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Hegel's Dialectical, Logic, Metaphysics & Phenomenology

Hegel German philosopher (1770–1831)

Immerse yourself in the world of German Idealism through this exploration of Hegel's Logic, Metaphysics, Dialectical , and Phenomenology of Philosophy! 

Dive deep into Hegel's philosophical system with this exploration of his Logic, Metaphysics, Dialectical , & Phenomenology! Gain insights into how German Idealism can impact your understanding of life and the world around you through a study of key concepts from each school of thought.

What is German Idealism? 

German Idealism is a philosophical movement that placed emphasis on understanding reality through our conceptions of it, as well as possibilities for freedom within logical frameworks. Led by German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, this school of thought proposed the concept of Absolute Idealism - the idea that truth and becoming-ness must always be seen together, in opposition to each other, thus creating a dynamic unity between human experience and the cosmic order in which it exists. 

Hegel's Dialectical

Hegel life and works

G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) was influenced by three separate intellectual movements: first, and most importantly, by post-Kantian idealism and by Kant himself. Secondly, by Christianity, and in particular by New Testament theology, to the subject of which much of Hegel’s early writing was devoted. (Hegel sought to give the complete exposition of the thought that ‘in the beginning was the Word’.) Finally, in his outlook and manner, by the literature of late German romanticism, for which he provided an elaborate philosophical justification. Hegel was a highly cultivated man of letters, and a friend of many of the artistic figures of his day, notably of the poet Hölderlin. Despite his bohemian entourage, however, he did not allow the fashion for romantic despair to overcome his will for success and establishment, and ended his life as the revered and comfortable official philosopher in the Prussian state which, by a happy but characteristic turn of thought, he had foretold as the highest expression of the political life of man.

To many of Hegel’s contemporaries it did indeed seem true that the key to the mysteries of the universe had been found, and that Hegel’s implicit claim to utter the ultimate truth about everything should be upheld. Since his death the course of philosophy has been, to put it roughly, a process of steady disillusionment with Hegel, culminating in the vigorous rejection of his thought and method by analytical philosophers in the early years of the twentieth century. But even in our century his influence is felt. His philosophy of ‘being’ survives in amended form in the writings of Heidegger, and his theory of self-knowledge is present, in some version or other, in most of the major works of phenomenology, and in most theories of art. 

Hegel' s major works

There are three specific works which will concern us, all published in Hegel’s lifetime: The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), The Science of Logic (1812–1816) and The Philosophy of Right (1821). The first two are notorious for their difficulty, in despite of which they have spawned interpretations and rival philosophies by the thousand.  Hegel’s lectures, published after his death, contain influential works on aesthetics and the philosophy of history; while the Encyclopedia (1817, enlarged 1827) adumbrates an entire system in which science, logic, mind, art, morality and religion are given their respective situations, and in which the whole of the world, as it appears to reason, is blessed, as it were, by an act of philosophical recognition. 

Introduce Hegel's Dialectical Philosophy.

The term ‘dialectic’ was used by Plato to describe the method of Socrates, who sought philosophical truth through disputation. Kant had given a far more precise meaning to the term, and it was this meaning which Hegel adopted, to make use of it in a manner wholly antipathetic to the Critical philosophy. The second—negative—part of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason had been devoted to exploring the fallacies which attend the attempt to pass from the circumscribed realm of the ‘understanding’ into the limitless space of ‘pure reason’. In its desire for absolute truth, human reason commits itself only to the absolute falsehood of self contradiction. Kant’s diagnosis of the fallacies of pure reason contained a section called the ‘Antinomy of Pure Reason’ . 

Here Kant had tried to describe certain contradictions into which reason strays in its ambition to pass from the circumscribed viewpoint of empirical knowledge to the realm of absolute cosmology, in which the ‘whole’ of things is grasped as it is in itself, independently of the limitations imposed by our perceptual capacities.  it is not entirely clear whether he is saying that the limits of human understanding and the limits of truth are one and the same, or whether, on the contrary, he is gesturing towards a world of ‘things-in-themselves’ about which we can at least know that we do not know them. Because of this ambiguity it was possible for Hegel to interpret Kant’s ‘critique’ of pure reason as heralding its eventual celebration. 

