with an environment you cannot transcend. This is why, for Hegel, in order to be logically consistent, you must extract the rules of the system, its way of being, from within, from what it shows to you.
Knowledge must ground itself not by starting abruptly from its initial conditions (as in Fichte) but from the way its own objects are given to itself: knowledge must reach self-knowledge by examining itself as an activity, from the simplest knowledge that we have to the most complex forms of knowledge. (We see, thus, that those who simply state the correspondence principle as a fundamental philosophical assumption err fundamentally.)
This is why, in Hegel, one must not leave the level of common consciousness in order to jump directly to a transcendental consciousness or an unconscious (and therefore necessarily unknown) framework, which is a claimed and, therefore, speculative (in the bad sense) condition making up the common or empirical consciousness. Knowledge must examine itself in its own history.
This is the story of the Phenomenology of Spirit. We cannot follow this story here. What is important to say is that by examining this history, the philosopher (the real agent of the self-knowing activity) discovers that there exists a fundamental moment in it that shaped the whole history of human consciousness and knowledge, and this is the moment in which the mediator (priests or other mystics) appeared in history, and claimed to speak in the name of or even to be God himself, or the ultimate Creator of the world.
Indeed, what we may call the category or type of the mediator had many concrete forms in this history, and Hegel examines them. However, the highest form – in the sense of the most complex one – is, for Hegel, the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus was the Man-God and preached the fundamental identity between man and God. This preaching then marked human history forever.
Religion (and its truth in itself) is, for Hegel, an irreducible feature of consciousness – of its self-experience and of itself experiencing the world – not because it is a sort of inborn feature but because history shows it to be present always in humanity and most of all in shaping the existence of humanity.
In this regard, we could add – let’s say, in the spirit of Hegel – that even if humanity became completely atheistic today and started a new millenary atheistic history, humanity could not lose its religious component at all because whatever human consciousness is today it is the result of its own history. (Nietzsche understood this very well when he spoke about the shadow of the disappeared God lasting for millennia in human history.)
And in this history, religion played an essential role. Thus, religion belongs to the identity even of the most atheistic human consciousness, and it cannot be rooted out, in the same way in which you cannot root out your own individual past and memory without annihilating yourself.
For Hegel, Christianity contains the most complex spiritual principles that shaped human consciousness and knowledge. But these principles did not arise out of the blue sky: they also developed slowly in history within other religions and cultures until they reached the stage of Christianity.
As a consequence, what Hegel calls ‘absolute knowledge’ is the philosophical system and understanding of that all-encompassing ‘paradigm’ – or idea or representation – that shaped human history and that we see at work in that history, which is the essential relationship of man to God as a spiritual identity between man and God.
But what is more, it is also the complete realization that humankind, in all its manifestations, is an expression of God. And this historical process, event, and understanding build Hegel’s argument for the principle of identity or absolute idealism.
This is why Hegel calls God the Idea. Of course, this term is reminiscent of Kant’s understanding of Ideas. In the ‘Transcendental Dialectic’ of his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant calls the Idea a concept of reason or a ‘concept made up of notions which goes beyond the possibility of experience’ (A320/B377).
As such a ‘concept made up of notions,’ the Idea grants unity to a whole conceptual domain, in the same way that a concept gives unity to a multitude or diversity of intuitions. We have, thus, in Kant, the Idea of God, the World, and the thinking Subject, corresponding to rational theology, rational cosmology, and rational psychology (A334/B392).
As we saw, Hegel enlarged the perspective. For him, Idea was the factor that granted unity to the whole of the human experience as a diversity of types of understanding. However, since history has as its goal absolute knowledge under the form of a philosophical system, one can say the Idea leads that history teleologically .
But, such a unity, as we saw, was not simply the immanent unity of the human historical experience; it was God himself. And since the Idea is a dynamic totality made up of concepts or notions, Hegel calls ‘notion’ or ‘concept’ the structures grounding the different realities ordered under the all-encompassing Idea.
This is why God, as Idea, unfolds in Hegel as and through a multitude of Concepts or Forms of reality. And also why all these concepts or types of realities can build a philosophical system under the Idea.
The previous part of this article can be read here.