Hegel and Kant on the Ontological Argument

Maria de Lourdes Borges

Federal University of Santa Catarina, Florianopolis, Brazil


ABSTRACT: I intend to present Kant's refutation of the ontological argument as confronted by Hegel's critique of Kant's refutation. The ontological argument can be exposed in a syllogistic way: everything I conceive as belonging clearly and distinctly to the nature or essence of something can be asserted as true of something. I perceive clearly and distinctly that existence belongs to the nature or essence of a perfect being; therefore, existence can be stated as true of a supremely perfect being, that is, perfect being exists. I intend to argue that Kant criticizes both the major and minor premises. To the major premise, he objects that there is an unqualified passage from the logical to the ontological level. To the minor premise, he objects that existence is not a concept predicate. Finally, I will show how Hegel criticizes Kant's refutation. To the former, Kant's critique is naïve as he could prove that existence is not inherent to a finite being's concept, which is not the concept of God.

I. The Ontological Argument

Kant's refutation of the ontological argument-which states that from the concept of a being containing every perfection it is possible to infer its existence-is well known: "In whatever manner the understanding may have arrived at a concept, the existence of its object is never, by any process of analysis, discoverable within it; for the knowledge of the existence of the object consists precisely in the fact that the object is posited in itself, beyond the (mere) thought of it" (KrV,B667, trans. Kemp Smith)

Existence being neither a predicate nor a perfection, it cannot be inferred from the concept of the most perfect being beyond its concept. Kant's criticism aims at ontological argument (1) as presented by Descartes in the fifth Meditation. Dicker (2) summarized its steps as follows:

1) Everything I conceive as belonging clear and distinctly to the nature or essence of something can be asserted as true of something;

2) I perceive clearly and distinctly that existence belongs to the nature or essence of a supremely perfect being;

Therefore, existence can be stated as true of a supremely perfect being, that is, a supremely perfect being exists.

Premise 2 holds the central idea of the ontological argument: it implies that existence is a property or quality, and as such should take part of the essence of a supremely perfect being. Such conception could be expressed in the following derived argument:

1) All perfections belong clearly and distinctly to the essence of a supremely perfect being;

2) Existence is a perfection therefore, existence belongs to the essence of a supremely perfect being

II. Kant's Refutation of the Ontological Argument

Kant's criticism aims at both premises of the main argument. To the major premise, he objects that there is an unjustified passage from the logical to the ontological level: "But the unconditioned necessity of judgments is not the same as an absolute necessity of things. The absolute necessity of the judgments is only a conditioned necessity of the thing, or of the predicate in the judgment" (KrV, B621)

In other words, to conceive that S is P doesn't imply the necessary existence of S. Such proposition requires not the absolute necessity of something but a conditioned necessity: something should be given as existing before predicates could be stated of it. No predicate can, by itself, assert the existence of the subject. Ignorance of this simple truth turns the ontological argument into an illusion. Strawson (32) puts it in a contemporary vocabulary:

"To form a concept, however rich, is one thing; to declare it instantiated is another. Logical or analytical necessity relates solely to the connection of concepts with one another. No concept can logically guarantee its own intantiation in something not itself a concept."

In fact, such argument departs from a necessity of the predicate in this proposition (existence is a necessary predicate of the concept of god) to infer the necessity of the very existence of the subject of the judgment. Further, it entlacks that the opposite proposition (that is, God doesn't exist) would imply a contradiction. In Kant's words:

"If, in an identical proposition, I reject the pedicure while retaining the subject, contradiction results; and I therefore say that the former belongs necessarily to the latter. But if we reject subject and predicate alike, there is no contradiction; for nothing is then left that can be contradicted" (KrV, B623)

It could be sustained that given God, the necessary predicates of its concept should be verified as God's predicates. However, if we suppress the existence, every other predicate of God could not be verified without contradiction. "The omnipotence cannot be rejected if we posit a Deity, that is, an infinite being; for the two concepts are identical. But, if we say, "There is no God," neither the omnipotence nor any other of its predicates is given; they are one and all rejected together with the subject, and there is therefore not the least contradiction in such a judgment" (KrV, B623)

Kant states there would be a contradiction only if, given the subject, the necessary predicates of its concept weren't verified. But the suppression of the subject together with the predicates wouldn't imply a contradiction.

