Curious Case of the Concrete Universal

British Journal for the History of Philosophy 15(1) 2007: 115 – 153
Robert Stern
Like the terms ‘dialectic’, ‘Aufhebung’ (or ‘sublation’), and ‘Geist’, the term
‘concrete universal’ has a distinctively Hegelian ring to it. But unlike these
others, it is particularly associated with the British strand in Hegel’s
reception history, as having been brought to prominence by some of the
central British Idealists.1 It is therefore perhaps inevitable that, as their star
has waned, so too has any use of the term, while an appreciation of the
problematic that lay behind it has seemingly vanished: if the British Idealists
get any sort of mention in a contemporary metaphysics book (which is
rarely), it will be Bradley’s view of relations or truth that is discussed, not
their theory of universals,2 so that the term has a rather antique air, buried
in the dusty volumes of Mind from the turn of the nineteenth century. This is
not surprising: the episode known as British Idealism can appear to be a
period that is lost to us, in its language, points of historical reference (Lotze,
Sigwart, Jevons), and central preoccupations (the Absolute). Even while
interest in Hegel continues to grow, interest in his Logic has grown more
slowly than in the rest of his work, with Book III of the Logic remaining as
the daunting peak of that challenging text – while it is here that the British
The following remark is typical in this respect: ‘The central idea in nineteenth century Idealist
philosophy is the notion of the concrete universal. The English Idealists took it over from Hegel
and it played a most important part in all their work’ (A. J. M. Milne, The Social Philosophy of
English Idealism (London, 1962) 15).
The topic is not only neglected in the current general literature on metaphysics; it is also little
discussed in recent specialist studies of Anglo-American Idealism. As far as I know, only the
following works give the topic any consideration (and some of these only briefly): Milne, The
Social Philosophy of English Idealism, esp. 15–55, 165–202; Richard Wollheim, F. H. Bradley,
2nd edn (Harmondsworth, 1969), esp. 36–9; Lionel Rubinoff, Collingwood and the Reform of
Metaphysics (Toronto, 1970), esp. 154–60 and 384, n6; Stewart Candlish, ‘Bradley On My
Station and Its Duties’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 56 (1978) No. 2: 155–70; Marcus
Clayton, ‘Blanshard’s Theory of Universals’, in The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard (LaSalle,
1980) 861–8; Anthony Manser, Bradley’s Logic (Oxford, 1983), esp. 79–98; T. L. S. Sprigge,
James and Bradley: American Truth and British Reality (Chicago and LaSalle, 1993), esp. 382–5;
W. J. Mander, ‘Bosanquet and the Concrete Universal’, The Modern Schoolman, 77 (2000) No.
4: 293–308.
British Journal for the History of Philosophy
ISSN 0960-8788 print/ISSN 1469-3526 online ª 2007 BSHP DOI: 10.1080/09608780601088002
Idealists focussed their attention and claimed to have uncovered that ‘exotic’
but ‘vanished specimen’, the concrete universal.3 Finally, as the trend of
reading Hegel pushes ever further in a non-metaphysical direction, it might
be thought that the future of the concrete universal is hardly likely to be
brighter than its recent past – for it may seem hard to imagine how a
conception championed by the British Idealists, who were apparently
shameless in their metaphysical commitments,4 can find favour in these
more austere and responsible times.
In this paper, however, I want to make a case for holding that there is
something enlightening to be found in how some of the British Idealists
approached the ‘concrete universal’, both interpretatively and philosophically. At the interpretative level, I will argue that while not everything
these Idealists are taken to mean by the term is properly to be found in
Hegel, their work nonetheless relates to a crucial and genuine strand in
Hegel’s position, so that their discussion of this issue is an important
moment in the reception history of his thought. At a philosophical level,
I think that the question that concerned Hegel and these British Idealists
retains much of its interest, as does their shared approach to it: namely,
how far does our thought involve a mere abstraction from reality, and
what are the metaphysical and epistemological implications if it turns out
it does not? As such, I will suggest, taking seriously what these British
Idealists have to say about the concrete universal can help us both in our
understanding of Hegel, and in our appreciation of the contribution
Hegel’s position can make to our thinking on the issues that surround this
At first sight, however, it must be admitted that the doctrine of the
concrete universal looks distinctly unpromising as a source of interpretative and philosophical insights, in so far as the central claim generally
associated with its leading proponents appears to be both unHegelian and
This central claim, that came to be identified as characteristic of the
British Idealists, and which was much criticized in their time, was
summarized by one of those critics as the view that ‘the individual, qua
individual, is a universal’.5 The thought behind this conception of the
universal is taken to be that universals have a ‘one-over-many’ structure in
Mander, ‘Bosanquet and the Concrete Universal’, 293.
But for a corrective to this commonly held view, see Robert Stern, ‘British Hegelianism:
A Non-Metaphysical View?’, European Journal of Philosophy, 2 (1994) No. 3: 293–321.
Norman Kemp Smith, ‘The Nature of Universals’, Mind, 36 (1927) No. 142: 137–57, esp.
p. 144, No. 143: 265–80, No. 144: 393–422.
relation to their instances, and so are the same amid diversity, and in so far
as individuals also have this structure in relation to their attributes, they
should be thought of as ‘concrete universals’.
Support for this reading of the position occupied by the British Idealists is
taken from various comments by leading figures such as Bradley and
Bosanquet. Thus, Bradley writes that while from one ‘point of view’ an
individual (such as a man) is a particular because it excludes all other
individuals, from another ‘point of view’ a man ‘is universal because he is
one throughout all his different attributes’;6 and, he goes on to remark, ‘In
‘‘Caesar is sick’’, Caesar is not affirmed to be nothing but sick: he is a
common bond of many attributes, and is therefore universal’,7 so that ‘[t]he
individual is . . . a concrete universal’.8 Bosanquet writes:
Let us take such a judgment as ‘Caesar crossed the Rubicon’. . . Precisely the
point of the judgement is that the same man united in himself or persisted
through different relations, say, of being conqueror of Gaul and of marching
into Italy. The Identity is the Individual, or the concrete universal, that persists
through these relations.9
Bosanquet’s suggestion that we should ‘[take] an individual as designated
by a proper name for the example of a [concrete] universal’10 seems to be
what is central and distinctive about the British Idealists’ position on this
It is also, clearly, what is most problematic, both in itself and as an
interpretation of Hegel. The difficulty with the position in itself, is that it
appears to involve a confusion: for how can an individual be a universal,
concrete or otherwise? There is of course a one/many relation between an
individual and its parts, temporal parts, attributes etc, and also between a
universal and its instances: but this structural similarity is no reason to
confound the two, as these British Idealists seem happy to do. It is hard to
F. H. Bradley, Principles of Logic, 2nd edn, corrected, 2 vols (Oxford, 1928) Vol. I, p. 188.
Ibid., 191.
Ibid., 188.
Bernard Bosanquet, ‘The Philosophical Importance of a True Theory of Identity’, reprinted in
his Essays and Addresses, 2nd edn (London, 1891) 162–80, esp. pp. 165–6. Cf. also Bernard
Bosanquet, The Essentials of Logic (London, 1895) 65:
So the reference of a proper name is a good example of what we called a universal or
an identity. That which is referred to by such a name is a person or thing whose
existence is extended in time and its parts bound together by some continuous
quality – an individual person or thing and the whole of this individuality is referred to
in whatever is affirmed about it. Thus the reference of such a name is universal, not as
including more than one individual, but as including in the identity of the individual
numberless differences – the acts, events, and relations that make up its history and
Bosanquet, Essays and Addresses, 167.
disagree with an early critic of this conception, Norman Kemp Smith, when
he writes:
It has, of course, been usual to define the universal as ‘the one in the many,’
meaning by ‘the many’ numerically distinct particulars. But what, we may well
ask, are we being committed to, when required to interpret ‘the one in the
many’ in this other very different sense which renders it applicable to each
particular thing or self? If the original meaning of the term ‘universal’ involves
its distinction from the term ‘particular,’ can this meaning, by any legitimate
process of analogy, be so extended as to render the term synonymous with the
particular? A term cannot signify its own opposite, not even if that opposite be
a counterpart which it presupposes for its own completion. The term
‘husband’ does not signify ‘wife,’ though each term has meaning only in and
by reference to the other.11
Here, it may seem, the Idealists’ attempt to think dialectically unfortunately
got the better of them, and led to the absurdity of treating the individual as a
universal, and thus as concrete, simply on the grounds that individuals can
resemble universals in standing a ‘one-over-many’ relation to their attributes
just as a universal can stand in a ‘one-over-many’ relation to their instances,
and so both combine identity with a diversity. It may appear the best that
can be done at this point is to say that these British Idealists were using the
term ‘universal’ in a sui generis manner;12 but this is to admit that what at
first looked like a substantive but dubious doctrine is in the end no more
that a terminological shift, with little apparent rationale.
Kemp Smith, ‘The Nature of Universals’, 145. Cf. also Michael B. Foster, ‘The Concrete
Universal: Cook Wilson and Bosanquet’, Mind, 40 (1931) No. 157: 1–22, esp. p. 7, where he speaks
about the ‘well-known and paradoxical doctrine, derived from Bradley, that the concrete universal
is the individual’, and asks whether ‘it is not simply an abuse of language to call the individual
‘‘universal’’ at all’. Another contemporary critic of this view is John Cook Wilson:
A notable example of loose thinking about unity in diversity is the modern
representation of the individual as a universal because it is a unity in the diversity of its
qualities, &c. This doctrine, which is taken as advanced metaphysics, is nothing but
deplorable confusion, due to a mere verbal analogy helped out by the metaphysician’s
inclination to paradox, and the absurdest results may be developed from it. The unity
of the universal in its particulars is totally different from the unity of the individual
substance as a unity of its attributes (or attribute-elements). The particulars of a
universal are not elements in its unity.
(John Cook Wilson, Statement and Inference, edited by A. S. L. Farquharson,
2 vols, corrected edn (Oxford, 1969), Vol. I, p. 156 n1)
It is likely that Cook Wilson’s later reference to ‘the puerilities of certain paradoxical recent
authors’ on the topic of universals is also a reference to this Bradleyan view (see ibid., 348).
Cf. Mander, ‘Bosanquet and the Concrete Universal’, 301:
Bosanquet’s understanding of the word ‘universal’ is a very generous one. Any
connection which brings together any sort of many under one heading, any union or
connection or identity, any mechanism that allows any kind of general talk, for
Bosanquet, is a universal.
In defence of the British Idealists, however, it might be argued that
those who criticized them for holding this seemingly incoherent doctrine
misrepresented their position. It is notable that in the way it is presented
by Bradley in the discussion from The Principles of Logic that we have
cited, he says not just that ‘The individual is both a concrete particular
and a concrete universal’, but also that these are ‘names of the whole
from different points of view [my emphasis]’, namely when we see the
individual as having ‘limiting and exclusive relations to other phenomena’
on the one hand and when we see it as ‘one throughout all [its] different
attributes’ on the other.13 This may then suggest that in calling the
individual a concrete universal, Bradley does not mean to collapse the
distinction between these ontological categories on the grounds that both
involve identity-in-diversity, but rather to say that the individual can be
viewed as akin to a universal in this respect, just as it can also be viewed
as akin to a bare particular when considered in isolation from all other
However, even if a defence of Bradley (and perhaps also of Bosanquet)
could be mounted along these lines, it might be argued that the claim that
‘the individual, qua individual, is a universal’ because it is the same amid
diversity should still be seen as part of the doctrine of the concrete universal,
on the grounds that a view of this sort can be traced back to Hegel. For
Hegel to be a source of this view, we would have to find a place where Hegel
states that an individual is (or can be seen as) a universal, on the grounds
that the individual combines unity in diversity; and commentators have
claimed to find such places. One example is said to be x175 of the
Encyclopaedia Logic, and another Hegel’s discussion of sense-certainty in
the Phenomenology of Spirit. However, I think we should not be persuaded
by these claims.
The section from the Encyclopaedia Logic is cited,15 presumably on
the grounds that Hegel writes here: ‘The subject, the singular as singular
(in the ‘‘singular’’ judgment), is something-universal’.16 But Hegel’s point
here is not to say that the identity-in-difference of the individual
Bradley, The Principles of Logic, Vol. I, p. 188.
A more radical defence of the Bradleyean position, suggested to me by Fraser MacBride,
might be to follow Ramsey in attempting to challenge the whole universal/individual
distinction: see F. P. Ramsey, ‘Universals’ in The Foundations of Mathematics and other
Logical Essays, edited by R. B. Braithwaite (London, 1931), pp. 112–34; but I take Bradley’s
more moderate talk of ‘points of view’ to suggest that he would not want to adopt that line
(though I would agree that there are some intriguing parallels between the two positions that
deserve to be explored further).
Mander, ‘Bosanquet and the Concrete Universal’, 296, n8.
G. W. F. Hegel, The Encyclopaedia Logic: Part I of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical
Sciences, translated by T. F. Geraets, W. A. Suchting and H. S. Harris (Indianapolis, 1991),
x175, p. 252 [‘Das Subjekt, das Einzelne als Einzelnes (im singula¨ren Urteil), ist ein Allgemeines’,
G. W. F. Hegel, Werke in zwanzig Ba¨nden, edited by Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus
Michel (Frankfurt, 1970), Vol. VIII, p. 326].