The Kantian contradictions, Hegel thought, were only contradictions from the limited point of view of the understanding. They therefore provided a kind of logical impetus to transcend that point of view into the world of pure reason itself, from the perspective of which these and many other contradictions could be resolved. (To take an analogy: sitting in a railway carriage moving away from a station I suffer the illusion that the station is slipping backwards. I also believe that the station is motionless and that I am going forward. These two judgements form a contradiction which is ‘resolved’ when, in ascending to the impartial standpoint of scientific discourse, I recognise that they both presuppose a fallacious, egocentric view of motion. The truth of the matter consists in a relative movement whose nature can be fully grasped only by a scientific theory that assigns no importance to my limited personal perspective.)

Thus while Kant had used the word ‘dialectic’ to refer to the propensity to fall into contradictions, Hegel used it to mean the propensity to transcend them. This process of transcendence is the true course of logic, and ‘dialectic’ is the name for the intellectual pursuit whose endpoint is not limited or partial, but on the contrary, absolute truth itself. ‘A deeper insight into the antinomies or, rather, into the dialectic nature of Reason shows us…that every concept is a unity of opposite moments, which could therefore be asserted in the shape of an antinomy.’

What then is the structure of reason’s dialectic? 

It should be recognised that the terms of Hegel’s logic are not propositions or judgements, but rather concepts: and it is concepts, in his view, that are true or false. Falsehood is a form of limitation or incompleteness, whereas truth is a form of wholeness, a transcendence of all limitation. (Here and elsewhere we see the influence of Spinoza.) Dialectic is the method of progression among concepts, whereby a ‘more true’ (or, as Spinoza might say, ‘more adequate’) concept is generated from inadequate beginnings, through overcoming the oppositions intrinsic to them.

The dialectical process is, then, as follows: a concept is posited as a starting-point. It is offered as a potential description of reality. It is found at once that, from the standpoint of logic, this concept must bring its own negation with it: to the concept, its negative is added automatically, and a ‘struggle’ ensues between the two. The struggle is resolved by an ascent to the higher plane from which it can be comprehended and reconciled: this ascent is the process of ‘diremption’ (Aufhebung), which generates a new concept out of the ruins of the last. This new concept generates its own negation, and so the process continues, until, by successive applications of the dialectic, the whole of reality has been laid bare.

These temporal similes would be less puzzling if it were not also the case that Hegel thought of historical processes in dialectical terms—as the successive generation and overcoming of contradictions. And it is this aspect of Hegel, put forward overtly in the lectures on the philosophy of history, but covertly elsewhere, that has been the most influential, perhaps because the most intelligible, of his theories. It often seems that the whole of Hegelian metaphysics points towards a logical and historical interpretation at once. 

To some extent this reflects a confusion on Hegel’s part, between logic conceived as a science of the relations among ideas, and logic conceived as the intellectual operation whereby those relations are discovered. Clearly, if it is true that we must undergo some dialectical process in order to know logical relations, this is a fact about us, and not about logic. But even this confusion can be glimpsed only obscurely, since Hegel writes at a level of abstraction so great as to attribute the process of thinking not to any particular subject, but rather to a general subject of thought. Logic becomes, in the end, the history, or perhaps the anatomy, of an eternal, impersonal ‘concept’.

This notion becomes a little clearer if we examine the beginning and the end of the dialectical process, and say something about the course between them. 

Understand the Triad - Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.