As to the minor premise, Kant's argues that existence shouldn't be considered a predicate. Being cannot be a determination of the concept of God; on the contrary, it requires having the realm of thought, positing as existing what was before just conceived.

According to Kant, the refutation of the ontological argument entails the refutation of the cosmological argument. The later infers the existence of a necessary being from the existence in general. Kant states it briefly: "If anything exists, an absolutely necessary being must also exist" (B633).

This argument, which Leibniz called contingentia mundi argues that every contingent being must have a cause, which in its turn must have another, which, if contingent, must have its cause, until this chain of causes reaches an absolute and necessary cause. Such cause is God.

The cosmological argument requires a necessary cause for the causal chain. It departs from the experience of the world's contingency. That is, according to the hegelian conception, it departs from the finite. From the contingency of the existent, we reach, through a chain of causes, an absolutely necessary cause. But in this last step, we apply the causal law unduly, going away from the nature of possible Knowledge. In addition this argument is weakened because it's indebted to the contested ontological argument. The cosmological argument relies on experience to infer the existence of a being necessary in general. However, experience won't inform the properties of such a being. When it comes to this point, the cosmological argument conveniently finds its way out of experience, relying on reason to inform us the predicates such being should possess. Those would be the properties of the real being, the one whose essence existence belongs. But I can only Know existence belongs to its essence through the ontological argument, since it had already been refuted, the cosmological argument lacks solid ground.

III. The Hegel Criticism of Kant's Refutation

Concerning the concept of an existing infinite Being, Kant conceives as distinct what previous philosophical thought had conceived as united. And he proceeds to do so referring to an example taken from finite beings. Hegel disdains Kant's argument as naive and barbarian. How trivial would be to state that being and concept are different in finite beings? (4)

According to Hegel, Kant's barbarous triviality lies on the fact that we all know that concept and being cannot be united in finite beings. But the ontological proof refers to the infinite being.

According to Hegel, Kant should either criticize the philosophical postulation of an identity no man could recognize-that of being and concept in finite beings- or, while denying existence to be a predicate of finite beings, should also deny existence to be a predicate of the concept of any being, including an infinite one. Hegel refers to the use by Kant of a finite being to refute the ontological argument. In fact, Kant does so, employing the example of a hundred thalers:

"A hundred real thalers do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible thalers. For as the latter signify the concept, and the former the object and the positing of the object, should the former contain more than the latter, my concept would not, in that case, express the whole object, and would not therefore be an adequate concept of it. (...) For the object, as it actually exists is not analytically contained in my concept, but is added to my concept ... synthetically; and yet the conceived hundred thalers are not themselves in the least increased through thus acquiring existence outside my concept." (KrV, B627)

Therefore, Kant's refutation of the ontological argument would in fact ignore , Hegel would say, that existence is stated as a predicate of the infinite being only and not of a hundred thalers or some other finite being. But, although Hegel intends to criticize Kant's refutation, it doesn't mean that he could make the ontological proof more acceptable. Hegel is now with the onus probandi: to show that, although existence is not a descriptive predicate of a finite being, it could be so when we talk about God. At this point, he gives up demonstration and prefers to come back to Anselm's ancient proof: (5) to understand God's concept is to Know that he could not be just a concept, that he must also exist.

In overcoming Kant's naiveté, Hegel will take the steps of a metaphysical inquiry, toward the knowing and the proving of the Absolute.


(1) The ontological argument was first stated by Anselm in the Proslogium, Anselm defines God as a being related to whom nothing superior can be conceived. He inquires on the possible existence of such a being in ours mind only, that is , as an object of thought. The answer is negative, for such a being would be one related to whom a superior could be conceived. The ontological argument presented by Descartes in the fifth Meditation is essentially a modern version of Anselm's argument.

(2) G. Dicker, Descartes: an analytical and historical introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

(3) Strawson, The bounds of Sense, London, Routledge, 1966, p. 225.

(4) Cf.Hegel, Enzyklopädie der philosophichen Wissenschaften, SuhrKamp, ed. Moldenhauer Michel, , & 51

(5) Cf.Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion, ed. Jaeschke, III, p.324.