Andy Blunden March 2009

Hegel and Activity

1. The Young Hegel and what drove him

At the time of the storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1789, the 18-year-old Hegel was a philosophy student at Tübingen, 480 km to the east of Paris. Soon after, he entered the seminary, sharing a room with the poet Hölderlin Pinkard 2000). His earliest known writing was an essay on the prospects for furthering the Enlightenment by launching a ‘folk religion’, penned in 1793, shortly before Robespierre launched his own manufactured ‘religion of the Supreme Being’. This project fell flat and shortly afterwards Robespierre was himself sent to the guillotine. Mainly under the influence of Hölderin, Hegel abandoned his youthful disdain for the Christian religion and came to see that, for all its faults, it was Christianity which had ultimately opened the way for the Enlightenment and modernity (Pinkard 2000).

On 13th October 1806, Hegel mailed off the manuscript of his first book, The Phenomenology of Spirit, from Jena, the day before the town was occupied by his hero Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was born the same year as Hegel, but died in 1821 shortly after the publication of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1952), which culminates in the section on World History in which Hegel describes the role of world-historic heroes as ‘living instruments of the world mind’. Napoleon introduced the code civile into Germany, and smashed up its feudal structures. But the first movement from below, the uprisings of the French proletariat depicted in the final chapters of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, began only in June 1832, after Hegel’s death.

The industrial revolution in Britain roughly coincides with Hegel’s lifetime, 1770-1830, but the Chartist Uprisings took place in the 1830s shortly after Hegel’s death. So Hegel saw the revolutionary impact of capitalism and the misery it brought with it, but never saw a movement of the oppressed, a modern social movement. Also, some of the most brilliant women of the first wave of feminism were amongst his circle of friends, and included his mother and sister, but Hegel himself remained an inveterate misogynist.

Germany did not have a state. Until 1815, Germany was part of what was still called the Holy Roman Empire, and made up of a patchwork of over 300 small principalities, some Catholic some Protestant, each with their own class structure and traditions and with no solidarity between them. England to the North, Revolutionary France to the West, Imperial Russia to the East and Austria-Hungary to the South. The armies of these great powers marched back and forth across Germany, pushing the German princes around like pawns. And none of the princes could count on their citizens to take up arms in their defence. Whilst Revolutionary France made history with its armies and its agitators, and the English built an empire with their money and their inventions, Germany remained a spectator in history. But this was the Germany of Goethe, and Schiller and Beethoven. Hegel drew the conclusion that the German Revolution would have to be made with philosophy rather than with guns and mobs.

The Holy Roman Empire was brought to a close in 1815, just as the last volume of the Science of Logic went to press, and at the Congress of Vienna, in the aftermath of Napoleon’s eventual military defeat, the German Federation was created with just 38 components. This situation suited Hegel, and generally speaking, the most creative period of Hegel’s life was the period of the Napoleonic Wars, 1804-1815.

As was remarked in connection with Goethe, Hegel never knew Darwin, but he was familiar with the theory of Lamarck, and he positively rejected the idea that human beings had evolved out of animals. Although he learnt of Lyell’s theory of geological formation and came to accept that the continents were products of a process of formation, he insisted that there was change but no development in Nature. He could know nothing of the pre-history of humanity or the natural history of the Earth, and as surprising as it may seem for the historical thinker par excellence, he claimed that:

“even if the earth was once in a state where it had no living things but only the chemical process, and so on, yet the moment the lightning of life strikes into matter, at once there is present a determinate, complete creature, as Minerva fully armed springs forth from the head of Jupiter.... Man has not developed himself out of the animal, nor the animal out of the plant; each is at a single stroke what it is.” (quoted in Houlgate 2005)

At the time, natural science offered no rational explanation for the appearance of organic life out of inorganic life or of the origins of the human form, language or human history. It is to Hegel’s credit that he did not try to resolve the problem of what he knew little about by appealing to what he knew absolutely anything about. He relied almost entirely on the intelligibility of human life as it could be observed: no foundation myths or appeals to a natural order beyond human experience or appeals to Eternal Reason or Laws of Nature. In that sense, Hegel’s is a supremely rational philosophy.

His misogyny and racism, which led him to exclude women and the peoples of uncivilized nations from being creators of culture, derived from his blindness to the fact of the cultural origins of the human form itself.

Hegel presents a contradictory figure. He saw himself much as a foot soldier for the Enlightenment, and witnessing what Kant, Fichte and Schelling achieved as proponents of philosophical systems, together with awareness of the unsatisfactory nature of the systems of these, his predecessors in German philosophy, impelled him to construct a philosophical system of his own.

But although the Enlightenment essentially entailed the expansion of individual freedom, unlike other proponents of the Enlightenment Hegel was not a liberal: he did not identify freedom with the ‘negative’ freedom of individuals from constraint, rooted in an individualist conception of the subject. It was his experience of life in Germany which led him to a far deeper conception of freedom. At best, an individual only has the power of the whole community of which they are a part. A citizen of a nation like Germany, which has no state, has no freedom.

So in order to understand Hegel we have to let go of the conception of the state as a power over society or as a limitation on individual freedom, and see the sense in which the state is also the instrument of its citizens and an expression of their freedom. Hegel never knew of the idea of the state as an instrument of class rule, and he conducted a life-long struggle against all those theories which promoted a liberal, or ‘negative’ idea of freedom. For him, the state occupied the space that it occupied for the people of Vietnam and other nations which emerged from the national liberation struggles of the post-World War Two period: that of a social movement. What he describes in his Philosophy of Right, for example, is not of course a social movement, but a state, complete with hereditary monarchy and a public service, but at the deepest level, his philosophy is that of a social movement, of people who have organized themselves around a common cause or ‘project’.

Hegel wasn’t simply a communitarian; he was deeply concerned with individuality and how the self-determination of an individual person could be realized in and through the appropriation of the culture of the community as a whole. His central concern was what later came to be called ‘social solidarity’, but only that kind of social solidarity in which individuality could flourish.

The real limitation on Hegel’s conception of a social movement is that, as remarked above, he never saw nor ever conceived of a social movement of the oppressed. He saw no reason to believe that the ‘rabble’ could liberate themselves. Modern theories of self-emancipation are all presaged on the formation of collective self-consciousness and the state is the material expression of collective self-consciousness par excellence. Hegel well understood that the agency of individual human beings can only be constituted in and through social movements and the institutions such movements create. He was deeply concerned with the role of individuals in bringing about social change, but the conception of the individual which he developed was a radical break from those of his immediate predecessors.

It was the concern to find a route to modernity for Germany which led Hegel to an investigation of the source of the differing spirit of peoples and the fate of each nation (1948, 1979). Hegel did not invent this study. Before him Immanuel Kant (Eze 1997) and Johann Gottfried Herder (2004), who coined the terms Volksgeist and Zeitgeist, had made investigations into the problem. By studying the history of a people, Hegel hoped to discover why one people would make revolution or build an empire, while another people would wallow in disunity or slavery.

These ideas became important in the development of cultural anthropology and helped shaped ideas of people like Franz Boas (Stocking 1966), but modern nations are not homogeneous entities in that sense, and Hegel, whose interest was in the fostering of both social solidarity and modern individuality, realized this. At best the concept could be useful in characterization of an ancient city state or of an isolated community perhaps, or to explain particular aspects of the character of different nations. But the problem of Volksgeist asks a legitimate question, and it was a first step towards understanding the specific nature of modern social life and its relation to the psychology of the individuals who constitute a society, and a radical break from trying to understand the problem of freedom through foundation myths, social contracts or eternal categories of Reason.

Hegel’s early work, such as the 1802-03 draft, System of Ethical Life (1979), is particularly important because in it we see Hegel working out his conception of spirit in terms of practical daily life. Taking the lead of his predecessors Kant and Fichte, and Descartes for that matter, he aimed for a philosophy without presuppositions, but instead of turning inwards to the contemplation of ‘clear ideas’, or appealing to some kind of mathematical reasoning, he took as his given datum, ordinary, living people creating and reproducing themselves and their society.

Now it is true that this kind of consideration is absent from his later works, such as the Logic, which moves entirely in the domain of abstract thought forms, but there is no reason to suppose that he abandoned this view of the construction of consciousness through labour. Philosophy in general and logic in particular has to stand on its own ground and cannot appeal to other domains for its proof. But what Hegel’s early investigations led him to was not a social psychology, to do with how people acquire an idea, but a radically new conception of what an idea is.

Somewhere between the writing of System of Ethical Life and the next version of his system sometimes called the Philosophy of Spirit (1979), dated 1805-06, an important change took place in his idea of Spirit. Whereas up till this time he had been interested in the spirit of this or that times or the spirit of this or that people, and looked for its origins in the day-to-day activity of people, following the pressure which comes to bear on every builder of a philosophical system, he began to talk about ‘Spirit’ as such. So instead of having the spirit of this or that people rooted in an historical form of life, forged through the experience of victory or defeat at war, through the raising of crops or trading of goods, we had Spirit. Spirit manifested itself in the activity of a people, grew as that people fulfilled their destiny, and then moved on to another people. Spirit came and went, entered into the affairs of a nation, and would leave it again. So without any change in the conception of spirit itself, spirit became something that pre-existed the form of life in which it was instantiated. And it was one and the same spirit which found a different form at a different time in a different people.

This move facilitated the construction of a systematic philosophy, but it moved his philosophy in a theistic direction. At the same time, it is a move which for our secular times, is rather easily reversible. You don’t need to reify the concept of Spirit, as if it were something which could pre-exist human life, only manifest itself in human activity. We can use Hegel’s concept of spirit as something which is constituted by rather than manifested in human activity; we can refuse to make that move which Hegel made around 1803-4, and still appropriate what Hegel has to offer in his mature works.

