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Hegel’s philosophy is in the idealist tradition that evolved in Germany in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Immanuel Kant and the post-Kantians felt that the empirical philosophy of David Hume, with its skeptical consequences, was inadequate; that mind through intuition, understanding, and reason could discover the grounds of experience either in an a priori categorical structure or in experience itself, if that experience were looked upon as primarily rational. Kant took the first alternative and argued that although events in themselves are unknowable (thus, keeping an element of Humean skepticism), as phenomena that one perceives, they are constructed according to the categories of the understanding and the forms of intuition. As such, they have their intelligible basis in mind, although there is an empirical content given from the external world. Hegel believed that the categories and forms are as much a part of reality as anything else, that the dichotomy between mind and its objects is a false one, and, hence, that reality is as rational as thought itself. He expressed this view in his famous statement, “What is real (actual) is rational; what is rational is real (actual).”

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How is thought to express the nature of reality? Philosophy from Hume through Kant (and earlier) held that the agreement of thought with reality is the criterion of truth. However, Hegel claimed that thought alone brings to light the nature of things; this is the true sense of thought and reality being in agreement.

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Like all idealists, Hegel maintained that because reality is known by means of ideas, and because the only thing that can agree with an idea is something like an idea, reality must be mindlike. In seeking to know the nature of things via reflection, the individual concentrates upon the universal character of things. However, thought so directed loses its individual character, for in proceeding in this way, a person reflects as any other individual would who was in pursuit of the truth. Reflective thought thus loses its subjective aspect and becomes objective; thought and reality become one.

The Three Stages of Logic

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Hegel held that thought expresses itself in triads, each of which usually has its own triadic structure, a structure that often has a triadic structure of its own. Thus, logic has three stages; its subdivisions are three, and each of these has a triadic structure. It is interesting that Hegel apparently did not use the expression “thesis-antithesis-synthesis,” which has been correctly used to characterize his position. At any rate, the emphasis upon the development of thought in terms of a point of view, its negation, and the reconciliation of the two is reminiscent of the dialectical procedure of Socrates and Plato. Hegel, keenly aware of this resemblance, used the term “dialectical” for his own philosophy.

Hegel uses the word “logic” in somewhat the same sense that Saint John spoke of “logos.” That is, the word refers to a systematic creative process rather than to an analysis of language and argument. For him, there are three stages of logic: the abstract stage, or that of the understanding; the dialectical stage, or that of negative reason; and the speculative stage, or that of positive reason.

In the abstract stage, every term or product of thought appears separate and distinct from the others. The understanding believes that they exist on their own account. What Hegel is saying is that on reflection, the individual initially considers the elements of his thought—that is, whatever he is reflecting upon—as taken from the context of experience (or abstracted) and as having an existence of their own independent of anything else. This stage in thinking occurs throughout the history of thought, so that in each stage of philosophical development, people begin by abstraction. Thus the first stage has its own abstract beginning, but the stage itself, when compared to the next stage, will be seen as abstract.

As an illustration, consider the philosophical view called “empiricism.” In the abstract stage of empiricism, only the immediately given, that which is presented here and now, has ultimate reality. These data, usually called “impressions,” turn out to be bare “givens” devoid of relations and predicates and hidden in a skeptical mist, yet held to be separate and distinct and existing on their own account. However, the empiricist seems to pass from this “reality” about which he can say nothing, to his ideas about which he says everything that he can say. However, his ideas belong to a different level of knowledge; memory and reflection are involved, and thus the empiricist passes from the stage of abstraction to that of dialectic wherein mediate thought is now the subject matter.

The dialectical stage is one in which the understanding views the elements in their separate and distinct capacity and as such recognizes that no more can be said of them. (In Hume’s work, this stage can be seen in his denial of necessary connection in experience and in his skepticism regarding reason and the senses.) There is a “positive” side to dialectic, however, in its indication that whatever is finite, when seen as separate and distinct and as free from all relations to others, ceases to exist. To be one without others is impossible. Existence involves a relationship between at least two entities.