At the core of Hegel’s dialectical philosophy is what is now famously known as the triad – thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The idea being that for every idea or concept (known collectively as a thesis) there is its opposite (the antithesis). These two conflicted points of view eventually culminate in a third resolution (the synthesis), combining aspects of both into a new interesting outlook on the topic discussed. This dialectic eliminates any simplification of complex ideas but also makes them more robust and concrete. The entire process relies heavily on an individual’s capacity to think dynamically and synthetically by questioning existing assumptions at hand. According to Hegel's dialectical philosophy, thesis stands for an existing idea or concept that is then challenged by another doctrine known as the antithesis. This new conflicting view produces a synthesis, which seeks to combine and reconcile these two ideas in order to create an evolved understanding. Through this process we can arrive at deeper understandings of our own thoughts, experiences and ideologies.

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Hegel's logic and metaphysics

In one sense it was unfortunate that Hegel sought to found his philosophy in a general theory of logic, and particularly unfortunate that he should have advanced the theory of the ‘dialectic’ as containing the whole of metaphysics, thus illustrating, in Bertrand Russell’s words, ‘an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise’. Hegel imagined himself to be replacing the empty formalism of the neo- Aristotelian logic with a new science, which has both form and content, and from which the nature of metaphysical truth can be derived. He therefore invented a new starting, point for logic, which was to deal, not with the formal structure of argument, but with the nature of Being itself. Logic deals with truth, not merely in the formal sense of telling us which arguments preserve truth, but in the substantive sense of telling us what truth is, and hence what is true (the ‘is’ here being an ‘is’ of identity).

 Hegel’s logic is in stark contrast with traditional theories, which see logical relations as timeless, determined not by content but by structure. A thought does not need time, one feels, in which to generate its consequences: indeed it is the essence of a logical consequence that it is inseparable from the thought itself: a logical consequence can be neither lost nor acquired. Yet Hegel thinks of concepts as moving towards a greater grasp of reality, and he speaks of the ‘working through’ of the dialectic as being necessary both to the truth and to the meaning of the result. He refers to the successive stages as ‘moments’, which have to be ‘overcome’, in the act of ‘diremption’ whereby a new concept is born.

That ambitious project is apt to look eccentric in the light of the development of modern logic. This logic has removed from its subject matter not only the metaphysics of Hegel, but also the particular brand of formalism advanced by Aristotle. It is therefore now necessary to read Hegel with more attention to detail, and less respect for system, than he himself would have countenanced. The surprising thing, however, is that his ‘dialectical’ philosophy still seems both important and often acceptable.

The starting-point of logic is, for Hegel, not arbitrary. Modern conceptions of logic have tended to the view that logic is an instrument whereby the consequences of some premise are derived. Logic is powerless to give knowledge until the premise is determined. This was emphatically not Hegel’s view, who thought that the premise of logic is determined by logic itself. The premise of logic is ‘pure indeterminate being’—being conceived without any of the particular determinations through which it makes itself manifest to the understanding. Being is the single great a priori concept, from reflecting on the nature of which we arrive at an a priori theory of reality. (The modern logician will be reluctant, as we shall see, to admit that there is any such concept as that of pure being: this only shows that Hegel’s metaphysics can no longer be so easily disguised as a logic, with all the incontestability which that label implies.)

Logic begins, then, from ‘being’, and advances towards its conclusion, which is the ‘absolute idea or truth itself’. This absolute idea is thought and reality at once: it is like the God of Spinoza, who comprehends the whole of things and, being identical with that whole, exists thinking Himself. Each concept in the dialectical process that leads to this supreme conception is obtained from that of being by a sequence of dialectical transformations.

Imagine a kind of impersonal dialectical ‘thought’, or thinker, attempting to understand the world. It has nothing available to it but thought and so must put forward, as its sole instrument of knowledge, the ‘concepts’ which enlighten it. Of necessity it begins from the single most indeterminate concept—that which is contained in all concepts and yet which is logically precedent to them, the concept of being. But what is being, considered as ‘unmediated’ by reflection, and as free from extraneous determinations? It is, surely, nothing, or (as the English translators of Hegel prefer to write it) Nothing. (Cf. Berkeley’s arguments against the Lockean substratum.) Hence the concept of being contains within itself its own negation—nothing—and the dialectical opposition between these two concepts is resolved only in the passage to a new concept. This concept is ‘becoming’, which captures the truth contained in that previous opposition, the truth of the passage of being into nothing and nothing into being. To our impersonal thinker the world now appears as becoming rather than as being, and this perception is ‘truer’ than the preceding one, although as yet far short of that absolute truth in which all such oppositions will be resolved.