The other implication of this conception of Spirit was that it really emphasized the unitary character of spirit; everyone shares in the culture of a people, its language, its forms of production and distribution, its institutions and its religion. It is this shared character of spirit as Hegel conceived it, which comes to the fore, rather than a concern with distinctions and difference. But the point is this: should we proceed like Fichte, beginning from the individual, and from the individual deduce the nature of the society, or should we on the contrary, begin with a conception of the society, a conception which rests on people’s collaborative activity, and from there deduce the nature of the individual persons. Surely Hegel was correct. We all share, even if unequally, in the language, the science, the art, the productive forces, the social and political institutions which are produced in our society; we constitute and modify them in our own activity. We all have our own unique take on that culture, but it remains a cooperative and shared, cultural life. The same approach can bring a magnifying glass to bear on the consciousness of different classes, subcultures or natural groupings within society, but at whatever level, we have to be able to deal with individuals constituting a shared form of life and constituting themselves as a part of that.

There is a basis for associating Hegel with notions of ‘progress’ and a ‘cultural evolution’ in which all the people of the world are subsumed into a single narrative. But the point is that Hegel worked out an approach which can illuminate the individual psyche and its structure at one and the same time as studying the dynamics of national institutions, politics, movements in art and philosophy and so on.

This brings us to the essential problem here, the ‘problem of the individual’ (Blunden 2007). Nowadays we commonly hear people talking about ‘two levels’, the level of the individual and the level of society, of institutions and social forces. On one hand, we have individuals with ideas and consciousness and personalities of their own, able to decide what they do from one moment to the next, and on the other hand, we have impersonal social forces, such as the economy governed by the invisible hand of the market, politics governed by public opinion, the few powerful individuals who control the large institutions of society, and social and historical forces and laws. Sociology is located in one department of the university, whilst psychology is in another, and the conceptual apparatus we need to understand human beings is split into at least two incommensurable sets of concepts. But it is the same individual human beings when they act as members of an institution, or as an economic agent making market decisions, or when acting out social roles such as their family or community responsibilities.

What Hegel’s concept of spirit gives us is a set of concepts, all interconnected with one another in his Logic. “Spirit is the nature of human beings en masse,” said Hegel (1952), and the study of spirit is nothing other than the study of the activity of human beings en masse. The only qualification is that once a people stops questioning its institutions and beliefs, which is a pathological condition, then Spirit leaves them, and the nation falls into stagnation and backwardness.

So “spirit is human beings en masse.” But it is easy to miss some of what this entails. It is well known that a person left to grow up on their own, without contact with others, will not grow up to be a human being in any real sense. But this is only the half of it. If you dropped a million people into the jungle to grow up together, but without the benefit of the material culture built up by preceding generations, the result would be even worse. When we are talking about human beings en masse, then we are talking not only about so many human beings, and the forms of organization and cooperation that they are involved in, but also the material culture [I use the term ‘material culture’ to include transient artefacts such as the spoken word and human body form, as well as the durable artefacts which are the business of archaeologists] that they have inherited, recreated and use together. This includes language, whether spoken or written, means of production from factories and mines through to crops, and domestic animals and soils which are as much a product of human culture as are our own bodies and our basic needs. For Hegel, all these objects of material culture are thought-objects. It is true that they entail ‘externality’: a word cannot be spoken in a vacuum, a building cannot be erected without the help of gravity. But a word is what it is only in connection with its use by human beings and the same is true of a chair or a key or a rosary.

One of the difficulties that Hegel had to overcome was the problem of dualism. Descartes operated with a mind-matter dualism, and Kant’s philosophy got around mind-matter dualism at the cost of introducing a host of other dichotomies and the need to overcome these dichotomies in Kant’s philosophy was one of the main drivers for Kant’s critics, such as Fichte and Schelling and Hegel. For Hegel, it was all thought. We will presently come to how Hegel arrived at difference from this abstract beginning, but the idea of thought, of Spirit, shaping the world, served as a foundation upon which to build a philosophical system. Thought was not for Hegel simply something simply private and inward. Thought remains the activity of the human mind, but the content of thought is always objective things, existing outside the individual, and in turn, the objects around us which are the content of our perception and thoughts are the objectifications of the thought of other people, or ourselves. We live in a world not of matter, but of thought objects, which are, like all objects, also material things.

But what makes a key a key is not its shape or its substance, but the fact that there’s a lock somewhere that it fits. Idealism must be given its due.

2. The Phenomenology and ‘formations of consciousness’

Immanuel Kant was born in 1724, and published “Religion within the limits of Reason” at the age of 70, at about the same time as the young Hegel was writing his speculations on building a folk religion at the seminary in Tübingen and Robespierre was engaged in his practical experiment in a religion of Reason.

Kant was a huge figure. Hegel and all his young philosopher friends were Kantians. But Kant’s system posed as many problems as it solved; to be a Kantian at that time was to be a participant in the project which Kant had initiated, the development of a philosophical system to fulfill the aims of the Enlightenment; and that generally meant critique of Kant. We need to look at just a couple of aspects of Kant’s philosophy which will help us understand Hegel’s approach.

‘I freely admit’, said Kant, ‘it was David Hume’s remark [that Reason could not prove the necessity of causality in Nature] that first, many years ago, interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave a completely different direction to my enquiries in the field of speculative philosophy’. (Kant 1997) Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature had been published while Kant was still very young, continuing a line of empiricists and their rationalist critics, whose concern was how knowledge and ideas originated from sensation. Hume was a skeptic; he demonstrated that causality could not be deduced from experience. One could witness the fact that one event has always followed upon another, but this did not prove that the first was the cause of the second, and that the second necessarily followed from the first. This skepticism shocked Kant. If this were true, then there could be no science. In an effort to rescue the possibility of science, Kant set about constructing his critical philosophy, a kind of ‘third way’ between dogmatism and skepticism, whose aim was to determine the limits of knowledge, to draw a line between what was knowable and what was not knowable.

The most important step in Kant’s solution was his conception of the transcendental subject:

“By this ‘I’, or ‘He’, or ‘It’, who or which thinks, nothing more is represented than a transcendental subject of thought = x, which is cognized only by means of the thoughts that are its predicates.” (Kant 2007)

So the subject for Kant was a nothing, like a point which is defined as the intersection between two lines - it is determinate and you know just what and where it is, but it has no nature of its own. This device allowed Kant to avoid the contradictions which had plagued earlier philosophers, but it led to a new range of problems. What Kant had done was to escape the problems of the subject’s interaction with the material world by in effect placing the subject outside culture and history. He had created an eternal changeless subject which could be analyzed by the methods of philosophy, without any empirical content, at the cost of reducing the subject to a nothing.

Hegel’s proposal is to place the subject back into culture and history: the subject would be a product and part of culture and history, rather than standing outside of experience. One of the consequences of Kant’s transcendental subject was the resolution of the problem he inherited from the rationalist-empiricist debate: there were two kinds of knowledge, knowledge derived from two distinct sources which had to be combined somehow. On the one hand we had sensation, or ‘Intuition’, which was the immediate basis for experience, the beginning of all knowledge, and on the other hand, we had Reason, or Concept. Reason was needed to process the data of experience and acquire the categories through which sense could be made of experience. So we had two faculties: the faculty of reason and the faculty of intuition, and through reason we could acquire knowledge of the categories, of time and space, logic and so on.

One of the other implications, an essential part of how Kant resolved the contradiction he had inherited from the empiricists and rationalists, was that the world was divided in two: on our side was the world of appearances, in which we have constructed some meaningful image out of the stream of data from intuition, using our capacity for reason. On the other side, beyond and behind appearances, lies the thing-in-itself, about which, in principle, we can know nothing.

In his endeavor to determine the limits of knowledge, Kant demonstrated that certain kinds of question, such as whether the world has a beginning or whether matter is infinitely divisible, are just silly questions which lead to self-contradictory conclusions. On the other hand, in common with everyone else at the time, he believed that sciences such as logic, mathematics and geometry can be given a sound basis in pure reason and are not just ‘appearances’.

Hegel’s response was to claim that all concepts were internally contradictory. And rather than this contradictoriness being a fault of thought transgressing its rightful limits, was inherent in the objective world itself, and only thanks to this internal contradictoriness did concepts have reality and depth.

Hegel’s breakthrough sprung from his concept of the ‘subject’ (Blunden 2007). Most writers interpret Hegel by importing into their reading of Hegel Kant’s concept of subject. This is wrong. The core idea that Kant has imparted to the word ‘subject’ is the coincidence of three things: the cogito, which is the bearer of ideas and knowledge, the agent, who bears moral responsibility for their actions, and ego, which is self-consciousness. All three of these entities coincide in the Kantian subject, and Hegel is true to this concept, but the subject is not an individual personality, and the three components of the subject do not immediately coincide.

The individual is just a single atom of the whole entity constituted by a community of practice. Of course, nothing other than an individual human being can think or bear moral responsibility for actions, but they cannot do so as isolated atoms; the content of our thinking is thought-objects which are constituted by the activity of the entire community and past generations. And our actions are vain and meaningless except insofar as they take on significance through the relation of the individual to the whole community. The point is, how to elaborate this idea of thought and moral responsibility as collective activities, and at the same time develop the conception of individuality which constitutes the essence of modern society.

In the “System of Ethical Life,” Hegel approached the question of labour not so much from the standpoint of how individuals acquire knowledge, but rather as how the universal, that is, a culture, is constructed. At the basic level, people work with plants, and then animals, and then machinery, and in doing so produce crops, herds and means of production which are passed on to future generations, together with the possibilities for use that they entail. Likewise, using words recreates and passes language on to future generations, and finally, in abstracting the knowledge of culture and imparting it to a new generation in the raising of children, people are constructing and maintaining their ‘second nature’, the universals which are the content of all thought. When an individual thinks, they think with universals actively maintained by and meaningful only within their historical community.

So instead of an individual using universal principles of Reason to process their experience of unknowable things-in-themselves, the structure of thoughts is already built into thought objects which are the product of collective human activity. The categories and regularities by means of which sensuous experience is interpreted are acquired through the same sensuous experience, in particular by participation in the uses of culture. In other words, the categories are objective thought forms of the finite things and events given in ‘intuition’: not in passive contemplation but in active use of the thing.