The last stage of logic is the speculative, in which reason is wholly positive. For Hegel, the contradictory character of certain metaphysical principles is finally reconciled. In the concept of causation, it is argued that for every effect there must be a cause and that every cause is an effect for which there is yet a cause. This concept is such that the notion of a first cause is untenable, since it too would have to have a cause. However, since causation that has no limits leaves any system of philosophy incomplete, such a concept is repugnant to reason. The same sort of analysis may be made with regard to time as a sequence of events that can have neither a beginning nor an end but still must have both. These paradoxical philosophical problems that Hegel argued had not been solved are reconciled by speculative reason, which apprehends the unity of the categories in their very opposition.

The Three Doctrines

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As noted earlier, the subdivision of logic also has three parts. These are the Doctrine of Being, the Doctrine of Essence, and the Doctrine of Notion or Idea. It should also be pointed out that in these doctrines, Hegel intended the sort of development mentioned earlier; that is, implicit in the exposition of each is to be found the grounds for the next. Although each may be taken as a doctrine in itself, each would then be an abstraction (another instance of the first stage of logic) and hence untrue as well as incomplete.

In the Doctrine of Being, we are faced with an analysis of the given in its immediacy. In the history of philosophy, there have been innumerable ideas concerning the nature of Being advanced by philosophers claiming to have identified the basic ontological stuff. The One of Parmenides, Aristotle’s primary substance, and Hume’s impressions are all candidates wearing the label of “Being.” Under this doctrine, Hegel analyzes the full meaning and consequences of the immediately given and indicates wherein he thinks it false.

The Doctrine of Essence takes up where the failure of Being as a satisfactory philosophical doctrine occurs. If the immediate nature of things cannot reveal their essential characteristics to thought, if the search for them forces one to mediate knowledge—that is, to look for intervening features, to wonder how the given came to be as it is—then one can no longer consider the given in itself, but only in its relation to an other. (The other need not be an entity in addition to the immediately given; it may simply be the recognition that the given has limits, a recognition that Hegel believed takes one beyond the immediate.) It is here that the Doctrine of Essence enters, for in order for the essential features of a thing to be known by thought, it must be seen in its relations to an other. The Doctrine of Essence, however, is concerned in itself with an exclusive analysis of the mediate; hence it, too, is incomplete.

The Doctrine of Notion or Idea is that in which the inadequacy of the previous two is reconciled. Being must be known not only for itself and for an other, but in-and-for itself. (“For an other” need not imply a second given; it might indicate the limits of the given, its finiteness, and hence refer to itself. In its immediacy nothing can be said about Being.) However, when seen in this way, Being is understood as a Notion or Idea, and the truth of the given is grasped by reason.


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In discussing the Doctrine of Being, Hegel attempted to accomplish two things: to present the totality of Being and to abolish the immediacy of Being. There are three grades to Being that are necessary to this discussion of it: quality, quantity, and measure. These grades are concerned not only with the history of philosophic thought but also with the evolution of thought itself.

In the bare beginnings of thought is, as it were, an indeterminate something from which something determinate is to come; Hegel calls this bare beginning “Being.” This impression of which there is not yet an idea cannot be talked about. It is taken as a here-now; in order to talk about it, think about it, predicate anything of it, one would have to take it out of the here-now and make of it something determinate, but as something determinate, it would have a quality. A bare datum is without distinction, without time, and to say of it that it is here in a specified way is already to take it out of the immediate and determinate it.

The bare beginnings then pass to a stage in which the given is qualified, is made something; it is saved from not being anything. That it is something and not others, that it has a distinct character which differentiates it from others, subjects it to change and alteration. No longer indeterminable (Being itself) or nothing (not-Being), it stands between the two in the world of becoming.