(‘das Einzelne’)17 makes it a universal; rather, he is commenting that there
are judgements where we predicate attributes not just of the individual as
such, but of the individual as a member of a class, and thus as falling
under a universal. Hegel makes this clear when he comments in the
Addition (Zusatz) to this paragraph: ‘When it is determined in the
singular judgment as a universal, the subject therefore goes beyond itself
as this merely single instance. To say ‘‘This plant is curative’’, implies
that it is not merely this single plant that is curative, but that some or
many plants are . . .’18 I therefore do not think that this can count as a
place where Hegel adopted the view with which the British Idealists were
later identified.
Another place where textual support for this claim is said to be found,
however, is in Hegel’s discussion of sense-certainty (which, along with
Book III of the Logic, and the Philosophy of Right, is one of the three parts
of Hegel’s work that had the strongest influence on the British Idealists).
In the course of that discussion, Hegel considers the claim of sensecertainty that it can pick out the ‘now’ and the ‘here’ as individuals by
pointing at an individual moment or an individual place; and he counters
it by arguing that every such moment or place is further divisible, where he
writes that
The pointing-out of the Now is thus itself the movement which expresses what
the Now is in truth, viz. a result, or a plurality of Nows all taken together; and
the pointing-out is the experience of learning that the Now is a universal,19
and similarly he says of ‘Here’:
The Here that is meant would be the point; but it is not: on the contrary, when
it is pointed out as something that is, the pointing-out shows itself to be not an
immediate knowing [of the point], but a movement from the Here that is meant
In their translation, Geraets, Suchting and Harris use ‘singular’ rather than ‘individual’ to
translate ‘Einzelne’, for reasons they give in the translators’ introduction, xix–xx. While
appreciating some of the points they make in favour of this practice, and while I will retain its
use when quoting from their translation, in the text I will continue to talk of ‘individual’ rather
than ‘singular’, in part because this is the terminology used by the British Idealists I am also
Hegel, Encyclopaedia Logic, x175 Addition, p. 252:
Das Subjekt, indem es im singula¨ren Urteil als Allgemeines bestimmt ist, schreitet
damit u¨ber sich, als dieses bloß Einzelne, hinaus. Wenn wir sagen: »diese Pflanze ist
heilsam«, so liegt darin, daß nicht bloß diese einzelne Pflanze heilsam ist, sondern
mehrere oder einige.
(Werke, Vol. VIII, p. 327)
G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller (Oxford, 1977) 64:
Das Aufzeigen ist also selbst die Bewegung, welche es ausspricht, was das Jetzt im
Wahrheit ist, na¨mlich ein Resultat oder eine Vielheit von Jetzt zusammengefaßt; und
das Aufzeigen ist das Erfahren, daß Jetzt Allgemeines ist.
(Werke, Vol. III, p. 89)
through many Heres into the universal Here which is a simple plurality of
Heres, just as the day is a simple plurality of Nows’.20
On the basis of these passages, one commentator has argued that Hegel is
guilty of just the same conflation between individual and universal that was
identified in the work of the British Idealists:
Hegel argues that the here and now, in having extension and duration, and
hence an indefinitely large number of subdivisions, are universals and thus not
particulars. But unless one conflates the notion of instances of a universal and
the parts of a whole (as Hegel seems to have done), all the arguments would
show, if they work at all, is that here and now are divisible wholes, not that they
are universals. It is in no way obvious that a whole having parts cannot be a
particular, and Hegel, not having made the distinction between wholes and
universals, does not even address himself to this issue.21
On this reading of this part of the Phenomenology, then, it may seem that
Hegel is using ‘universal’ in a manner similar to that for which the British
Idealists were later criticized.
It is not possible to enter here into a detailed interpretative analysis of this
highly complex and abstract section of the Phenomenology: but it does seem
to me that this way of reading Hegel’s position here is mistaken. As I would
read it, Hegel is arguing at this point that sense-certainty cannot claim to be
able to ‘apprehend’ things without ‘comprehending’ them, where sensecertainty thinks this is possible because it believes it can have immediate
awareness of things in their unique individuality and so has no need for
general concepts: if there were only one ‘now’ and only one ‘here’ this might
make sense, but the fact that each ‘now’ and ‘here’ is always divisible into
further ‘nows’ and ‘heres’ means that sense-certainty cannot claim access to
just such a unique individual in its experience of a temporal or spatial
moment. Thus, even when it points and says ‘now’ or ‘here’, it is conscious
of many instances of the same kind, and thus individuals that share the same
property or universal (the property of being ‘now’ or ‘here’). Hegel’s claim
in talking about temporal and spatial instants in terms of universals is thus
not that they are universals because they are complex individuals rather than
simple ‘atoms’ (in the manner of the British Idealists); his claim is rather that
Das Hier, das gemeint wird, wa¨re der Punkt; er ist aber nicht; sondern indem er als
seiend aufgezeigt wird, zeigt sich das Aufzeigen, nicht unmittelbares Wissen, sondern
eine Bewegung von dem gremeinten Hier aus durch viele Hier in das allgemeine Hier
zu sein, welches, wie der Tag eine einfache Vielheit der Jetzt, so eine einfache Vielheit
der Hier ist.
(Werke, Vol. III, p. 90)
Ivan Soll, ‘Charles Taylor’s Hegel’, reprinted in Hegel, edited by Michael Inwood (Oxford,
1985) 54–66, esp. pp. 63–4. Cf. also Michael Inwood, A Hegel Dictionary (Oxford, 1992) 303.
even being ‘now’ and ‘here’ does not make a temporal or spatial instant
unique and thus purely individual, for there are always further instants that
are ‘now’ and ‘here’ in the same way, so that particular ‘nows’ and ‘heres’
have been shown to be instances of universals in this fairly standard sense.22
Thus, whether or not we think it is right to attribute to the British Idealists the
view that ‘the individual, qua individual, is a universal’ in any strong sense, we
might accept that this view is highly problematic, and also can offer us few
interpretative insights into Hegel’s position; for it seems we must admit (and
that Hegel would agree) that it takes more to be a concrete universal than to be
a unified diversity, for the unified diversity of an individual (such as Julius
Caesar) surely does not make that individual a universal of any type, but
merely a substance with attributes, or a whole with parts. On the other hand, if
all the doctrine of the concrete universal amounts to is the claim that ‘you may
call’ an individual a universal as a way of ‘emphasizing’ its unity-in-diversity,
then it this may suggest it is in fact a rather trivial position.
However, it would be premature to abandon all interest in the doctrine of
the concrete universal straightaway, as there is more to the British Idealists’s
discussion than this, where they came to conceive of the concrete universal
as a particular type of universal: ‘the universal in the form of a world’, as
Bosanquet put it,23 rather than in the form of a class. By the ‘the universal in
the form of a world’, Bosanquet meant that individuals which exemplify this
universal are thereby related with one another in a system of mutual
interdependence, whereas individuals that merely belong to the same class
are not. Josiah Royce (not of course, strictly a British Idealist, but nonetheless greatly influenced by them) puts this idea as follows:
This universal is no abstraction at all, but a perfectly concrete whole, since the
facts are, one and all, not mere examples of it, but are embraced in it, are
brought forth by it as its moments, and exist only in relation to one another
and to it. It is the vine; they, the individuals, are the branches.24
For a reading that is also critical of Soll’s account for claiming that Hegel (like the British
Idealists) ‘has clumsily conflated universals . . . with complex individuals’, but on somewhat
different grounds, see Edward Craig, The Mind of God and the Works of Man (Oxford, 1987)
Bernard Bosanquet, The Principle of Individuality and Value (London, 1912) 38.
Josiah Royce, The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (Boston, 1892) 224. Cf. also Edward Caird,
Social Philosophy of Auguste Comte (Glasgow, 1885) 109 (incorrectly cited by Royce, 499, n1):
‘The universal of science and philosophy is . . . not merely a generic name, under which things are
brought together, but a principle which unites them and determines their relation to each other’;
and also John Caird (Edward Caird’s brother), who Royce also cites extensively:
But thought is capable of another and deeper movement. It can rise to a universality
which is not foreign to, but the very inward nature of things in themselves, not the
This conception of the concrete universal has the advantage that it avoids the
peculiar conflation of individuality with universality that we saw earlier,
universal of an abstraction from the particular and different, but the unity which is
immanent in them and finds in them its own necessary expression; not an arbitrary
invention of the observing and classifying mind unifying in its own imagination things
which are yet essentially different, but an idea which expresses the inner dialectic, the
movement or process towards unity, which exists in and constitutes the being of the
objects themselves. This deeper and truer universality is that which may be designated
ideal or organic universality.
(John Caird, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion
(Glasgow, 1904) 217–18)
Cf. also Bosanquet, The Principle of Individuality and Value, 37:
A world or cosmos is a system of members, such that every member, being ex hypothesi
distinct, nevertheless contributes to the unity of the whole in virtue of the peculiarities
which constitute its distinctness. And the important point for us at present is the
difference of principle between a world and a class. It takes all sorts to make a world; a
class is essentially of one sort only. In a word, the difference is that the ultimate principle
of unity and community is fully exemplified in the former, but only superficially in the
latter. The ultimate principle, we may say, is sameness in the other; generality is sameness
in spite of the other; universality is sameness by means of the other.
Similar comments include Bernard Bosanquet, ‘Life and Philosophy’, in Contemporary British
Philosophy, edited by J. H. Muirhead, first series (London, 1924) 51–74, esp. p. 62: ‘The universal,
the very life and spirit of logic, did not mean [to me] a general predicate, but the plastic unity of an
inclusive system’; and Bernard Bosanquet, The Distinction Between Mind and its Objects
(Manchester, 1913) 34: ‘a universal is a working connection within particulars’. Cf. also Richard
Lewis Nettleship, Philosophical Remains of Richard Lewis Nettleship, edited by A. C. Bradley, 2nd
edn (London, 1901) 158–9:
The universal is said to contain or include its particulars. This, of course, is a spatial
metaphor, and we always have to guard against the influence of spatial associations.
But the metaphor helps some minds to realize the truth, and it is convenient as bringing
out the fact that particulars, while excluding one another, also make up, or are included
in, one whole. To say, for example, that humanity includes all men may help one to
realize the truth that, though men exclude one another, they still form a unity.
and R. G. Collingwood, Speculum Mentis (Oxford, 1924) 220–1:
This absolute whole is the concrete universal; for concrete universality is individuality, the individual being simply the unity of the universal and the particular.
The absolute individual is universal in that it is what it is throughout, and every part
of it is as individual as itself. On the other hand it is no mere abstraction, the abstract
quality of individualness, but an individual which includes all others. It is the system
of systems, the world of worlds.
This view of the concrete universal persists in the thinking of later generations of British writers
on Hegel, such as T. M. Knox: see, e.g. his translator’s notes to his translation of Hegel’s
Philosophy of Right (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952) 323–4 [my emphasis]:
An abstract universal has no organic connexion with its particulars. Mind, or reason,
as a concrete universal, particularizes itself into differences which are interconnected by
its universality in the same way in which parts of the organism are held together by the
single life which all things share. The parts depend on the whole for their life, but on
the other hand the persistence of life necessitates the differentiation of the part.
Cf. also T. L. S. Sprigge, ‘Bradley’ in Routledge History of Philosophy VII: The Nineteenth
Century, edited by C. L. Ten (London, 1994) 437–58, esp. p. 440: ‘[P]roponents of the concrete
universal usually take the totality of its instances as itself the universal in question, arguing that
it is a kind of whole which is present in each of its parts’.
associated by its critics with the Bradleyean claim that ‘[a man] is universal
because he is one throughout all his different attributes’; instead, universals
are here understood in a more usual way, as properties that are instantiated
in individuals, but where concrete universals ‘embrace’ the individuals into a
holistic system, and so make these individuals parts of a larger individual
entity, whereas abstract universals do not. Therefore, we might say (to use
the sort of example employed by the British Idealists) there are certain
properties by virtue of which citizens of the state form a community or social
whole, while nonetheless the state is an individual. We are therefore
preserving here more of the traditional universal/individual distinction
(because we are not saying that the state qua individual is a universal),
while still giving a distinctive sense to the idea of a concrete universal (as a
property that connects individuals into larger wholes, in an inter-individual
This view of the concrete universal of course belongs together with the
metaphysical holism (tending towards monism) of some of the British
Idealists more generally, so that in the end it is not clear whether they would
allow that some universals are ‘concrete’ in this sense, and others are
‘abstract’; rather, they would seem to hold that in fact all universals are
concrete, although our lack of insight into the full systematic interconnection of individuals may prevent us from recognizing this.25 This appears to
be the implication of Bradley’s famous example of the red-haired men:
By being red-haired the two men are related really, and their relation is not
merely external . . . ‘But I am a red-haired man’, I shall hear, ‘and I know what
I am, and I am not altered in fact when I am compared with another man, and
therefore the relation falls outside.’ But no finite individual, I reply, can
possibly know what he is, and the idea that all his reality falls within his
knowledge is even ridiculous . . . But, as he really is, to know perfectly his own
nature would be, with that nature, to pass in knowledge endlessly beyond
himself. For example, a red-haired man who knew himself utterly would and
must, starting from within, go on to know everyone else who has red hair, and
he would not know himself until he knew them . . . Nothing in the whole and in
the end can be external, and everything less than the Universe is an abstraction
from the whole, an abstraction more or less empty, and the more empty the
less self-dependent. Relations and qualities are abstractions, and depend for
their being always on a whole, a whole which they inadequately express, and
which remains always less or more in the background.26
Cf. Sprigge, James and Bradley, 514:
[T]he doctrine of concrete universals, as propounded by such as Bradley and
Bosanquet, does not really concern one special type of universal called ‘concrete’,
which they contrast with another called ‘abstract’, but is presented as the correct
account of all genuine universals as opposed to the more usual but inadequate account
of them as merely abstract.
