The Fantasyland of Contemporary Absolute Idealism.

MA: I had some follow-up thoughts on your recent critical study, “On Sebastian Rödl’s Self-Consciousness and Objectivity, Or, The Refutation of Absolute Idealism,” that I wanted to run by you.

But first, a prefatory remark.

I consider absolute idealism, and the various resultant constellations of self-consciousness, objectivity, knowledge and judgment, to be neither unintelligible nor implausible, per se. 

Absolute idealism contains, even within certain variations of definition—by Rödl for example, who has a particular take on absolute idealism—and as represented originally by Hegel, a number of fascinating propositions.

I just don’t fully agree with them, but that is a separate issue: a re-thinking of epistemology, for example, is provocative. 

What I do find especially troubling, however, is the way in which contemporary absolute idealism is being over-interpreted and communicated, and the institutional formatting in which it is taught.

Contemporary professional academic philosophy has become so detached from any applications whatsoever, that philosophy students are left with a very troubling dilemma: they don’t know how to actually do anything, or what they are fighting for. 

But more than that, they don’t know, concretely and experientially, how philosophy gains any real coherence and meaning through the contemplation of the actual, fundamental problems of humanity—in an applied, practical way—in domains that are also intimately bound up with certain philosophical traditions. 

The modern academy reinforces this isolation and abstraction through its own self-preservation motivations and routines, and buries philosophy even deeper into obscurity, and the larger academic experience into a more comprehensive social indoctrination of conformity, and thereby strangles much of the potential for real philosophy. 

Hegelian philosophy, and neo-Hegelianism in particular, are especially suited to the proliferation of secondary scholarship that can misguide students in a confused intellectual construct that more resembles fantasy and creative fiction than it does reasoning and productive psychological development. 

And among the professoriate, it promotes an even deeper fiction of meaningful authority. 

It’s an “infinite regress” of debilitation, involving the relationship cycle of academic “false priests” and the intake, internship, and graduation of their student congregation.  

In the dialogue that follows, we look more closely into how and why this is so, especially when it is understood as a social-institutional phenomenon. 

RH: Yes and yes. And, just to get us rolling, I’ll start with a relevant epigraph, taken from John Dewey’s 1917 essay, “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy”:

[P]hilosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of [humanity].[i]

MA: Right—Dewey is saying that a genuine recovery of philosophy is the radical turn from endless fussing about professional academic philosophers’ problems, to grappling with the fundamental problems of humanity, whether the problems of human individuals, of our relationship to the larger natural world, or of human society.

So my primary discomfort with Rödl’s book—and also with Robert Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust,[ii] Irad Kimhi’s Thinking and Being,[iii],and Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Realm of Shadows,[iv] the latter three of which you also discuss synoptically, if not in detail, in the spirit of my recent critical essay on the Leiter/PGR rankings, is that these books are all disconnected from any meaningful application, whether to human individuals, nature, or society, so that I can’t really make heads or tails out of them. 

That is, I don’t know where I’m being asked to go, for what purpose, or why. 

This isn’t merely a question of utility, but coherence.

Brandom says in A Spirit of Trust that he’s engaging in “creative non-fiction.” 

That seems fair enough; but then it seems to me that he and the others have really written books to and for themselves, as their personal “dear diary,” or notes about those issues they deem important for their own Bildung.

And why not?–that should be admired.   

What problem or problems, however, are Rödl, Pippin, Brandom or Kimhi trying to solve for others, other than taking a class for credit and receiving a diploma?

If there are no humanly-meaningful, natural, or social bread-baking problems stated up front, even if these are more abstract semantic, linguistic, logical or indeed even mathematical problems in systematic philosophy, then they are limited to what for me, as a general  non-academic reader, is an exercise in creating some kind of private historico-philosophical fantasyland.

Not only that, I also see them as books written mainly for professional academic marketing purposes, directed at their in-group colleagues and students, in order to maintain the fiction of intellectual authority, so that proper levels of professional academic “research productivity” is sustained, including student intake, post-docs, conferences, book reviews, and especially, lots and lots of questions about how to interpret all that vague, difficult language.

The realm of shadows indeed

When I went to pilot training to learn about a new jet, the training corporations produced massive, bound, branded, high-gloss manuals that we dutifully lugged  around and consulted but were obviously more intended to produce authority and expertise symbolism.

The real test was in the cockpit and your ability to fly, or “bake aeronautical bread.”

Back in the modern university and retail economics markets, many books, like Thomas Picketty’s unfortunate 816-page Capital[v] are carried around like comfort food, or sit on a coffee table, but rarely actually read—for good reason: they’re not meant to be.  