So let’s look at how Hegel solved this problem of human beings having two faculties and two kinds of knowledge, Concept and Intuition, which have to be stuck together somehow. Hegel spells out a solution in the “System of Ethical Life.” The structure of this work is an alternation between the Concept being subsumed under Intuition and Intuition being subsumed under the Concept. Hegel did not eradicate the contradiction between Concept and Intuition, but traced the process of mutual subsumption which does not merely extract knowledge from the outside world, but creates objective thought forms.

We perceive, describe, act upon and understand the world using our words, artefacts, institutions and so on, subsuming intuition under concept, whilst in practical activity, communication and experience generally we sensuously interact with thought-objects, subsuming concept under intuition, for example. We have a view about how the world should be - either ethically or theoretically, but we find from experience that it is otherwise. The world is continuously at odds with how it should be and things continuously turn out other than we intended. The development of the individual person as well as the whole of history is the story of the resolution of this conflict.

When we use a tool, we sense it as an object, and using it constrains us to act with it in a certain way. It is a norm of labour. it might be a sledge hammer or a tack hammer or a claw hammer, and we have to use it in a certain way, and experience ourselves using it. The tool is the product of reflection and continuous modification in the past, it is an objectification of that thought, so when we use it, we sensuously, intuitively apprehend a mode of activity, a concept.

But things are never quite satisfactory. We feel a need. Our needs are never given directly from nature, there is always a gap, a gap between need and its satisfaction, and that delayed gratification is overcome, negated by labour. Labour arises from the gap between needs and their satisfaction. Labour itself generates new needs, needs met by new products. Thus intuition is subsumed under the concept. In the process the universal is being constructed. Nature is supplemented by a ‘second nature’ in the form of an artificial environment; along with the separation of consumption and production comes a division of labour, the possibility of supervision of labour - the differentiation of theory and practice, and a surplus product.

Hegel called the unity of Concept and Intuition, the Idea. But at any given moment, the Concept and Intuition are not in unity. So what does this mean? Hegel’s central concept here is not a supreme, absolute kind of ‘master signifier’, but a deficient, internally riven, incomplete, broken concept; every move it makes to try to rectify this internal contradiction only generates new contradictions, new problems. Rather than the final outcome of a never ending historical process, the Idea is a process.

Consciousness always and only exists in and through individuals, but consciousness of oneself as an agent and creator of knowledge, and as a part of an historical process of knowledge, is the product of historical development. The opening up of a gap between the consciousness of an individual and the norms and practices of the community as a whole is a contradiction which is central to the kind of relations in which the Logic makes sense. The development of individuality is tied up with the development of culture as a whole, without which individuality cannot be sustained.

That material comes from the 1802-03 system. In the 1805-06 system, Hegel has moved to a conception of Spirit as something pre-existing society and manifesting itself in human activity. The shift was a subtle one, and the same logical structure was still there.

This brings us to the final stage of introducing Hegel’s mature philosophy as set out in the Logic, and that is the Phenomenology.

The Phenomenology

In the Phenomenology Hegel shows how the normal, non-philosophical way of thinking and living rises to philosophy, in the form of his mature philosophical system, which begins with the Logic. It is also the connecting link between his early work and his mature work. It is part of his mature work in the sense that it represents the completion of the series of transformations which he went through in his early work, but it is almost unreadable and was written in a rush to meet the publisher’s deadlines. At the time of his death, 25 years later, Hegel was working on a second edition of the Phenomenology, but he had written on the original manuscript: “Characteristic early work not to be revised - relevant to the period at which it was written - the abstract Absolute was dominant at the time of the Preface.”

It would take us far too far afield to get into the content of the Phenomenology, but we need to understand the subject matter of the Logic, and for that we must understand what is the subject matter of the Phenomenology. Hegel says it is about consciousness. It tells the story of the journey of consciousness three times; the first time is the story of thinking as it develops down through history, through a series of distinct stages; then he tells the same story again but this time instead of systems of thinking, we have social formations; and then the story is told again a third time from the standpoint of thought which understands itself to be that process and its outcome, genuinely philosophical thought that knows that it is the thought of an age.

The object whose development is being described is the same object, but from its subjective, objective and absolute perspectives. This object, whose change and development through history is described, Hegel calls a Gestalt, sometimes translated as “formation” or “configuration of consciousness.” Goethe gave Gestalt the meaning in which is used in Gestalt Psychology, as an integral structure or indivisible whole, which is prior to its parts, and it is more or less in this same sense that we must understand the meaning of Gestalt in the Phenomenology. This is consistent with Goethe’s understanding that the practice of science is a part of the culture of its age.

Alongside Napoleon, Goethe would be the great figure in Hegel’s life, and along with Aristotle, his greatest philosophical inspiration. The admiration was not reciprocated however. Goethe never took an interest in Hegel’s philosophy despite repeated efforts by Hegel to gain his attention for it. But Hegel certainly took from Goethe, describing himself Goethe’s ‘spiritual son’ and both publicly and privately declaring himself a follower of Goethe, and probably the only person to support his theory of colors (Pinkard 2000). Although the concept of Gestalt that we find in the Phenomenology is not identical to the concept of Gestalt we find in Goethe, taken together with Goethe’s commitment to the centrality of development, including the Bildungsroman, Goethe’s relentless struggle for a holistic science, the concept of Urphänomen, and Goethe’s view of all the ideas of an age constituting a single whole, we can see the clear stamp of Goethe on the Phenomenology.

For Hegel a Gestalt is a ‘formation of consciousness’ understood as the dissonant unity of a way of thought, a way of life and a certain constellation of material culture. ‘Dissonant’ because at any given moment in the history of any given people these elements are not identical. There are laws requiring that people should act in a particular way, but people don’t act in quite that way, fashions become out of date, and there are bad laws, and so on. So we have material culture and practical activity and subjective thought all aspects of a single whole or figure, that is Gestalt, but always moving, always with internal contradictions.

The Phenomenology is concerned with the necessary forms of development of formations of consciousness, and it is in that sense that Hegel is not dealing in the Phenomenology with a real, empirical history; he is concerned with consciousness, but with consciousness as something which is intelligible, objectively necessary, not pathological or capricious.

With that qualification, Hegel is talking about consciousness, an object which is empirically given and verifiable. He starts with ordinary common, unphilosophical consciousness, and he leads the reader through a series of stages leading up to absolute knowledge, that is, the philosophical consciousness exhibited in the exposition of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences.

To recap, what constitutes a Gestalt is a way of thinking which includes the meaning attached to different institutions and artefacts, including words and symbols, a way of life, or social formation, that is, a form of practical activity, including the social institutions, and forms of practical activity whether in production, communication, family life, government or whatever, and thirdly, a constellation of material culture including the language, art, means of production, land, food and so on. Each of these aspects constitutes the others and mediates between them.

There is no mind/matter dichotomy here. Actually, at no time in his life did Hegel ever show any interest in the usual problems of epistemology, the limits on the validity of knowledge; ontology was subsumed under Logic. All those dichotomies which had tortured the minds of earlier generations of philosophers he just bypassed. The question of whether and to what extent a thought-object corresponds to an object outside of and independent of thought, interested Hegel only in the sense of asking: under what conditions do people ask questions like that? For Hegel, subject and object always exist in a mutually constituting, more or less adequate, relation to one another. The question is not the correspondence of the subject to the object, but of the capacity of the mutually constituting subject-object, that is, the whole formation of consciousness, to withstand sceptical criticism. Under the impact of sceptical attack the subject and object will both change. The object changes because it is constituted by the subject, and vice versa.

And this brings us to some remarks on the main theme of the Phenomenology. The dynamic in the Phenomenology, the driver which pushes it on from one Gestalt to another is precisely this vulnerability to sceptical attack, and to be exact, sceptical attack from within, in its own terms. With this work Hegel introduced the novel device of ‘immanent critique’. Instead of taking up a thesis and then standing to the side and pitting counter-arguments against it, testing it from a standpoint outside the Gestalt, he enters into the Gestalt, adopts its way of thinking, and subjects it to plausible internal self-criticism, and in this way demonstrates how every one of the Gestalten at a certain point fails to withstand sceptical critique and collapses. Some new Gestalt which is proof against this line of reasoning and can withstand the type of attack which the previous Gestalt could not, is then able to develop. And so it goes on.

The way Hegel organized the Phenomenology was based on the thesis that in any formation of consciousness there would be an agreed final arbiter of truth, some standard against which sceptical attacks against any element of the whole would ultimately come up against. So each main stage in the Phenomenology is associated with a criterion of truth which characterizes it, and more than a thousand years of history is represented in the passage through the series of such schemes.

It is not necessary to go the whole way with Hegel on this. More importantly, it is also not necessary to confine ourselves to the grand historical stage on which this drama is played out. The fact is that in any project or science or paradigm or social practice, which exhibits the same basic features of a Gestalt, there will be just one Urphänomen, one relation, on which the whole project depends and which allows us to make sense of the whole.

We have formations of consciousness, which entail a certain line of thinking, a certain set of practices which instantiate the project and correspond to the line of thinking - the self-consciousness of participants, the objectives and world view it entails - and the artefacts around which the project is organized, from specialized language, gestures and so on, to collective property, technology and so on belonging to the project and so on. Within each project there are basic criteria and associated practices through which claims are tested, which underpin sceptical challenges to the project. Whether this works on the grand historical scale that Hegel claimed for it, is an open question - it is one of those ‘in the last instance’ questions may mean very little. But in the course of presenting a kind of history of civilization and history of philosophy combined, Hegel has presented a profound approach to the understanding of human life, tied up in the notions of Gestalt and Urphänomen which he learnt from Goethe.

3. The Subject Matter of the Logic

Hegel wrote a long time ago, and his views on society and nature, even the history of philosophy are somewhat dated. However, by its very nature, the Logic has very little empirical content and as a consequence it has stood the test of time very well. The problem is, what is the Logic really about?

In the section of the Science of Logic entitled “With What must Science Begin?,” Hegel explains that philosophy must make a logical beginning, that is, without any presuppositions, but at the same time, he says that it is mediated, having as its presupposition the ‘science of manifested spirit’, that is, the Phenomenology.