F. H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality, 2nd edn, 9th impression (Oxford, 1930) 520–1.
It seems that Bradley is arguing here that a universal such as ‘red-hairedness’
may appear to be an abstract universal, in the sense that no internal relation
may seem to hold between all the different individuals that have red hair; but
then in fact the universal is concrete, because by exemplifying the same
universal, each red-haired individual is internally related to each other redhaired individual within a totality.
Clearly, a proper assessment of this conception of the concrete universal
would require a much broader analysis of the philosophical position that
goes with it, such as Bradley’s view of relations; and that cannot be
undertaken here. We can, however, raise the interpretative question: how far
does this holistic conception of the concrete universal present a plausible
way of understanding the position adopted by Hegel?
A first, and most obvious, difference between Hegel’s position and the
Bradleyean one, is that Hegel does seem to allow that the concrete universal
is a type of universal, rather than claiming that all universals are in fact
concrete. For example, Hegel says that the property ‘red’ is ‘an abstract
universal’ (‘ein abstrakt Allgemeines’),27 and he contrasts this with a
property like ‘good’. Therefore, even if Hegel does believe that some
universals can be viewed holistically as ‘embracing’ individuals into a
‘concrete whole’, he would not appear to believe that all universals can be so
viewed, contra Bradley.
More substantively, perhaps, we can also raise doubts about whether
Hegel has this holistic conception of the concrete universal at all. That this
was Hegel’s conception is widely held, not least by the Idealists themselves.
Thus, Royce writes in his exposition of what he takes to be Hegel’s view:
The universal of the understanding, applying to a nature which is only
exemplified by each individual, and which exists nowhere but in such
individual examples (as animality exists only in individual animals), tells us
nothing about the interrelationship of the individuals themselves, gives us
therefore no Einheit des Begriffes28 . . . Das Wahre ist konkret means for [Hegel]
equally, ‘The truth is an organic union of interrelated aspects, characters,
qualities’, and ‘The truth is the Universal in which the particulars and
individuals are organically joined’.29
The Anglo-American Idealists therefore saw in Hegel a fellow holist, and
treated his doctrine of the concrete universal as central to his holism, as it
was to theirs. It seems to me, however, that this puts Hegel’s own conception
of the concrete universal in the wrong light.
Hegel, Encyclopaedia Logic, x172 Addition, p. 250 (translation modified) (Werke, Vol. VIII,
p. 324).
Royce, The Spirit of Modern Philosophy, 495.
Ibid., 500.
To see why, we need to look more closely at the way in which Hegel
himself draws a contrast between universals that are abstract and universals
that are concrete. This we will do in the next section, at the end of which we
will return to consider the issue we have just raised, concerning the extent to
which Hegel’s conception of the concrete universal is holistic.
The distinction between the abstract and the concrete universal principally
arises in the course of Hegel’s discussion of the Concept or Notion
(Begriff)30 and the different levels of judgement and syllogism that are
associated with that discussion, as this occurs in the first part of Book III of
the Logic. Hegel’s central aim here is to demonstrate that
The progression of the Concept is no longer either passing-over or shining
into another, but development; for the [moments] that are distinguished are
immediately posited at the same time as identical with one another and
with the whole, and [each] determinacy is as a free being of the whole
The ‘moments’ of the Concept are universality, particularity and
individuality; and the claim here is therefore that these categories have a
peculiar kind of interrelation (of development [‘Entwicklung’]) that was not
seen either with the categories of Being (where the ‘dialectical process’ was
one of ‘passing over into another’ [‘U¨bergehen’]) or Essence (where it was
‘shining into another’ [‘Scheinen in Anderes’]): ‘in contrast, the movement of
the Concept is development’. Hegel’s reasons for wanting to argue for this
relation between the moments of the Concept, I would claim, stem from his
conviction that many of the problems of philosophy are bound up with the fact
that this relation has been misconceived hitherto, where the categories of
universality, particularity and individuality have been set apart from one
Now, Hegel’s main aim in drawing the contrast between the ‘abstract’ and the
‘concrete’ universal is related to the way in which the relation between the
categories of universality, particularity and individuality should be viewed:
‘Notion’ or ‘Concept’ are the two terms used for the translation of Begriff: in quotations, I
follow the usage of the translation referred to, although in my text I use ‘Concept’.
Hegel, Encyclopaedia Logic, x161, p. 237:
Das Fortgehen des Begriffs ist nicht mehr U¨bergehen noch Scheinen in Anderes,
sondern Entwicklung, indem das Unterschiedene unmittelbar zugleich als das
Identische miteinander und mit dem Ganzen gesetzt, die Bestimmtheit als ein freies
Sein des ganzen Begriffes ist.
(Werke, Vol. VIII, p. 308)
For further discussion, see my Hegel and the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ (London, 2002) 18–21.
for, whereas the ‘abstract universal . . . is opposed to the particular and the
individual’,33 the concrete universal is not, where it is characteristic of the latter
that ‘we cannot speak of the universal apart from the determinateness which is
more precisely its particularity and individuality, for the universal, in its absolute
negativity, contains determinateness in and for itself’.34 Hegel goes on:
As negativity in general or in accordance with the first, immediate negation, the
universal contains determinateness generally as particularity; as the second
negation, that is, as negation of the negation, it is absolute determinateness or
individuality and concreteness. The universal is thus the totality of the Notion;
it is concrete, and far from being empty, it has through its Notion a content,
and a content in which it not only maintains itself but one which is its own and
immanent in it. We can, indeed, abstract from the content: but in that case we
do not obtain a universal of the Notion but only the abstract universal, which
is an isolated, imperfect moment of the Notion and has no truth.35
G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic, translated by A. V. Miller (London: 1969) 602 (‘Vom
Allgemeinen, welches ein vermitteltes, na¨mlich das abstrakte, dem Besonderen und Einzelnen
entgegengesetzte Allgemeine ist, ist erst bei dem bestimmten Begriffe zu reden’, Werke Vol. II,
p. 275).
Hegel, Science of Logic, 603 (‘Es kann aber von dem Allgemeinen nicht ohne die
Bestimmtheit, welche na¨her die Besonderheit und Einzelheit ist, gesprochen werden’, Werke,
Vol. II, p. 277).
Ibid., 603–4:
Als Negativita¨t u¨berhaupt oder nach der ersten, unmittelbaren Negation hat es die
Bestimmtheit u¨berhaupt als Besonderheit an ihm; als Zweites, als Negation der Negation
ist es absolute Bestimmtheit oder Einzelheit und Konkretion. – Das Allgemeine ist somit
die Totalita¨t des Begriffes, es ist Konkretes, ist nicht ein Leeres, sondern hat vielmehr
durch seinen Begriff Inhalt – einen Inhalt, in dem es sich nicht nur erha¨lt, sondern der ihm
eigen und immanent ist. Es kann von dem Inhalte wohl abstrahiert werden; so erha¨lt man
aber nicht das Allgemeine des Begriffs, sondern das Abstrakte, welches ein isoliertes,
unvollkommenes Moment des Begriffes ist und keine Wahrheit hat.
(Werke, Vol. II, pp. 277–8)
Cf. also G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind: Part Three of the Encyclopaedia of the
Philosophical Sciences, translated by William Wallace and A. V. Miller (Oxford, 1971), x467
Addition, p. 227:
Only on the third stage of pure thinking is the Notion as such known. Therefore, this
stage represents comprehension in the strict sense of the word. Here the universal is
known as self-particularizing, and from the particularization gathering itself together
into individuality; or, what is the same thing, the particular loses its self-subsistence to
become a moment of the Notion. Accordingly, the universal here is no longer a form
external to the content, but the true form which produces the content from itself.
(Erst auf der dritten Stufe des reinen Denkens wird der Begriff als solcher erkannt. Diese
Stufe stellt also das eigentliche Begreifen dar. Hier wird das Allgemeine als sich selber
besondernd und aus der Besonderung zur Einzelheit zusammennehmend erkannt oder,
was dasselbe ist, das Besondere aus seiner Selbsta¨ndigkeit zu einem Momente des
Begriffs herabgesetzt. Demnach ist hier das Allgemeine nicht mehr eine dem Inhalt
a¨ußerliche, sondern die wahrhafte, aus sich selber den Inhalt hervorbringende Form.)
(Werke, Vol. X, pp. 286–7)
Hegel thus conceives of the concrete universal as ‘the universal of the
Notion’, in so far as it involves a dialectical relation to particularity and
individuality, whereas the abstract universal does not.
What this means can be seen by looking at the examples Hegel gives of
each kind of universal, particularly as these are presented in his discussion of
the hierarchy of judgements and syllogisms.36 At the most basic level of the
qualitative judgement and the qualitative syllogism,37 the universal is an
accidental property of an individual, which fails to differentiate it from other
When we say: ‘This rose is red’, the copula ‘is’ implies that subject and
predicate agree with one another. But of course, the rose, being something
concrete, is not merely red; on the contrary, it also has a scent, a definite form,
and all manner of other features, which are not contained within the predicate
‘red’. On the other hand, the predicate, being something abstractly universal,
does not belong merely to this subject. For there are other flowers, too, and
other objects altogether that are also red.38
Thus, with a universal such as ‘red’, there is a clear distinction we can draw
between the universal and the individual that possesses that property, and
that universal and the other properties it possesses, so there is no dialectical
unity here between these elements. At the next level, in the judgement and
syllogism of reflection, we get a closer interrelation: for here we predicate
properties of individuals that we take to belong to other individuals of the
same kind, where being of this kind then comes to be seen as essential to
the individual, and where some properties are seen as essential to any
member of the kind. Thus, in the case of a judgement such as ‘All men are
mortal’, we treat being a man as an essential property of each individual man,
and not a mere feature that these individuals happen to have in common,
such as possessing earlobes.39 Here, then, we have a closer interconnection
between the universal and the individual, in so far as the universal is now
seen as an essential property of the individual; and we also have a closer
connection between the universal and the particular properties that make
For the sake of simplicity and brevity, I deal with the hierarchy of judgements and syllogisms
together, and so have not here explicitly mentioned ‘the judgement of the concept’ (Das Urteil
des Begriffs), which has no corresponding syllogism, and forms the transition from the level of
judgements to that of syllogisms.
Or the judgement and syllogism of existence (Dasein) as they are called in the Science of Logic.
Hegel, Encyclopaedia Logic, x172 Addition, p. 250 (where the translators use ‘object’ as their
rendering of ‘Gegenstand’ as opposed to ‘Objekt’):
Wenn wir sagen: »diese Rose ist rot«, so liegt in der Kopula »ist«, daß Subjekt und
Pra¨dikat miteinander u¨bereinstimmen. Nun ist aber die Rose als ein Konkretes nicht
bloß rot, sonder sie duftet auch, hat eine bestimmte Form und vierlerlei andere
Bestimmungen, die in dem Pra¨dikat »rot« nicht erhalten sind.
(Werke, Vol. VIII, p. 324)
Cf. ibid., x175 Addition, p. 253 [Werke, Vol. VIII, p. 327].
something an individual, because it is only qua individual of a certain kind
that the individual has these properties, and not as a ‘bare’ individual:
[I]t would not make sense to assume that Caius might perhaps be brave,
learned, etc., and yet not be a man. The single human is what he is in
particular, only insofar as he is, first of all, human as such, and within the
universal; and this universal is not just something over and above the other
abstract qualities or mere determinations of reflection, but is rather what
permeates and includes within itself everything particular.40
This then leads to the judgement and syllogism of necessity, where the
particular properties that distinguish one individual from another (e.g. this
straight line from this curved line) are seen as different manifestations of a
shared substance universal (linearity) by virtue of being different particularizations of the way that universals can be (lines are either straight or
curved). Therefore, not only do we see how universality is essential to
particularity (Caius can only be a particular individual if he is a man); we
also see how particularity is essential to universality (Caius cannot be a ‘man
in general’, but must be a determinate example of a man, whose differences
from other men nonetheless do not prevent him exemplifying the same
universal ‘man’).41 At this point, Hegel says, we have arrived at the
Ibid., translation modified:
. . . es keinen Sinn haben wu¨rde, anzunehmen, Gajus ko¨nnte etwa auch nicht Mensch,
aber doch tapfer, gelehrt usw. sein. Was der einzelne Mensch im Besonderen ist, das ist
er nur insofern, als er vor allen Dingen Mensch als solcher ist und im Allgemeinen ist,
und dies Allgemeine ist nicht nur etwas außer und neben anderen abstrakten
Qualita¨ten oder bloßen Reflexionsbestimmungen, sondern vielmehr das alles
Besondere Durchdringende und in sich Beschließende.
