From Absolute Idealism to Analytic Philosophy, Part 1

In this post, I plan to give a brief historical sketch of the movement from nineteenth century absolute idealism to twentieth century analytic philosophy. In a follow-up post, I will survey the response Cornelius Van Til gave to absolute idealism, and then examine the analytic tradition in light of Van Til’s Reformed insights.

Absolute idealism held a tempestuous sway over philosophy in Britain, America, and the European continent during the nineteenth century. This philosophical system was initiated by the prominent German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), and then further developed by philosophers like F. H. Bradley (1846–1881), J. M. E. McTaggart (1866–1925), and Josiah Royce (1855–1916). Absolute idealism’s central tenet was that all of reality is a single mental subject. The absolute idealists’ metaphysic—their theory about the nature of ultimate reality—was tied to a distinctive epistemology or theory of knowledge. They believed that reason was the proper source of knowledge, not empirical observation. Whenever we sensibly experience an object as having spatiotemporal location or some other physical property “we are perceiving it more or less as it really is not.” Rationally consider any particular thing, the absolute idealists taught, and you will rather find that that thing is necessarily involved in a higher, all-inclusive, organic thought-complex.

Just as soon as absolute idealism reached its highest point of influence, two of its most promising young practitioners, G. E. Moore (1873–1958) and Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), proposed a decisive revolt. This revolt at the start of the twentieth century constituted the beginnings of what is known today as the analytic school of philosophy.

Analytic philosophy’s defining characteristic was its rigorous commonsense philosophical method. Analytic philosophers usually dealt with individual problems, and attempted to solve those problems by appealing to logic, intuition, and experience. For example, G. E. Moore in his essay, “Proof of an External World,” famously argued that he had two hands by gesturing with them while saying, “Here is one hand and here is another.”

Analytic philosophers also put a premium on linguistic clarity, primarily because of the ambiguity that they thought riddled the writings of absolute idealists. Analytic philosopher John Searle points out that as a result “for most of the twentieth century the philosophy of language was ‘first philosophy.’ Other branches of philosophy were seen as derived from the philosophy of language and dependent on the results in the philosophy of language for their solutions.”

Near the end of the twentieth century, another philosophical shift occurred, this time from within analytic philosophy itself. The philosophical method of analytic philosophy remained, but, to use once more the words of John Searle, “the center of attention has now moved from language to mind.” One of the many reasons Searle gives for this recent development is that numerous philosophers “working in the philosophy of language see many of the questions of language as special cases of questions about the mind.” Searle also mentions another likely culprit for the recent reorientation of the philosophical disciplines:

For many of us, myself included, the central question in philosophy at the beginning of the twenty-first century is how to give an account of ourselves as apparently conscious, mindful, free, rational, speaking, social, and political agents in a world that science tells us consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, physical particles. (p. 7)

Although it should be debated whether empirical science truly supports the weighty doctrine of materialism, many analytic philosophers follow Searle in thinking that it does. So, in Searle’s circles, he has sufficient justification for writing his book, Mind, wherein he attempts to give a materialistic explanation of the mental. Searle’s whole project is to account for how we can have meaningful mental capabilities as purely material agents, and this requires for Searle to account for human freedom. But Searle cannot account for human freedom, he says so himself: “We really do not know how free will exists in the brain, if it exists at all. We do not know why or how evolution has given us the unshakable conviction of free will. We do not, in short, know how it could possibly work. But we also know that the conviction of our own freedom is inescapable. We cannot act except under the presupposition of freedom” (p. 164).

As has been the case throughout the history of philosophy, we have come full-circle. At the beginning of the twentieth century, analytic philosophers revolted against absolute idealism, along with its insistence upon the mental nature of ultimate reality, in order to follow the dictates of commonsense and to account for material reality. At the end of the twentieth century, analytic philosophers like Searle have followed their intuitions and gained their material world at the seeming expense of meaningful human mental activity.

Sources — The quote in the first paragraph is from J. M. E. McTaggart, “Time,” in Metaphysics: The Big Questions (eds. Peter van Inwagen and Dean W. Zimmerman; 2nd ed.; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 123. McTaggart used this phrase in reference to our experience of things as in time, but the phrase also captures the way many absolute idealists addressed our experience of things as having any distinctively physical property. All quotes from Searle appear in his Mind: A Brief Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). Other sources I consulted were E. D. Klemke, ed., Contemporary Analytic and Linguistic Philosophies (2nd ed.; Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2000) and Frederick Copleston, Modern Philosophy: Empiricism, Idealism, and Pragmatism in Britain and America (vol. 8 of A History of Philosophy; New York: Image Books, 1994),

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Camden Bucey

5 years ago


Thanks for the excellent post. I researched the British absolute idealists for some papers I wrote on Van Til in seminary. In the course of my studies, I checked out Gustavus Watts Cunningham’s The Idealistic Argument in Recent British and American Philosophy from the library. To my surprise I found out that it was Van Til’s personal copy replete with marginalia! I hoped to learn more about the British Absolute Idealists, but I sure wasn’t expecting to unearth a primary source in the process.

James Baird

5 years ago


Writing this post was my pleasure.

What a find! I would love to see how Van Til interacted in the margins with Cunningham’s critique and commendation of other idealists. The way Van Til used Reformed theology to respond to idealism was just brilliant. I look forward to studying Van Til’s critique of idealism more at Westminster, and maybe getting my hands on some of those primary sources!


5 years ago

Thanks for the post James. A lot of good food for thought. I noticed you cite Copleston, have you found his set to be helpful in your own research?

James Baird

5 years ago

Hi Austin,

Thank you for the appreciation! I have found Copleston’s multi-volume A History of Philosophy incredibly useful. Although it might seem dated, it is still a must-have for any student of philosophy and well worth the price. If you want to drill deep into the thought of a particular philosopher, there are obviously more specialized volumes, and Copleston does make some interpretive blunders every now and then. Nevertheless, Copleston’s volumes are unmatched in the lucid and comprehensive way they accurately address all the major philosophical movements in the west without overgeneralizing or neglecting the differences between thinkers in the same school.



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