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British Journal for the History of Philosophy

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Idealism and the Ontological Argument

William J. Mander

To cite this article: William J. Mander (2012) Idealism and the Ontological Argument, British
Journal for the History of Philosophy, 20:5, 993-1014, DOI: 10.1080/09608788.2012.718867

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Published online: 05 Sep 2012.

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British Journal for the History of Philosophy 20(5) 2012: 9931014



William J. Mander

The ontological proof became something of a signature argument for

the British Idealist movement and this paper examines how and why
that was so. Beginning with an account of Hegels understanding of the
argument, it looks at how the thesis was picked up, developed and
criticized by the Cairds, Bradley, Pringle-Pattison and others. The
importance of Bradleys reading in particular is stressed. Lastly,
consideration is given to Collingwoods lifelong interest in the proof
and it is argued that his attention is best understood as a direct
continuation of theirs. In view of the fact that recent commentators have
tried to draw a sharp line between Collingwoods approach to
metaphysics and ontology and that of his predecessors, the
establishment of this connection calls for a measure of reassessment
on both sides.

KEYWORDS: idealism; ontological argument; Hegel; Caird; Bradley;


In his youth, Russell subscribed to the doctrines of British Idealism. Always

one for a memorable literary turn, on several occasions he told a story of his
undergraduate conversion to this school of thinking which linked it to a
recognition of the validity of the ontological argument. Here is one version:

Stout, at that time, thought very highly of Bradley; when Appearance and
Reality was published, he said it had done as much as is humanly possible in
ontology. He and McTaggart between them caused me to become a Hegelian; I
remember the precise moment one day in 1894 as I was walking along Trinity
Lane when I saw in a ash (or thought I saw) that the ontological argument is
valid. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back I suddenly threw
it up in the air and exclaimed as I caught it: Great God in boots, the
ontological argument is sound! I read Bradley at this time with avidity, and
admired him more than any other recent philosopher.1

This is the version in Russell, B. My Mental Development, in The Philosophy of Bertrand
Russell, edited by P. A. Schilpp (Evanston and Chicago, 1944) 10.

British Journal for the History of Philosophy

ISSN 0960-8788 print/ISSN 1469-3526 online 2012 BSHP

But what (we may wonder) is the connection between these two things? Why
should an obscure logical argument for the existence of God one
Schopenhauer famously dismissed as a charming joke2 be for Russell the
lynchpin for the entire world view of idealism? In this paper, I examine how
the British Idealists treated the ontological argument and, in doing so, help
to explain just why Russell came to make this curious association.

That allegiance to Idealism should hang so crucially on acceptance of the

ontological argument is all the more puzzling when we remember that the
father of modern idealism, Immanuel Kant, is the gure most commonly
credited with its decisive refutation. Rejecting its earlier use by Anselm,
Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, he famously objected that since being is not
a genuine predicate which adds to the nature of anything (one hundred
dollars that exist is a no greater sum than one hundred dollars merely
imagined), statements of existence must always be synthetic. You can never
pass from the mere concept of something howsoever you dene it to its
actual existence.3
Hegel, Kants successor in Idealism, disagreed, however. Repeatedly,
throughout his writings, he urged that the ontological argument captures an
important truth.4 In its insight that the notion of God is the most real of all
things, it recognizes the vital unity of notion and being (to use Hegelian
terms), or of essence and existence (to use more scholastic idiom).5
In Hegels mind, Kant oers no more than counter-assertion of this
fundamental truth which may properly be regarded as nothing less than a
summing up of the whole Hegelian philosophy. There is no gap between
concept and instantiation because there is no gap between knowledge and
reality. There are no things-in-themselves, no noumena, to which perfected
cognition corresponds; rather the perfection of knowing just is reality, the
unity of subject and object. Care must be taken here, of course, with what is
meant by perfect knowledge here. It is neither a priori theorizing
(rationalism) nor pure sensing (empiricism) but rather experience perfectly

Schopenhauer, A. On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sucient Reason (Illinois, 1974)
Chapter I, x7.
Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason (Cambridge, 1998) A592/B620 A602/B630.
For good discussions of Hegels ontological argument, see Errol Harris, Mr Ryle and the
Ontological Argument, Mind, 45 (1936) 47480; Patricia Marie Calton, Hegels Metaphysics of
God: The Ontological Proof as the Development of a Trinitarian Divine Ontology (Aldershot,
2001); and K. J. Harrelson, The Ontological Argument From Descartes to Hegel (New York,
2009) Chapter 7.
Hegel, G. W. F. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, translated by Peter C. Hodgson
(Oxford, 1996) (hereafter LPR) 3:178; Hegel, G. W. F. Encyclopaedia Logic, translated by
William Wallace (Oxford, 1975) (hereafter EL) 108.

categorized and systematized, where its becoming so is understood as a

developmental process taking in a sequence of categories from the lowest
and most abstract (being) up to the highest and most concrete (the
Absolute Idea). Looked at from a dierent angle, the same sequence may be
viewed as one in which the self, rst confronted by what appears quite other
than it, then comes to recognize both itself in outward objects and outward
objects in itself, nally raising itself to a point of view in which subject and
object are acknowledged not as opposites but as one-sided abstractions from
a greater whole.
The point, however, must not be misunderstood; we cannot pass from just
any concept to its actual instantiation. Kants example of the hundred dollars
well illustrates a point we all know, that just thinking something does not
make it real we all have innumerable ideas of things (unicorns, centaurs,
etc.) which nd no place in reality. But for him to take this commonplace
insight and elevate it to the level of a general theory of being is simply to beg
the question, complains Hegel, for the ontological argument contends
precisely that in one case that of God the matter is otherwise and there is
no distance between concept and reality.6 In other words, the argument holds
only for the Absolute notion, that perfect, innite, and completely
individual concept which Hegel equates with the philosophers God.
Crucial to understanding Hegels endorsement of the ontological
argument is an understanding of what he means by being and here, it
must be admitted that he is not always his own best friend. At times, for
example, he attempts to defend the argument by appeal to the poverty of the
notion of being; so poor a characteristic is it that the Notion could scarcely
fail to contain it.7 The ontological argument works, he seems to be
suggesting, because it does so little. That this is something of an
inconsequential and unhelpful point, however, may be appreciated by
recognizing that the same holds for any concept, even wholly subjective ones
like unicorn or centaur they all register in reality somehow.
The more signicant line of reasoning that Hegel wants to support in fact
lies elsewhere, for his interest is not in being but in reality, and not all that
exists is real, that is to say, not everything we seem to encounter would merit a
place in ultimate reality.8 Unlike existence, the very lowest rung on thoughts
ladder, reality is a degree notion some conceptions get closer to the heart of
things than others and only at the end of the scale, only when the
understanding process is complete, do we nd ultimate reality. Finite
concepts, such as Kants imaginary dollars, seem not to imply instantiation
because they are essentially abstract; incomplete and without context; stages
on thoughts journey, articially halted and frozen.9 Were we really to think