Becoming seems to be a specifically ‘temporal’ characteristic, but we cannot assume at this stage that the ‘temporal’ character of Hegel’s logic is anything more than a metaphor. From the point of view of logic ‘becoming’ suffers from the same defects as ‘being’; it generates its own contradiction out of ‘the equipoise of arising and passing away’. So it gives way to a higher truth, which is that of ‘determinate being’, in which being and nothing are finally reconciled. Determinate being is that more familiar, less abstract, form of existence of which our world presents us with examples: being becomes determinate by being limited and so, as it were, incarnate in a certain identity. From this ‘limitation’ further oppositions arise and the process continues, until our ‘thinker’ is brought by a seemingly ineluctable process to the absolute idea itself, so perceiving the whole of reality as ‘coming forth’ from that indispensable concept from which all thinking must begin.

It would not be unfair to say that Hegel’s metaphysics consists of an ontological proof of the existence of everything. The character of this, as of any ontological proof, is that it proceeds from concept to reality, arguing moreover that the discovery of reality and the ‘unfolding’ of a concept are one and the same. In Hegel’s metaphysics this aspect is to some extent concealed by his reluctance to specify the nature of the abstract ‘thinker’ for whom the dialectical succession of concepts unfolds. His genius for abstractions leads us always away from the subject of thought, to thought itself. And the nature of the resulting metaphysics is such as to abolish the distinction between thought and reality altogether, thus displaying the principal characteristic of idealism.

It is not to be expected that such a logic can readily be made intelligible, or that a philosophy which is able cold-bloodedly to announce (for example) that ‘Limit is the mediation through which Something and Other is and also is not’ should be altogether different from arrant nonsense. Nevertheless, a picture of the dialectic is not hard to form, and this picture is important to bear in mind as we turn to that part of Hegel’s philosophy—the philosophy of mind and of politics— which seems now to be most worthy of study and most likely to contribute to the pursuit of knowledge. The picture I have in mind is one that can be seen at its clearest in Leibniz’s theory of time. According to Leibniz, ours could be the best possible world only if it were also the richest—the richest in the number and variety of monads that it contains.

For this to be possible some monads must contain predicates which cannot—from our limited point of view—co-exist. For example, a thing cannot be both red and green at once: these two attributes seem to contradict each other. But it can be red and green successively. So that, in the order of phenomena, the dimension of time enables monads (whose reality is timeless), as it were, to display their abundance of predicates in succession. In perceiving the world under the aspect of time we thereby reconcile what might otherwise have seemed to be contradictions pertaining within it. As Leibniz put it (Réponse aux réflections de Bayle):

‘Time is the order of possibilities which are inconsistent, but which nevertheless have some connexion.’ In some such way it is the dialectic of contradiction which squeezes the Hegelian concept out of its logical changelessness into the order of succession, replacing being by becoming, and logical stasis by ontological evolution.

Hegel the phenomenology of spirit

The constant slide between logical and temporal relations is of the very essence of Hegel’s philosophy and preceded the official formulation of his doctrine of logic, exemplified in what is probably the greatest, and certainly the most intricately suggestive of his works, The Phenomenology of Spirit. This was written in 1806 and completed in Jena on the eve of the Napoleonic battle outside that town. The complexity and range of the Phenomenology defy description: it covers all subjects from art to theology, from science to history, and contains some of the most suggestive examples and intellectual parables in the whole of literature and philosophy. I shall content myself with a résumé of what I take to be its central argument.