Perhaps in no other academic sector than professional philosophy are so many thousands of secondary books written on an endless expanding number of subjects, vague applications and special interests.

So Brandom comes down from The Cathedral of Learning, his latest 800-page Hegel’s Mystic Book of Amun-Ra tucked under his arm, with his wizard’s beard and plump belly, and his carefully delivered words and incantations, with his acolyte graduate students in tow, burning incense.  

It’s mostly theatrics, marketing, and very personal self-dialogue, which is fine, but let’s be honest about what these things are. 

His new book is at times insufferably personal, intellectually indulgent, and linguistically granular is ways that, in my view do not advance Hegel, but set him back.

Brandom surely enjoyed writing it, so: jolly good for him.

Still, it’s the product of his own act of free philosophical expression, for his use only.

But I don’t need or want Brandom, Pippin, Rödl et al. to re-write Hegel or anyone else for that matter, in an “Analytic” reinterpretation: I’ll take my steak raw and unsalted, thank you very much. 

Moreover, as I’ve already implied, these books are also products more of the contemporary university as a corporation, aka Neoliberal U,than they are books by individual philosophers. 

In the contemporary corporate university, legitimacy is maintained or enforced through carefully cultivated allegiance to authority, ritual and hierarchy, and in the neoliberal university, reinforced with negative control incentives such as grades, degrees, recommendations, scholarship awards and stipends, and further reinforced with institutional threats and penalties, including the peculiar willingness of students to submit themselves to a coercive authority that can issue effective ex ante warrants including warning letters, cancellation of scholarships, academic probation, expulsion and even legal action, all in order to maintain institutional authority, behavioral control, social dominance, and economic privilege.

So if you stripped these four writers of their Neoliberal U affiliations, corporate branding (and rankings) and their named chairs, or took away all the paraphernalia of students siting at their feet, degree-granting authority, dissertation oversight and direction, etc., etc., and instead put them inside Diogenes’s barrel: how would their thoughts thereby be viewed, valued, judged, or consulted? 

What public audience would listen? 

What fundamental problems of human individuals, nature, and society would be brought to their attention? 

All four of these books (and there are others in the same school) are also, in their most central manifestation, serving as secular fantasyland theology.

Thus Brandom, again in his Harry Potter-style Professor Dumbledore Wizard’s costume, and his latest book, with a picture of the Owl of Minerva’s feathered wing gracing the glossy tome’s cover, signals to the same need and instinct as a young adult seeking a book of wisdom and authority in a bookstore, with incense and flute music softly playing in the background, to fill  a spiritual void. 

I’m sorry, this is a bit cynical, but I see a lot of students pursuing academic philosophy less for constructive want and more for psychic need.

These may indeed be important, and serious human aspirations, but the cynic in me sees Brandom et al, playing a role that is, in reality, of a false priest

Pippin is more corporate in suit and tie but plays up his role—and I’ve read every one of his books, including on Nietzsche. 

He’s a talented communicator, but I have yet to discern authentic philosophical thinking. 

Rödl plays the German bohemian intellectual; but like his Leipzig colleague who is always in tow, Andrea Kern, they are putting out books that are collected papers from over ten years ago, which is fine, but they aren’t baking any bread either, and the Leipzig philosophy department is profoundly, well, Germanic. 

—By which I mean that it is more cultural studies than echt philosophy.

Let’s say, otherwise for the purposes of argument, that thinking and being are indeed “one” or that the Absolute is an identity of subject and object. 

Well, OK: but so what?, and now what? 

I see students marching in lines by the hundreds, carrying signs that declare “Thinking And Being Are One,” and chanting that phrase over and over again. 

But is there some utility?, and what is it, except a very elegant kind of personal exercise in self-awareness?

Now, in your critical study of Rödl’s book, you say:

All forms of absolute idealism are false because they ontologically and explanatorily reduce objectivity, reality, and truth to self-consciousness, judgment, and concepts, by the literal identification of these otherwise importantly distinct facts or cognitive items, and thereby yield a ontological and epistemic hyper-rationalist, super-conceptualist, necessitarian, self-consciously objective and objectively self-conscious mega-mentalism. 

That about sums it up! 

But seriously, that is an excellent synopsis.

So why can’t Rödl et al. simply state this up front and be honest about it? 

Why so many undefined assumptions? 

In fact, this is a major flaw in much contemporary professional academic philosophy: a failure to state basic assumptions clearly.

And I don’t mean merely argumentative assumptions, or especially certain definitions, but the critically important, deeper unstated professional assumptions, like the ones economists live by, e.g., rational utility maximization, competitive equilibrium, or how markets actually work. 

Self-consciousness indeed!