This is crucial. Without people capable of philosophical thought, you can’t have a logic. So the Logic presupposes the Phenomenology which represents the movement of consciousness from ordinary, unreflective consciousness to philosophical consciousness. Hegel has taken us through the immanent development of consciousness, it’s own internal movement, until it comes to know itself as the work of Spirit, and to know how Spirit moves. Consequently, the truth of the Phenomenology, this Bildungsroman of civilization, is the pure essentialities of manifest spirit, the Logic. Putting it another way, the Logic is what turns out to be the essential phenomenology.

So we can see the truth of Hegel’s maxim: that ‘there is nothing, nothing in Heaven, or in Nature or in Mind or anywhere else which does not equally contain both immediacy and mediation’ (1816). The Logic, even its very first concept, Being, ‘the immediate’, is mediated. The beginning of philosophy is mediated by the long drawn out process through which consciousness comes to philosophy, or at least at philosophy in its Hegelian form, “absolute knowledge.”

But two different processes are entailed in the Logic. On the one hand, the derivation or proof of the simple concept from which the Logic will begin, which lies outside the Logic, and on the other hand, the exposition of the internal development of that concept itself which is the content of the Logic.

The science of manifested spirit, of which the Logic is the truth, is a science which refers to an empirical content, manifested spirit, or consciousness. Like any other science, Hegel’s Logic must have an empirical domain in which its claims can be exhibited and tested. The Phenomenology presents this empirical domain. That the narrative presented in the Phenomenology is an idealised or notional narrative does not take away from this fact; all sciences have as their object idealized or necessary (as opposed to contingent) forms of movement. In this sense what the Logic deals with is not only mediated, through the development of a science, but also immediate, in that it is given in experience.

This empirical domain in which the subject matter of the Logic is to be validated is consciousness, consciousness in the extended meaning which Hegel gives to it, inclusive of mutually self-constituting thinking, social practice and culture. Hegel explains the idea of a Gestalt by means of a grand historical narrative, but there is no reason to restrict the concept of Gestalt to entire social formations or historical epochs. In fact, such an interpretation cannot withstand criticism, because at no time in human history has the entire world been embraced in a single social formation. Even in his mature system with its theory of world history, he never proposed that the whole world constitutes a single configuration or shape of consciousness.

So we take the Gestalten, which make up the object domain over which the Logic is validated, to be ‘projects’ or the self-conscious systems of social practice that make up a whole formation of consciousness.

Now the opposite thesis, that the Logic is the foundation for a presuppositionless philosophy, will be defended (Houlgate 2005).

Hegel expends a lot of energy emphasizing that philosophy cannot set off from arbitrary presuppositions or axioms. Any finite science is only a part of philosophy and therefore has a beginning and consequently, finds the content of is subject matter given to it from elsewhere. But philosophy cannot enjoy such a luxury; it forms a circle. It is self-construing, and must generate its own beginning.

Hegel says that “it can be only the nature of the content itself which spontaneously develops itself in a scientific method of knowing, since it is at the same time the reflection of the content itself which first posits and generates its determinate character.” (1816) Hegel’s claim is that it is the internal sceptical self-criticism of the Gestalten given in the Phenomenology which constitutes the dynamics at work within it. The Logic is therefore the science of this immanent self-criticism which relies on nothing outside of itself.

So the Logic must be developed by beginning with an empty concept - just thought, not thought of something else already given, just thought - and then allowing the content to develop through the process of immanent critique, critique which at each step, draws only on the concepts derived previously and drawing in nothing from outside.

This method Hegel calls dialectic. Dialectic is negative because its sceptical critique undermines and destroys the given shape of consciousness, by showing it to be self-destructive. But Hegel claims that dialectic is not only negative but also positive in that it not only negates the original proposition, showing a given concept to be ‘untrue’, but it also brings forward a new concept which constitutes the truth of what had gone before. Thus there is a sense in which we can agree that the Logic is to be a presuppositionless science. All that is required is to determine a concept from which to begin which can be asserted, without making any presupposition and importing nothing extraneous that does not arise from the method itself.

So in a sense the claim that the Logic is an internally generated, presuppositionless science which deals only with the relations between concepts, turns out to be the same as the claim that the Logic deals with the pure essentialities of the manifested spirit exhibited in the Phenomenology, because of Hegel’s rather idealistic claim that it is the action of sceptical criticism of the ultimate criterion of truth which generates the destruction of one formation of consciousness and its eventual replacement by another. But when we recall what Hegel means by ‘formation of consciousness’, the accusation of ‘idealism’ is not as damning as may it may be thought to be at first.

The Logic presents a series of concepts which are shown, each in turn, to be untrue. What can it mean to say that a concept is internally contradictory or untrue? Surely, in the context of logic, it is only propositions which can be true or untrue. Think of it this way: take any concept and put it in place of x in the proposition ‘x is the absolute’. So if we say: ‘Wealth is the absolute’ (meaning ‘money can buy you anything’, or ‘everything comes down to money’ and so on). Now that’s a proposition which can be subjected to criticism and tested against reality. This is what Hegel means by the critique of a concept: ‘wealth’ turns out to be untrue, because in any community where it is elevated to the absolute, it leads to destruction and poverty. So to say that a concept is untrue simply means that it is relative and not absolute, it has its limits, it is true only up to a certain point, it is not ‘absolute’.

Also, it is one thing to grasp what is meant by the truth of a concept, but what is meant by the truth of a social practice or project? Well, the object is a Gestalt, which is the unity of a way of thinking, a way of life and a cultural constellation, so whichever aspect of the Gestalt you have in mind, the question can be reframed as whether the given shape of consciousness is ‘self-identical’. It is an open question what may cause a shape of consciousness, or project, to become internally unsustainable, but it is reasonable to suggest that it means that what people are doing corresponds to what they think they are doing and how they represent what are doing. A social practice is untrue if the activity does not correspond to its self-consciousness and self-representation. So if we have a maxim like “Wealth is absolute,” then the truth of this shape of consciousness is tested out in the reality of a form of life organized around the God of Wealth. Even in this example we can see that a vast field for social critique opens up around the concept, as soon as it is treated as something concrete in this way.

So a first approximation to the form of movement represented in the Logic is that Hegel puts up a judgment or a maxim, such as in the form of “x is absolute,” and then understanding that the claim in question corresponds to some form of life, he subjects it to critique. But corresponding to the basic idea of the Phenomenology, that social life is intelligible, the critique of each concept is executed logically.

The brilliance of Hegel’s discovery is that he was able to reproduce the character of formations of consciousness through an exposition which is entirely comprehensible as a logical critique of a series of claims for a concept as absolute truth. It’s a kind of two part harmony, simultaneously logical and social critique.

A great deal of misunderstanding arises from reading the Logic through the kaleidoscopic lens of a Cartesian thought-space. The usual “Introduction to Hegel” includes an exposition of Hegel’s Logic as a presuppositionless philosophy, to the extent that not even spirit or consciousness is presupposed. Writers can believe that this claim is defensible because they do not see that anything need be presupposed in the existence of concepts, and believe that a concept can exist independently of there being any person to think it. But where do concepts exist? For that we can only fall back on Descartes, to some extensionless thought-space inhabited by thought forms.

Typically the first 3 or 4 categories of the Logic are elaborated (few writers ever go further than the first 3 or 4 categories, other than by just listing them) by claiming that if the reader thinks of a certain concept - so here we are talking about a subjective act of summoning up these thought forms out of their extensionless hyperspace into the awareness of a living human being - and then contemplates them, then the concept ‘slides into’, or ‘disappears into’ or thought (of an individual thinker presumably) ‘leads itself to’ or ‘becomes’ or is ‘led by its own intrinsic necessity’ to contemplate another concept. So we get a mixture of concepts which move and, without any distinction, the subjective attention of a thinking person which moves from one concept to another. And we are asked to believe that the thinker, in beginning to contemplate the word ‘Being’, will be led, by necessity through the 204 concepts which constitute the Science of Logic, of necessity. This is quite simply not believable. Without some empirical domain in which claims can be verified, such a claim in untenable.

So to reiterate, Logic is the study of the pure essentialities of shapes of consciousness, or Gestalten, the objects which were in turn the subject matter of the Phenomenology. These Gestalten are the unity of a way of thinking (or ideology), a way of life (or project or social practice) and a constellation of culture (i.e., language, means of production, etc.). Each of these Gestalten is the concretisation of a fundamental claim about the nature of truth, the point where the buck stops when things are called into question for their very existence. Hegel’s Logic stands in the same relation to the social practices or projects of a formation of consciousness as formal logic stands to the propositions of a formal theory.

The presuppositions of the Logic are human beings who have come to absolute knowing, that is to say, to Hegelian philosophy, understanding that they are products of and participants in the whole spiritual journey of human kind to self-knowledge, and that the truth of that journey lies in the pure essentialities of manifest spirit. The Logic is able to present itself in the form of a self-construing method of logical critique, because this historical development of shapes of consciousness is intelligible and can be explicated in its essentialities, by means of what would be in the context, reasonable arguments.

On this basis it is now possible to see why the Logic has an important place in the development of Hegel’s philosophical system as a whole, and equally a place in the development of each of the sciences. For each science, inseparably from its object, has developed as a part of the unfolding of those same formations of consciousness. The sciences are themselves projects, or formations of consciousness and if it is valid, the Logic ought to give us guidance on the trajectory of each of the sciences under the impact of scientific scepticism.

This brings us to a few remarks on the scope and usefulness of the Logic.

What is the difference between Hegel’s Logic and the kind of logic which figures in mathematics or to take a contrast which is less cut-and-dry, the kind of logic implicit in the rules of evidence used in court proceedings?

Hegel’s Logic differs from the kind of logic known to positivism and most other forms of philosophical discourse in exactly the way Hegel’s understanding of concepts differs from the narrow, formal logical, mathematical conception of concept, which is closely tied to set theory and depends on the attributes of a thing rather than the thing itself.

