G. W. F. HEGEL—Outline/Handout 

I. RATIONALISM + IDEALISM: "What is real is rational—what is rational is real": in sum: (rational) thought = (Absolute) reality. As with Kant (and characteristic of German Idealism in general), the real "substance" is not material but ideational; true "Being is Thought" (Hegel, "Phenomenology" par. 54 [henceforth PofM).

—A big problem here?: "the identification of the real and the rational leads unavoidable to" a certain "complacency": in other words, "'whatever is, is right'" (Russell 730). This can be used to justify a lot of social injustice?!

• Again: "That the truth is only realised in the form of system, that substance is essentially subject, is expressed in the idea which represents the Absolute as Spirit (Geist)—the grandest conception of all . . . . Spirit is alone Reality. It is the inner being of the world, that which essentially is, and is per se" (PofM par. 25).

• "Why did Hegel claim that reality is of the nature of thought? Because he believed that reality—the all-inclusive whole—is that dialectical movement" of concepts (that will be discussed below) (Jones 132).


II. HOLISM: in Hegel's Absolute Idealism, it is all about the total system, the whole, which alone is truly real. And as we've already seen, this real is rational and "spiritual": that is, ideational (the philosophical meaning of "idealism").

—Significant?: "In youth he was much attracted to mysticism, and his later views may be regarded, to some extent, as an intellectualizing of what had first appeared to him as mystic insight" (Russell 730; if there is ONE "universal" mystical insight, it is the vision that ALL is ONE!?).

III. The DIALECTIC: Hegel's basic reasoning runs as follows: "(1) Every particular assertion (for example, 'This color is red') is only partially true, because it is always made from a limited point of view. (2) Every particular assertion is nevertheless partially true (the color really is red, when seen under certain lighting conditions . . .). (3) Because every particular assertion ('The color is red') is only partially true, it tends to generate a compensatory assertion ('The color is blue'). (4) These conflicting assertions are reconcilable in a more inclusive assertion ('The color is royal purple'). (5) This more inclusive assertion in turn proves to be partial and thus requires correction by a still more adequate formulation" (Jones 110). . . . Ad infinitum! Er, to the Absolute! And Beyond!

—More concisely: for Hegel, "thought advances toward truth by negation. Every assertion ('That color is red') is negated by some other assertion ('No, it is blue'), and these two are then reconciled in a third assertion ('Rather, it is royal purple')" (Jones 125).

• Even clearer & better (& more real-life?): "Hegel's typical metaphor" for his evolutionary dialectic "is that of a bud developing into a blossom" (Jones 114): "The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant's existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole" (PofM par. 2).

—Thus, as in Romanticism, Hegel's philosophy is—much more so than Kant's—heavily influenced by natural science's organicism: ""Hegel's thought is dominated by the idea of life, of an energy that is self-generative and that expresses itself in successfully unfolding forms" (Jones 118).

• The 1st/most basic TRIAD of Hegel's dialectic (thesis + antithesis [principle of negativity/contradiction] = synthesis [transcendence, sort of: "sublation"*]): Being / Nothing (or Not-Being) / Becoming (becomes a new thesis, of course)

—Here is W. T. Jones' explanation of this fundamental building-block of the Hegelian dialectic: "Becoming reconciles Being and Nothing by incorporating them. Being passes into Nothing. What is this but the concept of decease? Nothing passes into Being. What is this but the concept of origination? Taken together, this double passage yields the concept of becoming. Notice that Being and Nothing are included in Becoming. They are held in suspension in the concept [like the bud & blossom in the fruit!], not "devoured" by it. A being that merely is, does not become; a nothing that merely is not, does not become. Becoming is both an is, and an is-not" (Jones 128). . . . It's interesting how this can be read as a transcendence of life & death, of beginnings & endings?! Thus Walt Whitman, very much influenced by Hegel, can write in Song of Myself that

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

• The process continues indefinitely as the World Spirit at work, ultimately entailing everything & every relationship in the cosmos. . . . Sahakian's conclusion on Hegel: "the Hegelian system, with reason as its sole reality, finds a place for every particular concrete reality (all instances of truth), as sublated* momentums in the dialectical development of the whole, as the activity of reason occurring within the Absolute" (Sahakian 201). [I imagine this as some vast cosmo-logical $10,000 Pyramid!?]

