Category: Philosophical theories

German Idealism, Hegelian dialectic and Plato

German Idealism discovers anew Plato’s philosophy and proclaims it to be a constant source of philosophical inspiration by recognising it as the birthplace of western metaphysics.

Idealism and Platonism

German Idealism is modernity’s most important philosophical movement. It develops in Germany during the period of 1790-1830 and can be summarised as a manifold attempt to respond to issues raised in Kant’s philosophy. Fichte (Johann Gottlieb Fichte, 1762-1814), Schelling (Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, 1775-1854) and Hegel (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831) are considered as the key representatives of German Idealism. An important part in shaping the movement is played by Hölderlin (Friedrich Hölderlin, 1770-1843), Schelling’s and Hegel’s friend from their student years and later to be great poet, as well as earlier on by Jacobi (Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, 1743-1819) and Reinhold (Karl Leonhard Reinhold, 1757-1823).

Notwithstanding their significant points of difference, the triad of “classical” idealists shares the rejection of Kant’s claim that our knowledge is restricted to phenomena and fails to apprehend “things in themselves.” They seek the construction of philosophical knowing in the form of a system, whose grounding principle is the Absolute – the truth of which cannot but be accessible to man.

German Idealism is the first philosophical movement of modernity that is clearly aware of the historicity of philosophy and turns to ancient philosophy with a sincere and substantial concern. A crucial place is attributed to Plato, whose philosophy however is in the second half of the eighteenth century is identified with a version of “Platonism” that brings together elements of Neoplatonism, Christian re-interpretation and Romantic emphasis on an overflowing sentimentalism. An important role in Plato’s reception at the time was played by, among others, Mendelssohn’s paraphrase of the Phaedo, and Jacobi’s emphasis on presenting himself as a Platonist, by characterising Plato’s philosophy as “decisively dualistic and theistic”. During the same period Schlegel (Friedrich Schlegel, 1772-1829) insists on identifying poetry and philosophy, praises the poetical nature and aesthetic value of the Platonic texts and presents them as attempts to approximate the “infinity” of the divine – thus also paving the way for Schleiermacher’s conception of “Platonic literary dialogue”.

Fichte, Hölderlin, Schelling

With regard to the Idealists, under a strict understanding of the term, Fichte’s knowledge of Plato is superficial and limited to laudatory remarks that do not indicate a clear knowledge of the texts. Hölderlin, by contrast, puts forward a carefully constructed version of “aesthetic Platonism” with multiple references to the Phaedrus and the Symposium and an underscoring of love and the Form of the beautiful; the latter is connected to a version of pantheism of the One (to which the emblematic and at the time widely spread formulation hen kai pan refers to). The best known exposition of aesthetic Platonism is found in the so-called "Oldest System Program of German Idealism" (1796/97), in which praise is offered to “the Idea uniting all the others, the Idea of the beautiful (in the higher, Platonic sense of the word)” – a Form receiving precedence over the Form of the good.

Schelling makes in impression on the philosophical audience of the time with his sudden and tumultuous development, which also finds evidence in studies on Plato’s philosophy. He reads Platonic dialogues in the original Greek and, at merely seventeen years of age, writes a series of commentaries on the Ion, seeking in parts of it possibilities of expanding the concept of artistic genius (Genie) to every form of spiritual production. Two years later, a series of commentaries on the Timaeus will spark the development of an original version of natural philosophy, in which Schelling places at the very centre the Platonic understanding of the world as a living organism (zoon) and the Platonic concept of the “world-soul” – later to appear in the homonymous text (Von der Weltseele, 1798) as a principle connecting organic and inorganic nature. Schelling’s involvement with Plato will remain ceaseless, while shifting in emphasis and content – i.e. following his own constant pursuits and vicissitudes. Hence his interest moves from the Timaeus (which for a time he considers to be spurious) and focuses on particular topics that intrigue him at some time or another: eros, anypotheton, anamnesis, katharsis, nous, mythos. What remains unwavering, nonetheless, is Schelling’s endless esteem for the Platonic corpus as the cradle of western metaphysics.


Hegel has no reservations about calling Plato a “world-historical individual”, thus assigning to him a prominent role not only within the history of philosophy, but within the totality of world-history as history of spirit: “With Plato philosophical science commences as science”. Hegel’s concern with Plato’s work begins in his student years and lasts until the end of his life and it is reflected as much in his systematic works (in the Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807, mainly in the Science of Logic, 1812-16, and the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline, 1817) as it is in his renowned Lectures on the History of Philosophy during his Berlin years (1819-1830). Hegel is initially drawn to a variety of Platonic topics: the issue of myth and its relation to traditional religion, the figure of Socrates, the politeia as a living form of totality of ethical life, the version of a “pure” morality remaining unaffected by the senses, the cosmology of the Timaeus. His interest gradually shifts to the later Platonic dialogues and the dialectical ontology of Forms that is presented in them.