You also say:

Now what Pittsburgh/Chicago/Leipzig-neo-Hegelianism-with-a-serious-dash-of-neo-Aristotelianism actually adds to classical Hegelian absolute idealism is the further thesis that the one and only self-consciously objective and objectively self-conscious megamind is not God’s mind, but instead a social-institutional mega-mind, or super-community, that flows from all actual and possible human communities precisely insofar as they are  

(i) logically, linguistically, and judgmentally mediated, and also 

(ii) organically unified via the mutual recognition and spiritual solidarity of its logically-guided, language-using, and judgment-making members, as (neo)liberal democratic nation-States.

Yes: that is an excellent, perhaps even comprehensive summary—and not just of that brand of professional philosophy; it also quite accurately describes an inherent self-serving and institutional-perpetuating function of professional academic philosophy more generally, because it is by definition a product of authority, obedience, and consensus.

I don’t agree fully with the nation-State emphasis, at least not its survival past Hegel’s own specific context. 

Charles Taylor, for what it’s worth, puts it this way in the Preface to Hegel: 

I hope to remain faithful to Hegel’s intentions by placing this outline of his philosophy in relation to the main aspirations of his generation, which his philosophical vision was intended to meet in its own unique way.[vi] (boldfacing mine)

Nevertheless, there are some other scholars who seem to ratify your view:

Hegel attributed agency all the way back to the origins of the state. This was the whole point of his formulation: to replace the divine providence and the guiding hand of God with the far-seeing vision of wise leaders. Hegel, in other words, never escaped the instincts of sacred history; he just knocked the agent in chief down a peg.[vii]

And the same authors of Deep History also seem to agree with both our perspectives:

Hegel was highly successful in articulating the political philosophy of modernism, delineating the borders of what became the discipline of history, but he was not a good theorist of the new historical sensibilities that were growing up outside the discipline.[viii]

The causal explanations, and theories of influence of the State, have faded from contemporary philosophy in my view, or been extracted by many other ideologies and random social and economic phenomena, such as capitalism, technology, warfare, the MIC, modern manufacturing and trade, state competition, the Cold War, religion—look at the GWOT, a  modern religious war—and of course the geopolitical fight for natural resources such as oil.

But this also brings me back to my main objection to Rödl et al., and their contemporary version of absolute idealism: is it just a personal construct, or is it intended to have some human, natural, or social application?   

Relatedly and relevantly, you say:

But of course the Pittsburgh/Chicago/Leipzig version of absolute idealism is fully post-World War II, and therefore also fully and triumphalistically Anglo-Americanized, democratized, and neoliberalized, not merely nation-Statized.

Cool—I take that to mean:

Rödl et al., abstracted away from their secular fantasyland theology, are nothing but conformist philosophers living fully in a middle-class bourgeois Western consumer mass society, and most centrally, embedded in a modern, Western corporate-university-State bourgeois institution utterly remote from the real problems of human individuals, nature, and society.

RH: Yes, yes, and more yes.

I’m totally onboard with your take on the Pittsburgh/Chicago/Leipzig, etc., school of absolute idealism, as essentially a secular religion and a neoliberal intellectual, moral, and political fantasyland, whose deepest and most alarming effect is to keep young philosophers and other philosophically-minded people professionally obedient, passive, quietistic, and intellectually mystified.

Only a renegade philosophical genius like Marx could flip all this on its head, and turn it into a life-changing, world-changing activist version of real philosophy.

—But that already happened once, in a sharply different mid-19th century historical context, and with mixed results, to say the least.

More specifically, I’ve been simultaneously equally profoundly amazed and profoundly dismayed by the re-emergence of neo-Hegelian, absolute idealist philosophy at top-ranked philosophy departments—running alongside the dominant streams of mainstream Analytic philosophy, and the identitarian multi-culturalist coercive moralist philosophy, of course—over the last few decades and especially the last 5 years.

My radical critical response to all that, as you know, is what I’ve call Left Kantianism, aka borderless philosophy, which takes real philosophers to be rational rebels for humanity.

Like the masterless samurai (ronin) in Kurosawa’s amazingly brilliant Seven Samurai, in their epic against-all-odds battle against the well-armed bandit horde, in order to defend and protect innocent farmers and villagers, this is a battle for the soul of philosophy and for the creation of the philosophy of the future.

Those who are reading us and listening to us—and we know that there are almost 100,000 people per year, now, doing that—and therefore are rationally influenced by us, or even inspired by us, must finally resolve to dare to think, feel, and act for themselves and join us at Philosophy Without Borders.

MA: To your point about daring to think for yourself, Kant said exactly that, didn’t he, by using the slogan Sapere aude!, which I interpret as “dare to think for yourself.” 

But the most important word may be “dare.” 