EL 1089; LPR 1:440, 3:180.
EL 1089; LPR 3:180, 356.
Reection on secondary qualities shows this not so alien a point.
LPR 1:436, 3:355.

them through (Are they notes or coins? which denominations? old or new?
whose are they? in a pocket or in a wallet?) we would start on a process of
expansion and specication leading in the end to the reality of the whole
universe.10 That this process can be carried through right to its very end is, of
course, a very large assumption on Hegels part. Brute contingency and atomic
singularity would simply stop the process of expansion in its tracks, but Hegel
rejects them both as but appearances, and not fundamental characteristics of
reality. Taking nite concepts in this fashion we can see too why, in Hegels
view, we should reject Leibnizs assertion that the ontological argument may
only be run once we have rst established the non-contradictory nature of the
concept of God. To seek prior possibility in this way is to confuse the living
developing notion with the motionless mental abstraction of formal logic,
contradiction being a mark of health in nite concepts; not a badge of plain
failure but rather an indicator of insucient development.11
If Hegel thinks that the Absolute Idea or Notion guarantees its own
instantiation, not only does he intend a very specic sense of instantiation
but his understanding of just what kind of thing it is that self-instantiates is
unusual too. Kant expresses technically the common-sense objection that
you cant go from an idea in some persons mind to an external reality, and
with that Hegel essentially agrees. But his Notion or Absolute Idea is not
really an idea in someones head, a mental phenomena, not even a
supremely developed and all-inclusive one. The term is used with more
Platonic signicance, in the sense of the underlying form or universal
content that expresses itself in the every aspect of nite world.12 Of course,
as such a foundation, it bodies forth in mind also; when we think something,
it is this ground that our thought attempts to express. But the character of
an idea as met with in consciousness is far from its complete or true nature
and, fully explored, any idea will always reveal itself as more than just what
is in our head; it stretches beyond and outside us.
In a sense, Hegel agrees that there is no magic that can pass us
instantaneously from what is wholly inner or subjective to objective reality,
but he would also add that no idea ever is (except by articial abstraction and
isolation) wholly inner.13 The Absolute idea exists at least in part or in trace
in our minds because it exists in everything and following its lead, lling it
out as we go, we may pass from one region of its sway to its fuller domain.
Hegels talk in this context of a movement from subject to object may
encourage ideas of magical passage from inner to outer, but when these two
are placed in the context of the triadic synthesis of them both, the transition is
better seen as the joint overcoming of two equally inadequate abstractions
from a third and greater reality which is not really either of them.

For further discussion, see Harris Mr Ryle and the Ontological Argument, 2657.
EL 203, LPR 3:2823, 353. For further discussion, see Harrelson 20910.
LPR 3:356.
LPR 3:354.

At this point, we may understand Hegels complaint against earlier

versions of the argument.14 While it is true that reality belongs to the
Absolute Notion or the concept of God, his predecessors tried to get to this
by a sort of shortcut. They took it as an unargued assumption, they
mistook the abstract thought of God for the genuine concept of God. For
God as an abstract mental concept no more involves existence than does
unicorn or hundred dollars. Although we can still indicate in principle
how things will turn out, really the correctness of the ontological argument
can be appreciated only by observing the full development of the notion
from thought to reality, not simply by hearing of it second-hand as it were.
This is why Hegel himself admits that the argument, in its abbreviated form,
is not particularly useful, and less of a proof than a description of the minds
self-elevation to God.15 It is in this connection too that we must take
Hegels insistence, on occasion, that thought is not just the same as being
but also dierent from it. The discovery by the subject that there is no
fundamental separation between it and its object is no sudden coup de foudre
and certainly no presupposition, but rather a process. It discovers its unity
with what seems other than it not simply by denying or abolishing that
dierence, but by recognizing and overcoming it. More than simply the
assertion of a truth, the conclusion of the ontological argument is properly
the result of a process.16
In the end, we may well be tempted to ask: is what Hegel oers us really
the ontological argument? The answer to that question depends on two
things; on whether the argument he identies can reasonably claim to be the
underlying thought behind traditional versions of the argument and not
some new and altogether dierent pattern of reasoning, and on whether its
conclusion is the same as theirs. The second question is easy enough. Hegels
claim that the result is peculiarly Christian17 is doubtful, for its terminus
really seems far from the God of the religious (whom in fact Hegel consigns
to an earlier stage in the story18), but surely it is the same as, or at least a
very close family relative of, the God of the philosophers; Anselms perfect
being or the ens realissimum. Whether in his reasoning to this point, Hegel
captures the heart of traditional case for that conclusion is a harder
question, that has divided commentators,19 but dogmatic insistence that it
does not looks narrow-minded and rigid when one thinks of the great

LPR 1:439, 3:182, 355.
LPR 1:419. For further discussion, see Calton 359.
LPR 3:180, 356.
In so far as this account follows, the instantiation of the Notion, he equates it with the self-
revelation of the Christian God (LPR 3:35674).
See Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller (Oxford, 1977)
Chapter VII.
Where Harris, Carlton and Harrelson nd continuity, McTaggart (Some Dogmas of Religion,
2nd edn (London, 1930) 190) and Laid (Mind and Deity (London, 1941) 48) by contrast think it
something quite dierent.

