Hegel’s Critique of Kant | Paperback | Sally Sedgwick | Oxford University Press 2014


By Sally Sedgwick

I wish to begin by thanking my two critics, who dedicated a significant amount of their precious time to reading and commenting on my book Hegel’s Critique of Kant. I know these projects always turn out to take more time and effort than one initially thinks they will, so I’m grateful to each of them for their generous investment of time. I respond to Bill Bristow’s critique in section I and to that of Sebastian Rand in section II.


I first want to clear something up regarding what I think Hegel has in mind in charging Kant with scepticism. Bristow says that I take Kant’s strategy for saving metaphysics to have three implications that get described in the book as “Kant’s scepticism”: the restriction thesis, the subjectivism thesis, and the contingency thesis.

But I don’t actually identify the “restriction” thesis as what Hegel is worried about when he charges Kant with scepticism. Kant’s restriction thesis, as I understand it, implies that we have theoretical knowledge only of appearances, not of things in themselves. Yes, it is true that Hegel frequently complains that Kant restricts our knowledge to appearances. But what is this complaint really about?

I don’t believe Hegel wishes to deny that objects of theoretical knowledge are limited to objects given in space and time, nor do I believe that he seeks to convince us that there is no line to be drawn between objects of science and objects of faith. He is indeed worried about scepticism, but about a scepticism of what kind?

Bristow rightly notes that I play up Hegel’s worry about what I refer to as Kant’s “contingency” thesis. This thesis, on my interpretation, is tied to Kant’s understanding of the implications of our discursivity. As discursive (versus intuitive), our form of understanding is a dependent form of understanding in the following respect: we don’t produce the material of our knowledge; we rely in our perception and knowledge of nature on an independently given sensible content. That independent sensible content is given to us in space and time, and is unified into objects of thought and knowledge by our a priori concepts or categories. Kant writes in the Critique of Judgment (CJ) that there is “contingency” both in the “variety of ways in which [given sensible particulars] may come before our perception” (that is, we don’t control that) and contingency in the relation of our concepts to the given particulars (CJ §77 [AA 5:406]). He claims that, in other words, we have no grounds for assuming that the given “sensible particulars” necessarily harmonize with or conform to our concepts.

Bristow is right to suggest that I take Hegel’s fascination with these passages to give us a clue to the kind of scepticism (or subjectivism) Hegel discovers in Kant’s philosophy. As I understand him, Hegel challenges neither the Kantian assumption that we must in our cognition of nature rely on sensible affection nor the assumption that we bring special concepts to the sensible given as a condition of thinking and knowing it. It’s the contingency thesis he is worried about—and he’s worried about that thesis, I argue, because he believes it rests on a false conception of the mind and its products.

The false conception of the mind shows up in a variety of ways. It underlies the view that the mind inhabits a separate sphere and is “absolutely opposed” to content (as Hegel often puts it). It shows up as the assumption that the mind is capable of generating concepts and laws solely from its own resources, concepts and laws that are absolutely “a priori” and that therefore owe nothing of their nature or origin to its interactions with a world, with objects. I believe this is the conception of mind that explains Hegel’s repeated charge that Kant’s idealism suffers from “subjectivity”. Hegel means to suggest, I think, that there is an unacceptable kind of “inner/outer” assumption at work: the mind on the one side, generating special concepts—categories—and on the other side, a world of objects. Hence his frequent complaint about the “heterogeneity” of concepts and intuitions, of subject and object.

How does Hegel propose to close the gap? Not by attributing to us the God-like power to actually produce the matter of cognition out of its cognitive powers. Rather, he begins by raising doubts about the assumption of absolute opposition or heterogeneity. A principal thesis of my book is that raising doubts about heterogeneity, for Hegel, includes calling into question Kant’s claim that we have some concepts that are wholly a priori.

Bristow characterizes the gist of my interpretation correctly in the following passage:

If conceptual form is not […] something determined in advance and independent of our encounter with the world in sense-experience, but rather something at least partially determined through that encounter, then our knowledge of the natural world on the basis of that form is not, as it is in Kant, of a subjectively determined domain, but rather of ‘the reality of nature itself’. And we thereby overcome ‘the skeptical implications of Kant’s idealism, especially those contained in his subjectivism and in the contingency thesis’.

