Andy Blunden, August 2010

The Genesis of the Concept


Let’s go through how Hegel saw the birth-process of a concept, beginning with Being. Since concepts emerge at a number of different levels – for example in historical development or in social movements, in the growing up and education of an individual person and their life journey, or ‘microgenetically’, in a specific thought process – I will illustrate Hegel’s idea in different contexts. That this is possible indicates the degree of generality of Hegel’s idea. It also shows that even though each process is the development of a concept. Hegel’s focus in the Logic is on the concept rather than the people coming to the concept. But for Hegel, the motive force for change is in the nature of the concepts themselves, so his idea sheds light on processes of conceptual change at a number of different levels.

Although Hegel liked to take the ancient Eleatics as the exemplars for Being, Descartes serves just as well to illustrate the idea of a philosopher who advocates Being. Descartes marked the beginning, the moment of Being of modern philosophy, that is, philosophy which takes thought as its object. Descartes made a start for modern philosophy with the declaration “I think therefore I am.” He took as his starting point his own thought, without any prior assumption or precondition, discounting the evidence of his senses and the inherited wisdom of the past. In the beginning, there is nothing.

All new sciences begin more or less like this, setting all previous knowledge of the subject at null. For example, in their introduction to “Concepts. Core Readings,” Laurence and Margolis wrote that:

Aspects of the [classical] theory date back to antiquity. And the first serious challenges to its status weren’t until the 1950s in philosophy and 1970s in psychology (1999: 10).

That is, they saw Cognitive Psychology’s critique of the so-called ‘classical theory of concepts’ as marking the beginning of the psychology of concepts.

Hegel sees the sociological view of the emergence of a new self-conscious form of social practice like this: at first, there is no consciousness of the given form of practice at all. Even though the new social practice is being carried out by people who do what they do on purpose, but they are not conscious of being part of a social movement with others. Criminals are not conscious of being part of a crime wave. There is always a time when a certain something is going on, before anyone notices it all, and it is only possible for it to be noticed if it is already going on, and it is only thanks to something which is going on being noticed and the participants becoming aware of it, that we can have a new concept.

In terms of psychological emergence of a concept, then Being is where impressions are flashing by, but the person sees nothing, nothing of interest in any case.

Hegel elaborates the development of the stage of Being through a critique of the concept of Being. Being, Hegel says, is just being, not being any determinate thing, just being. Thus, Hegel points out, Being is Nothing. As soon as any definite content were to be given to Being, then it would no longer be Pure Being. But the discovery that Being is Nothing is a start. For example, the collapse of what was taken to be the only theory of the psychology of concepts, but which turned out to have no psychological reality at all, did more than wipe the slate clean. The new approach to psychological reality marked a beginning, a Becoming of something. It was not a Nothing at all, but a Determinate Being. Continuing the recent American Psychology of Concepts as an example, the destruction of the ‘classical theory’ and the methods employed to do so represented the Becoming of the new science.

So here, by means of purely logical critique with no empirical content in the normal sense, Hegel established the first series of concepts of the Logic: Being, Nothing, Becoming and Determinate Being (i.e. Dasein). This is just how something brand new emerges, counting its predecessors for Nothing.

This series of concepts illustrates the basic form of movement characteristic of Being. From here Hegel outlined three stages of development of Being: Quality, Quantity and Measure.

What makes Quality, Quantity and Measure stages of Being is that they remain forms of concept which are not self-conscious, that is, they are completely objective, describing the object in observer terms, and terms which lack a concept of the phenomenon as such. This is the standpoint of natural science, mathematics and contemporary, positivist social science. In contemporary mainstream social science, one doesn’t have, for example, political movements or even political opinions. You just have so many votes for such and such a party, so many days of lost production due to industrial action, so many positive and negative responses on a survey form and so forth, and any amount of statistics and correlations.

Advocates of this kind of science insist on the necessity of basing science in observation, measurement and, in short, facts not opinions. And so long as we don’t elevate this principle to an absolute, it can’t be denied that it is a necessary, even unavoidable stage in the development of a science. Before you can determine whether hygiene is a cause of susceptibility to allergies, you have to gather a lot of data, and hypotheses about the causes don’t count for much in such a complex problem until you have a great deal of well-organised data on which to base any idea.