dierences that already obtain between the other clearly acknowledged

members of this class.20


The ontological argument was rst accorded serious attention in Britain by

the Idealists. Their philosophy was deeply inuenced by both Kant and
Hegel, and while in some other respects they sided with Kant, on the issue of
the ontological argument they were most denitely with Hegel.
First to pick up the argument, in 1876, was Edward Caird, who went on
to consider it further on several subsequent occasions.21 Caird repeats
Hegels rejoinder that against the arguments advocacy of the unity of
thought and being, Kants opposition amounts to nothing more than the
mere assertion of their dierence.22 But he goes into more detail than does
Hegel regarding the precise manner of Kants error. In his insistence that
statements of existence are always synthetic and never analytic, Kant
commits to the idea that it is only sense and never thought that tells us of
existence. But in this, protests Caird, Kant is not being true to his own
system. For it was the achievement of that system precisely to reject the
notion of sense as unmediated contact with reality. That, the Critique tells
us, is an empty abstraction of which nothing can be said. Existence is not
given in perception alone, but in perception mediated by thought.23 Kant
cant quite get rid of the old prejudice that in some fashion we rst perceive
and then interpret, even after he himself has shown that perceptual
awareness is possible only with thought.24
Of course if intuitions without concepts are blind, it is equally true that
thoughts without content are empty.25 Pure thought is an equally
unworkable abstraction. For this reason, Caird acknowledges the
legitimacy of Kants attack on previous versions of the proof.26 Descartes,
for example, is so bound to a dualism between knowledge and reality that
with him

Contrast Anselm, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Plantinga. A similar point may be made about
the cosmological and teleological proofs, both of which are families of arguments rather than
single items.
See Caird, E. Cartesianism, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th edn, edited by Thomas Spencer
Baynes (Edinburgh, 1876) 2879; Critical Account of the Philosophy of Kant (Glasgow, 1877)
(hereafter CAPK) (63032, 6435); Hegel (Edinburgh, 1883) 177, 184, 218; The Critical
Philosophy of Immanuel Kant (Glasgow, 1889) Vol. II, 110122; and Anselms Argument for
the Being of God Its History and What It Proves, Journal of Theological Studies, 1 (1899) 23
CAPK 643.
CAPK 644.
Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, 1223.
Critique of Pure Reason A51/B75.
CAPK 645, Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant 1223.

the ontological argument becomes a manifest paralogism, and lies open to all
the objections . . . brought against it. That the idea of God involves existence
proves only that God, if He exists at all, exists by the necessity of His
being . . . . the link that is to bind thought to existence is still wanting.27

Even Anselm makes the same mistake, speaking as though ideas and reality
were quite separate and in the case of God alone blessed with a bridge
between them.28
But, Caird insists, for all that, the ontological argument retains an
important core of validity. Descartes claim that the idea of God includes
existence captures a vital insight, and if only

we could take this as meaning that thought transcends the distinction between
itself and existence, and that therefore existence cannot be a thing in itself out
of thought, but must be an intelligible world that exists as such only for the
thinking being, there would be some force in the argument.29

The ontological argument is valid if we think of it as pointing to the

ultimate unity of thought and Being, which is at once the presupposition
and the end of all knowledge.30 A thought wholly isolated is a thing
impossible. Without connection to other ideas, it would lack even the
conditions of meaning. But the process of acquiring meaning which begins
with its connection to other ideas must lead on to its connection with things
(an equally vital requirement) and nally to the unity of both. In this way to
say that God is, is to say that there is a principle of unity without relation to
which we cannot nally comprehend anything.31 Thus, the supreme idea
does include existence within itself, vindicating the ontological argument.
Anselm and Descartes tried to get there by an illegitimate short cut. They
just inserted it analytically into the denition of God, when in truth it
develops out of that concept by itself unaided. In fact in this sense their
eorts were unnecessary, philosophical reection on Being, or any other
concept, will lead us to the reality of God, whether or not we add to its
denition an assertion of this fact.
Emphasizing the manner in which this process of thoughts expansion is
an exploration of the self-manifestation of the innite in the nite world,
Caird endorses Hegels view that the ontological is a peculiarly Christian
argument; its conclusion unproblematically designated God. He draws a
direct comparison between God as logos which in its self-revelation dies to

Cartesianism 288.
Anselms Argument for the Being of God 25.
Cartesianism 288.
CAPK 645.
Anselms argument for the Being of God 35.

live and the Absolute which lives in and through its self-revelation in the
world; in the natural world, but most especially in the spiritual realm.32
Edward Cairds case found resonance with other Idealists. His brother
John Caird, for example, in his successful 1880 Introduction to the Phi-
losophy of Religion urged, for all its surface implausibility and the failings of
its earlier formulations, that the underlying principle of the ontological
argument is a solid one upon which rests the whole of the religious
consciousness. For it asserts an idea the ultimate unity of thought and
being whose truth is so foundational that thought itself is impossible
without it. We can never get at things in themselves outside of all thought,
but equally, it is not our individual thought that makes the world, but
something larger. Thus, the true meaning of the Ontological proof is this,
that as spiritual beings our whole conscious life is based on a universal self-
consciousness, an Absolute Spiritual Life, which is not a mere subjective
notion or conception, but which carries with it the proof of its necessary
existence or reality.33 Descartes version, though certainly faulty in its
formulation, is of signicance for the way in which it suggests how the
Cartesian standpoint inevitably points beyond itself. The Cartesian is
precisely the egocentric predicament, and in suggesting that nite mind
already contains the idea of God, Descartes implicitly recognizes the
impossibility of the purely individual starting point and aims instead at a
self-consciousness which is not individual but universal. Whether we are
explicitly or only implicitly aware of it, the reality of such a universal or
absolute intelligence is a precondition of thought itself, impossible to doubt
without contradiction.34 However, this must be worked out, and not just in
the abstract, but rather in its concrete detail. And in this light, even
Spinozas version of the argument, which (unlike Descartes) more clearly
argues for the unity of thought and being, is taken to task for asserting not a
concrete but an abstract unity.35 C. C. J. Webb was another of the
arguments rst supporters.36