*: sublation is the preferred term, rather than "transcendence" and the like, in that it (the original German, anyway) connotes both a negation and an integration of sorts; through sublation, "Each later stage of the dialectic contains all the earlier stages, as it were in solution; none of them is wholly superseded, but is given its proper place as a moment in the Whole" (Russell 733).

• The highest/most all-inclusive TRIAD (=>the Absolute): Idea, or Logic (Idea-in-itself) + Nature (Idea-for-itself) = Mind, or Spirit (Idea-in-&-for-itself) [≈ "Absolute Idea" or "Absolute Spirit"]

—The "Absolute Idea . . . incorporates (while it transcends) all the distinctions and subcategories included in the [Science of] Logic" (Jones 131).
—"Thus Nature . . . is the otherness of Idea" (Jones 132). . . . "[T]he System, taken as a whole, is a cosmic process in which Mind generates its other, Nature, and then reabsorbs it" (Jones 141). (Hey, I'm reminded of Whitman's poetry again!)
—"Idea and Nature are transcended, but not lost, in Spirit [of course!]. Spirit, in a word, is Thought in the full sense; it is thought knowing itself not merely as thought, but as thought-of-object" (Jones 131). . . . I actually find this navel-gazing-into-a-navel[?!] fairly inscrutable and must fall back on Jones' later comment: "This absolute self-knowledge . . . is perhaps too esoteric a doctrine for us" (134)!?
—"The Absolute Idea [or Absolute Spirit] . . . is something like Aristotle's God. It is thought thinking itself. . . . The Absolute Idea is pure thought thinking about pure thought. That is all that God does throughout the ages—truly a professor's God" (Russell 734, 735).
—But in Hegel's defense, his Absolute should be considered an evolutionary plenitude, a synthesis of all particulars, not some abstraction devoid of all particulars, as he slammed fellow German Idealist Schelling's Absolute for being: sans specifics, such an Absolute is (in one of Hegel's most famous quips) like "the night in which . . . all cows are black" (PofM par. 16).

• Hegel's dialectical epistemology seems to claim that we need to know every relationship of something or someone—say, the individual "John"—its/his/her every position in the cosmic dialectic, as it were—to truly know it/him/her. Meaning to slam Hegel, Russell's critique of this difficult requirement (unintentionally) points to a more radical skepticism: "In fact, if Hegel were right, no word could begin to have a meaning, since we should need to know already the meanings of all other words in order to state all the properties of what the word designates, which, according to the theory, are what the word means" (745). This isn't far from deconstruction, at last (see Eagleton 111 for a somewhat similar dictionary analogy).

• Again, Hegel's dialectic contains within it the kernel of Nietzsche's radical skepticism and Derrida's deconstruction. Given that each thesis and antithesis contain only a partial truth, "Truth and falsehood are not sharply defined opposites, as is commonly supposed; nothing is wholly false, and nothing that we can know is wholly true" (Russell 734 [not that Russell could predict, or much like, the future development called poststructuralism]). . . . One might even perceive in Hegel's very binary of thesis and antithesis the seeds of Derrida's deconstruction of all conceptual binaries. It's not a big leap to then say that all claims of syntheses are mere wishful-thinking failures? Or maybe better: Hegel's claim that such binaries are NOT truly opposites certainly fits into Derrida's notion of supplementarity.


IV. Hegel's Evolutionary HISTORICISM and STATISM: One of Hegel's main "revisions"/improvements on Kant's idealism is his sense of history, his incorporation of evolution, into his philosophy. (Note that, by Hegel's time, evolution was already a major idea in natural science, well before Charles Darwin.) Moreover, "Hegel took account not only of the evolution of the individual mind from infancy to adulthood but also of the evolution of the mind from earliest times down to his own day" (Jones 114). (However, this notion that later human cultures = "better"—as in human "progress"—makes Hegel something of a social Darwinist avant la lettre.)

• The phenomenal/natural world is evolving via the Welt Geist (World Spirit, or Universal Mind, or Absolute Spirit, which is working through human history & cosmic evolution); this latter is basically Hegel's "God." [Note that Geist = "Spirit" or "Mind" (or "Ghost"!)]