So, again, the scepticism about which Hegel is worried, in my view, is tied not to the restriction thesis (to Kant’s insistence that the objects of our knowledge are limited to objects subject to our forms of intuition, space and time). Instead, it is tied to Kant’s view of the nature of our concepts—in particular, his insistence that some of them (categories) are a priori.

Moving on, now, to Bristow’s three major concerns:


Bristow is not convinced by my suggestion that, for Hegel (in contrast to Kant), our categorical structure is drawn from or depends on sense experience. This is a reasonable worry, and it’s one others are likely to have as well.

What’s my best evidence for it? My quick answer to this question is that I don’t know how else to explain Hegel’s effort to close the mind-world gap. If my diagnosis of Hegel’s account of the problem is correct, a gap opens up because of a mistaken conception of mind and its products. This is the conception I just mentioned: the mind as wholly sovereign or independent, wholly “on the other side” of an external content, as Hegel says.

It seems to me there is lots of evidence, in lots of different texts, that Hegel challenges this general picture. Take, first, the most familiar piece of Hegelian dialectic: the master/slave dialectic in the Phenomenology. The “master” thinks of himself as the independent consciousness, as totally in control not just of the slave but also of his own desires and his own identity. He considers himself a “self-made” subjectivity. But the lesson of the dialectic is that this is an illusion; the master is revealed to be a dependent nature. This motif shows up in different guises in many of Hegel’s discussions, where his intention is to challenge a certain conception of the nature of subjectivity and of where it gets its identity as well as its norms.

Think also of Hegel’s ubiquitous criticisms of formalism (in Kant as well as in others). I understand this as a criticism of efforts to abstract away everything empirical and contingent in order to arrive at laws or concepts that are formal and as such universal and necessary. In his discussion of particular cases of this (whether in Plato, in Descartes, in Kant), he argues that the effort doesn’t succeed because some “content” is always presupposed. Content gets presupposed when we rely on assumptions we have neither made explicit nor subjected to critical scrutiny. A good philosopher of course tries to begin her inquiries by being thoroughly self-critical and by making all her presuppositions explicit. (And Hegel takes this to be a noble goal.) But Hegel also suggests that (history shows that) all such efforts are doomed to at least partial failure. The philosopher cannot succeed in being thoroughly self-critical because some of her assumptions (basic framework principles) are invariably too close for her to see. She becomes aware of these most basic assumptions only in retrospect—only after her system has broken down she can look back having adopted a new perspective.

These considerations seem to me to explain why Hegel insists that the progressions in consciousness proceed in partial darkness. We proceed in partial blindness precisely because we cannot achieve a wholly critical perspective, and we are incapable of this precisely because we cannot escape our world or overleap our time. We have no access to a God’s eye point of view.

These are examples of Hegel’s views about the nature of human subjectivity and human reflection and what we can expect our thinking to achieve. He’s convinced that a good understanding of the history of philosophy exposes this tendency to over-estimate our powers of abstraction and underestimate the degree to which our critical reflections are tied to the realm of the actual.

For a further bit of evidence in favour of the view that Hegel holds that our categorical structure is indebted to sense experience, recall his remark in the Science of Logic that part of his project there is to reveal the “plasticity” of our concepts. He has in mind not just ordinary empirical concepts but even those concepts we take to be the most abstract and the most fixed (that is, even those concepts Kant would designate as “categories”).

My guess is that Bristow might reply as follows: Well, yes there is plasticity, but this is the mind simply generating new forms out of itself. Its real engagement with a world, with accidents of history, with other minds, plays no role in making possible the dialectical moves. But then I’d ask: Would Hegel tell the story he does in the Logic about the generation of concepts did he not rely on his own understanding of the actual history of philosophy?


Bristow also suggests that I’m wrong to hold that the future is open, for Hegel. That is, I’m wrong to deny that Hegel claims completeness and closure for his own system.

This is another reasonable worry. It would, after all, be foolish to deny that there are passages that seem to suggest that Bristow is right. Hegel does tell us that his system has indeed achieved absolute knowledge—and then there are his remarks about history being at its “end”. It certainly sounds like he is saying that he has given expression to philosophy’s final act, and that no ‘higher’ or ‘better’ system is to be expected. There’s of course a long history of controversy over the ‘end of history’ language. Bristow’s way of reading it is quite natural, but other ways of reading it seem to me more Hegelian.