Looking over these early adoptions by Idealists of the ontological argument

results in a measure of disappointment, for it must be admitted that, despite
their enthusiasm, all three suer from a vagueness that saps their
plausibility. There seems to be more hand-waving and promising than
actually arguing. This indeed was a weakness noted by their fellow idealist
Anselms argument for the Being of God 33.
Caird, J. Introduction to Philosophy of Religion, 2nd edn (Glasgow, 1891) 150.
Caird, J. Spinoza (Edinburgh, 1888) 1034.
Spinoza 139.
Webb, C. C. J. Anselms ontological argument for the existence of God, Proceedings of the
Aristotelian Society Old Series (1896) 2543.

T. H. Green who, in his review of An Introduction to the Philosophy of

Religion singles out John Cairds representation of the ontological argument
in particular as carrying about it an air of intellectual jugglery and little
likely to carry conviction.37 Green himself endorsed the Hegelian result but
thought that it must all be done over again.38 Fortunately, there was
another member of the Idealist School at hand to add some real substance
to these early hints, and that was F. H. Bradley, who took up the question in
his 1893 Appearance and Reality.
If we understand by thought the mental picture of some distinct nite
object and by reality spatio-temporal existence, then it is quite obvious
(argues Bradley) that there is in general no direct transition from the
thought of something to its reality as such. The thing we are thinking of may
be in mind only.39 But on further reection, the matter is not perhaps so
simple. No idea can exist solely in mind, a bare thought utterly separated
from all reality, for to make a meaningful thought is to refer a content to
Reality. That thought works by pointing to reality is but the other side of
the idealist dictum that reality consists in being thought, and so there can be
no meaning or content without reference of some sort to reality some-
where.40 What we imagine may not exist as such, as it presents itself to us,
but properly thought through, assigned and situated, it must make
connection with reality. These last qualiers are not insignicant, since the
net result of such supplementation and realignment may be to us that the
idea just as we think it seems totally to have disappeared, transformed in
the reorganization. Moreover, this is a matter of degree, a function of how
abstracted from reality as a whole our original idea is. The more coherent
and complete an idea already is the more we can read o its reality as it
stands. When an idealist like Bradley complains that ideas are abstract he
means this in two ways; the fault is along two dimensions, so to speak. There
is abstraction in its content, but also in the idea itself it is a symbol, a what
without its that, a parasite cut loose.41 Conversely, becoming more
concrete or determined is a matter not just of developing a more detailed
and comprehensive content, but of becoming less distant from being, less of
a ghost and more of a reality. From this, we may extrapolate that had we an
idea that was absolutely complete, perfect and self-contained, there would
no longer be any gap between it and its reality. As Bradley puts it, the
greater the perfection of a thought, and the more its possibility and its
internal necessity are increased, so much more reality it possesses. And so

Green, T. H. Review of John Cairds Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Academy,
18 (1880) 141.
This claim is reported at page 5 of Edward Cairds Preface to the volume Essays in
Philosophical Criticism edited by Seth Pringle-Pattison and Haldane (London: Longmans
Green, 1883).
Bradley, F. H. Appearance and Reality, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1897) 349.
AR 350.
Bradley, F. H. The Principles of Logic, 2nd edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922) 3, 8.

much the more necessarily must it show itself, and appear somehow in
existence.42 The maximal case here is, of course, that which we nd in the
ontological argument with the idea of God, that is, the Absolute or Reality
as a Whole.
The contrast in the case above between existence and reality is further
emphasized by Bradley in the bastard version of the argument that he
oers for consideration.43 He entertains the suggestion that the thought of
something as presented, as this or mine met here and now, is one that
allows us to pass directly from idea to existence, but objects to any such
move. Though of course legitimate, the step is, he complains, worthless, for
it does not give us either truth or reality. What is shown to exist are not
things in their real nature, but only as they appear.44 Bradley is here echoing
Hegels point that existence is such a thin predicate that it belongs to
everything, but arguably he sees more clearly that does Hegel that this is a
red herring and not some kind of further support for the argument. This is
perhaps because he distinguishes more sharply and explicitly than does
Hegel between the categories of existence and reality.
In all this Bradley is line with earlier Idealist presentations of the
ontological argument. In another important respect, however, he dissents
from them. While all recognize the result of the ontological argument as
ultimate reality the Absolute or Whole they call this God and Bradley
does not. The argument could not prove any specic being less than the
perfect whole, Bradley insists and he doubts that that is what is religiously
understood as God. It is at least part of our ordinary conception of the
divine that God is a being set over against the nite individual, while it
makes no sense whatever to think of the Absolute as set over against
anything. Bradley was followed by a number of other Idealist commentators
on this point. Both McTaggart and Joachim, for example, allow that the
Hegelian argument can prove the existence only of a God who is conceived
as the sole reality in the universe. In so far as he is something in the universe,
we remain in the realm of nite concepts and here Kants objection is fatal.45


Theological dierences aside, returning to the point with which we began,

we can now understand perfectly how, for the undergraduate Russell,
accepting the ontological argument was equivalent to becoming a fully
edged Hegelian Idealist. To the tradition in which he had been taught, the
AR 351. The idea of the Absolute, as an idea, is inconsistent with itself; and we nd that, to
complete itself it is internally driven to take in existence. (AR 351).
AR 3524.
AR 353.
McTaggart, J. M. E. Studies in Hegelian Dialectic (Cambridge, 1896) x64; Joachim, H. H. A
Study of the Ethics of Spinoza (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901) 54.