In a court of law, the point is to first discover whether a particular factual claim is true, and in very general terms, participants will endeavor to establish an agreed or compelling basis in fact, and call upon logic to be able to determine whether a given conclusion can be drawn from those facts. Mathematics is similar, but is not troubled by the need for agreed facts, which is the job of particular sciences, being concerned only with the rules governing consistent sequences of symbolic propositions within a theory beginning from an arbitrary collection of axioms.

The point is that each of these sciences (jurisprudence and mathematics) constitute a Gestalt. They are methods of arriving at truth which recognise certain criteria for reasonable belief, and the scope of questions which may be asked and answers given. As a result of historical and cultural change, and changes in the ethos of the societies of which they are a part, as well as the special, historically articulated institutions of which they are a part (legal practice, universities, and so on), these criteria will change and be subject to revision and concretization. It is this process of change which is the subject of Hegel’s Logic. So there is a strong sense in which Hegel’s logic is a meta-theory in relation to jurisprudence, mathematics, formal logic, natural science, or any other formalized procedure for determining the truth.

Secondly, formal or mathematical logic takes for granted the validity of putting outside of itself the facts and axioms which it uses. Formal thinking, that is to say, thinking with forms abstracted from their content, is able to do this, because like Kant, it operates with a transcendental subject in this sense. For formal thought, an entity is an x with attributes; in Aristotlean terms this x is called the ‘subject’, to which various predicates can be attributed. For modern formal thought, there is nothing left when attributes have been stripped away and logic operates simply with the dichotomous, Boolean logic of ‘has/has not’ any given attribute. But on the contrary, Hegel’s logic is concerned with the concept itself, what it essentially is, and the method of considering an object from the point of view of its contingent attributes is just one, limited Gestalt, which is valid up to a certain point, but beyond that point it is untrue and bankrupt.

So finally, it can be seen from the above that the Logic is a meta-theory of science in the sense that it is concerned with the logic entailed in how sciences change what they take to be given without presupposition and what kind of questions and answers they admit.

Also, it is not just science. The Logic deals with the Logic underlying the trajectory of any project or social practice that is in some way organized around a shared conception of truth and shared aims, and that’s a very wide domain: it concerns all genuinely human problems, as opposed to abstract, analytically impoverished, formal, in-group problems.

The Logic therefore suggests not only the dynamics of forms of consciousness, but a methodology for the development of a science, according to the nature of the thing itself, as opposed to a logic imposed on a sphere of knowledge from without.

4. Being, Essence & the Notion.

The Logic is made up of three sections: The science of Being, the science of Essence and the science of the Notion. The structure of the Logic is important if we are to understand the process of finding the starting point for a science, and how that differs from the development of the science itself. It is also important if we are to understand Hegel’s conception of subjectivity. Let’s start with Being.

The science of Being is ontology, which normally means the study of the various kinds of thing which can exist and the nature of existence. Instead of building a dualistic theory about mind and matter, essences and appearances, and so on, Hegel replaced ontology with Logic, with a monistic science of Being as the first section of the Logic.

For Hegel, the Logic arose as the truth of manifest spirit, the pure essentialities of the Phenomenology. For the Logic he needs a concept which presupposes nothing outside of itself, a concept which imports no content from outside, rests upon no axioms, which can form a starting point for philosophy. To achieve this he conducted a logical critique of the concept of Being, dialectically unfolding of the contents of the concept of Being itself. In this way philosophy can make its own beginning.

All Hegel’s major works have the same structure: the simple concept or notion which marks the unconditioned starting point for the given science, arises as the truth of another science which has burst through its own limits. He then uses the method, the model for which is given in the Logic, to elaborate what is implicit in the given concept; he develops ‘the peculiar internal development of the thing itself’ (1952).

In the case of the Philosophy of Nature (1970), he begins from the concept of space, and claims to unfold the science of Nature through critique of the concept of space. The truth of Nature is Spirit, which appears in the form of Soul, that is, consciousness to the extent of the awareness of a living human creature which rests in its nature as a human organism. This makes the starting point of the Subjective Spirit, and so on. This is how Hegel conceived of philosophy as a ‘circle of circles’: each science is self-enclosed, being the disclosure of the content of a single concept which forms its starting point; but the sciences taken all together, constitute ‘philosophy’, and must make its own beginning, its own conditions of existence.

In the Science of Being, the First Book of the Logic, the Concept is still just ‘in itself’. For Immanuel Kant, ‘in itself’ meant what the thing is independently of and prior to our knowledge of it. We are talking about shapes of consciousness, so we mean the concept under conditions where the shape of conscious has not yet unfolded and become conscious of itself. The ‘yet’ implies that should the shape of conscious which is ‘in itself’ further develop, then it may become self-conscious. But it is not yet self-conscious.

So we have something possibly contradictory here: a shape of consciousness which is not consciousness of itself, but may become so. So this is an observer perspective, because if we are talking about a shape of consciousness which is not self-conscious, then the only terms we have in order to describe it are observer terms.

But what does it amount to? It is an idea or a form of social practice or a project which cannot yet even be described as emergent. People are acting in a certain way, but they are not conscious of acting in any such particular way. So we have for example, people who have been kicked off their land and have found a living by selling their labour by the hour, but they still think of themselves as farmers who have fallen on hard times, but they have no concept of themselves as proletarians, for example.

So this is what Being is, and Hegel demonstrated this by a critique of the concept of Being.

If there is to be some thing amidst the infinite coming and going, the chaos of existence, the simplest actual thing that can be is a Quality, something that persists amidst change. And if we ask what it is that changes while the quality remains what it is, then this is Quantity. But a thing cannot indefinitely undergo quantitative change and remain still what it is, retain the same quality; at some point, a quantitative change amounts to a change in Quality, and this Quantitative change which amounts to a Qualitative change. A certain quantity of qualitative change cannot help but be recognized and recognize itself as something and in that crosses the limits of the science of Being.

The thing-in-itself is not existent in some yonder, beyond the limits of knowledge, but rather is something which is not yet self-conscious. There is no hard line between appearance and the thing-in-itself. What is in-itself today, may make its appearance tomorrow. It’s like what Betty Friedan (1964) called “the problem that has no name.”

Next we come to the Science of Essence. For Hegel, Essence is this process beginning with the first glimmer of self-consciousness and proceeds through the “peeling the layers off the onion,” of searching for what is behind appearance, of probing reality. Hegel does not think that there was some fixed end point to that process; Essence is just that process of probing the in-itself and bringing to light what was behind.

Essence is reflection. So if we have something going on in the world, maybe or maybe not, some emergent project, some emergent new form of social practice, or some new thought that is doing the rounds, maybe not yet corresponding to any apparent change in social practice, some new art form, some detectable change in fashion, then this may come to light in terms of meaningless observations, measurement of quantity and quality, but people try to make sense of it, people reflect on it. It’s like what Marx was talking about when he said how social movements “conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language” (1979).

Essence is the process of a new type of self-consciousness struggling to find itself, so to speak, still testing out all the old categories, trying to find a fit. The process of genesis is always the struggle between opposing propositions, like Empiricism and Rationalism, two opposite currents in the history of philosophy, which, although their struggle is characteristic of just certain periods of history, it never goes away; to this very day a new problem in science will find itself rationalist and its empiricist proponents. The struggle between Empiricism and Rationalism was overtaken by the struggle between Dogmatism and Skepticism, which moves into the limelight. And so on, each decade or century brings in a struggle along different axes: form and content, essence and appearance, possibility and actuality, and so on.

The third part of the Logic is the Science of the Notion (Begriff is also translated as ‘concept’).

The Science of the Notion begins with an abstract notion, and the process of the Notion is that it gets more and more concrete. By ‘abstract’ Hegel means undeveloped, lacking in connections with other things, thin in content, formal; as opposed to ‘concrete’, which means mature, developed, having many nuances and connections with other concepts, rich in content. He does not use the words abstract and concrete to indicate anything like the difference between mental and material.

Think of the abstract notion as a new idea, like at some point in 1968, somewhere in the US, a woman reflecting on the relation between the position of women and the position of Black people, coined the word ‘sexism’. This was a new idea, in everything that had gone before since people like Mary Wollstonecraft talked about the impact of gender roles on women in the 18th century, this idea had been in gestation, but it hadn’t quite crystallized. Or take Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity; when Einstein proposed it in 1905, it was a complete break from anything that had been talked of before, but it also resolved a heap of problems that physicists had been facing up till then. So these are examples of an abstract Notion: projects, simple ideas that correspond to a new shape of consciousness, a new form of social practice along with its representations and self-consciousness.

There is not a gradual shaping of this new abstract Notion in Essence; it comes as a complete break. It is like the judgment of Solomon, settling the argument with something that seems to come from left field: like the separation of church and state which put an end to the wars between Catholics and Protestants in England in the 16th century. It is a breakthrough, a new connection, which launches a new science, out of the confusion that preceded it.

The Notion is the unity of Being and Essence, because it makes sense of the original observations, the facts of the matter, as well as all the disputes and alternative explanations and gives them a stable existence. In that sense it is a negation of the negation, and immediate perception is reconstructed on the basis of the new conception.

The Notion is also the truth of Essence, in that it is what emerges as the final conclusion which settles the series of disputes which make up Essence. The Notion, the concept of the thing, comes closer to what would normally be meant by the ‘essence of a thing’; Hegel uses the word ‘essence’ for the whole process, and the truth of that process of Essence, he calls the Notion. Being and Essence, together make up the genesis of the Notion.

The first section of the Notion is Subjectivity, or the Subject. Here we get a glimpse of Hegel’s conception of the subject: it is not an individual person, but a unit of consciousness arising from social practices which implicate the whole community, reflected in language, the whole social division of labour and so on.

In a sense, for Hegel, there is only one concept. But that one concept, the Absolute Idea, is only the outcome of a whole, long-drawn-out historical process, a process in which different individual concepts are posited at first as abstract notions, and then enter into a process of concretization in which they merge with everything else, take on all the implications of their own existence. The Absolute Idea, which is the final product, is the result of the mutual concretization of all the abstract notions, the objectification of each one on every other.