It will be remembered that Kant’s positive philosophy in the Critique of Pure Reason was delivered by the ‘Transcendental Deduction’. According to this, the pure ‘subject’ of Descartes and the empiricists is capable of knowing itself as subject only because it also knows the world as object, disciplining its experience in accordance with the a priori categories of the understanding. From the epistemological point of view Hegel did not so much advance beyond as dance around this master thought of Kant’s, but he danced in a fascinating way. In the Hegelian whirlwind epistemology melts into ethics, metaphysics into the philosophy of mind, and theoretical understanding into practical reason.

This amalgamation of practical and theoretical reason partly explains the temporal emphasis of Hegel’s logic. For it is of the essence of practical reason to advance towards decisions, and not to be detachable from the circumstances of the reasoner. Conclusion and argument are here inseparable, yet neither can be represented in the wholly a-temporal manner demanded by traditional theoretical logic.

Hegel on self consciousness

Let us allow ourselves, then, as Hegel allows himself, full use of the temporal metaphor. We explore the relation between subject and object in the manner laid down in Fichte’s primeval drama (see pp. 156–8). We show how the pure subject advances towards self-consciousness through successive postulations of the objectivity of his world. Now Hegel’s ‘pure subjectivity’ is an abstraction, and he goes on to argue, both in the Phenomenology and elsewhere, against any view of the ‘I’ that does not grant universal status to its subject matter. Nevertheless, we can without distortion regard him as referring also, and primarily, to the individual subject, and laying down, in parabolical, quasi-historical terms, the conditions which must be fulfilled if that subject is to rise to the self-consciousness that fulfils his nature.

Like Kant, Hegel recognised that the existence of the self in any form brings with it a peculiar immediacy—the immediacy of Kant’s Transcendental Unity of Apperception. And Hegel took over from Kant one of the major conclusions of the Critique of Pure Reason (established in that part of the Dialectic called the Paralogisms, where the rationalist theory of the soul is demolished). This is that the ‘immediacy’ with which our mental states are presented to us can provide no clue as to the nature of those states. It is the mere surface glow of knowledge, wholly without depth. The immediacy of the pure subject is, as Hegel would put it, undifferentiated, indeterminate and so devoid of content.

It follows that the pure subject we have imagined can gain no knowledge of what he is, and still less any knowledge of the world which he inhabits. Nevertheless, as Kant saw, his existence presupposes a unity, and that unity requires a principle of unity, something that holds consciousness together as one thing. Spinoza had spoken in this regard of the conatus, or striving, that constitutes the identity of organic beings. Hegel has recourse to a similar notion, the Aristotelian orexis, or appetite. Through this, the subject is launched forth in a manner which is void of knowledge and uninformed by the prospect of success. Consciousness exists only as the primitive ‘I want’ of the infant, the contumacious screeching of the fledgling in the nest.

But desire cannot exist without being desire for something. As Hegel puts it, adopting Fichte’s jargon, desire posits its object as independent of itself: our primitive subject has already made a step towards the conception of another, and hence towards a conception of itself as differentiated from the other. Its ‘absolute simplicity’ is on the point of being sundered. But consciousness is not yet an agent: it has no conception of the nature of itself, or of the value of its primitive desire. It remains the slave of appetite and impulse. This is, roughly, the state of animal consciousness, which explores the world purely as an object of appetite, and which, being nothing for itself, is without genuine will. At this stage the object of desire is conceived only as a lack (Mangel), and desire itself destroys or consumes the thing desired.

There follows a peculiar ‘moment’ in the consciousness of the primitive subjectivity. This is the moment of opposition. The world is not merely passively uncooperative with the demands of appetite: it also actively resists them. The otherness of my world forms itself into opposition. It seems to remove the object of my desire, to compete for it, to seek my abolition as a rival.