“End” doesn’t after all have to mean absolute terminus; it can also mean culmination—as in ‘end of an era’. Hegel certainly means at least this: that the system of absolute knowledge or absolute idealism he has articulated solves a problem that he believes has plagued philosophy since at least Parmenides. It closes a certain kind of subject-object or mind-world gap.

I say that Hegel means by “end” “at least” “culmination”, and I bet Bristow would agree with this. At the same time, Bristow is right to suggest that I attribute to Hegel the further view that the future of philosophy is open, and that we’ve no reason to suppose that there won’t be yet another dialectical progression resulting in a higher level of consciousness.

What’s my evidence for this? There are the various passages in the Lectures on the Philosophy of History in which Hegel tells us that world history is “still on the march”, and in which he writes that Spirit “belongs to the dimension of eternity and has no actual length”. But a few isolated passages shouldn’t convince anyone.

Here’s something else to take into consideration. The standpoint of the absolute is, for Hegel, somehow the standpoint of identity. He characterizes this standpoint in different ways: It marks the achievement of a unity of subject and object, of concept and intuition, of kingdoms of god and of man, of the church and the state. It expresses his commitment to a thesis about the ultimacy of this world, a kind of monism: This world is our only world. Spirit or God is in nature, not outside of it.

So perhaps Hegel’s insistence upon completeness or totality is meant as an expression of this commitment. Think, for example, about his preference for certain aspects of the ancient over the modern conception of fate or necessity (Encyclopaedia Logic, §147A). The moderns, he says, seek in a life beyond this life compensation and comfort for the various “renunciations” we must endure in this life. The ancients, in contrast, urge us to be satisfied with this world, to submit to destiny. This means resisting the temptation to shift the blame for what happens in this world onto another world; it means ceasing to hope that we can discover the source of meaning or purpose—even salvation—in an outside force or agent. Think, too, about Hegel’s claim that the ultimate court of judgment is nothing other than world history itself (Philosophy of Right, § 341). There is no outside court of appeal.


What about Bristow’s point that Hegel’s view on my interpretation seems just as or maybe more sceptical than Kant’s? It’s true: I’m saying that, in a sense, Hegel’s view is the more sceptical one (in the sense of more modest) because he doesn’t attribute to human reason extraordinary acts of abstraction or transcendence. Bristow reasonably wonders how Hegel can be accurately characterized as overcoming Kant’s scepticism, given that on my interpretation, he is further limiting the claims of reason.

My response? There are scepticisms and there are scepticisms. I grant that the most I am entitled to say is that Hegel thinks he has responded to a certain kind of sceptical worry—a certain kind of gap that opens up between mind and world. And the point to emphasize—and perhaps I’ve not emphasized it enough—is that Hegel seeks to close that gap because he is unconvinced by the conception of mind responsible for it. Ultimately, as I have suggested, he attacks Kant’s conception of human subjectivity, Kant’s view of who we are as thinking, desiring subjects.


I’m gratified to learn that Sebastian Rand agrees with my general line of interpretation, according to which Hegel calls into question Kant’s account of the wholly a priori nature of some of our concepts. In his remarks, Rand offers another way of defending that general interpretation of Hegel’s critique of Kant, one that draws on formal-logical resources in Hegel. He suggests that we look at Hegel’s treatment of the relation between the universal and the particular, because we can discover in that treatment a more general expression of his critique of Kant’s view of the nature of concepts.

Rand’s discussion begins with a worry about a conflation he thinks I and others make. This is a conflation between “the problem Hegel sees in Kant’s version of the universal/particular relation” and “the problem [Hegel] sees in Kant’s version of the concept/intuition relation”.

I have two initial questions:

(1) What’s the conflation, exactly?

(2) Why is it of interest? (That is, even if I make it, so what?)

Regarding Rand’s account of the conflation: He says that my conflation is between the concept/intuition distinction, in Kant, and the universal/particular distinction. He reminds us that intuitions, for Kant, are “singular” representations and not “particular” representations. (This sounds right to me.) But Rand worries about my use of the word “particular” to refer to “a single individual bit” of sensible content. He insists that “particularity does not, for Kant or Hegel, designate singularity, or individuality”.