In this context, issues come up about Hegel having a master narrative, about practicing a kind of philosophical colonialism. To get Hegel’s whole system, then you do have to push this idea through to the extreme so you get the Absolute Idea externalizing itself as Nature and Spirit proving to be the truth of Nature and so on, all of which is a kind of philosophical theology. But we can get all we need out of Hegel’s Logic without swallowing the Absolute Idea; the Absolute Idea can be taken as a kind of hypothetical end point, a kind of Utopia which can be used as a signpost, but should not be taken as something existent.

The first section of the Notion, the Subject, is very complex and very important. Think of it for the moment in terms of the pure essentialities of a single unit of a shape of consciousness.

The structure of the Subject is Individual-Universal-Particular, which are referred to as moments of the Notion. That is, the subject entails a specific, all-sided relation between the consciousness of finite, mortal individuals, the particular forms of on-going activity and social relations entailed in the relevant social practice, and the universal, eternal products through which the Subject is represented.

The process of the Science of the Notion is the abstract notion becoming more and more concrete. This process of concretization takes place through objectification of subjectivity, that is, through the subject-object relation. The first thing to grasp about the Object, which is the second division of the Science of the Notion, is that the Object may be other subjects, subjects which are objects in relation to the Subject or subjects which have become thoroughly objectified. Objectification is not limited to the construction of material objects or texts; it’s also like ‘mainstreaming’, or being institutionalized. The process of development of the Subject is a striving to transform the Object according to its own image, but in the process the Subject itself is changed and in the process of objectification becomes a part of the living whole of the community.

The subject-object relation goes through three stages, the mechanical relation in which the subject and object are indifferent to one another and impact one another externally, the chemical relation, in which there is an affinity between subject and object, and the object presents itself as processes rather than things. The third division of the Object is Teleology (or Organism), where the subject-object relation becomes a life process in which each is to the other both a means and an end.

The unity of Subject and Object, the third and last grade of the Science of the Notion, is the Idea. The Idea can be understood as the whole community as an intelligible whole, it is the summation of the pure essentialities of a complete historical form of life. It is the logical representation of Spirit, or of the development and life of an entire community, in the form of a concrete concept.

Again, it is not necessary to swallow this idea whole. If you don’t accept that a community, at any stage in history whatsoever, can be encompassed in the single concept, then this doesn’t invalidate the whole of the Logic, of which the Absolute Idea is the end point.

That in brief summary is the structure of the Logic. A couple of points should be noted.

Being and Essence (Volume 1 of the Logic) are the process leading to the birth of the Notion, its genesis, its pre-history. On the other hand, the Science of the Notion (Volume 2 of the Logic) is the process of development of the Subject itself, that is, its successive concretization, beginning from the first simple, undeveloped embryo of a new science or social movement or project or whatever.

So we should take note here of what each of the two ‘volumes’ correspond to in Hegel’s conception of science and history. Let us take the Philosophy of Right as an example. The concept of Right is here the notion of the science, corresponding to the starting point of the Subjective Logic, and it is from the notion of the science, namely, Right, that the science makes its beginning. The Philosophy of Right is the equivalent of the Science of the Notion. Hegel makes the key distinction by saying that in the Philosophy of Right, he is concerned with “the peculiar internal development” of Right, and this means that he “must develop the idea [of Right], which is the reason of an object, out of the conception.” So the Philosophy of Right is not constructed as a history of right, either positive or idealised; once the concept of Right has come into the world and implanted itself as the resolution of a range of pre-existing conflicts and conditions, then its future course is an unfolding of what is to be found in the conception itself.

The three books of the Logic each constitute a distinct science - Ontology, the science of Being; Essence, the science of Reflection; and the science of the Concept. Each begins with a simple, abstract concept and unfolds the content from that conception.

This unfolding of what is in a conception, is quite distinct from the process of genesis which led up to the creative leap in which the conception is born. Once the situation has produced a conception, it is relatively unimportant how it came about. So this is a very important corrective to the conception of Hegel as an historical thinker. Hegel did not commit the genetic fallacy. It is one thing to understand the various conflicting forces which lay behind a thing coming into being, but the scientific study of the thing itself means to grasp it as a concept (which a study of its historical origins contributes to but is not equal to) and then to determine what follows from, or unfolds from the concept.

So the starting point of a science is the Notion which forms the subject of the science, not Being. This is worth mentioning because there is a widespread fallacy about the relation between Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Logic. Some writers (e.g. Smith 1990) have put Capital up against the Logic, and in an effort to match them, and start by equating the commodity relation with Being, on the basis that the commodity relation is the “simplest relation” (Marx 1986) or on the basis that the commodity relation is immediate. But the first thing to be done in a science, according to Hegel (and Marx followed Hegel in this), is to form a Notion of the subject, the simplest possible relation whose unfolding produces the relevant science. In the case of Capital, this abstract notion, the germ of capital, is the commodity relation (Marx 1996). In the case of the Philosophy of Right, it was the relation of Abstract Right, that is private property. The problem of the origins of value or of the commodity relation is a different question, and Marx demonstrates his familiarity with the Science of Essence in the third section of Chapter One, where the money-form is shown to emerge out of a series of relations constituting historically articulated resolutions of the problem of realizing an expanded division of labour (Marx 1996a).

Each of the three books of the Logic constitute a self-standing science, beginning with an abstract concept, and unfolding what is contained in that notion. The three sciences are the science of being, the science of reflection and the science of the concept. Each of these three sciences manifest a distinct form of movement.

In Being, the form of movement is seriality. That is, a concept passes away and has no more validity, it is then replaced by another, which in turn passes away, with no reference. It’s just one damn thing after another, a transition from one to another to another.

In Essence, in the passage from one relation to another, the former relation does not pass away but remains, although pushed to the background, so the form of movement is diversity. Movement takes the form of a series of oppositions each referring to its other, essence and appearance, form and content, positive and negative, which are overtaken and sublated by still more oppositions, each problem probing more deeply, but without disposing of the foregoing problem.

In the Notion, the movement is development, with each new relation incorporated into the concept and all the former relations merged with it. Movement therefore takes the form of concretization as successive aspects of the thing are incorporated into the concept.

5. Subjectivity and culture.

We are now in a position to understand the unique solution which Hegel worked out for the problem originally posed by Goethe.

The subject matter of the Logic is the shapes of consciousness dealt with in the Phenomenology. As the pure essentialities of the Phenomenology, the subject of the Logic, is to be precise, the simplest unit of a shape of consciousness [Gestalt], a Concept.

So in relation to a whole shape of consciousness (simultaneously a way of thinking, a system of social practices and a constellation of culture), the concept is its simplest unit, its Urphänomen. The form of the development of a concept is its successive concretization as it develops from a newly emergent social practice to an integral part of a whole way of life.

We will look at this process of development presently, but first - and this is the most important thing - we must see how Hegel presents the abstract concept itself in the Logic. He says that a concept is the identity of the Universal, Particular and Individual, otherwise known as the ‘moments’ of the concept.

To illustrate this in logical terms, consider a any word. Taken in itself, just as such, it can have no meaning; if you’d never seen it before, and you came across it outside of any recognizable context, it would mean nothing. Whether it is taken as a audial or lexical entity or any kind of material symbol or representation of that symbol, as such it is meaningless. It’s like the flag of an unknown country or the image of the God of a long lost civilization. This is the universal. Let’s suppose you know the meaning of the word, it being part of a language already known to you, so it is a real universal, such as ‘tree’ or ‘king’. You know the meaning of the word, only because in the past it has been connected with individual things or events in the context of particular activities and relationships. But the word still has not real referent. If I say ‘tree’ that in itself indicates no material thing, even though ‘tree’ is meaningful only because people have used the word down the centuries in reference to actual woody, leafy, bark-covered plants, not to mention all kinds of metaphorical or hypothetical senses.

I can bring the universal to an individual tree by a process of particularization. This particularization can take the form of a social practice like pointing, or incorporating it in some system of marking out space and time in some socially meaningful way, describing the location or type of the tree, or which country at what time and according to whose authority. Particularization, the subsumption of an individual under a universal, is always a social practice or some kind, directly or indirectly. Meaningful action is always the social use of some element of culture by an individual.

To put it another way, how does the word ‘trade union’ come to be meaningful for a person other than through interaction with some particular union, and how can a person interact with a trade union other than through specific individual trade unionists? Of course, in reality, that knowledge may be mediated not by actual interactions with union, but perhaps by hearsay or journalism. But the point is hardly affected by that. Even hearsay involves social interactions with individuals, and the understanding gained is as good as the forms of mediation though which it is gained.

A concept is meaningful only insofar as it is unit of a formation of consciousness, so meaning can only be created in and through the forms of social practice constituting the formation of consciousness. Some definition, determining the word in relation to other words, does not suffice. That is, an interconnected system of universals remains meaningless until at some point it interconnects with social practice. Such definitions are meaningful only insofar as they are read by people who live their lives and have a consciousness formed in the activities of the relevant formation of consciousness. Imagine a lay-person reading a definition from an encyclopaedia of molecular biology: it would mean nothing. It would meaning nothing, because meaning arises from participation, directly or indirectly, in a formation of consciousness, in this case, the practice of the science of molecular biology.

So the simplest possible concept involves some representation, symbol or artefact of some kind, being particularized through its social use by at least one person on one occasion in some form of practice.

The next question is how this abstract concept develops, and this involves two distinct types of process. On the one hand we have the development of the subject itself, which Hegel treats in terms of the process of identification of the individual, universal and particular, and on the other hand, the process of merging of the concept with the entire social formation of which it is already a part, which Hegel treats in terms of the subject-object relation. We will take these in turn.

Hegel treats the development of the subject in terms of the relations between the universal, individual and particular. The identity between these moments which constitutes the concept is not posited immediately. Initially in fact, they are posited independently and notion is only fully made when the identification is complete in the mature concept, the concept which is the outcome of exhaustive experience and manifold insight into its relations.