The self has now ‘met its match’, and there follows what Hegel poetically calls the ‘life and death struggle with the other’, in which the self begins to know itself as will, as power, confronted with other wills and other powers. Full self-consciousness is not the result of this—for the struggle is one that arises from appetite, and brings no conception of the value of what is desired. Hence it does not create the consciousness of the self as standing in definite relation to the world, fulfilled by some things, denied by others. As Hegel would put it, it does not generate the concept of the self in its freedom. On the contrary, the outcome of this struggle is the mastery of one party over the other. Conflict is resolved only in the unstable relation of master and slave.

This new ‘moment’ of self-consciousness is the most interesting, and Hegel’s account of it was destined to exert a profound influence on nineteenth-century ethical and political philosophy. One of the parties has enslaved the other, and therefore has achieved the power to extort the other’s labour. By means of this labour he can satisfy his appetites without the expenditure of will and so achieve leisure. With leisure, however, comes the atrophy of the will; the world ceases to be understood as a resistant object, against which the subject must act and in terms of which he must labour to define himself. 

Leisure collapses into lassitude; the otherness of the world becomes veiled, and the self— which defines itself in contrast to it—becomes lost in mystery. It sinks back into inertia, and its newly acquired ‘freedom’ turns into a kind of drunken hallucination. True freedom requires self-consciousness, without which there can be no conception of how one is bettered by an action, and therefore no conception of its value. But the self consciousness of the master is fatally impaired. He can acquire no sense of the value of what he desires through observing the activities of his slave. For the slave, in his master’s eyes, is merely a means; he does not appear to pursue an end of his own. On the contrary, he is absorbed into the undifferentiated mechanism of nature, and endows his petty tasks with no significance that would enable the master to envisage the value of pursuing them.

The ‘dialectic’ of their relation awaits its resolution, and its resolution occurs only when each treats the other not as means, but as end: which is to say, when each renounces the life and death struggle that had enslaved him, and respects the reality of the other’s will. In doing so they accept the categorical imperative of justice— to treat others as ends and not as means. They are forced then to see themselves as they see others. Each man sees himself as an object to be respected, standing outside nature, bound to a community by reciprocal demands upheld by a common moral law. This law is, in Kant’s words, the law of freedom. And at this ‘moment’ the self has acquired a conception of its agency; it is autonomous yet law-governed, partaking of a common nature and enacting universal values. Self-consciousness has become universal self-consciousness.

But the progress of our undifferentiated subject is not complete. Hegel explores the development, from the primitive conception of right so far established, to the religious world-view (the ‘unhappy consciousness’) in which the exercise of self-discovery oversteps the limit of personal autonomy. The unhappy (or alienated) consciousness endows the objective world with the power that belongs to itself alone, and so becomes forlorn, guilt-ridden and anxious for redemption. Hegel describes the overcoming of this religious consciousness, and the growth of the ethical life (or Sittlichkeit), the ultimate end of which is the development of the free citizen in the protective state.  They contain important psychological insights and amazing leaps of imagination. But it would be too great a labour to express their full philosophical significance. I shall conclude this discussion of the Phenomenology by saying something about its methods and the status of its results.

Exploration of the Master-Slave Dialectic 

But now let us look at things through the eyes of the slave. Although his will is chained, it is not removed. He remains active towards the world, even in his submission, and while acting at the behest of a master, he nevertheless bestows his labour on objects, and imprints his identity upon them. He makes the world in his own image, even if not for his own use. Hence he differentiates himself from its otherness, and discovers his identity in the act of labour. His self-consciousness grows, and although he is treated as a means, he unavoidably acquires both the sense of an end to his activity and the will to make that end his own. His inner freedom intensifies in proportion with his master’s lassitude, until such time as he rises up and enslaves the master, only himself to ‘go under’ in the passivity that attends the state of leisure. Master and slave each possess a half of freedom: one the scope to exercise it, the other the self-image to see its value. But neither has the whole, and in this toing and froing of power between them each is restless and unfulfilled. 