STATISM: "The State is the march of God through the world"; moreover, "The State is an organism," alive and vital; and so "We must therefore worship the State as the manifestation of the divine on earth." And again: "The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth" (Philosophy of History; qtd. in Sahakian 197).

• And remember: "whatever is, is right"?! . . . since, after all "This Good, this Reason"—this march of history—"is God. God governs the world" (Philosophy of History; qtd. in Sahakian 197).

• Given his dialectical system, Hegel really liked WAR! Indeed, (dialectical) social progress requires conflict; ergo his philosophy of history, too, involves a series of strong nation-states, each one a phase in the evolutionary march of the Welt Geist (a supposedly quite rational march, at that). And as usual, it has been TRIADic: —"In the historical development of Spirit there have been three main phases: The Orientals[?!], the Greeks and Romans, and the Germans[!]" (Russell 737).

—"German history is divided by Hegel into three periods," which he calls "the Kingdoms of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, respectively. It seems a little odd that the Kingdom of the Holy Ghost should have begun with the bloody and utterly abominable atrocities committed in suppressing the Peasants' War, but Hegel, naturally, does not mention so trivial an incident" (Russell 738).
—Interestingly, Hegel claims "that, as yet, there is no real State in America, because a real State requires a division of classes into rich and poor. [Thank the Lord we've fixed that!] Nations, in Hegel, play the part that classes play in Marx. . . . In every age, there is some one nation which is charged with the mission of carrying the world through the stage of the dialectic that it has reached. In our age, of course, this nation is Germany" (Russell 739). (Hegel of course meant the 19th century; Russell extends this to WWII.)

• "World history, in fact, has advanced through the [dialectic] categories, from Pure Being in China (of which Hegel knew nothing except that it was) to the Absolute Idea, which seems to have been nearly, if not quite, realized in the Prussian State. I cannot see any justification, on the basis of his own metaphysic, for the view that world history repeats the transitions of the dialectic, yet that is the thesis which he developed in his Philosophy of History. It was an interesting thesis, giving unity and meaning to the revolutions of human affairs. Like other historical theories, it required, if it was to be made plausible, some distortion of facts and considerable ignorance. Hegel, like Marx and Spengler after him, possessed both these qualifications. It is odd that a process which is represented as cosmic should all have taken place on our planet, and most of it near the Mediterranean. Nor is there any reason, if reality is timeless, why the later parts of the process should embody higher categories than the earlier parts—unless one were to adopt the blasphemous supposition that the Universe was gradually learning Hegel's philosophy" (Russell 735).

• Hegel, moreover, preferred monarchy to democracy; apparently it is only under an autocracy that "all are free": "Thus 'freedom,' for him, means little more than the right to obey the law. . . . This is a very superfine brand of freedom. It does not mean that you will be able to keep out of a concentration camp. It does not imply a democracy, or a free press, or any of the usual liberal buzzwords, which Hegel rejects with contempt. . . . But from the point of view of the Absolute the distinction between monarch and subjects, like all other distinctions, is illusory, and when the monarch imprisons a liberal-minded subject, that is still Spirit freely determining itself" (Russell 737).

• Russell anticipates my own main objection when I read Hegel's Philosophy of History as a much younger fellow: "his admiration of the national State is carried so far as to be inconsistent with his general preference of wholes to parts" (Russell 739). That is, why wouldn't his holistic propensity (epitomized in Absolute Spirit) lead naturally & inevitably to the notion of a world government?!: "Hegel's logic led him to believe that there is more reality or excellence (the two for him are synonyms) in wholes than in their parts, and that a whole increases in reality and excellence as it becomes more organized. This justified him in preferring a State to an anarchic collection of individuals, but it should equally have led him to prefer a world State to an anarchic collection of States" (742). Likewise W. T. Jones: "It might be supposed that the logic of Hegel's dialectic would have led him to sweep past the State to incorporate it in a still larger society, of which states themselves would be organs, and which would include, eventually, the whole human race. Why, then, did Hegel stop with the State?" (137). Well, for one thing: "Because he found the Prussia of his day congenial, he tended to idealize it," and he seemed content to have it remain the be-all-end-all of political totality (138).