argument is not just one which happens to be valid for adherents to that
system, but precisely that system itself. This point was made quite explicitly
by Edward Caird who, in his 1899 paper wrote that the ontological
argument for the being of God, properly understood, is nothing else than
the sketch of a complete philosophy.46 Thus Russells confession should not
be taken as telling us that, having read Anselms Proslogion or Descartes
fth Meditation, he made a great leap to Hegelianism. Rather in the context
of the time to say that all of a sudden he came to accept the truth of the
ontological argument it is a sort of shorthand for saying that he came to
accept the Hegelian system itself.
But lest a false impression be given it should be noted that not all of the
British Idealists accepted the ontological argument. In particular, we should
consider the case of Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison, who, while he subscribes
to the Kantian/Hegelian doctrine of the relativity of reality to knowledge,
rejects what he thinks of as the further unwarranted conation of
metaphysics to logic. Hegels assertion of the poverty of existence next
to the self-complete richness of the Absolute notion, he regards a perverse
reversal of the true order of ideas and reality, insisting that ideas copy things
and not vice versa.47 He accuses Hegel of mistaking the abstract for the
concrete and of deducing things from concepts, complaining that however
fully developed our system, We must touch reality somewhere; otherwise
our whole construction is in the air.48 In short, he says, there is no means of
circumventing Kants classical criticism of the ontological argument that,
There is no evolution possible of a fact from a conception.49
Hegels dialectical understanding of thought, together with his equation
between thought and reality, seems to imply that contradictions are real, a
doctrine with which Bradley too found diculty. Reality does not
contradict itself, he insists.50 This has the eect of introducing two very
substantial qualications to Bradleys acceptance of the ontological
argument. In the rst place, it should be noted that his oft-quoted summary
of the ontological argument, re-instates Leibnizs initial possibility caveat:
what may be, if it also must be, assuredly is.51 But secondly, and more
importantly, he insists that the ontological argument for the Absolute,
though legitimate, remains awed and imperfect. Some ideas have more
truth and reality than others and arranged in ascending order this scale
posits an ideal limit. But this can never quite be completed. Ideas are always
abstract against reality which is something concrete and so no thought, not

Anselms Argument for the Being of God 35.
Pringle-Pattison, A. S. Hegelianism and Personality (Edinburgh, 1887) 116.
Hegelianism and Personality 118.
Hegelianism and Personality 119. This was a typically personal Idealist response, echoed (for
example) by J. M. E. McTaggart, Studies in Hegelian Dialectic, and by W. R. Sorley, Moral
Values and the Idea of God, 3rd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930) 307313.
AR 120.
AR 176.

even that of the Absolute, ever is, as such, wholly true of reality.52 Bradley
agrees with Caird and many of the other Idealists that the path of thought
takes us to the reality of the Absolute, but he dissents in holding that, in the
process of doing so, it leaves behind its proper nature as thought. This is his
notorious doctrine of thoughts suicide.53 In Bradleys hands, the
ontological argument begins to recover some of its apparently magical
power, it takes us from thought to something, not indeed separate or other
than, but certainly more than, thought.
Caird has no such doubts about thought. But even he (we should note)
balks at the kind of accusation Pringle-Pattison makes of reality being
deduced from thought. In his own short book on Hegel, he stresses that
Hegel does not believe in the a priori deduction of reality from thought and
that he is all too often premature in his attempts to anticipate the discovery
of the inner in the outer.54 The path which the ontological argument
announces is long and dicult, and not even Hegel managed to map it fully
without introducing a few shortcuts.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Russell rebelled from Idealism,
and many others followed him. But Idealism did not die out, and after this
point we still nd idealists prepared to defend its signature ontological
argument. One such sympathizer was H. H. Joachim, who in his
commentary on Spinozas Ethics takes a rather more sympathetic line than
does John Caird some dozen years before. If we sift out the general drift of
Spinozas case, he argues, we nd him to be presenting a form of the
ontological argument which is in fact valid and does not come under Kants
criticisms; its validity depending on the unique nature of God. For
essentially what he is saying is that the reality and the contingency of any
given thing stand in inverse ratio to one another. If you start with some
object, so far as it is contingent, it is unreal and points to other things upon
which it depends. Following those leads its reality expands in our hands,
until the contingency and niteness with which we start are replaced by a
self-conditioned necessity and completeness. Moreover, in the same way, as
wherever we start all roads lead to Rome, since this process has a unique
terminus which takes in all being whatsoever, the proof of its reality is
completely sound.55 How true this reconstruction is to the actual argument
of Spinozas Ethics is debatable, but its debt to Bradley and Caird and
(behind them) to Hegel is beyond dispute. Another twentieth century

AR 3512.
AR 150.
Hegel 195203.
Joachim, A Study of the Ethics of Spinoza, 524.

supporter of the ontological argument was J. S. Mackenzie who in his 1902

Outlines of Metaphysics expresses succinctly the Idealist view of both its
validity and its shortcomings:

The essence of the ontological argument would seem to be that what can be
completely thought out must be real; and the fatal aw in it lies in the fact that
the thought of the Absolute never is completely thought out.56

The Absolute is perfect completeness, but we are only its parts and, though
we can obtain a measure of conviction as to its being, we can never quite
reach certainty. Properly carried through to its end the ontological is the
only argument capable of establishing for us the reality of the Absolute, but
we can never actually complete that argument, and merely knowing about it
(alas) does not bring full conviction.
But most important of all its twentieth century supporters was R. G.
Collingwood who, over the span of his career, wrote repeatedly on the
ontological argument.57 Gilbert Ryle protested at what he regarded as
Collingwoods attempt to exhume the argument,58 and from his own post-
Russellian perspective that must indeed have been how Collingwoods
eorts appeared, but from the perspective of this essay matters look rather
dierent and if, in general, Collingwood is not well-served by being regarded
as one of the British Idealists, his treatment of the ontological argument is
one of the few points where matters are otherwise, and his writing best
regarded as in direct continuation of the line than runs from Hegel through
Caird, Bradley and the other Idealists. Not exhumation at all but continuity.
This is very evident if we examine his most developed account of the
argument, the one which he published in An Essay on Philosophical Method.
Consider the concluding sentences of his brief summary there of the
arguments history:
Kant, whose attempt to refute it . . . was rightly regarded by his successors as a
symptom of that false subjectivism from which, in spite of his heroic eorts, he

Mackenzie, J. S. Outlines of Metaphysics, 2nd edn (London: Macmillan, 1906) 148 note.
Mackenzie endorses Bradleys as the best recent account of the ontological argument. Two
further supporters were A. E. Taylor who in his popular 1903 textbook, Elements of
Metaphysics, repeats the thought that the general principle which the argument implies must be
distinguished from any particular form in which it manifests, before going on to re-present
Bradleys exposition of the argument (Elements of Metaphysics 4014) and Bernard Bosanquet
who endorses the argument in his 1912 The Principle of Individuality and Value (London:
Macmillan, 1912) 80 note.
Collingwood, R. G. Religion and Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1916); Lectures on the
Ontological Proof of the Existence of God (1919 unpublished in Bodleian Library); Speculum
Mentis (Oxford, 1924); An Essay on Philosophical Method, rev edn, edited by James Connelly
and Giuseppina DOro (Oxford, 2005) 1933; An Essay on Metaphysics, rev. edn, edited by Rex
Martin (Oxford, 1998) 1940.
Ryle, G. Introduction to His Critical Essays; Collected Papers Volume I, new edn (London,
2009) Vol. I, xxii.

never wholly freed himself. With Hegels rejection of subjective idealism, the
Ontological proof took its place once more among the accepted principles of
modern philosophy, and it has never again been seriously criticised.59

To Ryle (who opposed him in print and subsequent correspondence), this

potted history makes no sense. Surely, he reasons, the argument was killed
by Kant and buried by Russell. But clearly Collingwood is here following
the quite dierent version of that story which we have been examining in
this paper, the version in which Kants objections were beside the point
(based in a residual subjectivity from which he couldnt free himself) and, far
from being the end of the matter, merely the prelude to Hegels discovery of
the arguments true import. Collingwoods last claim that it was never
challenged again is so striking in its omission of Russell that it must be read
as, not ignorance of that logical advance, but the deliberate dismissal of it as
just a poor repetition of Kants earlier irrelevant objection. Hegel (it will be
remembered) thought that even if valid the ontological argument was
useless and on this point too we nd Collingwood aligning himself with
that tradition. Taken in abstract he says the argument is formal and empty,
the mere skeleton or framework of a proof. It shows reality must exist as
we must conceive it, but not how we must conceive it.60 He is with Hegel and
the other British Idealists also in holding that we may take on board the
arguments many criticisms, but that its value to thinking persists, despite
the failings of its various formulations. It survives criticism such as the
well-known rejoinder that existence is not a predicate.61 There is something
in it, says Collingwood.62 It is with such thought in mind that we must read
Collingwoods suggestion that the proof needs to be revised and restated,63
for while Ryle complains that the case Collingwood presents has nothing to
do with the traditional ontological argument,64 this complaint again fails to
appreciate the Hegelian tradition. Hegel had no brief to defend Anselm,
Descartes or Spinozas versions of the argument. Rather, assured of the
road, he tries anew to sketch in the details. With the same assurance, Caird
and Bradley oer slightly dierent outlines. And rmly within the same
tradition, it demonstrates no dissent from the core argument if Colling-
woods own sketch map diers again.
The Idealist legacy is visible too in Collingwoods view of just what it is
that the argument proves; its proper subject. It is a demonstration, not of
whatever God happens to be believed in by the person who uses it, but
rather divested of any specic religious or theological colouring of the
ens realissimum, the Deus sive natura of Spinoza, the Good of Plato, the
Essay on Philosophical Method (hereafter EPM) 126.
From the 1919 Lectures on Ontological argument (quoted in EPM, xxxiv).
EPM 125.
EPM 257.
EPM 257.
Ryle, G. Mr Collingwood and The Ontological Argument, Mind, 44 (1935) 257.
Being of Aristotle, God in the metaphysical sense, the Absolute. Alterna-
tively, the arguments conclusion is described in terms of the route by which
we get to it; it demonstrates the object of philosophical thought in general,
that which we are thinking about when we are thinking philosophically,
[philosophys] subject matter, whatever it is that would completely satisfy
the demands of reason. The ontological proof is really no less than the
conviction that thinking is worthwhile.66 All this remain a little unclear.
There are ways of reading such descriptions that are really quite mild; a
defence in eect of nothing more than the rationality of reality. Indeed, that, it
would seem, is how in the end Pringle-Pattison came to regard the argu-
ment.67 But Collingwood wants to make a stronger point for as he makes very
clear in Chapter nine of the Essay on Philosophical Method philosophy is
essentially systematic. Structured according to what he calls a scale of forms,
it aims at (even if it never actually realises) completeness.68 Its proper subject
is therefore reality as a whole or, as Idealism would put it, the Absolute.
To turn to Collingwoods presentation of the argument itself, pressing
that the claims of subjects like maths and natural science are really
hypothetical, he urges that what is distinctive about those of philosophy is
their categorical nature, the fact that they connect not mere ideas but
things themselves. They are not merely universal and necessary but
weighted too with existential implication. This point he takes to be the same
as that underlying the ontological argument. The principle behind the
ontological argument is, he suggests, so deeply embedded69 that
philosophical enquiry in any sub-department exemplies it, and he takes
as illustrations of this point the two elds of logic and ethics. A certain
degree of care is needed here. Some commentators have spoken as though
Collingwood embraces, as it were, a family of ontological argument; a series
of reections applied in turn to the dierent logical forms which structure
the various dierent domains of inquiry.70 That this is not the case is clear
from his endorsement of the traditional view that it works but in one special
case.71 The appearance of two separate targets here, logic and ethics, is
illusory. In tackling the matter distributively Collingwood is not ushering in
some general principle to the eect that the philosopher is committed to the
existence of whatever specic conceptual furniture (mind, matter, the Ideal,
EPM 124, 127. For the last identication the Absolute see Collingwoods 1919 Lectures on
Ontological argument (quoted in EPM xxxiv, xxxv).
127, 257, 102, 125. Again the last of these is from the 1919 Lectures on Ontological argument
(quoted in EPM, xxxv).
He suggests in The Idea of God that for all we may agree with Kants specic critique, we
cannot avoid that fundamental condence in reason which is a presupposition of all thinking
and just what the ontological argument is really labouring to express (Pringle-Pattison, A. S.
The Idea of God, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1920) 240).
EPM 17698.
EPM 128.
DOro, G. Collingwood and the Metaphysics of Experience (London, 2002) 72.
EPM 127.