Hegel presents this process of development of subjectivity in three processes which he calls the Notion, the Judgment and the Syllogism. In the Notion, each of the moments is posited independently. The Judgment is a series of judgments made about the subject, it is ascribed a single quality, it is given in connection with other things, it is brought under some genus or whole, or finally all three of these judgments. The Syllogism is a series of lines of reasoning in which one of the moments mediates in the relation between two of the moments. Each of these lines of reasoning a defective in some way and ‘miss the notion’ and only when all the possible relations between individual, universal and particular are fully brought under the true Notion of the thing, is the concept fully developed.

In this way, Hegel expounds his understanding of the mature concept and how it develops from its first, abstract expression, in terms of a logical critique. The kinds of logical issues that he deals with are the typical erroneous lines of thinking you will hear from the mouths of people who have an imperfect idea of something; for example, relying for their judgment on just one attribute of things, while in fact the concept itself always escapes characterizations in terms of contingent attributes, there is always the convict who is actually telling the truth when their declare their innocence or swan which is not white.

This reliance on logic may be a weakness of Hegel’s system, but it should not be dismissed on this account. Nature and social life is always ultimately intelligible, and nothing which is irrational can remain a social reality indefinitely. ‘Logical necessity’ has its way of coming out in the end. It may have taken thousands of years for the irrational belief that women are weak and must be subordinated by men, to be exposed as irrational, but ultimately it did. A person may take irrational prejudices with them to their grave, but individuals are only finite beings, and if there is truth at all, it lies in the totality.

So in summary, the subjective process of the Notion is realization of the unity of individual, universal and particular, a process within the subject itself, reflecting the infinite complexity and depth of social life.

Together with the process of becoming internally more all-sided and mature, the subject also develops in its relation to the object, that is, to others in the community, and to social life beyond its own sphere of activity. This is the process of objectification which is the ‘other side’ of the process of development of the subject just described.

Objectification, for Hegel, does not just mean putting one’s own will into things, the creation of ‘thought-objects’, although this is the origin of the idea. Objectification in the Logic is closer to the idea of institutionalization of a concept. This does involve the creation of new artefacts, or the modification of existing ones, but that is only one side of the process, because after all, any artefact is meaningful only insofar as it is used or otherwise implicated in social practice. So objectification means the incorporation of the concept in the whole way of life of the community.

Hegel identifies three types of subject-object relation: mechanism, chemism and organism. One way of explaining these relations is in terms of conceptions of multiculturalism.

Mechanism is like the ‘ethnic mosaic’ metaphor in which self-sufficient communities mutually indifferent to one another, which may interact, but in the way of external impact on one another, in which neither community modifies its own nature, just adjusts its activity to accommodate or resist the impact of another community.

Chemism is like the ‘melting pot’ metaphor in which subject and object have an affinity with one another and are not wholly external to one another, but recognise a relation within themselves, like social movements that recognise that both are fighting a common enemy, and in making common cause strengthen that affinity and even merge.

In Organism, the subject finds in the object, in other subjects, its own End, or as it is sometimes said, the Subject finds its own essence outside of itself, and enters into relations of mutual dependence, in which each becomes a means for the others’ ends.

This level of development lays the basis for the final stage of the subject-object relation, which Hegel calls the Idea, in which a total transformation of both subject and object takes place and a common form of life is developed integrating the aspirations of all the constituent forms of practice, which are in turn transformed through the merging in a common form of life.

This conception allows Hegel to finally transcend all forms of dichotomy as well as the Whole-Part dichotomy the overcoming of which underlay Goethe’s challenge. I will go further. It is only by means of the individual-particular-universal trichotomy in which each moment mediates the relation between the other two, that the whole/part dichotomy can be overcome.

In so far as two different concepts exist within the same community, and there is a real subject-object difference, then what Hegel describes is the real, social-historical process of the transcendence of that dichotomy. And that transcendence takes place not finally through likeness or connections or affinity or mutual dependence, but through the joint construction of a new common conception.

The discovery of a concept as the unit of a whole social formation is therefore not something given at the outset, but rather something which is the outcome of a whole process, but a process which can be discovered through reconstruction.

One of the claims of this work is that Hegel’s conception suffers from idealistic limitations, inevitable for his times, and cannot be given a satisfactory form in the shape of a Logic. It can be developed rationally only ‘materialistically’, thanks to the empirical content provided by practical efforts to transform the conditions of human existence. Psychology, insofar as it is an emancipatory science, for the purpose of liberating people from the domination of social forces and passions within their own body beyond their control and understanding, must constitute one of the components of such an effort.

Before turning to this problem, let us look at Hegel’s own psychology.

6. Hegel’s Psychology and Spirit.

Before saying anything about Hegel’s psychology, we have to clear up a widespread misunderstanding which has overtaken the reception of Hegel in the past few decades, concerning the place of the master-servant narrative in Hegel’s philosophy.

The Phenomenology of Spirit (1910) was Hegel’s first published book, and he retained an affection for the book for the rest of his life. But it was an immature work, hurriedly composed and verging on being incomprehensible. Of its 808 paragraphs, only 18 paragraphs concerned the master-servant narrative, albeit at a crucial point in the work, the emergence of self-consciousness.

The narrative is the only point in Hegel’s entire corpus in which he uses the device of a foundation myth or a narrative of any kind. The reason he used the device on this occasion was to confront the social and political theories of Rousseau (1754), Hobbes (1651) and others who supported their social theories with a foundation myth presupposing a ‘state of nature’ from which free and equal individuals came together to form society. Hegel radically disagreed with this whole approach methodologically, and with the conception of an original equality from which humanity fell into slavery as a result of civilization.

Consistent with his method of immanent critique, Hegel used the same device as those he was critiquing, making the point (to invert Rousseau’s aphorism) that people are born into slavery but are everywhere free, at least potentially; enslavement is natural and freedom is an achievement of civilization.

This passage is indeed a florid and engaging piece of literature and I will come back to an interpretation later on. But in the meantime it is necessary to look at how one eccentric interpretation of the master-servant narrative has overwhelmed the reception of Hegel in recent decades.

Neither Marx nor any of his followers, none of the English Hegelians, nor anyone else ever had more than a word to say about the passage until Alexander Kojève’s seminars beginning in 1933. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, French philosophy had been dominated by analytical philosophy concerned with problems of mathematical logic (France had long been a leader in mathematics), with its sources in Descartes and Kant. The only Hegel that was available to the French in their own language were the mid-19th century translations of the Encyclopaedia by the Italian Hegelian, Augusto Vera. These were poor translations and notwithstanding the efforts of Alexandre Koyré, the French focus on analytical philosophy and disdain for all things German ensured that Hegel’s reception in France was a deafening silence. But in 1933, the Russian emigré Alexander Kojève began a series of seminars in Paris in which he presented his eccentric interpretation of the master-servant narrative, at that time unavailable in French. Beginning in 1937 there was an explosion in new translations of Hegel, including Hyppolite’s excellent translation of the Phenomenology in 1939 (Barnett 1998). This explosion of interest continued after the war, including the publication of Kojève’s lectures. Hyppolite was a very sober philosopher and his translations are regarded by many as the best Hegel translations in any language, but Hyppolite’s care could not stand up against the sparkle of Kojève’s reading, which made it appear as if this long forgotten passage of Hegel’s early work was not only typical, but all that Hegel had ever written. Even Hyppolite focused much of his work on the Phenomenology. The result was a generation of French philosophy arising in the midst of the social movements of the 1960s and 70s which merged Kojève’s version of Hegel with a powerful social critique.

Apart from its direct impact on the English-speaking world, including the new discovery that Hegel was a philosopher of unmediated struggles to the death, in America this view was received into social theories having their origin in James, Mead and Dewey, which as remarked above, have some synergies with Cultural-Historical Activity Theory. This American reception took the form of the theory of intersubjectivity, a pragmatic reading in which metaphysics is avoided by exclusive reliance on unmediated interactions between individual agents (Williams 1997). This pragmatic conception of intersubjectivity (not Peirce’s) has since been re-appropriated by Critical Theory (Honneth 1996) under the banner of Recognition (Anerkennen).

So, before we can present Hegel’s psychology we must dispose of these two interpretations, both of which have merit in their own right, but which are problematic for our purposes and misrepresent the legacy of Hegel.

Kojève’s (1969) interpretation is very rich and the influence it has had is well deserved, but what is especially problematic is that it is based on the hypothesis that human beings have some kind of innate drive to dominate and subordinate others which can only be tamed by fear of death. A social theory based on such a claim doubtless had a certain appeal in the times in which Kojève was speaking, and in connection with colonialism and the national liberation movements of the post-World War Two period, and from there it is easy to see how all forms of status subordination start to look like the outcome of some kind of innate drive to dominate.

But this was never Hegel’s idea. The point of the master-servant narrative is to enquire into what happens when two subjects (self-sufficient communities or individual strangers) come into unmediated contact with one another, that is to say interaction not mediated by law, language, custom, trade or whatever. This situation is easily visualized if you imagine a wild beast or an escaped convict entering your home. If you choose to subdue the intruder it is not because you are subject to some innate drive to subordinate others. It is a simple matter of survival. A powerful stranger who neither knows nor respects your property rights, including the integrity of your body, will either trample on you or eat you for dinner.

Hegel’s point was to show how even in the event of apparently unmediated interaction, two subjects find within themselves the means of mediation. This takes the form of a system of needs and labor in which the labor of one is subordinated to the needs of the other and the needs of the other subordinated to the labor of the one. The beginning of civilization is thus the substitution of bonded labor of some form or another for the previous alternatives of driving away of one’s enemy, killing them or marring them; and constitutes the first step towards modern society. Or in psychological terms, absent any other mode of mediation, individuals are able to interact with one another only to the extent that one of them has something to offer which the other needs. Having something to offer and having needs are preconditions for meaningful interaction with other people and participation in the community. Recall that ancient people only ceased the practices of killing or marrying their prisoners when they developed productive forces capable of employing labour.