(Werke, Vol. VIII, p. 327)
Cf. Hegel, Science of Logic, pp. 36–7:
[E]ach human being though infinitely unique is so primarily because he is a man, and
each individual animal is such an individual primarily because it is an animal: if this is
true, then it would be impossible to say what such an individual could still be if its
foundation were removed, no matter how richly endowed the individual might be with
other predicates, if, that is, this foundation can equally be called a predicate like the
(. . . wie jedes menschliche Individuum, [ob]zwar ein unendlich eigentu¨mliches, das
Prius aller seiner Eigentu¨mlichkeit darin, Mensch zu sein, in sich hat, wie jedes einzelne
Tier das Prius, Tier zu sein, so wa¨re nicht zu sagen, was, wenn diese Grundlage aus
dem mit noch so vielfachen sonstigen Pra¨dikaten Ausgeru¨steten weggenommen
wu¨rde, ob sie gleich wie die anderen ein Pra¨dikat genannt werden kann, – was so ein
Individuum noch sein sollte.)
(Werke, Vol. V, p. 26)
Cf. Hegel, Encyclopaedia Logic, x24 Addition, pp. 56–7:
[I]n speaking of a definite animal, we say that it is [an] ‘animal.’ ‘Animal as such’
cannot be pointed out; only a definite animal can ever be pointed at. ‘The animal’ does
not exist; on the contrary, this expression refers to the universal nature of single
animals, and each existing animal is something that is much more concretely
Concept,42 and the universal as it is now envisaged is truly concrete, in the
following respects:
It is not merely a property, in the sense of being a way an individual may
be: rather, it is what the individual is, in so far as that individual is an
instance of that kind of thing; it is therefore a substance universal (e.g.
‘man’ or ‘rose’) and not a property universal (e.g. ‘red’ or ‘tall’).43
It supports generic propositions, such as statements of natural law (‘human
beings are rational agents’) and normative statements (‘because this person
is irrational, he is a poor example of a human being’); these are therefore
to be distinguished from universally quantified statements (‘all human
beings have earlobes’, ‘all swans are white’), which tell us about the shared
characteristics of a group of individuals, rather than the characteristics
of the kind to which the individuals belong (men qua men are rational).44
determinate, something particularized. But ‘to be animal,’ the kind considered as the
universal, pertains to the determinate animal and constitutes its determinate
essentiality. If we were to deprive a dog of its animality we could not say what it is.
Things as such have a persisting, inner nature, and an external thereness. They live and
die, come to be and pass away; their essentiality, their universality, is the kind, and this
cannot be interpreted merely as something held in common.
(. . . wenn wir von einem bestimmten Tiere sprechen, wir sagen, es sei Tier. Das Tier als
solches ist nicht zu zeigen, sondern nur immer ein bestimmtes. Das Tier existert nicht,
sondern ist die allgemeine Natur der einzelnen Tiere, und jedes existierende Tier ist ein
viel konkreter Bestimmtes, ein Besondertes. Aber Tier zu sein, die Gattung als des
Allgemeine, geho¨rt dem bestimmten Tier an und macht seine bestimmte Wesentlichkeit aus. Nehmen wir das Tiersein vom Hunde weg, so ware nich zu sagen, was er sei.
Die Dinge u¨berhaupt haben eine bleibende, innere Natur und ein a¨ußerliches Dasein.
Sie leben und sterben, entstehen und vergehen; ihre Wesentlichkeit, ihre Allgemeinheit
ist die Gattung, und diese ist nicht bloß als ein Gemeinschaftliches aufzufassen.)
(Werke, Vol. VIII, p. 82)
Cf. ibid., x177 Addition, p. 255: ‘it is the Concept that forms the content of the judgement
henceforth’ [‘und [der Begriff] ist es, welcher nunmehr den Inhalt des Urteils bildet’, Werke, Vol.
VIII, p. 330].
Cf. Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, x456 Addition, p. 209, where Hegel distinguishes the genus as a
concrete universal, from the particular properties of the individual:
This common element is either any one particular side of the object raised to the form
of universality, such as, for example, in the rose, the red colour; or the concrete
universal, the genus, for example, in the rose, the plant.
(Dies Gemeinsame ist entweder irgendeine in die Form der Allgemeinheit erhobene
besondere Seite des Gegenstandes, wie z. B. an der Rose die rote Farbe, oder das
konkret Allgemeine, die Gattung, z. B. an der Rose die Pflanze.)
(Werke, Vol. X, p. 266)
Cf. Hegel, Science of Logic, 649–50:
[With the judgement of necessity] The subject has thus stripped off the form
determination of the judgement of reflection which passed from this through some to
allness; instead of all men we now have to say man . . . What belongs to all the
individuals of a genus belongs to the genus by its nature, is an immediate consequence
and the expression of what we have seen, that the subject, for example all men, strips
off its form determination, and man is to take its place. This intrinsic and explicit
connection constitutes the basis of a new judgement, the judgement of necessity.
It can be exemplified in individuals which have different properties, so
that there need be nothing further in common between these individuals
than the fact they exemplify the same concrete universal (the way in
which one individual is a man may be different from the way in which
another individual is a man).45
Thus, having begun with a characterization of the Concept as the dialectical
interrelation of universality, particularity and individuality, Hegel has
proceeded through a discussion of the types of judgement and syllogism to
lead us back to the Concept and this interrelation, by moving from abstract
to concrete universality. I take this to be vital to Hegel’s conception of
the concrete universal: whereas ‘the abstract universal . . . is opposed to the
particular and the individual’, the concrete universal is not. We can now see
(Das Subjekt hat insofern die Formbestimmung des Reflexionsurteils, welche vom
Diesen durch Einiges zur Allheit hindurchging, abgestreift; statt »alle Menschen« ist
nunmehr zu sagen »der Mensch« . . . »Was allen Einzelnen einer Gattung zukommt,
kommt durch ihre Natur der Gattung zu« – ist eine unmittelbare Konsequenz und der
Ausdruck dessen, was sich vorhin ergab, daß das Subjekt, z. B. alle Menschen, seine
Formbestimmung abstreift und der Mensch dafu¨r zu sagen ist. – Dieser an und fu¨r sich
seiende Zusammenhang macht die Grundlage eines neuen Urteils aus, – des Urteils der
(Werke, VI, pp. 333–5)
Cf. Hegel, Encyclopaedia Logic, x163 Addition, p. 240:
When people speak of the Concept, they ordinarily have only abstract universality in
mind, and consequently the Concept is usually also defined as a general notion. We
speak in this way of the ‘concept’ of colour, or of a plant, or of an animal, and so on;
and these concepts are supposed to arise by omitting the particularities through which
the various colours, plants, animals, etc., are distinguished from one another, and
holding fast to what they have in common. This is the way in which the understanding
apprehends the Concept, and the feeling that such concepts are hollow and empty,
that they are mere schemata and shadows, is justified. What is universal about the
Concept is indeed not just something common against which the particular stands on
its own; instead the universal is what particularizes (specifies) itself, remaining at home
with itself in its other, in unclouded clarity.
(Wenn vom Begriff gesprochen wird, so ist es gewo¨hnlich nur die abstrakte
Allgemeinheit, welche man dabei vor Augen hat, und der Begriff pflegt dann auch
wohl [als] eine allgemeine Vorstellung definiert zu werden. Man spricht demgema¨ß
vom Begriff der Farbe, der Pflanze, des Tieres usw., and diese Begriffe sollen dadurch
entstehen, daß bei Hinweglassung des Besonderen, wodurch sich die verschiedenen
Farben, Pflanzen, Tiere usw. voneinander unterscheiden, das denselben Gemeinschaftliche festgehalten werde. Dies ist die Weise, wie der Verstand den Begriff auffaßt, und
das Gefu¨hl hat recht, wenn es solche Begriffe fu¨r hohl und leer, fu¨r bloße Schemen
und Schatten erkla¨rt. Nun aber ist das Allgemeine des Begriffs nich bloß ein
Gemeinschaftliches, welchem gegenu¨ber das Besondere seinen Bestand fu¨r sich hat,
sondern vielmehr das sich selbst Besondernde (Spezifizierende) und in seinem Anderen
in ungetru¨bter Klarheit bei sich selbst Bleibende.)
(Werke, Vol. VIII, pp. 311–12)
what Hegel means by this claim: A rose is not an individual rose by virtue of
exemplifying the abstract universal ‘red’, whereas it is an individual rose by
virtue of exemplifying the concrete universal ‘rose’ – so the latter is
dialectically related to individuality in the way the former is not; and it
exemplifies the abstract universal ‘red’ in the same way as other red things,
whereas it exemplifies the concrete universal ‘rose’ differently from other
roses, in so far as some roses are scented and others are not, some are
evergreen and others are not, etc. – so the latter is dialectically related to
particularity in the way the former is not. Thus, whereas it may appear that
we can conceive of ‘red’ in abstraction from individuality and particularity,
we cannot conceive of ‘rose’ in this manner, so that this kind of universality
involves ‘the totality of the Concept’ (i.e. the other ‘moments’ of particularity
and individuality) in the way that an abstract universal does not.
Taken in this way, Hegel’s position can be viewed as a distinctive
contribution to the metaphysical discussion concerning universals (though
with echoes of other positions in the tradition, particularly Aristotle’s). The
trouble with abstract universals like ‘red’, Hegel argues, is that instances of
such universals are not individuals in themselves, so that individuals are
reduced to ‘bundles’ of such universals, while difficulties in individuating
these bundles lead to the ‘substratum’ view of objects: but because this
substratum is ‘bare’ (i.e. property-less), it is hard to see how it can do the
individuating job required of it. However, if we recognize that there are also
concrete universals such as ‘man’, we will avoid these problems: for, while
instances of ‘red’ are not individuals, instances of substance universals such
as ‘man’ are; but for this to be the case, it must be possible to exemplify a
universal such as ‘man’ in many different ways, such that each of us can be
a man uniquely, in a way that constitutes our individuality. Hegel thus offers
a way of solving the problem of individuation, without appealing either to
the idea of a ‘bare individual’ or to trope theory (according to which the
universal as it is instantiated in different individuals is not identical between
them, but is a distinct particular in each): while there is nothing more to
the individual than the universals it exemplifies, those universals are a
combination of property and substance universals, so that it is qua man that
I have the particular set of properties that make me into an individual, not
as a bare ‘this’. Unless we recognize Hegel’s way of drawing a distinction
between abstract and concrete universals, this way of solving the problem is
something we will miss.
Hegel’s doctrine of the concrete universal may therefore be summarized as
follows: the individual is no more than an instantiation of universals (there
are no ‘bare’ individuals); but the universals that constitute the individual
are not just property universals, as these just tell us what attributes the
individual has, not what the individual is (so the ‘bundle view’ is false). The
substance universals which constitute the nature of the individual qua
individual do not exist in the abstract, but only as particularized through
property universals, and thus as instantiated in the form of individuals
(so Platonism is false). Therefore, starting from any one of the categories
of the Concept (universality, particularity, individuality), this category can
only be made intelligible in the light of the other two: individuality is
constituted by the particularized substance universal (as an individual, I am
a man with a determinate set of properties that distinguish me from other
men); the substance universal exists only in individuals, through its
particularization (the universal ‘man’ exists in rebus, as instantiated in
different men); and particularity is the differentiation of a substance
universal, whereby it constitutes an individual (it is qua man that I have
the properties that distinguish me from other men). It is the dialectical
interconnection between the three categories which Hegel characterizes as
‘development’, and which he thinks we can obtain only when we conceive of
the universal as ‘concrete’ rather than as merely ‘abstract’, as only then will
we be able to distinguish between substance and property universals in the
way that is required.
Now, if the account I have presented here adequately captures the force of
Hegel’s view of the concrete universal, it should be clear why I earlier denied
that this doctrine commits Hegel to any sort of holistic conception, of the
kind favoured by the British Idealists. While the Concept, as the
interrelation of universality, particularity and individuality, has a holistic
structure, in the sense that (as we have seen) each ‘moment’ is claimed to be
In his early work Ethical Studies, Bradley seems to have made just this the basis of his
conception of the concrete universal, before he came to the more problematic position discussed
in section I: see Ethical Studies, 2nd edn, revised (Oxford, 1927) 162, where he speaks of the ‘the
will which is above ourselves’ as a universal which
is not abstract, since it belongs to its essence that it should be realized, and it has no
real existence except in and through its particulars. The good will (for morality) is
meaningless, if, whatever else it be, it be not the will of living finite beings. It is a
concrete universal, because it not only is above but is within and throughout its
details, and is so far only as they are.
Cf. G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, translated by H. B. Nisbet, edited by
Allen W. Wood (Cambridge, 1991), x260, p. 282:
[In the state] the universal does not attain validity or fulfilment without the interest,
knowledge, and volition of the particular, and . . . individuals do not live as private
persons merely for these particular interests without at the same time directing their
will to a universal end and acting in conscious awareness of this end.
(. . . so daß weder das Allgemeine ohne das besondere Interesse, Wissen und Wollen
gelte und vollbracht werde, noch daß die Individuen bloß fu¨r das letztere als
Privatpersonen leben und nicht zugleich in und fu¨r das Allgemeine wollen und eine
dieses Zwecks bewußte Wirksamkeit haben.)