Rand draws his evidence for this claim that particularity doesn’t mean singularity, for Kant, with reference to Kant’s discussion of the hierarchical arrangement of concepts: Kant invokes particularity only when he wants to talk about the relative generality of two universals, one of which “stands under” the other. In such instances, the (so to speak) more universal universal—the genus—gets to keep the name “universal”, and the less universal universal—the species—is called the “particular”. As Rand points out, in Kant’s discussion of the hierarchical arrangement of concepts, what is “particular”, for Kant, is a certain kind of concept or universal. I agree that, in this context, the “particular” does not refer to anything truly individual or singular.

But when I write of Kant’s views on the relation of given “sensible particulars” and our concepts, what I have in mind is something different: the contingency problem (the problem I highlighted in my response to Bristow). In the passage from CJ where Kant himself raises this point about contingency, he’s indeed worried about a possible lack of fit between our concepts (Begriffe or das Allgemeine) and—not other concepts—but “das Besondere” (reasonably translated as “the particular”) (CJ §§ 76 and 77). That is, the contingency problem as Kant formulates it in the discussion with which I am concerned has to do not with a possible lack of harmony between various kinds of concepts, but between our concepts and the not yet conceptualized sensible content (sense data) that Kant refers to as sensible “particulars”.

To put the point differently, the contingency Kant refers to in the CJ passage (and the contingency I say Hegel is worried about) is between what is inside and what is outside the space of concepts. Since Rand’s discussion of Kant’s distinction between the particular and the universal, as far as I understand it, refers to what’s going on inside the space of concepts, I’m not seeing how he thinks that that story provides resources for getting at what I am claiming is Hegel’s solution to the gap or “contingency” problem.

What I’ve argued in the book is that Hegel’s proposal for closing the gap (again, between what is inside and outside the space of concepts) is not (as is often supposed) that of awarding human cognition the God-like ability to actually bring objects into being (to create its world). Rather, Hegel’s proposal involves calling into question a certain account of our conceptual capacities—and with it a commitment to the strict apriority of some of our concepts. (Alternatively put, Hegel seeks to replace the Kantian assumption that our faculty of concepts is a faculty of pure “spontaneity” with the idea that our “spontaneity” is somehow also partly receptive.)

Returning to Rand’s remarks: He tells us that Hegel draws inspiration from Kant’s footnote at B 133. The lesson of that footnote, roughly, is that a concept has meaning or determination not in isolation but only when brought into relation with other concepts. In Rand’s words:

Any determinacy, even if very abstract, as in the case of red, brings along with it an enormous array of other related determinacies, including the idea that red must be a member of a type or kind of determinacy, and that it must have members in turn. Hence if there is any way that anything is at all, […] then there are a host of things and a host of ways that they are.

Rand claims that it is here that Hegel finds “the materials for his dialectical theory of conceptual form”.

I’m willing to grant that Hegel draws inspiration from Kant’s account of conceptual determination, but I’m still baffled. The general thesis that Rand tells us inspired Hegel is the thesis that concepts only get meaning and determinacy in relation to other concepts. So far so good. But, again, how is this not just a story about what’s going on inside the space of concepts? How is it that we are not, then, trapped behind a veil of ideas, cut off from things themselves, stuck with system of concepts that, even if highly determinate and differentiated, is still “merely subjective”? (As McDowell would put it, how is our intricate system of concepts anything more than a “frictionless spinning in a void”?) So what I’m puzzled by—and would like to hear more from Rand about—is how the story he tells in his remarks helps my interpretation of Hegel along.

This essay is based on a talk held at the University of Illinois at Chicago on November 15, 2013 during an Author Meets Critics session on Prof. Sedgwick’s book Hegel’s Critique of Kant chaired by Rachel Zuckert, and sponsored by the Greater Chicago Consortium in German Philosophy, UIC Department of Philosophy, UIC Institute for Humanities, and Northwestern Department of Philosophy. A podcast of a recent discussion by Prof. Sedgwick on Hegel’s critique of Kant’s ethics can be found at Elucidations, a monthly philosophy podcast recorded at the University of Chicago.

© Sally Sedgwick 2015.

Sally Sedgwick is LAS Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Affiliated Professor of Germanic Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago. In the first half of 2015, she will reside at the Freie Universität Berlin as a Fulbright Research Fellow. Sedgwick is a specialist in Kant and German Idealism. Besides many articles in journals and numerous contributions to essay collections she is the author of Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: An Introduction (Cambridge UP, 2008) and editor of The Reception of Kant’s Critical Philosophy: Fichte, Schelling and Hegel (Cambridge UP, 2000).