Being and Time

Roger Scruton is a great contemporary philosopher.  You should run out and read everything he ever wrote.  His specialty is aesthetics, but he is versatile.  I read him in part for his handle on developments in philosophy over the last few hundred years, including especially the influence of Friedrich Hegel, the preeminent late-18th century philosopher.

On the key philosophical subject of existence, Hegel distinguished between “determinate being,” by which he meant a particular physical thing instantiated in time and therefore not existing at other places, and other times; and “indeterminate being,” which applies to concepts not instantiated in space and time, and therefore saying nothing particular about anything. This has a couple of implications, I think.

Categorical Thinking

One is that it requires a thesis-antithesis view of all of reality.  In fact, Hegel’s dialectic depends on it.  All of reality is reducible to binary opposition, like a bit of computer operation. And this, it seems to me, requires a categorical way of perceiving reality. Things don’t mush together into one big indiscriminate soup. We make sense of things by understanding their parts in opposition to something else. My computer keyboard is here on my lap, and the concept of “here” is set off in opposition to “there;” all the other places it might be, if it weren’t here.

This opposition is important because it extrapolates to the categorical thinking that inheres in foundationalism: the idea that there is a foundational set of principles upon which all our beliefs rest. In opposition to that point of view (irony, see?) is the more recent concept of coherentism, which holds that our beliefs are formed on the basis of negotiating others already in our constellation of beliefs. There is no fixed point. And therefore, of course, no fixed point in a putative God.


In America coherentism takes the form of pragmatism, the idea that belief rests on what “works.” This seems at first glance to beg the question of what it means to “work,” but if you read the works of people like William James, you find he’s basically saying that it doesn’t matter what you believe anyway, so invoke whatever beliefs take you to wherever you’ve already decided to go. There is much to say about works like James’ Will to Believe, but to my mind, and most relevant to the state of the discussion today, he was providing a uniquely American get-up-and-go spin on the form of religious skepticism that says what you believe is spoon-fed to you, and is accepted only because of the other stuff already spoon-fed to you. In short, coherentism.

Being and Time

There is dialectical opposition between determinate and indeterminate being. The dialectical process itself is time-bound. It depends on time for resolution. Scruton says “we give sense to the idea that one and the same thing both is and is not, by postulating its existence at one time, but not the other.”

Hegel famously thought that there was a direction to history: it’s not just one darn thing after another. (A concept shared with Marxists and Christians).   The point of this is that the most fundamental questions of existence are bound up with the concept of time. To say it differently, we not only perceive reality through the paradigm of time within which we necessarily live, but even beyond that limited paradigm, time defines existence.

Well my first thought was that Einstein (a hundred years post-Hegel) proved that time and matter are of the same substance. So there is maybe a flaw in thinking of static, three-dimensional physical reality, and then superimposing a temporal dimension as if it were philosophically distinct.


But we can work around that. My second thought was that Christians suppose there is time-bound history, and then there is this something else, which we call eternity. Eternity we think of as being infinite time, but I think it’s more correct to think about it as reality in the absence of time. We struggle for example to reconcile free will and predestination, but that’s because we have minds of men, not of God. The animal part of our humanity is time-bound,but the spirit part of it isn’t. We have the animal paradigm but not yet (fully) the spiritual one.

God sees all at once. The closest we can come to imagining this is that we think of our lives as a finite line, one with a beginning and an end. But God sees our lives and those of everyone else, and of every physical thing, as if it were in a box that He can look into and see everything at once. If we can imagine that much, then we can imagine further (though not very effectively) that this box is not really a box at all, because it has no boundaries, and yet God is outside it.

Hegel and History

Hegel was ambiguously Christian, as suited the times, but the Christian part of his vision is generally cast aside, now, on the assumption that it was an encrustation in deference to the advance of career and protection against persecution. Maybe yes, maybe no, but in truth his views (c. 1800) were among the Enlightenment wedges (c. 1600 to present) between theism and materialism.

Today’s take-away is this: Hegel’s views on historical direction through dialectical materialism don’t disprove God, so much as assume away God’s perspective. It is followed by many, many more developments of philosophy which proceed this way: First assume no God; then proceed to do philosophy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *