Hegel, british idealism, and the curious case of the concrete universal

[INTRODUCTION] 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. 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, 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the episode known as British Idealism can appear to be a period that is lost to us, in its language, points of historical reference (Lotze, Sigwart, Jevons), and central preoccupations (the Absolute).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 Idealists focussed their attention and claimed to have uncovered that 'exotic' but 'vanished specimen', the concrete universal. 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, 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 topic
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DOI 10.1080/09608780601088002
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