The Finite and the Infinite (2)

Should we think of the infinite or absolute as containing the finite?

Philosophy and religion can agree that there is something that exists without any condition, that is purely necessary and is the full foundation and explanation of itself.  This is what we commonly call the absolute.  It has to be without cause, because any kind of causation implies a condition.  The absolute must be independent in the full sense of the word.  It cannot be a determination of something else and it must be the sufficient reason of its own being.  It follows necessarily that this absolute does not have any real connection to something other than itself through necessity.  It is a characteristic of the finite real that it is necessarily connected to something else.  In this concept of the absolute, although I have expressed it here in the language of metaphysics and not in the language of Hegel, philosophy and religion would agree.

When we come to discuss the relation between this absolute or infinite and the finite and limited beings, the differences  between a strictly Hegelian approach and what I would call “religious metaphysics” will appear.

If we define the absolute as that what is without any inner or external limitation, we may be tempted to identify it with the whole of all real and possible finite beings, which we call the world.  This is basically the solution of Spinoza.  The infinite would then be the one singular and independent being.  The finite beings therefore are not independent, but dependent particular determinations that flow forth from the infinite through something that can be called emanation or immanent causality.  The infinite now becomes the one “thing” that contains all the finite beings, because the infinite is the whole. What seems to be other than the infinite, only looks like it because it is a limiting modification of this one independent being or substance.  According to Spinoza human beings therefore are not truly independent but the expressions of the one substance.
The problem is , that if we agree that the modes of being follow necessarily from the being of the one substance, the question can be raised whether this one independent substance does rely on these modes of being.  Does the infinite substance require the finite modes of being in order to be realized?  If we accept a certain distinction between the independent substance and its modes of being and if we accept that the realization of these modes of being is part of the essence of the infinite substance, shall we not conclude that the infinite as such is not completely itself?  It needs to realize the many modes of being in order to realize itself.  Without these modes of being that flow from it with necessity, it cannot be truly itself.  If there were no modes of being, we would deny a necessary characteristic of the one substance.  We must therefore conclude that the infinite conceived as the one independent and absolute substance of Spinoza, can only truly be on condition that it realizes separate and finite modes of being.  The absolute in Spinoza therefore is not fully unconditional and independent.

In Hegel’s dialectic idealism this problem is addressed by conceiving of the infinite not as a substance, but ultimately as subjectivity, as spirit or idea.  The whole project of the Phenomenology of Spirit actually is a demonstration that and how substance must be expressed as subject as well.  Subjectivity however must be expressed logically as an identity of identity and non-identity.  The basic structure of the absolute therefore conforms to something we know about the finite human spirit. Just as a human self-consciousness is a return to itself from its otherness, so also the absolute is a process of returning to its own identity through its own other.  The immediate identity of itself is posited as its other, and through this other it returns to itself. In other words, finite Spirit and the infinite spirit are one and the same as dialectical process.

The other element of the problem that Hegel had to resolve is the Kantian insistence on the finite nature of the human spirit.  Notwithstanding the fact that the object is completely determined by the subject, we must be aware that this object is appearance, and not the thing in itself.  Human knowledge according to this transcendental philosophy, is ultimately restricted to a world of appearances, that cannot be transcended to reach the being in itself of absolute reality.  In all 20th-century forms of philosophy, this finite nature of human subjectivity is presupposed.  In empiricism and positivism just as well as in the absolute finitude of the human understanding of being in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The project of a Hegelian dialectic tries to overcome the opposition between the infinite objectivity of Spinoza’s substance, and the finite nature of human subjectivity in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The limitation of thought should be transcended by understanding substance as infinite Spirit, that is as creative and productive infinite knowledge.  The finite human spirit then becomes merely the place of the self-consciousness of this infinite Spirit.  Because the infinite spirit now contains the finite spirit, the distinction between the thing itself and the appearance has been lifted.  And because the finite spirit can understand itself as the self-consciousness of the absolute to which everything other is just a finite moment, all human knowledge becomes an exercise of the infinite and absolute spirit itself, in what is called absolute knowledge.  The finite spirit is sublated in the infinite Spirit. Hegel opf course is not denying that “we” are finite Spirits, but our thought in itself is not “finite”.

We must say here that transcendental philosophy was right in emphasizing the finite nature of human knowledge.  Nevertheless the limitation of knowledge to experience and appearance falls short of the infinite character of the Spirit.

The point is, that the finite nature of human knowledge, its actual finitude, should be harmonized with the infinite in another way.  Not by the Hegelian argument that this actual finitude is the manifestation of the infinite in which it is contained, but rather that the infinite character of the Spirit is virtually present within finite human knowledge.  The infinite is not exercised in and as human knowledge, so that finite human self consciousness can be seen as the exercise of the infinite spirit thinking itself.  Nevertheless the infinite is an object of human knowledge or rather the necessary horizon in which human subjectivity knows itself and the world.

Whenever human knowledge truly understands the finite as finite, it does not simply overcome its own finite nature to become infinite.  But it does find within the finite the trace or reference of the infinite.  Thinking the infite is only possible for a finite subject, by thinking the finite as finite. We cannot see the light directly, but by actually seeing whatever is in the light, we are aware of the light that provides the visibility.