Hegel phenomenology of spirit summary

Although Hegel expressly says that the Logic simply lays out the general principles of the Phenomenology, it is fairly clear that a temporal interpretation is, in the latter case, far more plausible and could be attempted by someone for whom the method of the ‘dialectic’ was strictly nonsense. It is interesting to note that there are two temporal interpretations of the ‘moments’ of consciousness. The Phenomenology contains a parable of the subject, launched with its infantile ‘I want’ into a world that it gradually reduces into possession, so giving both itself and the world objective form. It also contains a covert history of the human race. Such was the astonishing intellectual effrontery of Hegel, that he made no efforts to deny that mankind as a whole must evolve in accordance with the pattern of the Phenomenology. 

We have already shown the episodes corresponding to the pre-historical state of nature, to the undifferentiated ‘species’ being of the animal, to the episode of primitive combat among tribes, to the Roman imperium, with its need for slavery and autocratic rule. (We are also led to understand, furthermore, that the states of mind described in the passage referring to the master and slave are those of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, and of his intellectual master, the stoic slave Epictetus.) Not surprisingly we find that the later stages of the evolution of consciousness fall one by one into the successive periods of history, and by a miracle of predestination, self-consciousness reaches its apogee in that free, protestant, Germanic Wissenschaft of which Hegel was both prophet and exegete.

But these historical interpretations are both fanciful and misleading. There is a deeper, logical point that emerges from the argument. To discover it we need to interpret the ‘moment’ of consciousness not as a stage on the way to self-consciousness, but rather as a state contained within self-consciousness. In saying that the religious consciousness is somehow higher than the primitive recognition of a moral law, Hegel could be taken to refer not to a temporal but rather to a conceptual priority. But this conceptual priority in fact reverses the ‘temporal’ ordering, in the following way.

Just as Kant had argued that my knowledge of myself as subject presupposes knowledge of an objective world, so Hegel seems to argue that the ‘earlier’ moments of consciousness presuppose at least the possibility of the latter. The immediate knowledge of self (the Cartesian premise) presupposes the activity that constitutes the self, and this presupposes desire, and hence the knowledge of objects. This in turn presupposes the struggle with the other and the reciprocal dealing which stems from that. Eventually we are driven to the conclusion that the ‘self’ or ‘subject’ is not possible except in the context of the political organism which ‘realises’ it.

The process of ‘self-realisation’ may admit of degrees, but these degrees do not mark ‘stages on the way’. However fragmentary my self consciousness, it exists only because I participate in that collective self transcending activity which constitutes the full elaboration of the human mind. I may participate in it only waywardly or spasmodically; to that extent will my self-understanding and freedom be shattered or impaired.

Construed in this way, as an analytic rather than a genetic theory of rational self-consciousness, the thesis of the Phenomenology can be seen as an extension of the Transcendental Deduction. Hegel tries to show that knowledge of self as subject presupposes not just knowledge of objects, but knowledge of a public social world, in which there is moral order and civic trust. Moreover he tries to show from whence arises the a priori claim of that most content full and contentious of the Kantian imperatives—the imperative to treat rational beings as ends and not as means. Whether the argument is valid is not in point: what we should notice is the extent to which it transcends in ambition anything envisaged by Kant. For it aims to defeat epistemological and moral scepticism simultaneously. It also abolishes the distinction between practical and theoretical reason (since the constraint on the subject to acknowledge the existence of the other stems always from the exercise of activity and will). It thus gives cogency to that peculiar logic, the workings of which we have already discussed, which treats reasoning in dynamic terms.

Having offered that interpretation of the Phenomenology, however, I must now express a hesitation. For the self-realisation described in the Phenomenology is not, despite what I have implied, a realisation of the individual. The individual ‘I’ is, for Hegel, only a metaphor. No philosophical argument can proceed from the cognisance of an individual, for in that very act of cognisance the individual becomes universal. Every thought is the subsumption under a concept. It is for this reason that Hegel put forward, in the Logic, the view that the true subject matter of thought is the concept itself. 