Space, Time) he employs.72 Rather his concern is always with thought

carried through to its end, with the reality as a whole which grounds it. In
this way for him the two paths, as any other, point in the same direction,
each revealing from their dierent sides that our thinking about reality
cannot be wholly distinct from the reality which we think about.73
This is born out if we turn to the two cases themselves. Logic, the
scientic description of right or rational thought has, he argues, a double
character: descriptive and normative. Psychologism takes it in the rst way
as the study of how we actually do think, the ways we cant help reasoning.
This makes it factual, but also renders it empirical. Alternatively, as does
logicism, we may stress its normative character. It then becomes a priori,
but also potentially unrelated to how anyone ever did think; a mere ideal.
In truth, argues Collingwood, a proper approach to logic must embrace
both perspectives. Logic is not simply whatever we say it is, it has a
normative character, but necessarily this must be manifest in our actual
thought the science of right thinking must itself deploy right thinking, the
system of logic must itself be logical although necessarily also that
manifestation is never complete Collingwood is not saying that we
already think perfectly. Collingwoods conception of logic here is very
idealist. The ultimate ground of right reasoning is not something dierent
from reality itself, even if dierent from reality as we grasp it here and
now. He moves on to outline a similar case for moral philosophy, the
science of the Good. Were moral philosophy simply a description of what
we actually value, then it would be factual, its Good something existent.
But then it would also be just a branch of empirical psychology. By
contrast, were it a wholly normative account of what we ought to value, it
would be a priori. But then it would lose all existential import; for what
ought to be is potentially quite other than what actually is. In a similar
fashion to logic, Collingwood suggests that moral philosophy combines
both of these approaches. It sets out not what we do value or what we
ought to value but what we do think we ought to value and thus treats the
moral consciousness as already in part what it ought to be. The genuinely
ideal or normative is actually manifest in us that is, in our moral being. It
is not, of course, perfectly manifest, for we are not the Good itself, but we

Leach, S. Collingwoods Ontological Argument, Collingwood and British Idealist Studies, 14
(2008) 94.
Further evidence: on the same page, we nd that he sits the God or nature of Spinoza and the
Good of Plato next door, and speaks of that same subject matter whose aspect as truth is
studied by logic, and its aspect as goodness by ethics. (EPM 127). Later on he argues that the
various philosophical sciences, instead of treating each a separate subject matter of its own,
should be regarded as treating each a distinct aspect of one and the same subject matter. (EPM
188) It should be noted that this view is not unusual, but rather common to many of the
Idealists. For example, Bosanquet and Bradley also thought the object of metaphysics is not
dierent from that of ethics. (Principle of Individuality and Value, 298; AR 131).
do participate in and progress towards it. Again an existential beginning
is made that can only grow as the science progresses.
In both cases, the broad argument pattern is the same: Collingwood
argues that the subject is neither purely descriptive (dealing a posteriori with
contingent and categorical matters of fact) nor purely normative (dealing a
priori with necessary and hypothetical relations of ideas) for, as he explains
to Ryle,75 rejecting Humes fork the division of all possible subjects into
just these two he holds out instead for some species of synthetic a priori.
But in neither case is there some single existential claim that should be held
up as the result of the argument, for Collingwood is here sketching but the
opening step of an argument that needs to be developed. The moral and
logical ideals cannot be normative only, they have ontological implication,
but as we know them they exist only in part, and as with Hegel, the full
development of that insight requires the whole system. But even if
incomplete, the insight is of monumental signicance, for the two cases
agree in their common core that philosophical thinking, when pursued
rigorously to its very end, leads to a result that cannot be regarded as
possible only. As Collingwood himself puts it

thought, when it follows its own bent most completely and sets itself the task
of thinking out the idea of an object that shall completely satisfy the demands
of reason, may appear to be constructing a mere ens rationis, but in fact is
never devoid of objective or ontological reference.76

Philosophy employs ideas to study ideas, hence it cannot separate its

knowing from what it knows, but where it pursues the broadest possible
categories as they t into a system that lies forever beyond its eorts, it is
wrong to downsize its conclusions to the merely conceptual or
epistemological. The reality of such ideas is no less robust than that of
the Realists things and considerably more so than that of anything to be
found in anyones head. Recent interest in Collingwood, however, has
tended to downplay any such suggestion of metaphysical construction,
instead portraying his philosophical work as one of conceptual exploration
only. From this perspective, his commitment to Anselms argument has
looked awkward, and eorts have been made to neuter its ontological
boldness. He has been portrayed as rehabilitating the argument in the sense
of re-deploying it to make, not some old-fashioned and indefensible
assertion of ontology, but rather an epistemological claim about objects of

It is crucial to see that this passage about ethics concerns moral ideals not just moral ideas.
Collingwoods point is not just that moral ideas exist in consciousness. The claim is they exist
and work, i.e. value is a reality not just an idea. It is impossible for it to be just an idea: the
instruction imagine a world where things mattered or were worth more than others is to us
EPM 259.
EPM 125.