(Werke, Vol. VII, p. 407)
Even here, however, Bradley’s position begins to take a holistic turn, by way of an organicist
analogy, where Bradley continues:
It is the life which can live only in and by them, as they are dead unless within it; it is
the whole soul which lives so far as the body lives, which makes the body a living
body, and which without the body is as unreal an abstraction as the body without it. It
is an organism and a moral organism; and it is conscious self-realization, because only
by the will of its self-conscious members can the moral organism give itself reality.
only intelligible in relation to the others and through the others, and while
the substance universal characterizes the individual as a whole in a way that
unifies its particular properties, there is no suggestion here that individuals
as such are interrelated by the universal, in the manner of Bradley’s redhaired men. When Royce writes that ‘[the universal ‘man’] is thus konkret in
two senses, namely, in so far as in it all men are together, and in so far as
through it all Qualita¨ten of each man are united’,47 I would accept only the
second of these senses as being part of Hegel’s conception of the concrete
universal, and not the first. It would seem, then, that even if previously (in
section I) it was possible to interpret their position in such a way that there
was no divergence between Hegel’s position on the concrete universal and
that of the British Idealists, there is a genuine divergence here.
It might be said, however, that my argument in the previous section
exaggerates the contrast between Hegel and the British Idealists on this
issue, and that this can be seen by looking at the role both gave to the
concrete universal in their political philosophies, where it was used by both
Hegel and the British Idealists to the same effect – to argue for their organic
or holistic view of the state. It can be argued that this holistic conception of
the concrete universal underpins the British Idealist’s organic conception of
the state, whereby all individuals within the community are said to embody
a common universal that makes them into parts of a whole; and, it might
therefore be argued, Hegel’s social holism (which he and the British Idealists
could be said to share) has a similar basis in this holistic model of the
concrete universal.48
That the British Idealists based their picture of the unity of the state on
something like this holistic conception of the concrete universal is suggested
in several of their writings (although perhaps not as explicitly or strongly as
some of their critics have generally assumed); so, for example, in his
(in)famous discussion of ‘the English nation’ in Essay V of Ethical Studies,
Royce, The Spirit of Modern Philosophy, 501.
For a classic account along these lines, which attributes the social holism of the British
Idealists to the holistic model of the concrete universal that is said to be found in Hegel, see
L. T. Hobhouse, The Metaphysical Theory of the State (London, 1918), esp. pp. 62–6, where
Hobhouse distinguishes this sort of position from his own:
We are contending for individuality, for the irreducible distinction between self and
others, and we have met some of the arguments directed against that distinction. But
now we have admitted a ‘universal’ running through thousands and millions of selves.
This admission, according to the idealist, will be fatal to the separateness which we
have maintained. The universal for him unites the instances which fall under it just in
the manner which we dispute . . . We come, therefore, to that theory of the universal
which, as we said above, underlines the whole question. This theory is due to Hegel.
(ibid., 62)
Bradley appears to contrast the ‘individualism’ that he rejects with a more
holistic model of a community like England, on the grounds that there is an
underlying common nature that unifies its citizens into a whole:
If we suppose then [as Bradley has argued] that the results of the social life of
the race are present in a latent and potential form in the child, can we deny
that they are common property? Can we assert that they are not an element of
sameness in all? Can we say that the individual is this individual, because he is
exclusive, when, if we deduct from him what he includes, he loses
characteristics which make him himself, and when again he does include
what the others include, and therefore does (how can we escape the
consequences?) include in some sense the others also, just as they include
him? By himself, then, what are we to call him? I confess I do not know, unless
we name him a theoretical attempt to isolate what can not be isolated; and
that, I suppose, has, out of our heads, no existence. But what he is really, and
not in mere theory, can be described only as the specification or
particularization of that which is common, which is the same amid diversity,
and without which the ‘individual’ would be so other than he is that we could
not call him the same.49
Here Bradley seems to be using the idea that each individual exemplifies
something common as part of their essential nature (‘the social life of the
race’) to underpin his social holism (his view that ‘the ‘individual’ apart
from the community is an abstraction’50), in a way that could well be taken
to be Hegelian; thus, in so far as Bradley’s view expresses the characteristically holistic view of the concrete universal, so it could be argued that
Hegel’s position has a similar basis.
Likewise, in The Philosophical Theory of the State, Bosanquet argues that
‘the social whole’ has ‘the nature of a continuous self-identical being,
Bradley, Ethical Studies, 170–1.
Ibid., 173. Cf. also ibid., 168–9:
The ‘individual’ man, the man into whose essence his community with others does not
enter, who does not include relations to others in his very being, is, we say, a fiction,
and in the lights of facts we have to examine him . . . It is, I believe, a matter of fact that
at birth the child of one race is not the same as a child of another; that in the children
of the one race there is a certain identity, a developed or undeveloped national type,
which may be hard to recognize, or which at present may even be unrecognizable, but
which nevertheless in some form will appear. If that be the fact, then again we must
say that one English child is in some points, though perhaps it does not as yet show
itself, the same as another. His being is so far common to him with others; he is not a
mere ‘individual’.
It should perhaps be remarked that when he came to revisit Ethical Studies in 1924, Bradley
came to see that what is held in common is perhaps not best thought of along racial lines,
commenting in his notes on the paragraph we have just quoted: ‘Perhaps, but ‘‘race’’ and
‘‘nationality’’ are not conterminous. This paragraph can hardly stand without large
qualification. How far is identity of race an effective bond of union?’
pervading a system of differences and realized only in them’,51 on the
grounds that individuals within the state are ‘the true particularisation of the
human universal’:52 that is, they are each different types of human being
(doctors, workmen, architects and so on), which makes them aspects of the
more general kind, which cannot be embodied individually but only
collectively. Bosanquet uses this idea of ‘the human universal’ to argue that
on the one hand individuals or groups of particular types of individual
cannot ultimately be opposed to one another,53 and that individuals cannot
ultimately be isolated from each other.54
It may thus appear that for British Idealists such as Bradley and
Bosanquet, their holistic view of the concrete universal (as being, in Royce’s
words, ‘a perfectly concrete whole’ in which individuals are ‘embraced’)
provides part of the background to their social holism; and in so far as
Hegel is also a social holist, can it not also be argued that his social holism
incorporates a holistic conception of the concrete universal in a similar
manner? If so, this would imply that my analysis of Hegel’s position in the
previous section is mistaken.
In fact, I think that even in the case of the British Idealists, it is less clear
that the holistic model of the concrete universal straightforwardly underpins
their social holism in the way that this objection assumes; but whatever the
rights and wrongs of that interpretative issue (which we cannot go into fully
here), I think that in the case of Hegel, no such role for the holistic model of
the concrete universal can be found. While I think that it is indeed true that
Hegel is a social holist in a way that involves his conception of the Concept,
and thus his account of universality, particularity and individuality, this is
nonetheless not a holism based on the idea that individuals form parts of a
totality because they share some common nature that holds them together
into a whole: there is consequently no place here for this holistic conception
of the concrete universal. As I see it, the key to Hegel’s holism with regard to
the relations of individuals to the state lies in his account of the will, where
individuals are brought into unity through the structure of the will, rather
than any underlying universal nature (such as ‘Englishness’ or ‘humanity’),
that holds them together qua individuals of the same kind.55
Bernard Bosanquet, ‘The Philosophical Theory of the State’ and Related Essays, reprint
edition, edited by Gerald F. Gaus and William Sweet (South Bend, Indiana, 2001) 174.
Ibid., 176.
Cf. ibid., 169:
Assuming, indeed, that all the groupings are organs of a single pervading life, we find
it incredible that there should ultimately be irreconcilable opposition between them.
That they should contradict one another is not more or less possible than that human
nature should be at variance with itself.
Cf. ibid., 175: ‘[A]ctual individuals are not ultimate or equal embodiments of the true
particulars of the social universal. We thus see once more that the given individual is only in
making, and that his reality may lie largely outside him’.
The case for arguing that the social holism of the British Idealists is also not best seen as being
grounded in the holistic model of the concrete universal would also begin here, with the role
Hegel’s crucial discussion of the will can be found in the ‘Introduction’ to
the Philosophy of Right, xx5–7:
The will contains (a) the element of pure indeterminacy or of the ‘I’’s pure
reflection into itself, in which every limitation, every content . . . is dissolved.
This is the limitless infinity of absolute abstraction or universality, the pure thinking of oneself . . . (b) In the same way, ‘I ’ is the transition from undifferentiated
indeterminacy to differentiation, determination, and the positing of a determinacy
as a content and object . . . Through this positing of itself as something determinate, ‘I’ steps into existence [Dasein] in general – the absolute moment of
the finitude or particularization of the ‘I’. . . (g) The will is the unity of both these
moments – particularity reflected into itself and thereby restored to universality.
It is individuality [Einzelheit], the self-determination of the ‘I’, in that it posits itself
as the negative of itself, that is, as determinate and limited, and at the same time
remains with itself [bei sich], that is, in its identity with itself and universality; and
in this determination, it joins together with itself alone . . . This is the freedom of
the will, which constitutes the concept or substantiality of the will, its gravity, just
as gravity constitutes the substantiality of a body.56
In very brief terms, I take Hegel’s idea here to be this: as a subject, I may view
myself and my will in two ways that are at first apparently opposed to each
other: on the one hand, I can abstract from all my particular projects and
concerns, and see myself in purely universal terms, as just an ‘I’ or universal
subject, not tied to anything determinate, but able to view things from an
utterly universal point of view; but if I do so, I will lose my will, for to act is
always to act in some particular way or other, which thus can never feel like a
proper expression of my universality, so that if I do act, I must always destroy
the product of my action in a cycle of negation – or at least feel that that
they give to the will in underpinning their holism, in a way that I will now ascribe to Hegel: see,
for example, Bosanquet’s discussion of the will in Chap IX of The Philosophical Theory of the
Hegel, Philosophy of Right, xx5–7, pp. 37–41
Der Wille entha¨lt a) das Element der reinen Unbestimmtheit oder der reinen Reflexion
des Ich in sich, in welcher jede Beschra¨nkung, jeder . . . Inhalt aufgelo¨st ist; die
schrankenlose Unendlichkeit der absoluten Abstraktion oder Allgemeinheit, das reine
Denken seiner selbst . . . b) Ebenso ist Ich das U¨bergehen aus underschiedsloser
Unbestimmtheit zur Unterscheidung, Bestimmen und Setzen einer Bestimmtheit als
eines Inhalts und Gegenstands . . . Durch dies Setzen seiner selbst als eines bestimmten
tritt Ich in das Dasein u¨berhaupt; – das absolute Moment der Endlichkeit oder
Besonderung des Ich . . . g) Der Wille ist die Einheit dieser beiden Momente; die in sich
reflektierte und dadurch zur Allgemeinheit zuru¨ckgefu¨hrte Besonderheit; – Einzelheit; die
Selbstbestimmung des Ich, in einem sich als das Negative seiner selbst, na¨mlich als
bestimmt, beschra¨nkt zu setzen und bei sich, d. i. in seiner Identita¨t mit sich und
Allgemeinheit zu bleiben, und in der Bestimmung, sich nur mit sich selbst
zusammenzuschließen . . . Dies ist die Freiheit des Willens, welche seine Begriff oder
Substantialita¨t, seine Schwere so ausmacht wie die Schwere die Sustantialita¨t des
(Werke, Vol. VII, pp. 49–55)
product is not an expression of the ‘real (universal) me’.57 On the other hand,
I can take myself to be nothing but a set of particular projects and concerns,
and so identify myself fully with what makes me not just a pure ‘I’, but the
particular person I am, and the activities of the will that stem from that (I did
this because I am a father, a husband, a teacher, etc.). However, because I can
also go back to the universal standpoint of the ‘I’, it may always come to
seem to me that these particular concerns and projects are merely arbitrary
and ‘given’, and so not worthy expressions of what my will should be as
something more universal (why did I do this to help my children, rather than
children more generally?). I take it that Hegel is saying in x7 that this
oscillation can be brought to a satisfactory end when we see our will as
equally expressing both universality and particularity, such that although my
will is expressive of my particular concerns and projects, these are not merely
mine, but can be recognized as valid from a more universal perspective that
is not just mine, although not one that is so universal, that it regards any
particular action by an individual as compromising to that individual (in
caring for my children, I am not just following my private interests and
desires, but fulfilling a role that fits into a wider framework, whereby a more
universal good can also be realized, and which could not be realized without
the particular concerns of individuals for their own children).
In my view it is essentially this picture of the will that takes Hegel towards
his social holism: for, as the Philosophy of Right argues, it is ultimately only
within the state that the will can be properly realized in this form, for it is
only within the state that there is the right connection between the general
and individual interest, in a way that will enable us to balance the pull of
universality on the one hand and particularity on the other, into a stable
picture of the individual will. Thus, in Hegel’s state, individuals are part of
an interconnected system of mutual dependence regulated for the general
good, so that in acting as a particular will (father, teacher, etc.) my will feeds
into a system that also realizes the good of society as a whole, which raises
my actions beyond ‘mere’ particularity and adds to them an element of
universality, while this universality is not ‘abstract’ because it can only be
realized through each of us taking on a series of determinate projects,
thereby harmonizing both ‘moments’ of the will in the way Hegel thinks
is required, in a way that is characteristic of the concrete universal.58 So,
I have argued elsewhere that this issue is at the heart of Hegel’s diagnosis of the way in which
the French Revolution became the Terror: see Robert Stern, Hegel and the ‘Phenomenology of
Spirit’ (London: Routledge, 2002) 157–68.
