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).”

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.

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

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...

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The Three Doctrines

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,...

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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...

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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.


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...

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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...

(The entire section is 565 words.)