I may think, in my own case, that I am directly acquainted with some individual thing, but, just as soon as I begin to utter this thought to myself, I must designate that thing—I must employ the concept ‘I’. And ‘I’, like any concept, is a universal. Hence Hegel feels quite justified in abstracting so far from the first-person viewpoint of Descartes and the empiricists as no longer to regard their puzzles as intelligible. The real subject matter of the Phenomenology is not the concrete, sceptical, solipsistic self, but the universal, affirmative spirit (Geist), whose progress towards realisation in an objective world is something in which you or I may participate, but which transcends every merely local manifestation of its implacable movement.

Much of Hegel’s metaphysics thus develops independently of any epistemological basis. He avoids the first-person standpoint of Descartes not through any rival theory of knowledge, but by a process of abstraction which, because it abolishes the individual, leaves no evident room for the theory of knowledge at all. This makes Hegel’s metaphysics so vulnerable to sceptical attack that it is often thought to have little to bequeath to us but its poetry.

The dialectic of reason advances from pure, immediate being, through all the determinations of being which in sum constitute reality, so as to consummate itself in the absolute idea. As I have said, this absolute idea is the whole of reality, the truth of the world, and God Himself. Nothing exists in actuality that is not some determinant of pure being, and whose existence is not derived from the dialectical working out of that concept. Reason, because it generates everything, comprehends everything; hence, in a famous phrase, ‘the real is rational and the rational is real’. Everything which exists, exists of necessity; but it exists not in virtue of some eternal essence, but in virtue of the struggle of reason to constrain its successive concepts to give birth to their ever more detailed progeny.

Hegel calls this struggle the ‘labour of the negative’. And the world thus generated, being the product of reason, shows ‘the cunning of reason’— it reveals itself to reason, so that the apparently contingent can be seen to be really necessary, and the arbitrary and diffuse as directed and whole.

For Kant, the thing-in-itself was an ‘infinite resistance principle’—it stood proxy for the idea that our knowledge has a limit. For Hegel, the thing-in-itself is actual and knowable, being nothing but the absolute idea and its successive revelations. There cannot be more than one such transcendent thing: but nor can there be less than one. The absolute idea is the single immortal substance of Spinoza. 

It has, in Hegel’s view, only one nature, and that nature is revealed to us in consciousness. In our advance towards it, we ‘posit’ the world of nature (seeing the idea as ‘force’ and hence as ‘matter’, the locus of force) and the world of ‘spirit’. These are modes of realisation, which the absolute undergoes in us, but in which it does not exhaust itself. How, then, do we know the absolute? Hegel’s nearest approach to an answer to this lies in his theory of the concrete universal, according to which the world as given is both known (because it is universal) and also sensuously known (because it is concrete). Hence, in moments of pure observation we see it as it eternally is, while seeing it transfixed in time, beleaguered by all its determinations, clothed in attributes, specified to a comprehensible point of being. Philosophy shows the world thus, but philosophy is a lingering occupation: art shows it more immediately, since art is the sensuous shining of the idea.

From the obscure but tantalising theory of ‘the concrete universal’ (a theory which, announcing itself in blatant contradiction, drew a prolonged breath of admiration from the intellectual world) grew the idealist philosophies of art, of history and of the state. All these have been profoundly influential, and their outline is sufficiently known. 

The poetic appeal of the doctrine that the real is rational and the rational real, combined as it was with a theory of history that represented events as proceeding with whatever inevitability had seemed proper to the proofs of logic (history being nothing more than the ‘march of reason in the world’), has had consequences so disastrous in politics, in history and in the criticism of art, that it is not surprising if Hegel has recently been execrated as the greatest intellectual disaster in the history of mankind. Rightly understood, however, he was the true philosopher of the modern consciousness, and those who, like Russell, see only the pretentious exterior of his thinking, show themselves to be blind to the profound spiritual crisis that Hegel was striving to describe—the crisis of a civilisation that has discovered the God upon whom it depended to be also its own creation.

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