The main trend of the arguments put forward and the conclusions arrived at by a group of bold thinkers, who are usually known as the Neo-Hegelian idealists, and whose avowed purpose was to construct a powerful metaphysical system originating in the critical idealism of Kant and founded on the logical absolutism of Hegel, are perhaps the greatest approximations of Western thought to the all-comprehensive philosophy of the Vedanta. The arguments of these idealists cover very extensive fields and do not always follow the same method. They admit of differences among themselves regarding certain essential points and come not to identical views in regard to the nature of Reality, though they are all ultimately idealists of the Hegelian type in one way or the other. Some of these system-builders actually attempt to rise beyond Hegel by their originality and reorientation of the idealistic tradition. We shall however confine ourselves here to a discussion of the views of the more advanced among them, whose doctrines come nearest to the Vedanta. Their fundamental teachings lead more or less to the view that Reality is an all-embracing Absolute-Consciousness, that all objects of experience, including the subjective minds, are comprehended in this Consciousness, and that the Absolute which is the whole determines its parts by the law of internal relations.
The general position of the more prominent among the Neo-Hegelians is that mind and matter are correlative aspects of Reality and do not have independent existence. The Absolute, they hold, is a harmonious unity in which all contradiction is reconciled, transmuted and absorbed. The subject and the object have a meaning only in so far as they are related to each other as aspects of this universal whole. The perception of objects by the subject is not really the movement of thought outside itself but the recognition of its own universal nature in regions which remained hitherto undiscovered, and thus perception constitutes a kind of self-expansion of the subject. Life's unrest is really a spiritual unrest, an indication of the need to realise what one is not now actually but is potentially, to aspire to experience the Absolute. Every finite entity tries to grow towards its self-completion in this highest being. This unrest explains all the activities and processes of the universe at all times. The yearning for the whole cannot cease in the parts, for their true self is the whole.
The finitude of beings is not their full explanation. Every finite object is inextricably related to that which causes its limitation. Finitude is not self-existent but is determined by the presence of other finite objects. Such finites are infinite in number. Any particular finite is determined in an infinite relevence to the rest of the universe and has the principle of its negation imbedded in itself. Thus a single experience includes within itself the infinite and the finite, the former by implication and the latter by feeling. The finite struggles to be rid of its finitude and is continuously engaged in the act of overcoming itself in the infinite. Nothing that is finite can be real, for it has a tendency to outgrow itself in a consciousness that surpasses all finite existences. The infinite consciousness is not merely a collection of finites, but an indivisible whole which transcends the finites in every way and constitutes an organic completeness. The infinite is eternal, Reality, the Absolute. It is perfectly self-determined, nothing else can determine it.
Thomas Hill Green, a great pioneer in the movement of this interpretation of absolute idealism, argues that all relations, whether in sensation or perception, require to be synthesised in order to form contents of a single grasp of knowledge. This synthesis of the manifold of sensations and perceptions is impossible without a synthesising consciousness. Even the existence of the related terms cannot be accounted for without a non-relative consciousness that lies behind relations. This consciousness must be spiritual because it is supernatural, above the appearances of Nature. Consciousness cannot change, for, if it does, it would have to be known by another changeless consciousness persisting through change; else we would end in an infinite regress in our search for the very possibility of a knowledge of change. Consciousness is eternal, for its cessation is inconceivable. If we can think of its cessation, our consciousness ought to survive its cessation, and we would again land in a deathless consciousness. Consciousness should also be universal, for it relates the objects of the whole universe. It is not merely my sensations and perceptions that are synthesised but also the various objects present in the universe. The consciousness that relates objects outside is not my personal mind, for the objects are out there independent of me. Hence, there must be a universal consciousness in which all objects and subjects are held together.
The natural or human consciousness is a limited mode of the supernatural Absolute. Man, as a finite organism, appears to be bound to the flux of the natural consciousness which works with sensations and perceptions. Here it is that he is constrained by necessity and subjected to the laws of the universe and of God. But the essence of man is spiritual consciousness which is the same as the eternal Divine Being. Here man is free and is not determined by any law. His law is the law of absolute freedom. For Green, the goal of life is Self-realisation. It is the highest good of man. The Absolute is revealed here as the universe, and so one can see it everywhere with one's eyes. All activity becomes, thus, a divine worship, a practice of religion in daily life.
Western metaphysical idealism reaches its consummation in Francis Herbert Bradley. His 'Appearance and Reality' is a masterpiece of logical precision and dialectical skill. Bradley attempts to comprehend the universe as a whole, and not in parts or fragments. He examines a relative experience with its distinctions of primary and secondary qualities, substance and attribute, qualities and relations, space and time, causation, individual self, etc., and finds that all its constituents are self-contradictory and thus rejects them as mere appearance. Relational categories end in a vicious circle. Terms and relations result in mere correlatives. There is no reality to be discovered in phenomena. The whole universe is phenomenal.