possible cognition; specically about the range of concepts needed to think

any possible world at all.77 While it is not the place here to attempt a full
interpretation of Collingwoods metaphysics, I would like to suggest that the
context in which we have placed it encourages us to take a rather less
existentially innocent reading of Collingwoods ontological argument.
Signicance has been placed in this regard on Collingwoods claim in his
correspondence with Ryle that propositions like God exists, minds exist,
matter exists, and their contraries, do not assert or deny particular matters
of fact, nor . . . anything which can be adequately described as collections or
classes of matters of fact.78 For Collingwood a statement like Mind exists
is not (as for Ryle) a particular statement, equivalent to some minds exist,
but rather a universal claim. But Collingwood was hardly breaking new
ground here. The thought that God exists or the Absolute exists does not
assert any particular fact or facts would hardly have been new to Bradley or
the other Idealists. For they too were clear that the Absolute is not a thing,
or set of things, or even the sum of all things; rather it is a universal (the
supreme universal) expressed in the concrete specicities of individual
things, the underlying principle which expresses itself through all things.79
For Collingwood, as for the British Idealists (and Hegel and Plato before
them), the universal is prior to the class of particulars exemplifying it; unlike
for Ryle, the empirical tradition and all nominalists, for whom the universal
is but a secondary abstraction from the class.80
But applicability or not of the formula x exists is hardly enough to settle
all ontological questions. The Idealists (as we have seen) were well aware
that such questions are far from simple. They knew that statements of
existence were at the lowest level, focusing their real interest on issues of the
true nature of what it is that exists, that is, on questions of reality. What
matters is not the existence of the Absolute but its reality; its status as
supreme category underlying or capping all others. In the same way
Collingwoods interest is in the universals that underlay our thought, rather
than in which individual things do or do not exist. But it does not thereby
follow that this is not a concern with reality. That Collingwoods import at
this juncture is not ontologically deationary, as has been thought, is

Collingwoods goal was not to establish that there are synthetic a priori propositions in the
sense that there is an additional set of propositions which are necessary and existential (DOro,
Collingwood and the Metaphysics of Experience, 75). It should not be interpreted in a strong
ontological sense (Vrijen, C. Ryle and Collingwood: Their Correspondence and Its
Philosophical Context, British Journal for History of Philosophy, 14 (2006) 106). They express
methodologically necessary claims rather than existentially necessary ones (DOro, Robin
George Collingwood, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), (2006)
x5.2). Collingwoods aims are primarily epistemological and conceptual (Leach Collingwoods
Ontological Argument 103).
EPM 258.
Bradley, Reality (we must repeat this) is not the sum of things. It is the unity in which all
things, coming together, are transmuted (AR 432).
EPM 292.

conrmed further up the same page where he complains to Ryle, what you
are doing here, I think, is to assume that whatever really exists is a
particular matter of fact.81 The implication of this, when he goes on to
deny that God exists, mind exists and such like assert particular matters
of fact, is that this does not thereby exclude them from being about what
really exists. Collingwoods fundamental categories are those reason brings
us to in its attempt to make sense of experience, those which distinguish the
real from the unreal.
Another passage which has drawn the attention of those who would
deate Collingwoods metaphysical pretensions occurs in the later Essay on
Metaphysics. Now, it has been held that there occurred a radical break in
Collingwoods thought between 1933 and 1940, an abandonment of the view
that metaphysics is the study of being, an abandonment even of Idealism.
But since not all commentators are agreed on that point,82 his discussion of
the ontological argument in that book is worth noting:

Whatever may have been in Anselms mind when he wrote the Proslogion, his
exchange of correspondence with Gaunilo shows beyond a doubt that on
reection he regarded the fool who hath said in his heart, There is no God as
a fool not because he was blind to the actual existence of un nomme Dieu [one
named God], but because he did not know that the presupposition God exists
was a presupposition he himself made . . . What it proves is not that because
our idea of God is an idea of id quo maius cogitari nequit [something greater
than which nothing can be thought] therefore God exists, but that because our
idea of God is an idea of id quo maius cogitari nequit we stand committed to
belief in Gods existence.83

This passage is commonly read as saying something like: The ontological

argument is not about actual existence but about what we have to believe.
However, informed by what we have seen thus far, another reading is
possible which goes:
The ontological argument is not about jumping from a subjective idea to an
external reality nothing can do that84 rather it is about seeing that the mere
idea fully thought through and developed leads to a system of thought which
includes belief in the existence of God.

What Collingwood is telling us is that while there is no magic transition

from inner idea to corresponding external reality, the ontological argument

EPM 258.
For the discontinuity thesis, see Knox Preface to R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History
(Oxford, 1946) and Donagan, The Later Philosophy of R.G. Collingwood (Oxford, 1962)
(Chapters1 and 10). For the opposing view, see Connelly, Method, Metaphysics and Politics.
The Political Philosophy of R.G. Collingwood (Exeter, 2003) Chapter 1.
Essay on Metaphysics, 189190.
Collingwood is explicit that the suggestion that the argument attempts to go from mere
thought to the existence of its object is a baseless accusation (EPM 125).

was never about the contrast between the idea of God and his actual
existence, but rather about the way in which the idea of God (or indeed any
properly philosophical idea) leads onto, or culminates in, which is to say,
presupposes, belief in the existence of God.
The very distinction between a conceptual and an ontological idealism
works only so long as we hold onto a clear distinction between the realm of
ideas in here and the realm of things out there. Neither Collingwood nor
the British Idealists believed in a kind of magic that could vault from the
purely conceptual to the robustly ontological, but they both absorbed
deeply Hegels thought that, once we leave behind the simple and one-sided
distinction between subject and object, between the representing and the
represented, there is no reason why thought should not indeed every
reason why it must uncover for us the ultimate nature of reality itself.
Where the real is the rational to outline conceptual necessity is to outline
ontological necessity.
To conclude, it is fashionable to think that the positivists were right to
accuse their predecessors of culpable ontologising but that Collingwood was
falsely lumped in with those reckless metaphysicians; freed from their crude
assumptions, he was innocent of such metaphysical sin. My suggestion, re-
connecting his ontological argument with that of the other British Idealists,
challenges that view. But my proposal is a modest one, in that I would
suggest a measure of movement is called for on both sides, reducing the
apparent distance between the two parties. Collingwood is more ontological
than has been thought of recent times, but the British Idealists are
ontologically more subtle than the common caricatures of them might make
us think.

Harris Manchester College


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