So let us look at the basic process of perception when confronted with an entirely new phenomenon for which we have no concept. First off you see something, and this Hegel calls a Quality, not dissimilar from the philosophical term qualia: a unique something, a “certain je ne sais quoi,” a determinate character which just is. “A something is what it is in virtue of its quality, and losing its quality it ceases to be what it is” (Hegel 1830/2009 90). But continued observation of what may or may not be the same thing raises the question of Quantity, which is “a characteristic of such kind that the characterised thing is not in the least affected by any change in it” (1830/2009 99). A house is a house whether it be large, very large or very, very large.

So something can be characterised by two kinds of attribute: that which can change without the thing ceasing to be what it is (quantity) and that which, should it be changed, the thing is no longer what it is (quality). Then follows Hegel’s famous observation that quantity can change without affecting the character of the thing only up to a point, beyond which further quantitative change changes the character of the thing. This is what Hegel calls the measure of the thing: with Measure we have the whole process of quantitative categorisation and ‘profiling’ of the phenomenon, all remaining within the domain of non-conceptual, ‘objective’ observation. This is how perception of a new phenomenon progresses.

Consider the way the Exemplar Theory arose out of research into the Prototype Theory. At a certain point, apparent weaknesses in the reproduction of Prototypes obliged a researcher to conclude that quantity had passed over into quality, beyond a certain amount of observed instability we had to say that there was not one but many prototypical images in play in how subjects were categorising objects.

In terms of psychology, Being is characterised by the fact that every impression comes before the mind independently of every other, fails to excite any resonance in existing knowledge and fades away without a trace. As they say, just one damned thing after another. But this is the normal condition of the mind at every moment: the continual stream of sense impressions, whether we are paying attention to them or not, the babble of inner voices talking nonsense. But it is this background of meaninglessness which is the soil from which concepts arise, without which concepts are impossible. Syncretism is not true concepts, but it is the birthplace of concepts.

But all the moments of Being, all its Qualities and Quantities, can only exist at all because they are already concepts, otherwise they couldn’t be recognised at all. As Hegel said in the beginning, Being is Nothing, and if it is given any determinate content at all, it is no longer Being. The point is that, as remarked earlier, the divisions of Hegel’s Logic are not successive stages, but rather subsume one another. Pure Being is Nothing. But only relatively so, in relation to a given emergent process.

Being develops to the point of qualitative/quantitative research into phenomena using the existing categories and standards of measurement, in other words, the normal routine practices of science. But let us reconsider the example given above of the emergence of the Exemplar Theory out of difficulties in the Prototype Theory. Researchers using the prototype theory presumed there could be only one Prototype, but the theory fell into contradiction with itself, collapsed and the researcher had a new idea: exemplars. First thing to notice is that the researchers had to have a concept of Prototype to start with, and all the experimental results that they produced were based on interpretation in the light of a theory of Prototypes. In other words, the raw data (Being) was reflected on a body of theory (Concept) and it was out of the differences and contradictions that the new theory (Concept) arose. This is the stage of Essence (or Reflection) to which will turn next. But the resources for that process of reflection and the leap to a new concept do not belong in Being, they are not given in the data, so to speak, but belong to the subsequent stages of development of the Logic, in already-existing concepts. As far as you can get in the stage of Being is Measure which produces a kind of outline of the new concept, but cannot join the dots. That requires reflection.


The basic thought behind Essence (the science of reflection) is this: you can only cognise something to the extent that you have some concept of the phenomenon to begin with. The new data (Being) is reflected in the old forms of knowledge (Concept) and what results is a process of digging deeper and deeper into the data towards disclosing a new Concept of what is (Being). It is the process through which a new concept emerges out of a meaningless stream of events.

Hegel begins Essence with a series of moments where two of what were taken to be the same thing differentiate themselves. The first moment is Identity: “The maxim of Identity, reads: Everything is identical with itself, A = A: and negatively, A cannot at the same time be A and Not-A” (1830/2009 115).

The second moment is Diversity or Difference: “Maxim of Diversity: ... ‘Everything is various or different’: or ‘There are no two things completely like each other” (1830/2009 116n).

The next moment is essential difference, or Opposition: “the unity of identity and difference; its moments are different in one identity and thus are opposites” (1816/1969 908). That is, the fact that two of the same things are different makes them specifically opposites of one another.

The unity of these two opposites is contradiction: “The exclusive reflection is thus a positing of the positive as excluding its opposite, so that this positing is immediately the positing of its opposite which it excludes” (1816/1969 935).