But appearances exist. They must have a basis. Rejection of appearances is at the same time an affirmation of Reality. That the contradicted is appearance proves that the non-contradicted is the Reality. All judgement implies a standard of truth. Any attempt to doubt or deny Reality turns out to be an affirmation of it. Even appearances must find a place in Reality, for they somehow exist. But they must exist in Reality in such a way that they do not contradict themselves. The being of Reality consists in harmonious experience. This experience is not personal or subjective but the essence of the Absolute. We have in us inklings of this experience in an immediate, undivided blending of thought, volition and feeling. This experience is prior to all distinction and difference and is given in the form of a 'this', a consciousness of a wholeness in which it is not divided into the 'that' and the 'what', the subject and the predicate. Bradley's experience is not the Anubhava or Sakshatkara of the Vedanta, but a unity of the functions of the psychological apparatus in an aboriginal feeling below the clear-cut distinction of the knower and the known that appears later in the operations of the intellect.
The Absolute is the satisfaction of our whole being and every aspiration and value has to find its fulfilment in it. It is the joy at once of intellect, will and emotion. It has no one-sided aspects, but is always complete in itself. It has no external differentiations. External differentiations would require their terms to be related in a larger whole of undifferentiated experience, or else they would lead to an infinite regress of relations. The finite modes of the Absolute are all internally related, and the relations determine the terms related by being their essential aspects. Reality must be an independent, absolute Being realised in consciousness. This Being is neither the unknown nor the unknowable. It is not known in thought which has the habit of dissecting experience into the subject and the object. To know the Absolute, thought has to commit suicide. But the Absolute is known in an immediate presentation, a feeling of the nature of direct apprehension. Bradley is no mystic in any sense; he confines his 'immediate experience' to a function in us, finite beings, which may be said to be, in a way, the raw material of the psychological phenomena that present to us in their empirical state a mass of diversities. But, Bradley is about to stumble on the ground of the Vedanta when he says that the relational categories and functionings of the intellect give us a self-contradicting vicious realm of appearances, and that, though we cannot, therefore, know the Absolute through the logic of the intellect, we are forced to accept its reality in a consciousness which is non-relative and a whole. Kant and Hegel, too, had in them this immediacy of presentation in consciousness, on account of which they unquestioningly posited a transcendental unity of apperception and a trans-empirical Absolute, respectively, though they were disinclined to accept any kind of intuitive feeling due to their rigorous adherence to the laws of the intellect. Bradley recognises a deeper experience in which appearances are transmuted and absorbed to form a consistent system.
There are, however, a few difficulties which prevent us from identifying Bradley's Absolute with the Brahman of the Vedanta. Bradley conceives of Reality as a harmonious system, a unity in diversity. He does not rise to the thought that a system is a harmony of relations and that the consciousness that relates the terms of the relations cannot itself be a system of relations. Consciousness must be above relations, transcending the region of system which is valid only in the realm of space-time. Otherwise, the system of the Absolute would have to be built by another non-relational consciousness. Bradley says that the Absolute stands above its internal relations, which means that it is not merely a harmonised system but pure being; rather Be-ness. Reality is not in need of appearances; and the idea of harmony and relation and system belongs to appearances.
When the related parts of the Absolute are included in its fullness, they are also transcended in it. Bradley retains in his Absolute some aspects of the Ishvara of the Vedanta and makes it not fully identical with Brahman. For Bradley the Absolute is unknowable by us, finite beings, but he does not show us the way to overcome our finitude and know it in its infinitude. His 'immediate feeling' is not the experience or realisation of the Absolute; it is merely a hint at the possibility of such an experience. The Vedanta has a perfect practical discipline and method for realising it in one's pure Self. The Absolute is directly known through profound reflection and meditation.
Intellectual logic attaches too much importance to the categories of relative experience and wants all appearance to be taken to Reality. The defect of logic consists not so much in differentiating the 'what' from the 'that' as in assigning to the 'what' a value independent of the 'that'. Appearances are not, as Bradley supposes, transmuted in Reality, but Reality in the consciousness of itself is divested of the relational vestures in which it is presented to the empirical mind. Appearance is not Reality, however much it may be transmuted. Appearance is the objectified character of Reality, and when this character is negatived in the immediacy of experience, it is not appearance that becomes Reality, but it is Reality free from objectification that knows itself as such.
The Neo-Hegelians, even such great leaders like Green and Bradley, do not free themselves from the notion that there is, somehow, some worth in the realm of relative perception, which has to be imported to Reality. Green thinks that there is no consciousness without object, no Absolute without the universe. The latter becomes necessary for the former to be what it is. Bradley is willing to take appearance to Reality by a transmutation of values and a change in significance, and to be contented with a harmonious system of Reality. This is exactly what the Vedanta does while it fixes the position of the empirical individuals in Ishvara. But this technique will not be feasible when we judge the state of the individuals in Brahman. Brahman does not admit of any phenomenal category in itself, even by way of transmutation; it accepts only itself and nothing else. The universe is necessary for Ishvara; his universal consciousness requires a universal object. But Brahman exists in its own essence, it needs no objects in order to exist. Empirical consciousness cannot be without an object, and Ishvara is the highest empirical envisaged by us. But Brahman is metempirical and its reality is in its consciousness alone, independent of relations. Green does not notice this distinction, and Bradley unwittingly mixes up with the Absolute characters which really belong to appearance, though lifted up to a universal necessity. The necessity of thought need not be the constitution of Reality. A failure to take notice of appearance as only an abstract presentation of objectifiedness as distinguished from the Reality that underlies it is responsible for the attribution of empirical categories to 'That' which is by its own right, in its supreme independence.