And in professional academic philosophy, I don’t see much daring, or much taste for danger, or for risk. 

From a Kantian perspective, that exhortation is a moral, ethical, political, and even aesthetic imperative, a duty or rational obligation.  

In one of your recent essays, you say that

[o]ne of the ancillary rational obligations implied by the classical Kantian enlightenment exhortation, Sapere aude!, dare to know!, dare to think for yourself!, is the obligation to think clearly, coherently, and consistently, aiming at the ideal logical goal of argumentative soundness (that is, formal validity + true premises).[ix]

So, can we say that daring to think for yourself, including daring to think outside the institutional construct of professional academic philosophy, is a demand of logic, and even indeed perhaps of reason itself, sanctioned even by Hegel? 

That is, Hegel’s philosophy of the identity of reason and reality, as Karl Popper argues,

is sometimes characterized as [absolute] idealism, because it states that reality is mind-like or of the character of reason.[x]  

This assertion—that a philosophy without institutional borders, and with daring to think for yourself, is inherently rational and mind-like—must mean that borderless philosophy is therefore according to both Kant and Hegel, an actual tangible manifestation of absolute idealism.

RH: Yes and no.

I’ll grant, of course, that borderless philosophy is an actual tangible manifestation of human rationality.

So yes, I do think that from a broadly Kantian point of view, there’s a necessary connection between human rationality and manifest natural reality, as follows:

necessarily, if the manifestly real natural world exists, then if rational human animals were to exist, they would be able to cognize that world, whether through direct sensory perception or through conceptual thinking, to some salient degree and extent.

In other words, according to this broadly Kantian view, the manifestly real world cannot exist unless rational human animals, as moderately successful perceivers and thinkers, are really possible.

Indeed, given that we’re actually moderately successful perceivers and thinkers, right here and right now, in successfully perceiving our own minded bodies in space and in successfully thinking about the fact of our own thinking and our own existence as perceivers and thinkers in time (so, Descartes got that one right), then of course we must also be really possible; all that I’m adding to that, is the further thesis that the real possibility of moderately successful rational human perceivers and thinkers is built into the essence of the manifestly real natural world.

That’s what I call “weak or counterfactual transcendental idealism” or “Kantian liberal naturalism.”[xi]

But also no, the truth of this Kantian liberal naturalist thesis does not require that manifest reality be itself mental, or a manifestation of the activities of some mega-mind: it requires only a certain conformity between the structure of our cognitive faculties and the structure of manifest reality, so that even when we do not exist (e.g., during all the time running from the Big Bang to the evolutionary emergence of human animals, or after all human animals have perished in some apocalyptic cataclysm) the manifestly real natural world still exists, and therefore it is objectively independent of us in that sense.

Now Hegel and the contemporary neo-Hegelians hold, by sharp contrast, that all of reality is itself literally identical to rational self-consciousness and its epistemically, morally, and politically infallible activity, and that there is nothing that is objectively independent of this self-realizing mega-mind.

And that seems to me to be not only an excessively strong and therefore implausible philosophical hypothesis, but also one that leads directly to absurdity on the theoretical side, and to obedient, passive, quietistic mysticism on the moral and political side, as I argued in that critical study of Rödl’s book.

So for the sake of the philosophy of the future, we ought to be borderless philosophers and Kantian liberal naturalists, and simply forget Hegel, the neo-Hegelians, and the fantasyland of contemporary absolute idealism.

MA: To paraphrase Plato’s Gorgias, part one—I very much like your way of leading us on, Mr Hanna. 

So now I will dare to undertake a deeper understanding of borderless philosophy and of the resolutely humane insights of Mr Kant. 

Thank you!


[i]  J. Dewey, “”The Need for A Recovery of Philosophy,” in J. Dewey (ed.), Creative Intelligence: Essays in the Pragmatic Attitude (New York: Holt, 1917), pp. 3-69.

[ii] R. Brandom, A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2019).

[iii] I. Kimhi, Thinking and Being (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2018).

[iv] R. Pippin, Hegel’s Realm of Shadows: Logic As Metaphysics in The Science of Logic (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2019).

[v] T. Picketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2013).

[vi] C. Taylor, Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1975).

[vii]  A. Shryrock, D. Smail, et al., Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 2011), p. 11.

[viii] Ibid., p. 161.

[ix] R. Hanna, “Identity Ad Absurdum: A Critique of the Cultural Appropriation Argument,” Against Professional Philosophy (21 June 2019), available online at <>.

[x] See K. Popper, “Dialectic After Hegel,” in K. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 445-451.

[xi] For a fully explicit, step-by-step argument for this thesis, see R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 5) (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), PREVIEW, section 7.3.

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