Take the example of our understanding of perfections. In any finite object we find a degree of perfection that refers to what is perfect in itself.  Every being e.g. has an identity with itself, that is however limited by its necessary connections to other beings on which it is dependent for its own being.  That allows us to understand the notion of something that is completely in identity with itself and does not need its other to be what it is.  Another example. Human beings show a perfection of freedom, but again mitigated by the context of determining conditions and the necessity of a development in the exercise of this liberty over time.  This idea of freedom as a perfection however does refer us to the notion of a fully free subject, that is absolutely sovereign and does not develop its freedom over time.

The necessary finite nature of human knowledge implies a difference between infinite subjectivity and finite subjectivity as such.  If the infinite would contain the finite, finite knowledge would be the shape in which the Spirit exercises itself and then the finite nature of human knowledge would be mere appearance.

The basic problem of Spinoza’s substance would then return.  If the infinite Spirit necessarily expresses itself in the form of human knowledge, then the question arises whether the infinite spirit could be without his expression.  If it necessarily expresses itself in human knowledge, in order to be fully itself, then it is dependent on human self-consciousness or knowledge.  And if dependent on this selfexpression within the human Spirit, then it is no longer the absolute.

If human self-consciousness does not necessarily flow from the infinite Spirit, but can be conceived as a free expression of the same, then our finite human knowledge no longer necessarily is the exercise of infinite knowledge.  Our human knowledge would no longer be qualified as necessary, that is to say as true knowledge.

So we have this paradox: if human self-consciousness flows necessarily from the infinite Spirit, the infinite Spirit is dependent and therefore not absolute.  Or, if human self-consciousness does not flow necessarily from the infinite Spirit, our finite understanding of the world is not based on necessity and therefore no longer true.

To be continued…


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5 responses to “The Finite and the Infinite (2)

  1. Dear Robbert,
    You write: “If the infinite Spirit necessarily expresses itself in the form of human knowledge, then the question arises whether the infinite spirit could be without his expression. If it necessarily expresses itself in human knowledge, in order to be fully itself, then it is dependent on human self-consciousness or knowledge. And if dependent on this self-expression within the human Spirit, then it is no longer the absolute.” This would be true if human self-consciousness or knowledge were _something other than_ the infinite Spirit. That would indeed be “dependence,” and would prevent this “absolute” from being absolute. But human self-consciousness and knowledge aren’t something other than the infinite Spirit. Because the true infinite “_is_ only as a going beyond [Hinausgehen über] the finite” (SL [Miller trans.] p. 145, TWA [Suhrkamp] 5:160), the categories of “something” and “other” don’t apply here any longer. They have been sublated, first in finitude and then in infinity. And when you go on to describe the alternative that you have in mind as one in which human self-consciousness is “conceived as a _free_ expression” of infinite Spirit, I would suggest that Hegel has argued that only a true infinity can be truly free, because only a true infinity isn’t limited by an “other.” So an expression of infinite Spirit that was indeed “other than” it, would be an un-free expression. But we are not that kind of expression.
    Best, Bob

  2. But human finite Spirit must be distinguished at least as the ‘other’ of the Infinite if the Absolute returns to itself through its other – otherwise it has no movement at all. It posits ‘its’ other in order to return to itself. This other must be itself also, – it posits itself as its other – yet, precisely as finite and infinite they are also distinct. The identity of the infinite would be abstract without this movement.
    The infinite as the mere transitoriness of the finite is actually according to my reading the ‘bad’ infinite.

  3. “Human finite Spirit must be distinguished at least as the ‘other’ of the Infinite if the Absolute returns to itself through its other.” Where does Hegel say that the Absolute returns to itself through its other? I don’t think he ever says this. The Absolute’s “movement,” as I understand it, is internal to it. As for “infinite as mere transitoriness of the finite”–I don’t believe I’ve suggested such an “infinite.”
    For anyone interested in these issues: my own analysis of the Science of Logic’s definitive account of infinity is in ch. 3 of my book, _Hegel’s Philosophy of Reality, Freedom, and God_ (Cambridge U. Press, 2005), which can be downloaded from my website ( I go into considerable textual detail. While I’m on this subject, the book itself can now be purchased from dealers on for very reasonable prices ($18, I believe), because a paperback edition (text-identical) has just come out at $45 and the Press is selling off its hardback stock.

  4. Well, par. 244, 568 e.g. Cf. also the first remarks Hegel makes in par. 554, where he speaks about the Identity that is returning into itself.
    Of course this movement is ‘internal to it’ – that is why I said that this ‘other’ is its ‘necessary expression.’ But that is also where my critique starts.

  5. I’m glad you agree that (a) the movement that Hegel describes is “internal to” the Absolute. (I assume that this applies to the movement that Hegel describes in the paragraphs that you cite.) This statement appears to me to contradict your earlier statement that (b) “Human finite Spirit must be distinguished at least as the ‘other’ of the Infinite if the Absolute returns to itself through its other.” If the movement of “return” is “internal to” the Absolute (as in (a)), how can it be through something that’s “other” than the Infinite (that is, I take it, also “other” than the Absolute), as in (b)? I submit that it’s through a “_moment_” of “otherness,” as Hegel says in par. 244, but this “otherness” is precisely only a “moment” of the Infinite or Absolute. In your original posting you said that if infinite Spirit is “dependent on this self-expression within the human Spirit, then it is no longer the absolute.” But if this self-expression is a “moment” of the infinite or absolute, it is not the “‘other’ of the infinite” or absolute (as in (b)), and so it doesn’t prevent the infinite or absolute from being infinite or absolute.

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