—In fact, "Hegel tended to gloss over the actual facts about the Prussian state of 1820 and to interpret it in the light of what the 'State' ought to be." And in many other ways, too, Hegel was very much a product of his time. He "took for granted that marriage is (that is, 'ought to be') monogamous. But he never showed—indeed, he never could have shown—monogamy to be necessary. If Hegel had been a professor in Salt Lake City in the 1870's, instead of in Berlin in the 1820's, he would doubtless have held that polygamy is 'necessary'" (Jones 143).

• "The real question we have to ask in connection with Hegel is . . . whether the State is good per se, as an end: do the citizens exist for the sake of the State, or the State for the sake of the citizens? Hegel holds the former view; the liberal philosophy that comes from Locke holds the latter. It is clear that we shall only attribute intrinsic value to the State if we think of it as having a life of its own, as being in some sense a person" (Russell 744). (So maybe Mitt Romney was right: corporations are people, too?!) . . . Likewise W. T. Jones: "Hegel did not merely contend that the State is complete; he also argued that it is the 'true' individual" (138).

• Finally, Hegel's statism can be viewed as an aspect of his ultimate monism: "he was a monist at heart. This preference for monism over pluralism is also reflected in his failure to take account of the diversity of wills that exist in any large-scale political organization" (Jones 143).


V. Self v. Other: one of Hegel's most important influences on later critical theory per se is this binary, of the self or subject versus the "not-me" or "other" or "other-than-me"—including both "objects" of the phenomenal realm and—especially—other subjects/people. (In psychoanalysis this binary will become ego consciousness v. the unconscious—and various "surrogates" for the unconscious, like the Mother, etc.)

• However, "Self and object are not distinct, unchanging entities that face each other across a metaphysical and epistemological chasm"; rather there's a mutual dependence: "There is no object without self, and there is no self without object" (Jones 113; as Jones also notes, Kant has already said pretty much the same thing). . . . This merger of subject and object is really a "new monism, the monism of Spirit. . . . Spirit is a living process; it is propelled by the energy of negation [i.e., antitheses] and mediation [syntheses], in which both selves and objects are continually emerging, undergoing development, and being replaced by higher forms of themselves" (Jones 121).

• And yet, reading Hegel as a "symptom" of a lot of Western philosophy (and politics, etc.), his Absolute Spirit can be seen as an epistemologically violent incorporation (or cooptation) of the "other" into/as the (highest) "self"—since it ends up being a monist "thought thinking itself." In Hegel, alterity seems to be forever being erased, since everything is really ONE?

• The most influential manifestation of Hegel's Self/Other binary in crit-theory is that of the master/slave; see the "Lordship and Bondage" section of our Hegel PDF (pp. 561-565) and my outline/handout thereof for this key chapter from PoM.


VI. Hegel's Aesthetics

—My more detailed notes for the PDF excerpts from The Philosophy of Fine Art are on a separate outline/handout

• "According to Hegel, beauty is essentially the Absolute Idea shining through to the sense world. The artist combines the spiritual content and the sensuous form of his art. The sensuous form must be such as to make evident the spiritual essence of his creation" (Sahakian 199-200).

• And another triad, of course! (all from Sahakian 200; see also our Hegel PDF, pp. 555-561):

1. the Symbolic type: "typified" by "the Orient"(?!)—"abstract and vague"; "'its sphinx-like mystery"!? (qtd. in Sahakian 200; cf. Said on "Orientalism")
2. the Classical type: i.e., the ancient Greeks, w/ their "well-balanced proportion of form and spirit"
3. the Romantic type: "in which the spirit predominates over form"; this is 'a higher means of expression" than the first two "because it represents reality in its truest form—Spirit"—that is, "the inner spiritual world."

Religious history, BTW, follows a similar three-stage progression:

1. "natural religions, those religions of the Orient [& Native America, no doubt!] which conceive of God as a substance of nature[!!] or as a form of magic"!
2. religions that perceive God as (abstract) subject: e.g., Judaism
3. "the absolute religion, namely Christianity" (no bias here!)—which is "the absolute religion owing to its having absolute truth as its content. It is consonant with the Hegelian System[!!]: identical in content, but differing in form"; and thus the Christian Trinity represents yet another dialectical triad for Hegel (Sahakian 201; see also Russell 738, quoted above).