But this contradiction has to be resolved. It has to bring out its Grounds. “The maxim of Ground runs thus: Everything has its Sufficient Ground: that is, the true essentiality of any thing is not the predication of it as identical with itself, or as different (various), or merely positive, or merely negative, but as having its Being in an other, which, being the self-same, is its essence” (1830 121).

Hegel recapitulates the whole preceding string of moments as he explains each stage, emphasising the nature of Essence. As each pair of opposites brings forward a new relation of opposites, it slips into the background, but does not disappear. Each pair remains in play, because we have in each case not just two opposites, but a unity of opposites. This is the basic process of reflection, the emergence of difference and their resolution, which each time brings out new aspects, not just of this or that moment, but of the whole underlying process.

As remarked earlier, this process of reflection is exhibited for example in the development of a science in which to begin with all the participants declare a kind of unity, assembling behind the same banner, under the name of a new current of science or whatever. Then differences emerge, at first not taken too seriously, but then these differences sharpen into disagreements, which begin to become consistent along certain lines. People begin to enquire into what lies behind these differences. The source of differences in data and its interpretation shows itself to be different ideas about the subject matter. Very soon we have determinate, competing currents in the science. The same kind of process is manifested in your thinking as you study some process and patterns emerge and so on.

The process is called ‘Reflection’ because it is based on a preconception of what is being experienced, and that preconception is retained, whilst what is experienced is manifestly something new and different. So we have new Being reflected in old Concept, but that old Concept originates nowhere else but in that same Being. At this stage, the participants do not have a new concept, and if we are talking about an emergent social movement, the participants will see these as internal differences and not necessarily of any significance. That is, we do not see a new concept yet.

Note also how Hegel presents this idea not as the results of a survey of the experiences of observers, but as a logical critique of firstly, the maxim of Identity, and then each new maxim as it emerges. The whole of the Doctrine of Essence is built up in this way. Social movements and ideas do emerge in this way, through people’s thoughtful reflection on the logic of what they stand for, in the light of experience. So Hegel captures what is essential in developing thought by this method of logical critique.

This emergence of contradictions in the flow of impressions, which calls attention to what is going on, initiates what Hegel calls Reflection, the first of three divisions of the Doctrine of Essence: Reflection, Appearance and Actuality. From here on there are always two opposite determinations in a dialectical relation with one another.

The first division, Reflection, Hegel sees as the dialectic of Matter and Form. The basic problematic of this stage is this: yes, this is something different, but do we have a new Matter here, or is this just a new Form of the same Matter? The difference between Matter and Form is always somewhat of an open question. By showing that a new thing can be understood as not a new thing at all, but just a new form of the same old thing, we may gain a deeper understanding of it. At the same time, something really new always appears in the guise of just another variety of the same old thing. At the time Hegel was writing, it was somewhat of a fad in natural science to ‘explain’ every new phenomenon by the supposed discovery of a new matter. The classic case of this would be the invention of phlogiston as a type of matter which was supposed to explain heat, for which is was more or less a synonym, and therefore explained nothing. It was subsequently proved that heat was not a type of matter, but rather a form of the movement of matter itself. So there is a whole dialectic going on here, in how the flow of contradictions impels new forms of understanding or deepens old forms.

The second division, Appearance, is crucial to Hegel’s critique of Kant and the whole idea of phenomena being just the appearance of something supposedly more essential, the ‘thing-in-itself’, which is not given in Appearance. For Hegel there is no impassable barrier between Essence and Appearance, but rather, what is essential is contained in the appearance, it only has to be brought out and recognised. Things are different from what they appear to be, but matters don’t remain like that, appearances tend to give way to reality, masks are dropped sooner or later, and things show themselves for what they really are.

Hegel sees Appearance as the dialectic of Form and Content. Every content has to take some form, every form has some content. Development is the struggle between form and content – the struggle of content to find a form adequate to it and shake off an inappropriate form, the struggle of a form to contain and express its content. The result is a continual interchange between form and content. For example, a political ideal which has given itself the form of an electoral party, wrongly understanding its position in relation to other political forces, later transforms itself into a lobby group seeking to find supporters and influence all the other parties from within, rather than competing with them. For example, a novel which the writer produces in the form of a third-person narrative, only really works when the writer changes it into the form of a diary. And so on. When something new comes on the scene, that is a new content, it will always at first adopt an old form, and its development is the search for an appropriate form. In terms of perception, a new form is always initially taken to be ‘just’ a new form, but to have the same old content you always knew this form to have, but in time the real content may come to the surface. So the dialectic of form and content can be seen to be both subjective and objective. It is no longer, as we had in Being, a purely observer process. On the contrary, the process of reflection produces a dialogue between the inner and the outer and an interchange between subject and object. “Essence accordingly is not something beyond or behind appearance, but – just because it is the essence which exists – the existence is Appearance.” (1830/2009 131).