Cf. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, x24, pp. 54–5, where Hegel refers to his account of universality
in the Encyclopaedia Logic as part of his discussion of the will, where he says that the free will
‘permeates its determination and is identical with itself in this determination’ (‘durch seine
Bestimmung hindurchgehende Allgemeine, das in ihr mit sich identisch ist’, Werke, Vol. VII,
p. 75) – that is, a will that has a particular content or determination, but for which that
determination is not a limitation on itself, but an expression of its nature (just as Caius is not a
‘limitation’ on the universal man, but a proper realization of it).
Hegel’s social philosophy is indeed holistic, in the sense that for him the
structure of the individual’s will when rightly constituted has ‘moments’ of
universality and particularity, and these moments must be properly realized
for the individual to be free, which is only possible (Hegel believes) within a
shared social project;59 but this is different from saying that what unifies
individuals within the state is some property or universal essence belonging
to them all, that as a result ties them together into a social whole. Thus, in
stemming from Hegel’s social conception of the will, his social holism is not
Cf. ibid., x260, p. 282:
The state is the actuality of concrete freedom. But concrete freedom requires that
personal individuality and its particular interests should reach their full development
and gain recognition of their right for itself (within the system of the family and of civil
society), and that they should, on the one hand, pass over of their own accord into the
interest of the universal, and on the other, knowingly and willingly acknowledge this
universal interest even as their own substantial spirit, and actively pursue it as their
ultimate end. The effect of this is that the universal does not attain validity or
fulfilment without the interest, knowledge, and volition of the particular, and that
individuals do not live as private persons merely for these particular interests without
at the same time directing their will to a universal end and acting in conscious
awareness of this end.
Der Staat ist die Wirklichkeit der konkreten Freiheit; die konkrete Freiheit aber
besteht darin, daß die perso¨nliche Einzelheit und deren besondere Interessen sowohl
ihre vollsta¨ndige Entwicklung und die Anerkennung ihres Rechts fu¨r sich (im Systeme
der Familie und der bu¨rgerlichen Gesellschaft) haben, als sie durch sich selbst in das
Interesse des Allgemeinen teils u¨bergehen, teils mit Wiseen und Willen dasselbe und
zwar als ihren eigenen substantiellen Geist anerkennen und fu¨r dasselbe als ihren
Endzweck ta¨tig sind, so daß weder das Allgemeine ohne das besondere Interesse,
Wissen und Wollen gelte und vollbracht werde, noch daß die Individuen bloß fu¨r das
letztere als Privatpersonen leben und nicht zugleich in und fu¨r das Allgemeine wollen
und eine dieses Zwecks bewußte Wirksamkeit haben.
(Werke, Vol. VII, pp. 406–7)
Cf. also x308, p. 347:
The concrete state is the whole, articulated into its particular circles. Each member of
the state is a member of an estate of this kind, and only in this objective determination
can he be considered in relation to the state. His universal determination in general
includes two moments, for he is a private person and at the same time a thinking being
with consciousness and volition of the universal. But this consciousness and volition
remain empty and lack fulfilment and actual life until they are filled with particularity,
and this is [to be found in] a particular estate and determination. Otherwise, the
individual remains a generic category, but only within the next generic category does
he attain his immanent universal actuality.
(Der konkrete Staat ist das in seine besonderen Kreise gegliederte Ganze; das Mitglied
des Staates ist ein Mitglied eines solchen Standes; nur in dieser seiner objectiven
Bestimmung kann es im Staate in Betracht kommen. Seine allgemeine Bestimmung
u¨berhaupt entha¨lt das gedoppelte Moment, Privatperson und als denkendes ebensosehr
Bewußtsein und Wollen des Allgemeinenzu sein; dieses Bewußtsein und Wollen aber ist
nur dann nich leer, sondern erfu¨llt und wirklich lebendig, wenn es mit der Besonderheit
– und diese ist der besondere Stand und Bestimmung – erfu¨llt ist; oder das Individuum
ist Gattung, hat aber seine immanente allgemeine Wirklichkeit als na¨chste Gattung.)
(Werke, Vol. VII, p. 477)
based on any claim that this unity is grounded in some common nature that
the individuals share, as on the holistic model of the concrete universal.
It might be argued, however, that in emphasizing the role that Hegel gives
to the will, rather than anything like ‘Englishness’ or ‘humanity’, I have not
yet shown that the holistic model of the concrete universal is not operative in
his political philosophy: for (it could be said), does not this conception of
the will involve attributing to individuals a will they possess in common,
where it is this communality that is supposed to underpin their unity, much
as the holistic model of the concrete universal suggests?
It is indeed true that the British Idealists have sometimes been interpreted
in this way. For example, this is how Hobhouse appears to have understood
Bosanquet’s social holism, where Hobhouse focuses on Bosanquet’s
conception of the will, but adopts the holistic model of the concrete
universal in doing so. Thus, he argues that for Bosanquet, because our ‘real
will’ is supposed to be something shared and thus a universal, it makes us
parts of a whole:
But when we pass from the conception of like persons or like selves to a
corporate person or a common self, there is an inevitable transition from
qualitative sameness to the sameness of continuity and numerical unity. The
assumptions are (1) There is in me a real self, my real will, which is opposed to
what I very often am. (2) This real will is what I ought to be as opposed to
what I very often am. (3) There is in you a real will and in every other member
of society a real will. All these real wills are what you and every other member
of society ought to be. In quality and character these real wills are
indistinguishable. They are therefore the same. (4) This sameness constitutes
of all the real wills together one self.60
It might seem, then, that even if I am right to make the will central to
Hegel’s political philosophy, this can be conceived of in a way that still
involves the holistic model of the concrete universal, just as it does
(Hobhouse claims) for an Idealist such as Bosanquet.
However, whatever the justice of this reading of Bosanquet,61 it seems
clear that it would involve a misunderstanding of Hegel’s position, and what
constitutes the ‘universality’ of the will as he conceives it. For, as we have
outlined, for Hegel the will contains a universal moment in so far as each of
us can abstract from particular interests, where what underpins his holism is
then the claim that we cannot prevent that abstraction becoming vicious
except by seeing those interests as forming part of some general social good;
this then provides the social context within which my interests and the
actions that flow from them have a ‘universal’ as well as a ‘particular’ value.
Hobhouse, The Metaphysical Theory of the State, 50.
Hobhouse was of course a hostile witness: for a corrective, see Peter P. Nicholson, The
Political Philosophy of the British Idealists (Cambridge, 1990) 205–221.
This way of moving from the structure of the will to a social holism is clearly
very different from the sort of position envisaged by Hobhouse, and would
thus seem to do without any appeal to the holistic conception of the
concrete universal, of the kind that Hobhouse attributes to Bosanquet.
Even if this much is accepted, however, it might still be said that it cannot
do full justice to the way in which Hegel speaks of the state in organic terms:
for how can different individuals constitute the state as a kind of organism,
unless there is ‘an element of sameness in all’, akin to the ‘single pervading
life’62 that flows through different organs of the body and makes them one?
Does not this conception once more suggest that Hegel had a holistic view of
the concrete universal, as precisely constituting this ‘element of sameness’?
It is important to note here, however, that the primary focus of Hegel’s
discussion of the state in organic terms is the political constitution of the
state. In this context, Hegel talks of the state as an organism not because it is
a whole of which its individual citizens are parts,63 but rather that the
elements that make up the constitution of the state depend on one another
in the way that the categories that comprise the Concept are dependent on
one another.64 Put very simply, this means that while the monarchy is a
Bosanquet, The Philosophical Theory of the State, 169.
Cf. Dudley Knowles’s recent discussion of Hegel’s organicism in his Hegel and the ‘Philosophy
of Right’ (London: Routledge, 2002), 323, where Knowles writes: ‘Citizens are ‘‘not parts, but
members’’, Hegel says (x286R), exploiting the primary sense of Glied as a bodily member or
limb’. But, taken in context, it seems that Hegel is not talking here about individual citizens; for
this context is a discussion of feudal monarchies where ‘vassals, pashas, etc.’ had a role in
‘political business’ and so formed part of the constitution of the state, but in an atomistic way,
because ‘each part [of this political structure] maintains itself alone, and in so doing, it promotes
only itself and not the others along with it, and has within itself the complete set of moments
which it requires for independence and self-sufficiency’ (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, x286, p. 328
[‘So erha¨lt und bringt jeder Teil, indem er sich erha¨lt, nur sich und darin nicht zugleich die
anderen hervor und hat zur unabha¨ngigen Selbsta¨ndigkeit alle Momente vollsta¨ndig an ihm
selbst’, Werke, Vol. VII, pp. 456–7]). In contrasting this structure with an organic one, Hegel is
therefore speaking here about an organic view of the constitutional parts of the state, rather than
of the state in relation to its individual citizens.
The only other place I know of in the Philosophy of Right where an organicist view of citizens in
relation to the state might be found is the Addition to x270, where Hegel expresses the idea that
‘human beings should have respect for the state as a whole of which they are the branches’ (ibid.,
303 [‘daß die Menschen Achtung vor dem Staat, vor diesem Ganzen, dessen Zweige sie sind, haben
sollen’, Werke, Vol. VII, p. 430]). However, even here Hegel is not expressing so much his own view,
but that of a position he is discussing, in the context of a consideration of the relation between the
church and the state. The specific issue is the claim that ‘the state must be founded on religion’,
where the proponent of this view may mean by this not that they can thereby be better oppressed by
the state, but brought to have respect for it ‘as that whole of which they are branches’, which Hegel
(not surprisingly) thinks is a better way of conceiving of the role of religion.
Cf. ibid., x272 Addition, p. 307:
W]hile the powers of the state must certainly be distinguished, each must form a whole
in itself and contain the other moments within it. When we speak of the distinct
activities of these powers, we must not fall into the monumental error of taking this to
mean that each power should exist independently and in abstraction; on the contrary,
the powers should be distinguished only as moments of the concep.
manifestation of individuality, the executive is a manifestation of
particularity, and the legislature is a manifestation of universality, each
also embodies aspects of the other ‘moments’ (so, for example, the monarch
acts as an individual, but in his person represents the universal interest,
where that interest involves the interest of a state comprising different
particular groups). Thus, the conception of the universal that Hegel is using
here is concrete in the sense that it cannot be conceived as something
separable from the categories of particularity and individuality, but not in
the sense that it somehow ties together individuals into a totality, as might
be suggested if we read Hegel as the British Idealists are sometimes read, as
basing their social holism on the holistic model of the concrete universal.
Looking at the accounts of the concrete universal associated with the British
Idealists that we have considered so far, therefore, we have found little reason
to take these accounts to be genuinely Hegelian; and while Hegel’s position
could be said to have philosophical value in offering a potential solution to
certain familiar metaphysical problems (concerning the question of individuation, or the relation between substances and their attributes, for
example),65 the conceptions of the concrete universal taken from the British
Idealists that we have discussed up to now may only seem to be of interest to
those few with a commitment to their characteristic philosophical views (such
(Die Gewalten des Staates mu¨ssen so allerdings unterschieden sein, aber jede muß an
sich selbst ein Ganzes bilden und die anderen Momente in sich enthalten. Wenn man
von der underschiedenen Wirksamkeit der Gewalten spricht, muß man nicht in den
ungeheuren Irrtum verfallen, dies so anzuhnehmen, als wenn jede Gewalt fu¨r sich
abstract dastehen sollte, da die Gwalten vielmehr nur als Momente des Begriffs
unterschieden sein sollen.)
(Werke, Vol. VII, pp. 434–5)
And x272, p. 305:
The constitution is rational in so far as the state differentiates and determines its
activity within itself in accordance with the nature of the concept. It does so in such a
way that each of the powers in question is in itself the totality, since each contains the
other moments and has them active within it, and since all of them, as expressions of
the differentiation of the concept, remain wholly within itself ideality and constitute
nothing but a single individual whole.
(Die Verfassung ist venu¨nftig, insofern der Staat seine Wirksamkeit nach der Natur des
Begriffs in sich unterscheidet und bestimmt, und zwar so, daß jede dieser Gewalten
selbst in sich die Totalita¨t dadurch ist, daß sie die anderen Momente in sich wirksam
hat und entha¨lt und daß sie, weil sie den Underschied des Begriffs ausdru¨cken,
schlechthin in seiner Idealita¨t bleiben und nur ein individualles Ganzes ausmachen)
(Werke, Vol. VII, p. 432)
For further discussion, see my ‘Individual Existence and the Philosophy of Difference’, in
Oxford Handbook to Continental Philosophy, edited by Brian Leiter and Michael Rosen
(Oxford, 2007).
as ontological holism or monism). However, if we dig a little deeper, we will
find a way to connect Hegel’s position as I have outlined it to the thinking of
some of the British Idealists, and to see that the questions and issues that drew
them to the doctrine of the concrete universal in this properly Hegelian form
are not as alien to us as may have appeared hitherto.