The intersubjective reading of Hegel can trace its roots to George Herbert Mead, to whom nothing essentially has been added. Mead (1934), the social behaviorist, came very close to the ideas of cultural psychology with the idea of the gesture as the archetypal communicative act. A gesture is an action directed at another person which is not carried through, functioning therefore as a signal of one’s intentions. In turn, the gesture which is not carried through constitutes the physiological basis of thinking. Mead also famously introduced the dialectic of I/Me, that is, the idea that I get to know myself only by perceiving how others interact with me. Our self-knowledge or identity is thus constructed through perception of those others with whom we interact, or more exactly by the image of ourselves which the others project on to us based on our behavior seen from their point of view. Both of these ideas come very close to Hegel’s claim, benefiting by the clarity and simplicity of Mead’s exposition, but limited by the scope of Mead’s pragmatic conception.

In particular (and the same goes for all the intersubjectivists) Mead subsumes a person’s body along with their thinking into a single undifferentiated subjectivity. To the pragmatist this seems eminently scientific since the whole idea is to do away with metaphysical conceptions like ‘thought’. The problem is that, as Hegel showed, all social interactions are mediated, and in the archetypal interaction (gesture) which the intersubjectivists used to construct their theory, it is overlooked that the body functions as an artefact, used by the individual subject, being simply subsumed into or equated with the subject. The result is a concept of intersubjectivity which is essentially unmediated. This is all very well so long as we stick to individuals belonging to the same culture making already conventionalized gestures to one another, but if you are use a simple unit like gesturing as the archetype upon which a theory of social action is to be constructed, then the unit must include all the essential components of the whole, and mediation is absolutely essential to the human condition. The notion of gesture elides mediation.

Consequently, intersubjectivity, whether in the form of an American Hegelian like Robert Williams, a Pragmatist like G. H. Mead or a Critical Theorist like Axel Honneth, fails to provide a foundation for a non-metaphysical social theory capable of understanding developed communities, because it is based, along the lines of a master-servant narrative, on unmediated interactions between individuals.

Having dealt with these misunderstandings, we can now look at Hegel’s psychology.

We have already established that Hegel has a holistic conception of Mind, that is, Hegel regarded a social form of life as a ‘formation of consciousness’, without making any dichotomy between something deemed to exist inside an individual’s head, and the ‘thought objects’ constituted in social action, and existing outside the head. Mind was made up of concepts which are shared products of the entire historical community. So the question is: what could Hegel mean by ‘Psychology’? And what could we mean by ‘Hegel’s psychology’?

Hegel’s psychology is part of his Subjective Spirit (1971), so we must first clarify Hegel’s distinction between subjective spirit and objective spirit, a distinction Hegel had not made at the time he wrote the Phenomenology.

Subjective Spirit is the form of life which rests on people’s relations with their immediate environment: social, artificial and natural, unmediated by law or the state, in a ‘natural’ division of labor rather than a market economy. Objective Spirit on the other hand, is the form of life corresponding to rights-bearing, property-owning individuals, with relations between people regulated by law, under the protection of a state. When I say ‘form of life’, such forms are to be understood not as mutually exclusive, but on the contrary as mutually constitutive. That is, for example, how a person acts in relation to the institutions of modern society will be conditioned by habits and attitudes developed within a family or local community. Conversely, an individual’s immediate environment may be determined by property and law.

This is important to note, that both subjective spirit and objective spirit are understood by Hegel as forms of life or activity and do not imply any kind of inside/outside dichotomy. In this modern world we are all participating in both subjective and objective spirit, but outside of states subject to the rule of law, only subjective spirit prevails, and people still live, work, raise their children, and so on.

Subjective Spirit unfolds out of what Hegel calls Soul, by which he meant the nature-given but characteristically human drives and capacities with which we are born. Hegel did not have the benefit of modern biological science and developmental psychology, and ascribed more to nature than a cultural psychologist would today, but nonetheless Hegel well understood that the drives and capacities manifested in modern social life are not at all those given by nature, but are on the contrary, cultural products. What he had in mind was the physical form of homo sapiens, human sense organs, the capacity to learn a language, form social bonds, etc.

The development of the Soul brings awareness of the self as a separate body, and creatures bearing this nature-given Soul construct a material culture, including language, tools, education of children, crops, domestication of animals and so on, conceived in terms of evolving forms of life, communities of practice, and a whole range of culturally-produced needs not to be found anywhere in Nature.

Hegel divided Subjective Spirit into three grades: Anthropology, the science of the Soul, Phenomenology, the science of Consciousness, and Psychology, the science of the Mind. But these terms can be confusing. In Hegel’s day, ‘Anthropology’ saw its subject matter more in terms of the racial and physiological diversity arising from geographical features, upon which cultural differences were presumed to rest. ‘Phenomenology’ was defined by Kant as the science of appearances, i.e., here the appearance of spirit in distinctively human forms of life, and this actually comes closest to what we would understand today as ‘Psychology’, with the important proviso that Hegel means it inclusively of both social action and what is usually called consciousness. ‘Psychology’ Hegel restricted to forms of activity in which the person acts as an independent, individual subject, implying the differentiation of theoretical and practical activity - in other words, exhibiting the preconditions for participation in a modern state.

When we are talking about ‘Hegel’s psychology’ we are generally referring to ‘Phenomenology’, the science of Consciousness. The three grades of Consciousness are (a) Consciousness proper, (b) Self-consciousness and (c) Reason. Hegel describes the movement here as follows:

“(a) consciousness in general, which has an object as such; (b) self-consciousness, for which the self is the object; (c) the unity of consciousness and self-consciousness, where the spirit sees itself as the content of the object and as in and for itself determinate; - as reason, the concept of the spirit.” (Encyclopedia 1817, §334)

I read this as the movement from a naïve or dogmatic belief in the existence of a world just as it is perceived to be, to the turning of this perception on itself to form an objective view of oneself, and the unity of these two which recognizes the world as the world of a determinate community, and the self as belonging to that world.

Most attention goes to the second stage, the development of Self-Consciousness. Here I turn to the final version of the Encyclopedia, which defines the development of self-consciousness as: (i) Appetite or Instinctive Desire, (ii) Recognitive Self-consciousness, and (iii) Universal Self-consciousness. Consciousness here is understood as willful orientation of a subject to its objective needs, to what is meaningful for it.

So the essence of a form of consciousness lies in the kind of need pursued: (i) the pursuit of immediate enjoyment or desire, be it satisfied directly by an object or mediately a person, (ii) the pursuit of affirmation and recognition as a sovereign subject in one’s own right, and (iii) the affirmative awareness of oneself in another inasmuch as the other’s freedom and enjoyment is the expression of one’s own subjectivity. This third grade is described as the unity of (i) and (ii) in that recognition is meaningful only when given freely by another free and equal sovereign subject and therefore the desire for recognition presupposes the freedom of the other and such freedom becomes itself the main need of the subject.

Attention again goes to the second division, Recognition, which is the well-known master-servant relation. This transformation does involve a struggle, because it concerns the relation of an individual or collective subject to a stranger - recognition is a non-issue in respect to friends and family - and therefore involves a moment of fear and danger, and simultaneously the possibility of positive affirmation. The important thing here is that what is involved here is the building of social bonds where none existed previously, not a struggle for domination, or the satisfaction of some biological drive. The relation becomes clearer if we have in mind not an individual person but a subject - a self-conscious social formation - which undoubtedly endeavours to incorporate foreign forms of practice into itself. Whether we have in mind a self-sufficient community contacting outsiders for the first time, teenagers finding their place in the community outside the family, the bearer of some belief or style, any kind of subject in the Hegelian rather than Kantian meaning of the word, then this idea of a ‘fight to the death’ makes a lot more sense.

That said, George Herbert Mead’s exposition of the ‘I/Me’ dialectic is as good an explanation of this moment in the development of Subjective Spirit as anything to be found in Hegel himself.

But it is not Hegel’s Psychology which is really of interest to us. A great deal is needed to build a science of psychology which Hegel was quite simply in no position to carry out. It is Hegel’s Logic and his holistic conception of ‘formation of consciousness’ and the concept as a unit of consciousness which is of interest to us. But to complete this sketch of Hegel’s ideas on the topic of psychology I will mention how he completes this system.

In the final stage of Subjective Spirit, we have the differentiation of Practical Mind and Theoretical Mind and their unity, Free Spirit, on the basis that the independent development of Practical and Theoretical Spirit is the foundation for a fully developed social division of labor. But Free Spirit also gives rise to the concept of Right as a human need, the need for rights to universally respected, and which cannot be called into question at any moment and having to be fought for and defended again and again. The need for rights therefore arises in Subjective Spirit, but can only be fulfilled by the transition to life in a modern state, according to Hegel. Such a society is larger than Subjective Spirit and entails the capacity to acquire forms of practice and thinking which do not arise spontaneously from the immediate conditions of life.

Hegel claims that the entirety of modern history and culture is ultimately traceable to this need for Rights, for a form of life governed by the rule of law. Everything else - science, industry, travel, modern technology, politics, trade, the justice system, parliaments, corporations, modern warfare, etc., etc., unfolds out of Right. His Philosophy of Right therefore takes the form of an exposition of all these institutions up to and including world history.

The final section of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences is “Absolute Spirit” - the practice of Art, Religion and Philosophy - those forms of activity which bind the citizens of modern society, independently of their mundane existence regulated by the state and the economy, not tied to any nationality, meeting needs which arise in Subjective Spirit, but through participation in modern society, have become transcendent needs.

In summary, this review of Hegel was aimed at showing how Hegel responded to Goethe’s challenge for a genuinely humanistic science, which Goethe expressed in terms of Gestalt and Urphänomen. Key features of Hegel’s response are his understanding of the individual which begins from the whole rather than the other way around, the conception of the Gestalt through the individual, universal and particular, mutually constituting and mediating one another, and the refusal of any kind of dichotomy. In particular, he showed how this works for human activity rather than setting off from a conception of Nature as pre-existing and determining human activity.

Hegel wrote a long time ago. Even a few years after his death, the world had entirely changed. We must take note of problems in Hegel’s system by following the appropriation of these ideas by Marx and via Marx, transmitted to 20th century Cultural Historical Activity Theory.