Perhaps Hegel’s discussion will be easier to follow if a philosophical illustration is considered. Impressions may be regarded as similar to indeterminable Being. Impressions are sensations below the level of consciousness, about which one can say nothing because of their fragmentary, fleeting nature; they are gone before they can be talked about. Consciousness arises concomitantly with the birth of ideas. From the fleeting impressions, mind selects and holds for observation—determines, as it were—one of these, and thus ideas are born. In the analysis of ideas, mind finds qualities, time, cause, change. So for Hegel, Being is quality—that determining characteristic without which the given would cease to be.

One observes that a determinate entity is what it is independently of any increase or decrease of its quantity, since a qualitative characteristic defines it. Quantity is both discrete and continuous, for it rests upon a unit construction that is exclusive and that is equalized. Numbers, for instance, fulfill this requirement and may be used to determine both discrete and continuous magnitudes. Yet quantity itself cannot be considered as an absolute notion, for as an object is decreased or diminished, eventually a quantitative difference will make a qualitative one.

Generally, Hegel views change of quantity in terms of absolutes; that is, he conceives of increase or decrease to the infinitely large or infinitesimally small, the one approaches the entire universe, the absolute; the other approaches nothing, not-Being. A house may be a house no matter how large or small; but “no matter how” must be taken relatively; a house cannot be nothing or everything. Hegel considers this an instance of the dialectical at work in quantity, making it what it is not; that is, quality.

Thus, one arrives at the third grade of Being, a quantified quality, or measure. In measure, one attains the knowledge that everything is not immediate, but relative or mediate. For everything has its measure, its proper qualitative and quantitative range, as it were, beyond which it cannot remain the same. To know the proper measure of a thing, of Being, is to know its Essence.

Hegel thus accomplished what he set out to do; that is, he presented the totality of Being by analyzing its three grades, quality, quantity, and measure, and he abolished the immediacy of Being by showing that its Essence, whatever makes it what it is, rests not on its immediately given appearance, but on its measure, which is a mediate or relative concept demanding that the given be seen in terms of an other. This analysis depended not on mere perception of the immediately given, but rather on reflective thought. Thought and its object are progressing together. Being is the immediate appearance of reality; through reflection the philosopher has proceeded to the mediate aspect of reality, its Essence. Neither Being nor Essence is more real than the other; reflective thought has gone from one to the other to give us a greater insight into reality.


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In the Doctrine of Essence, there are three grades: identity, diversity, and ground. An analysis of a thing is such that it is conditioned by, and conditions, something else. In order to be determinate, not only are the boundaries of the thing needed, so that it can be defined as a finite object, but in its very definition it is distinguished from what it is not. Thus, not only is it related to itself in terms of its identity, but also it is related to others in terms of its difference.

Hegel’s argument is reminiscent of Plato’s analysis of the One and the Many in the Parmenids (middle period dialogue, 388-368 b.c.e.; Parmenides, 1793). Plato showed that the paradox of the One—that it is and yet that it is not—can be resolved if the concepts of identity, difference, and other than are introduced. The One is (identical with itself) and the One is not (others); that is, the One is other than or different from. Hegel’s work contains a similar (although in many ways different) analysis. In order to understand the essence of a thing, one must grasp the apparently contradictory characteristics of identity and diversity in some sort of unity. Unity is found in the concept of the ground. In order for a thing to be, that is, to exist, there must be more than its self-identity, for self-identity, when not contrasted with what the self is now, would once more lead to an indeterminate, abstract Being. On the other hand, there must be more than the mediating relations that indicate that there are others than the self. That is, one cannot concentrate only on what the self is not. In the concept of a ground, Hegel finds the proper meaning of Essence, for the thing is seen in its inward relations (its self-identity) and in its relations to an other also; but this is the concept of the ground.


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The final subdivision in Hegel’s logic is that of the Doctrine of Notion or Idea. (Hegel uses the German Begriff, a term that, replete with difficulty, has the conflicting shades of meaning alluded to earlier and, as it were, all present at the same time.) The three grades of this doctrine are universal, particular, and individual.