Where a doctrine of the concrete universal emerges that is close to the one I
have attributed to Hegel, is in the way that some of the British Idealists sought
to attack empiricist claims concerning ‘the abstractness of thought’. This
issue, which was of widespread concern, has several different aspects. The first
is epistemological: thought has only a subordinate role to play in knowledge,
because our primary engagement with the world comes directly through the
senses, from which thought abstracts. The second is psychological: the
general ideas through which we think about the world are generated via a
process of abstraction from the simple ideas we acquire through sensible
experience. The third is logical: logical thought involves ever more
abstraction, as we move away from the content of our experience into higher
and higher levels of generality. And the fourth might be termed ‘existential’:
thought leads us into a realm of unreal abstractions, away from the concrete
reality of lived experience and an immediate grasp of things in their unique
individuality. To many of the Idealists, this conception of the abstractness of
thought was mistaken; to quote a summary of their position: ‘[T]hought is
essentially a process of concretion, not a process of abstraction from an
experience which, as given, is already concrete’.66 As we shall show, it is when
addressing this issue that a number of the British Idealists67 come closest to
adopting the Hegelian doctrine of the concrete universal as characterized
above, and in a way that shows that doctrine to have contemporary interest.
We can see most clearly how the attack on the thesis that thought involves
abstraction enabled a properly Hegelian doctrine of the concrete universal to
emerge by looking in some detail at one of the first British Idealists to launch
such an attack, namely T. H. Green. Green outlines the abstractionist picture
of thought, with its various problematic dimensions, as follows:
Give sensation this first inch, and it takes an ell. If sense gives a knowledge of
properties, nothing remains for thought but to abstract and combine them,
and it is vain then to re-assert for the data of thought, for its abstractions and
‘mixed modes,’ the dignity of the ‘things themselves.’ Thought has abdicated
George H. Sabine, ‘The Concreteness of Thought’, Philosophical Review, 16 (1907) No. 2:
154–69, esp. p. 154.
The question of whether Bradley is an exception here is too complex to be dealt with properly
in what follows: for on the one hand, while Bradley may seem to be more insistent than other
Idealist writers on the abstractive nature of thought, and thus more pessimistic about its
capacity to grasp the unique individuality of reality, he nonetheless also seems to have shared
their view that thought is required in order to give experience a particular content, where this
once again relies on a non-abstractionist account of our concepts. For an enlightening
discussion of these issues, see Phillip Ferreira, Bradley and the Structure of Knowledge (Albany,
1999), where 41–4 are particularly relevant to the themes of this paper.
its proper prerogatives. It has admitted that experience is something given to it
from without, not that in which it comes to itself. It inevitably follows that in
what it does for itself, when not simply receptive of experience, it is merely
draining away in narrower and more remote channels the fulness of the real
world. We cannot know by abstraction, for properties must be known before
they can be abstracted. If thought, then, is a process of abstraction – as it is
according to the Aristotelian logic – we think by other methods than we know.
Thought, therefore, cannot give us knowledge, but only lead us away from it.68
The main focus of Green’s attack on this picture is the ‘popular philosophy’
of ‘Locke and his followers’,69 where abstraction was seen to play a role
both in Locke’s epistemology and his psychology. Beginning from a stock of
simple ideas delivered by sensory perception, Locke argued that the mind
can then form complex ideas by abstraction from more or less resembling
simple ideas, where the complex idea lacks features which distinguish the
latter from one another. This account thus makes sensory experience a prior
and independent source of knowledge, to which thought is subordinate. It
also allows Locke to adopt a nominalist or ‘particularist’ view of properties,
kinds and relations: for Locke holds that at the level of the senses or simple
ideas, what we experience is not identity, but merely resemblances; but when
the mind comes to form complex ideas, the differences are abstracted away,
so we come to believe that properties, kinds and relations are the same, and
thus come to attribute universality to them to explain this, when in fact what
we are explaining is a shadow of our capacity for abstraction, rather than a
genuine feature of the world. On this basis, Locke can conclude that ‘All
things, that exist, [are] Particulars’,70 and it is only the abstractionist
processes of thought that make us believe otherwise.
As is well known, Green believed that everything in this Lockean picture
was mistaken, and that if accepted, it lead to disastrous philosophical results
(illustrated, Green held, in the scepticism of Hume, who carried the Lockean
programme through to its logical, but absurd, conclusions). Locke’s
essential error, Green argued, was that he took for granted a dualistic
conception of feeling and thought, treating the former as a source of
knowledge that was independent of and prior to the latter, on which we
must rely to provide us with direct and immediate access to reality. Green
held that this position had seemed intelligible to Locke because he thought
our senses could provide us with experience of particular properties in the
world and thus provide us with simple ideas corresponding to these
properties, prior to thought’s merely abstractive role in forming complex
T. H. Green, ‘The Philosophy of Aristotle’, in Works of Thomas Hill Green, edited by R. L.
Nettleship, 3 vols (London, 1885–1888), Vol. III, pp. 46–91, esp. pp. 61–2.
Green, ‘The Philosophy of Aristotle’, 48.
John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Peter H. Nidditch
(Oxford, 1975), Book III, Chapter III, x1, p. 409.
ideas; but, Green argued, without complex ideas, we could not pick out
objects and relations, and thus our sense experience would not be of
properties at all, but of sensations lacking the kind of content which Locke
requires to make his abstractionist story intelligible. Thus, according to
Green, there is no way Locke can coherently adopt his abstractionist
account of thought: either Locke allows thought a role in providing
experience with sufficient content from which abstraction might be possible,
but then he must allow that thought does more than merely abstract; or he
must confine thought’s role to an abstractionist one, but then rob sensory
experience of the kind of content needed to make abstraction possible.
Green argues, therefore, that ‘where [Locke] speaks of general ideas as
formed by abstraction of certain qualities from real things, or of certain
ideas from other ideas which accompany them in real existence’, ‘[s]uch a
notion of the really existing thing’ cannot be arrived at via abstraction,
because this something ‘Locke [already] has before him’ as without this
notion, we could not have formed the idea of qualities from which the
process of abstraction is meant to begin. Green makes this clear in his
criticism of Locke’s well-known account of how we form the complex idea
of ‘gold’:
[Locke says] ‘When some one first lit on a parcel of that sort of substance we
denote by the word gold . . . its peculiar colour, perhaps, and weight were the
first he abstracted from it, to make the complex idea of that species . . . another
perhaps added to these the ideas of fusibility and fixedness . . . another its
ductility and solubility in aqua regia. These, or part of these, put together,
usually make the complex idea in men’s minds of that sort of body we call
gold’. ([An Essay Concerning Human Understanding], Bk II. Ch. xxxi. x. 9)
Here the supposition is that a thing, multitudinously qualified, is given apart
from any action of the understanding, which then proceeds to act in the way of
successively detaching (‘abstracting’) these qualities and recombining them as
the idea of a species. Such a recombination, indeed, would seem but wasted
labour. The qualities are assumed to be already found by the understanding
and found as in a thing; otherwise the understanding could not abstract them
from it. Why should it then painfully put together in imperfect combination
what has been previously been given to it complete? Of the complex idea which
results from the work of abstraction, nothing can be said but a small part of
what is predicable of the known thing which the possibility of such abstraction
Green thus holds that Locke’s position is fundamentally incoherent, where
this incoherence stems from the dualistic conception of thought and feeling
which it adopts. For Green, thought cannot be conceived as making a
T. H. Green, ‘Introductions to Hume’s ‘Treatise of Human Nature’’, Works, Vol. I, pp. 1–371,
esp. pp. 37–8.
separate contribution to our knowledge of the world from that of feeling,
because both are equally required in order to have experience, a fact that
Locke’s abstractionist model obscures:
The ‘sensible thing’ thus reappears, no longer, however, as a ‘sensibile’ but as a
‘cogitabile,’ not as a complex of attributes, but as the emptiest of abstractions.
The antithesis between thought, as that in which we are active, and experience,
as that in which we are simply receptive, vanishes, for thought appears as a
factor in experience even in its remotest germs. Thought again appears as a
process of concretion, at least as much as of abstraction.72
Having sketched Green’s general argument against abstractionism, how
might this have led him to adopt a conception of the concrete universal that
is more properly Hegelian than any we have so far discussed? I think we can
see how, by looking at his early essay ‘The Philosophy of Aristotle’ (first
published in the North British Review in September 1866), which was to lay
the groundwork for much of his subsequent thought. Green begins that essay
by first criticizing Locke, along the lines we have discussed; but he traces the
source of Locke’s position to one side of the intellectual legacy left by Plato
and Aristotle, while arguing that another side of that legacy could have
prevented anything like Lockean empiricism emerging, if it had been
properly developed. Green therefore claims that ‘we may distinguish two
really inconsistent theories of knowledge running through Greek philosophy’,73 one with affinities to Locke’s, and one antithetical to it and closer to
his own; and the source of this inconsistency in their position lies in the fact
that Plato and Aristotle saw universality in both abstract and concrete terms.
Thus, on the one hand, Green argues, Plato and Aristotle had a superficial
view of universality, because they saw the universal in terms of the property
or properties that enable us to group individuals into a class on the basis of
their perceptible similarities – so, for example, on this view, ‘the essence of
an acid will be that it sets the teeth on edge, that being the obvious property
by which the sensation is first defined in thought, and which is thus
associated with its name’.74 However, Green remarks, ‘[b]y the identification
of the universal with a class, the true view of it is lost as soon as it is
gained’,75 because then the universal can only come to seem accidental to the
individual, and as such the latter is treated as ontologically distinct from the
former, as a ‘bare individual’ accessible to the senses alone:
By such a process [the] emptiness [of the universal] becomes yet more empty,
and meanwhile the individual thing is asserting its independence. Instead of
Green, ‘The Philosophy of Aristotle’, 52.
Ibid., 53.
Ibid., 57.
being regarded as that which becomes universal so soon as it is judged of or
known, in virtue of the property under which it is known, it is connected with
the universal as a thing with the class to which it belongs. In this position it is
vain to deny its [i.e. the individual’s] priority and independence. Thus
individuals come to be regarded as one set of knowable things, universals
another. But the ‘sensible,’ according to the ideal theory, is the merely
individual. It is so because it is in no determinate relation to anything else, and
therefore nothing positive. The mere individual, however, having by the wrong
path just traced been raised to the position of a real entity, the ‘sensible’ is so
raised likewise. The ideal theory has built again that which it destroyed, and
the sensible thing becomes, as such, the determinate subject of properties.76
On this account, then, one side of the Platonic and Aristotelian picture of
the universal is responsible for leading to the metaphysics of the ‘bare
individual’ and to the priority of sensation over thought, where the
argument behind this account is recognizably Hegelian: once our view of
universality is ‘abstract’ and hence allows for the possibility that
individuality might be something over and above universality, giving this
individuality ‘priority and independence’, the notion of the ‘bare individual’
will inevitably emerge, and with it the idea of treating ‘apprehension’ as
prior to and separable from ‘comprehension’, ‘sensation’ from ‘thought’.77
It is this side of the Platonic and Aristotelian position that Green sees as
leading to the emergence of full-blown nominalism, and thus eventually to
the Lockean position:
The fault of this crude ‘realism,’ it will be observed, whether Platonic,
Aristotelian, or scholastic, is that it is virtually nominalism. It holds the
universal to be real, but it finds the universal simply in the meaning of a
name . . . [T]he realism of the ancient logic, taking for its reality the species
denoted by a common noun, is doubly at fault. It makes its universal a class
instead of a relation, and it takes as the essential attributes of the class those
only which are connoted by its name, i.e. the most superficial. Having thus
begun with a meagre conception as its first reality, it passes on in its process
of abstraction to which is more meagre still, ending in that which has no
properties at all.78
However, Green argues, there is another side to the Platonic and
Aristotelian position, which suggests a different picture, and ‘a more
thorough and therefore truer idealism’.79 This can be seen, Green claims, in
Aristotle’s theory of matter: for, while on the one hand Aristotle treats
Cf. the account of Hegel’s argument concerning sense-certainty offered above, in section I.
Green, ‘The Philosophy of Aristotle’, 60–1.
