Studies in Hegelian Cosmology. John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart 1901

Chapter I: Introduction

1. By Cosmology I mean the application, to subject-matter empirically known, of a priori conclusions derived from the investigation of the nature of pure thought. This superficial element clearly distinguishes Cosmology from the pure thought of Hegel’s Logic. On the other hand, it is clearly to be distinguished from the empirical conclusions of science and every-day life. These also, it is true, involve an a priori element, since no knowledge is possible without the categories, but they do not depend on an explicit affirmation of a priori truths. It is possible for men to agree on a law of chemistry, or on the guilt of a prisoner, regardless of their metaphysical disagreements. And a man may come to correct conclusions on these subjects without any metaphysical knowledge at all. In Cosmology, however, the conclusions reached are deduced from propositions relating to pure thought. Without these propositions there can be no Cosmology, and a disagreement about pure thought must result in disagreements about Cosmology.

Of this nature are the subjects treated of in this book. The conception of the human self is a conception with empirical elements, and there is therefore an empirical element in the question whether such selves are eternal, and whether the Absolute is a similar self. So too the conceptions of Morality, of Punishment, of Sin, of the State, of Love, have all empirical elements in them. Yet none of the questions we shall discuss can be dealt with by the finite sciences. They cannot be settled by direct observation, nor can they be determined by induction. In some cases the scope of the question is so vast, that an induction based on instances within the sphere of our observation would not give even the slightest rational presumption in favour of any solution. In other cases the question relates to a state of things so different to our present experience that no relevant instances can be found. The only possible treatment of such subjects is metaphysical.

2. Hegel gives a very small part of his writings to Cosmological questions – a curious fact when we consider their great theoretical interest, and still greater practical importance. When he passes out of the realm of pure thought, he generally confines himself to explaining, by the aid of the dialectic, the reasons for the existence of particular facts, which, on empirical grounds, are known to exist, or, in some cases, wrongly supposed to exist. The Philosophy of Nature, the greater part of the Philosophy of Spirit, and nearly the whole of the Philosophy of Law, of the Philosophy of History, and of the Aesthetic, are taken up by this. The same thing may be said of the Second Part of the Philosophy of Religion, the First and Third Parts of which contain almost the only detailed discussion of cosmological problems to be found in his works.

This peculiarity of Hegel’s is curious, but undeniable. I do not know of any possible explanation, unless in so far as one may be found in his want of personal interest in the part of philosophy which most people find more interesting than any other. When I speak in this book of Hegelian Cosmology, I do not propose to consider mainly the views actually expressed by Hegel, except in Chapter VIII, and, to some extent, in Chapter V. Elsewhere it will be my object to consider what views on the subjects under discussion ought logically to be held by a thinker who accepts Hegel’s Logic, and, in particular, Hegel’s theory of the Absolute Idea. I presume, in short, to endeavour to supplement, rather than to expound.

It is for this reason that I have devoted so much space to discussing the views of Lotze, of Mr Bradley, and of Professor Mackenzie. Since we have so little assistance on this subject from Hegel himself, it seemed desirable to consider the course taken by philosophers who held the same conception of the Absolute as was held by Hegel, or who supported their opinions by arguments which would be equally relevant to Hegel’s conception of the Absolute.

3. The subject-matter of those problems which can only be treated by Cosmology is varied, and the following chapters are, in consequence, rather disconnected from each other. But they illustrate, I think, three main principles. The first of these is that the element of differentiation and multiplicity occupies a much stronger place in Hegel’s system than is generally believed. It is on this principle that I have endeavoured to show that all finite selves are eternal, and that the Absolute is not a self.

These two conclusions seem to me to be very closely connected. As a matter of history, no doubt, the doctrines of human immortality and of a personal God have been rather associated than opposed. But this is due, I think, to the fact that attempts have rarely been made to demonstrate both of them metaphysically in the same system. I believe that it would be difficult to find a proof of our own immortality which did not place God in the position of a community, rather than a person, and equally difficult to find a conception of a personal God which did not render our existence dependent on his will – a will whose decisions our reason could not foresee.

My second main principle is that Hegel greatly over-estimated the extent to which it was possible to explain particular finite events by the aid of the Logic. For this view I have given some reasons in Chapter VII of my Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic. Applications of it will be found in Chapters IV and VII of the present work, and, in a lesser degree, in Chapters V and VI.

Thirdly, in Chapter IX, I have endeavoured to demonstrate the extent to which the Logic involves a mystical view of reality – an implication of which Hegel himself was not, I think, fully conscious, but which he realised much more fully than most of his commentators.