VII. (Some More) Criticism of Hegel

• "In Hegel's view, all conflicts and discrepancies are amenable to harmonization—but what is the evidence that reality is through-and-through rational, [even] in the Hegelian sense of 'rational'? [This certainly isn't the impression I get watching cable news!] What is the guarantee that all those partial 'versions of' [that is, dialectic syntheses within the grand synthesis] can eventually be reconciled in something that is no longer a version of reality but is reality itself?" (Jones 142).

—Hegel's best reply seems to be that we "must have faith in the rationality of the universe; to lack this faith is not to be a man" (Jones 142). (Isn't this a return, in its appeal, to the original, likely mystical origins of Hegel's ultimate holism? Isn't this the same problem we saw in Kant's so-called rationalism, which still needed the supplement of "faith"?)

VIII. Influence

• By Hegel's time, "it was obvious that the old absolutes were being exploded . . . . To many people Hegel's system seemed to offer a new and viable absolute; that is, it seemed to claim that a complete account of the universe is possible, an account in which all the diversity is included but in which it is transcended in a final unity" (Jones 140).

• Hegel's Absolute Idealism was not only something of the philosophical version of Romanticism, in its semi-mystical privileging of the "One," but Hegel had a strong and direct influence on the American Transcendentalists (Emerson & company)—and even Walt Whitman, as we have seen.

• "The Phenomenology was prophetic in that it set out what were to become the central themes of twentieth-century culture. First, it brought into prominence the concept of mediation, with all that it implies about the inevitable distance between knower and known, between the self and its objects, including the self itself. [I have already argued on a previous outline-handout that Kant had already gone far in establishing this problematic 'distance.'] This concept fits in with one of the major concerns of our time, as reflected in Dostoevsky's description of [the] underground man—the impossibility of attaining complete self-knowledge, the alienation of the individual both from himself and from his society" (Jones 144).

—Speaking of the self and object, Hegel can be said to have initiated the SELF/OTHER as a central binary in critical theory: see my outline/handout to "Lordship and Bondage." Some notable influences are as follows:
—the ethical philosophies of Martin Buber's I and Thou and Emmanuel Levinas ("the face of the other")
—the feminist writings of Simone de Beauvoir, whose The Second Sex (1949) employs the first explicit use of the term "Other" for the oppressed that I know of
—Jacques Lacan's neo-Freudian psychology, which is very much self/other-based, and moreover, incorporates the notion of "recognition" (more usually as misrecognition, or méconnaissance)
—Franz Fanon's proto-postcolonial theories: e.g., his book Black Skin, White Masks (1952)

• Hegel's anticipation of/preparation for Nietzsche's perspectivism, etc.: "The Phenomenology put forward the view that there are a variety of types of consciousness, each of which is reflected in a different version of reality [as different "moments" in the grand dialectic, if you will]. . . . Hegel's recognition that each type of consciousness is reflected in the social, political, and economic institutions—as well as in the philosophy, science, art, and religion—of a given epoch, has influenced men's thinking in profound ways and may be said to be one of the marks that distinguishes us and our time from every other." Such a socio-historical move "laid the basis for the intellectual revolutions launched by Marx [and Nietzsche] and Freud [and Foucault]" (Jones 144).

• Finally, as suggested in a previous section, Hegel's principle of negation or reversal (thesis->antithesis) can be said to become the basic move of critical theory, from Nietzsche thru poststructuralism. Hegel is the first important thinker to say, "Let's turn this thing upside down, or inside out; let's read it against the grain." (So, of course, the first thing that the neo-Hegelian Karl Marx does is turn Hegel "inside out"!)



Hegel, G. W. F. "The Phenomenology of Mind: Preface." 1807. Marxists Internet Archive, www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ph/phprefac.htm.

Jones, W. T. Kant and the Nineteenth Century. 2nd rev. ed., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. Simon and Schuster, 1945.

Sahakian, William S. History of Philosophy: From the Earliest Times to the Present. Barnes & Noble, 1968.

 —TCG, July 2016; August 2018

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