Having presented two aspects of reality, its immediate and mediate appearance, its Being and its Essence, Hegel was ready to consider reality in its totality. The movement from Being to and through Essence is a dialectical process involving reflection, a process by which the nature of the given is revealed. The Doctrine of Idea emphasizes that the only way in which one can discover the nature of a thing is to proceed through this kind of process. Hegel points out in the Doctrine of Idea that in the process of development, the thing is revealed to reflective thought in the aforementioned grades. In its bare beginnings as immediate Being, it is an indeterminate, undefinable thing-in-itself, the very Ding an Sich of which Kant spoke. It is an undeveloped universal. From the immediately given, one proceeds to a consideration of the thing as a differentiated something. (Hegel refers to this as the particularizing phase of development.) Finally, in reflecting upon the further development of the thing into a Being that is both immediate and mediate, identical and different, universal and particular, the individual is realized. However, to see the individual as it is, it must be understood in terms of its process from undifferentiated universal to differentiated particular to individual. If the parts are to be understood, we must understand the process as a whole. Thus, for Hegel, the process of knowledge and that which is known, Being, ultimately are one. Reality and rationality are interchangeable.


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Additional Reading

Butler, Clark. G. W. F. Hegel. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A comprehensive study of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that aims not to be merely about Hegel but to communicate the essence of Hegelian philosophy to a wider public by being accessible but not oversimplistic. Approaches Hegel from the cultural standpoint of the present. Contains an annotated bibliography and a chronology of Hegel’s life.

Christensen, Darrell E., ed. Hegel and the Philosophy of Religion: The Wofford Symposium. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970. A collection of essays presented at the first conference of the Hegel Society of America, which analyzes many aspects of Hegel’s philosophy of religion. Considers Hegel’s historical context by discussing the philosophies of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Marx.

Gillespie, Michael Allen. Hegel, Heidegger, and the Ground of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Compares and contrasts Hegel’s philosophy of history with that of Martin Heidegger, a twentieth century German philosopher who sought an alternative to Hegel and who eventually supported Nazi ideology under Adolf Hitler. Reveals the role of Hegel in shaping modern philosophies of history.

Hondt, Jacques. Hegel in His Time. Translated by John Burbridge, with Nelson Roland and Judith Levasseur. Lewiston, N.Y.: Broadview Press, 1988. Translator’s introduction discusses the author’s perception of Hegel. Translator’s notes also very helpful. Covers Hegel’s life, the political setting of his time, and Hegel’s attack on that setting. Examines the use of Hegel’s philosophy of history by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Kainz, Howard P. G. W. Hegel. New York: Twayne, 1996. Excellent overview of Hegel’s philosophical system. Includes an autobiographical sketch written by Hegel at age thirty-four. Discusses philosophical influences on Hegel as a student. Has a brief chronology of Hegel’s life. Very readable and attempts to define terms as Hegel used them.

Kojeve, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on Phenomenology. Edited by A. Bloom, translated by J. H. Nichols. New York: Basic Books, 1969. The author was instrumental in reviving Hegel’s philosophy, especially on phenomenology of Spirit. Clearly written; appropriate for beginning students on Hegel.

Lauer, Quentin. Hegel’s Idea of Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1983. Discusses the works of Hegel and his place as a philosopher. Includes the full text and a good analysis of Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy (given first at Jena in 1805-1806).

Lavine, T. Z. From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest. New York: Bantam Books, 1984. A survey of six Western philosophers, including Hegel. An easily read review of Hegel’s life and work. Highlights Hegel’s influence on Karl Marx.

Pinkard, Terry. Hegel: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A detailed account of Hegel’s life that gives a clear sense of what kind of person he was, and a series of lucid analyses of Hegel’s academic career and his writings.

Plant, Raymond. Hegel. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Rosen, Michael. Hegel’s Dialectic and Its Criticism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Emphasizes Hegel’s dialectic method of seeking truth. Discusses the difficulty in understanding many of Hegel’s ambiguous phrases.

Singer, Peter. Hegel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A ninety-page pamphlet in the Past Masters series. A broad overview of Hegel’s ideas and major works. Very clearly written.

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