Ibid., 62.
matter as the ‘substratum’ underlying the properties and relations of the
individual, on the other hand he treats the individual as the particularization
of the universal, so that the matter out of which the individual is formed is
not inaccessible to thought:
According to [the first view], ‘matter’ is constituted by the individual things
which ‘are nearest the sense,’ and from which thought abstracts the
properties which constitute the ‘form’ or species. By a further abstraction
of properties the ‘genus’ – ultimately the ‘summum genus’ – is arrived at,
which thus stands at the end of the process farthest from ‘matter.’ In the
‘Metaphysics,’ on the other hand, the ‘summum genus’ itself appears as the
‘matter’ which is formed by successive differentiae till the most determinate
complex of attributes has been reached. Here we see that matter has changed
As a result of this turn-around, Green argues, ‘[t]he process of thought
appears as one not of abstraction but of concretion’, for now the individual
is no longer a bare unit, but a unity of differences, a centre of manifold
relations, a subject of properties. It is not an ‘abstract universal’, but it has an
element of universality in virtue of which it can be brought into relation to all
things else. Its universality is the condition of its particularisation.81
Despite what he takes to be the nominalistic tendencies of the Aristotelian
position, therefore, Green also sees in it the seeds of something more like the
conception we have found in Hegel, where he makes clear that he shares this
conception, and that the correct picture is one that views universality and
individuality as mutually dependent notions:
‘Substance,’ as the outward thing . . . is individual or exclusive of all things but
itself; otherwise it would be no object of definite knowledge. But it is not
merely individual. If it were, it would be, as it is sometimes presented to us by
Aristotle, an indeterminate, and therefore unknowable ‘matter’. . . It is an
individual universalised through its particular relations or qualities. Here
again the process may be reversed. If there is no universal element in things
known, there can be no unity of knowledge or community of thought. But this
universal is not merely such. If it were ‘ever the same,’ so as to be void of all
distinction, like the shadowy goal of the Platonic dialectic, it would be, as it in
turn is exhibited by Aristotle, the indeterminate and unknowable. It must be
that which is the negation of all particular relations so as to be determined by
the sum of them. In virtue of this negative relation, as identical with itself in
exclusion of all things, it is individual. It is a universal individualized through
its particularity. Thus we see that the pr
otZ osı´ a, or individual substance,
Ibid., 63.
and the deut¼ra osı´ a, or essence constituted by general attributes, are not to
be placed, as Aristotle placed them, over-against each other, as if one
excluded, or even could be present without, the other. They are as necessarily
correlative as subject and object, as the self and the world. Each, by its native
energy, which is the hidden ‘spontaneity’ of thought, necessarily creates its
opposite. Nor is one, as Aristotle supposed, in any special sense ‘matter,’ the
other ‘form.’ Each, taken by itself, is matter, as the indeterminate and negation
of the knowable. Each, again, so taken, is matter, as the ‘subject’
(pokeı´ menon), receptive of a form – of a form, however, not imposed from
without, but projected from within. Each, lastly, may be regarded either as a
void ‘substratum,’ or as a complex of attributes, according as it is isolated or
regarded in the realisation which it only attains by passing into its opposite.82
In a passage such as this, therefore, we have uncovered a conception of the
universal employed by one of the British Idealists which I think has a claim
to be viewed as genuinely Hegelian,83 where the motivation behind it also
connects to a recognizable set of epistemological concerns: for, what leads
Green to claim that ‘an individual [is] universalised through its particular
relations and qualities’, while ‘a universal [is] individualised through its
particularity’ is not a commitment to holism or the metaphysics of the
Absolute, but a rejection of the kind of metaphysical picture that might
make empiricist claims concerning the ‘abstractness of thought’ in relation
to the ‘concreteness of sense’ seem coherent.
Moreover, seen in the light of this issue, other prominent Idealists can
also be viewed as being closer to the Hegelian conception of the concrete
universal than was apparent hitherto. In Bosanquet, for example, concern
with the ‘abstractness of thought’ was predominantly a question that
involved the status of logic, as Passmore has observed:
The Idealist opponents of logic, Bosanquet argued, did not know what logic is.
For them, Ward for example, logical thinking is the process of working
towards ever emptier abstractions, departing from the concreteness of
everyday life into a world of general formulae which completely fail to convey
the richness and diversity of our everyday experiences. But to think of logic
thus, Bosanquet protested, is to set up the abstract, rather than the concrete,
universal as the logical ideal.84
Ibid., 70–1.
For an account of Green’s awareness of Hegel’s thought at the time of this essay on Aristotle,
and some discussion of how that awareness may have influenced it (though with no mention of
Hegel’s conception of the concrete universal) see Ben Wempe, T. H. Green’s Theory of Positive
Freedom: From Metaphysics to Political Theory (Exeter, 2004) Ch. 1.
John Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy, 2nd edn (Harmondsworth, 1966), 86. Cf.
Green, ‘The Philosophy of Aristotle’, pp. 58–9, where Green is critical of the logical methods of
Plato, Aristotle, and the ‘scholastic syllogism’, for enshrining this view of logic, for example in
the ‘logical tree’ of Porphyry.
Like Green, Bosanquet therefore opposed ‘[t]he tradition of the British
school’, which ‘start[s] from a theory for which thought is decaying sense’,
so that on this view, ‘thought is an abstracting and generalising faculty, and
science is a departure from our factual experience’.85 Against this view,
Bosanquet argues that ‘it is thought which constructs and sustains the fabric
of experience, and . . . it is thought-determinations which invest even senseperception with its value and meaning’.86 Thus, although he allows that
thought ‘presses beyond the given, following the ‘‘what’’ beyond the limits
of the ‘‘that’’’, the bare individual is unintelligible as a mere ‘‘something’’, so
that ‘in following the ‘what’ [thought] tends always to return to a fuller
‘that’’;87 universality of thought is therefore seen to take nothing away from
the individuality of the given, but in fact as enabling that individuality to be
made determinate:
[A]s constituting a world [thought] tends to return to the full depth and
roundness of experience from which its first step was to depart. In a ‘world,’ a
‘concrete universal,’ we do not lose directness and significance as we depart
from primary experience; on the contrary, every detail has gained incalculably
in vividness and meaning, by reason of the intricate interpenetration and
interconnection, through which thought has developed its possibilities of
‘being.’ The watchword of concrete thinking is ‘Philosophiren ist dephlegmatisiren, vivificiren.’88
Bosanquet thus uses the emptiness of the ‘that’ in relation to the ‘what’ to
argue against the abstractionist picture of thought in general and of logic in
It is important that we should dismiss the notion that the higher degrees of
knowledge are necessarily and in the nature of intelligence framed out of
abstractions that omit whatever has interest and peculiarity in the real world.
Nothing has been more fatal to the truth and vitality of ideas than this
prejudice . . . If the present reaction against formal logic should end in
establishing a more vital conception of universality than that which sets it
down to mere abstraction, a fundamental reform will have been made in
philosophical first principles.89
Bosanquet, The Principle of Individuality and Value, 54–5.
Ibid., 55.
Ibid., 55–6. The slogan ‘Philosophistisiren ist dephlegmatisiren – Vivificiren’ is taken from
Novalis: see ‘Logologischen Fragmenten’, No. 15; Novalis, Schriften. Die Werke Friedrich von
Hardenbergs, edited by Paul Luckhohn and Richard Samuel, 6 vols, 3rd edn (Stuttgart, 1977– )
Vol. II, p. 526.
Bernard Bosanquet, Logic, or the Morphology of Knowledge, 2 vols, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1911)
Vol. I, pp. 60–1. Cf. also Essentials of Logic, 94–7. For further discussion of this aspect of
Bosanquet’s view, see Mander, ‘Bosanquet and the Concrete Universal’, 298–300 and 303–7,
Like Bosanquet, Richard Lewis Nettleship also cites Novalis’s dictum to
argue against the abstractness of thought, paraphrasing it as follows: ‘to
philosophise is to get rid of one’s phlegm, to acquire a vivid consciousness of
some aspect of reality’.90 His argument here again relies on the claim that
universality and individuality are dialectically interrelated: ‘when we say
that all concepts are general, we must add that no concept is ‘‘general’’ if this
means that it is not individual. The most general concept in the world has its
own unique individuality’.91 Nettleship argues that to have a concept such
as ‘triangle’ is not to have a general idea in which all particularity is lost, as
having the concept requires us to see that there can be different types of
triangle, and that these types can all be exemplified in different ways, down
to the individual, so that thought can grasp universals like ‘triangle’ without
losing sight of individuality:
Taking the generality of a concept in this sense, we cannot properly say that
the general concept is ‘got by abstraction,’ for this concept is not made general
by being abstracted, its generality means its capability of being abstracted.
Nor can we properly say that it is abstracted from particulars; for its generality
does not exclude, but implies, particularity.92
Another related, but more complex case, is that of McTaggart. On the one
hand, McTaggart did not use the terminology of the ‘concrete universal’,
and so may appear to be uninfluenced by Hegel’s thinking on this issue. On
the other hand, in his conception of substances and their individuation,
McTaggart adopted something very like what I have characterized as the
Hegelian view, offering an account that (like Green’s) follows Hegel in
rejecting both bundle and substratum views. Thus, while McTaggart refuses
to reduce an individual to a collection of properties (as on the bundle view),
he holds that an individual cannot exist in abstraction from its properties (as
on the substratum view);93 and as a result (like Hegel) he defends Leibniz’s
principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles (which McTaggart re-labels ‘the
Dissimilarity of the Diverse’),94 as it is on the basis of their divergent
properties that substances come to be individuated. In these respects, we can
now see, McTaggart’s thought has aspects that related to Hegel’s treatment
and W. J. Mander, ‘Life and Finite Individuality: The Bosanquet/Pringle-Pattison Debate’,
British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 13 (2005) No. 1: 111 – 30, esp. section V.
Nettleship, Philosophical Remains, 128.
Ibid., 226.
Ibid., 222.
J. McT. E. McTaggart, The Nature of Existence, edited by C. D. Broad, 2 vols (Cambridge,
1927) Vol. I, Ch. VI. For helpful discussion of McTaggart’s position, see P. T. Geach, Truth,
Love and Immortality: An Introduction to McTaggart’s Philosophy (Berkeley and Los Angeles,
1979) Ch. III.
McTaggart, The Nature of Existence, Vol. I, Chap X. Cf. Hegel, Science of Logic, 422–4
(Werke, Vol. VI, pp. 52–5).
of the concrete universal; however, he perhaps did not express himself in
these terms because he accepted a simpler set of categories than Hegel, and
so did not adopt the distinction between property universals and substance
universal on which (as we have seen) Hegel’s distinction between abstract
and concrete universals is based.95
As a final example, we can briefly consider one of the later Idealists,
Brand Blanshard.96 In Chapters XVI and XVII of The Nature of Thought,
Blanshard also criticizes the abstractionist picture of general ideas, in a way
that is now familiar:
It is often said that we reach such ideas by ‘abstracting from particular things
what they have in common’. But we have seen that these ‘particular things’ are
from the beginning more than particulars, that even to perceive a thing is to
perceive it as something, and hence to use the very generality supposed to be
reached by later abstraction.97
However, if it is only as a thing of a certain type that the individual can be
perceived, and that type is a universal, how is this compatible with the
individuality of the thing? This problem arises, Blanshard argues, if the
universal is treated as ‘an element that remains precisely the same through
all its instances, an element that, like a Ford part, can be removed from one
context and used in another without the slightest modification’,98 in the
manner of an abstract universal. Against this, however, Blanshard argues
that the universal can be concrete, by which he means that it can retain its
identity even while being particularized in one way rather than another, and
that nothing more than this is required to constitute the individual:
The universal, far from being a separable element, is thus so sunk in its
differentiations that without them it would be nothing. The converse relation
As Geach observes:
McTaggart accepted from the contemporary Cambridge jargon a simple dichotomy of
characteristics into qualities and relations: any characteristic expressed by a one-place
predicate is a quality. This is a drastic simplification of the Aristotelian categories,
cutting the list down by omission of several members.
(Truth, Love and Immortality, 48)
Similar themes are also to be found in Collingwood: cf. his discussion of ‘the point of view of
concrete thought’ in Collingwood, Speculum Mentis, pp. 159ff.
Brand Blanshard, The Nature of Thought, 2 vols (London, 1939) Vol. I, p. 571. Cf. also ibid,
pp. 613–14:
To appropriate means, at the least, to identify, and to identify means to find in
something the embodiment of a universal . . . [I]f the thing did not present itself as the
specification of any universal whatever, if it were a thing of no kind at all, I could not
so much as perceive it. In all knowledge universals are being realized. And to grow in
knowledge is to exchange a more generic grasp for a more specific. It is a movement in
which the indefinite defines itself, the potential realizes itself, the relatively formless
gains body and outline.
Ibid., 576.
is, if anything, clearer still. Take away from the various figures what makes
them figures and nothing remains. It may be said that lines might still exist,
even if they did not enter into figures. But such lines would not be these lines,
for these are the sides of a figure, and if figure went, they too would go. Thus,
just as figure has being only in its differentiations, so these have being only as
differentiations of it.99
We have found, then, that there is a constant thread running through the
thought of the Anglo-American idealists, and the origins of that thread can
be traced back to Hegel.100 Thus, while not everything these Idealists say
about the concrete universal makes sense in Hegelian terms (at least, given
my reading of Hegel), a central part of their conception does. Moreover, we
have seen that the issues behind that conception are not in fact alien to us,
but relate directly to debates concerning the content of experience, and the
metaphysical implications of the claim that this content is conceptual all the
way down: the doctrine of the concrete universal, therefore, perhaps
deserves to be seen as a live option in that debate, and not the peculiar piece
of exotica it is so often presented as being.101
University of Sheffield
Ibid., 584.
I would not want to claim that the influence of Hegel here is always direct: it is doubtless
often mediated by other figures who helped to shape Anglo-American Idealism, such as Lotze
and Sigwart, for whom the Hegelian conception also played an important role; but that story
cannot be explored here.
I have presented versions of this paper at the 2004 conference of the Hegel Society of Great
Britain; at departmental seminars at Sheffield and York; and at the History of Political Thought
Seminar at Cambridge; I am grateful to those who made helpful comments on these occasions. I
am also grateful to Fraser MacBride and Peter Nicholson, and to an anonymous referee for this
journal, for a number of suggestions that led to improvements to the text. I would also like to
acknowledge the support of the Arts and Humanties Research Council, for funding the research
leave during which this paper was largely written.