The truly speculative greatness of Plato, with which he inaugurated a new era in the history of philosophy and thus in world-history in general, is the closer determination of the Idea – a knowledge that a few centuries later became in general the founding element in the fermentation of world-history and the new shaping of the human spirit (Hegel, W 19, p.66).

Possibly under the influence of Schleiermacher, Hegel depreciates the importance of the unwritten doctrines and stresses that “through Plato’s dialogues we are fully capable of recognising his system” (W 19, p.25). At the centre of this system lies the Form, in which Hegel recognises a content and a function similar to his own Concept (Begriff): “The Platonic Form is nothing but the Universal or, to be more precise, the concept of the object; something is real only in its concept” (W 5, p. 44). The Science of Logic hopes to constitute “real metaphysics” (W 5, p. 16) and such an ambition thus explicitly falls within the tradition of Platonic idealism, whose philosophical presuppositions and consequences it attempts to develop to their full extent. Plato’s philosophy is ever present mainly in the First Book (“The doctrine on Being”, 1812), whereas the Second Book (“The doctrine on Essence”, 1813) has also been described as a transition from Plato to Aristotle.

In his Lectures Hegel emphatically rejects every attempt to “place” the Platonic Forms in an otherworldly Beyond; the “intellectual world […] is not found beyond reality, in the heavens, in another place, but is the real world” (W 19, p. 39). The Forms are not immediately present within consciousness nor are they apprehended through direct “intellectual intuition” (intellektuelle Anschauung – like they are according to Jacobi or Schelling), but are the “result” of our mental activity, “they are produced by the knowledge of Spirit” – while at the same time they “are just as real; they are – and they alone are Being” (W 19, p. 41).

The universal can be produced and conceived only through thought; it is only through the activity of thinking. This universal content was determined by Plato as Form (W 19, p. 57).

Hegel holds Plato’s political philosophy in high esteem as well, as is evidenced by his many references to the Republic, in which he does not discern the presentation of some utopian ideal, but of the true character of ancient Greek political “ethical life” (Sittlichkeit). This “ethical life”, of course, still constitutes “substance” (Substanz) and not “subject” (Subjekt), i.e. it has not incorporated the modern requirements of people for universal freedom; their appearance is foreshadowed by the figure of Socrates and will signify the collapse of the Greek polis. What links the two philosophers is also underscored when the issue is brought to the fore regarding the central role of the question of justice in the Republic – thus allowing Hegel to note in agreement that “justice in its reality and truth is found exclusively within the state” (W 19, p. 107).

Platonic and Hegelian dialectic

According to Gadamer, Hegel is “truly the first to apprehend the depth of Platonic dialectic”, by bringing to the fore dialogues that had been for a considerable time “forgotten”, such as the Parmenides, the Sophist and the Philebus. Plato’s attempt to present dialectic as a method that is distinct from mere rhetorical skill and sophistical “controversing” [antilogike] is considered by Hegel to be compatible, or even parallel, to his own pursuit of sublating the Kantian relation of dialectic to the production of “illusion” [Schein] and proclaiming dialectic as the only true method. One must notice, nevertheless, that Hegel’s understanding of dialectic disconnects it from its dialogical unfolding -- which is why he does not hesitate in noting that the dialogue form does not constitute “the best form of philosophical presentation” (W 19, p. 24). The two versions of dialectic, however, still share the conviction that truth presupposes particular positions and emerges as a methodically organised process of overcoming the one-sidedness of these positions, yet without annihilating them. This multiplicity of positions is expressed in Plato’s work through a multiplicity of interlocutors taking part in real dialogues, whereas in Hegel is becomes intensified by taking the form of contradictions inherent in reality itself.

Hegel detects the most typical example of Platonic dialectic in the Parmenides, a dialogue characterised as “perhaps the greatest achievement of ancient dialectic” (W 3, p. 66) and said to contain “the pure Platonic theory of Forms” (W 19, p. 81), even though in the end it restricts itself to a “negative result” (W 19, p. 82). The Sophist raises greater expectations, a dialogue in which Hegel seeks forms of a synthetic function transforming the otherness of particular sides and perspectives into an absolute identity. It is interesting to observe the emphasis with which Hegel underscores a version that is tentatively presented in the Sophist (248d-e) and attributes “movement, life, soul and wisdom” to the Forms (W 19, p. 70); such a “dynamic” conception allows the Platonic dialectic to step in as the legitimate forefather of the Hegelian absolute method. In Plato’s dialectic Hegel generally discerns a knowledge “of the absolute essence in pure concepts, as well as the presentation of these concepts’ movements”, but not a “proper consciousness of this nature of dialectic” (W 19, p. 62).

Author: Panagiotis Thanassas
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