The third and last division of Essence is Actuality, which is the dialectic of Cause and Effect. Here the emergent process is grasped in its connection with everything else, that is to say, its Reality. Form and content are not yet reconciled, but the struggle between form and content has passed over into a myriad of interconnections, which still lack a concept so that they could be understood as a whole. Reality signifies an ideal which has taken shape. In Reflection and Appearance, the new process is seen only in outline. It suggests itself, so to speak. ‘Reality’ entails a concrete connection with everything else in the world.

The first division of Actuality Hegel calls Substance, where a dialectic emerges between what belongs to the thing necessarily and what is accidental or contingent. The second division is the division of Causality, in which every effect shows itself to be also a cause and every effect also a cause. Here the relation between a phenomenon and its conditions, the transformation between a possibility and its realisation become the central concern. The relation of Causality sets up an infinite regress, and the chain of cause to effect, which in turn becomes cause, etc., etc., which eventually bends back on itself. There seems to be no proper starting point, no first cause, and everything is the cause of everything else and the effect of something else. This conclusion, that a certain set of circumstances do not have any one of those circumstances as the cause of the others, but all together constitute a reciprocal relation of causation, is called Reciprocity, the third division of Actuality. Reciprocity is often regarded as the completion of knowledge of the process. If poverty is the cause of unemployment, urban decay, poor health and dysfunctional schools, each of which is in turn the cause of unemployable workers, bringing up unruly children in a decaying neighbourhood, endlessly extending the ‘cycle of disadvantage’, then there is nothing more to be said. To finger any one point in this complex as the cause would be foolish. So says Reciprocity. Hegel exemplifies this with the question of the nature of the Spartans:

“To make, for example, the manners of the Spartans the cause of their constitution and their constitution conversely the cause of their manners, may no doubt be in a way correct. But, as we have comprehended neither the manners nor the constitution of the nation, the result of such reflections can never be final or satisfactory. The satisfactory point will be reached only when these two, as well as all other, special aspects of Spartan life and Spartan history are seen to be founded in this notion.” (1830/2009 156n)

This is as far as the process of Essence can go. Reflection arrives at a complete description of the process, not just its existence and its appearance, but also all its interconnections ... but still lacks a concept of the thing. “Freedom is the truth of Necessity.” Actuality brings the possibility of a leap to an understanding of the essence of the process and its being, a leap from blind necessity to freedom, to consciousness of necessity. “All that is real is rational; all that is rational is real,” says Hegel.

It is evident that Reflection is not a flash in the pan, but rather the build-up of an all-sided knowledge of something. It is, by its nature, a protracted process, which becomes more and more diverse and multifaceted. But it moves the concept from syncretic, quantitative observations to a deep, all-sided understanding of something, framed in terms of the subject’s existing body of knowledge. Every aspect of the thing, as it comes to the fore, is accompanied by an opposite aspect, producing puzzling, unresolved dialectical relations, and as the process continues, these opposite aspects are joined by further opposing determinations.

The problem is that the subject has no concept of the object. Or putting it differently, it has a full description of the thing, but as yet not a true concept of the thing itself. It knows everything about it, but it still cannot grasp the thing, as a whole. You know how it is, but not what it is. It’s like when a new person which has ascended to leadership of another country, and you have found out all there is to know about him or her, but you still don’t yet know what makes them tick. It’s like chemistry before the Periodic Table of Elements was worked out, the physics of radiation before the quantum of energy was discovered, and so on. It is like a social movement that has not yet given itself a name, or a teenager who burns with anger and hope, but still has no idea of a career, a rebel without a cause. Actuality is the bringing together of all those conditions which make possible a breakthrough, but not yet the breakthrough.

It should be briefly noted at this point that the Logic, which presents Hegel’s approach to science in general, is also central to Hegel’s psychology, as he takes the human personality to be a concept, but I will return to this after considering the section of the Logic on the Concept, which begins with Subjectivity.