The Subject. Philosophical Foundations. Andy Blunden 2005/6

Hegel: The Idea of the Subject

Hegel arrived at the University of Jena in 1801, after Fichte had been driven out as an atheist in 1799, to be replaced by Schelling. In 1802, Hegel began work on the first draft of his own position (The System of Ethical Life), as reaction consolidated itself in Paris and Napoleon Bonaparte appointed himself dictator of France.

It is in this early work that Hegel’s idea of the subject is first worked out. Like Fichte, Hegel was responding to the great French Revolution. He remained a supporter of the Revolution but he was horrified by the excesses of the Terror. While the Revolution would continue to rollback the old order in Europe, by 1802, in terms of its democratic ideals, it had degenerated into a parody of itself.

The Subject as an Historical Product

Kant and Fichte had both, like Descartes, identified the subject with the individual person.

For Kant, the subject was a “transcendental subject” posited by the cogito (“I think”), whereas for Fichte, the subject was cognitive activity itself.

For Kant, whatever lay beyond possible individual experience, were unknowable things-in-themselves, and for Fichte, things existed only insofar as they constituted a restraint on the activity of the “I.”

For Kant, ethical life was founded upon a rational moral code, the “categorical imperative” binding upon all, with religion educating the people towards a community of shared rational belief in which such a moral code would be adhered to without the assistance of police and a priesthood. For Fichte, ethical life was possible through the mutual recognition of individuals who limited their own freedom so as to be able to co-exist with each other and just as for Rousseau and Hobbes, the state was needed in order to enforce natural rights, which would otherwise be abused by the unrestrained activity of selfish individuals.

In both cases, the individual subject stood outside and prior to the community, and the historical process of its formation. Hegel took a completely different approach, taking the subject as something which begins and ends as a relation of the human individual to the human community.

Later, in his History of Philosophy, Hegel explained:

“The organization of the state which is described in Fichte’s Science of Rights is as unspiritual as was the deduction of natural objects just mentioned, and as were many of the French constitutions which have appeared in modern times – a formal, external uniting and connecting, in which the individuals as such are held to be absolute, or in which Right is the highest principle. ... [and, speaking of Rousseau, Kant and Fichte] ... The universal is not the spirit, the substance of the whole, but an external, negative power of the finite understanding directed against individuals. The state is not apprehended in its essence, but only as representing a condition of justice and law, i.e. as an external relation of finite to finite. There are various individuals; the whole constitution of the state is thus in the main characterized by the fact that the freedom of individuals must be limited by means of the freedom of the whole. The individuals always maintain a cold attitude of negativity as regards one another, the confinement becomes closer and the bonds more stringent as time goes on, instead of the state being regarded as representing the realization of freedom. ...” [History of Philosophy, p. 503]

That is, these writers had deduced the state from the individual, as if (historically speaking) previously isolated individuals had come together and formed, to use Rousseau’s term, a “social contract,” in order to co-exist in the same space. Individuals are thereby related only externally, negatively, “unspiritually.” Rather, for Hegel, the starting point, both logically and historically, had to be the community (or “ethical order,” or “state”), with individuals gradually differentiating themselves from the community with the emergence of modernity.

This vision is most clearly outlined in Hegel’s System of Ethical Life, begun somewhat under the influence of Schelling, but nevertheless already reflective of Hegel’s view, not that of Schelling.

The System of Ethical Life has two interweaving themes, on one hand Hegel talks of the relation between Intuition and Concept, and on the other he outlines a narrative which reads for all the world like an idealised history of the emergence of the modern state in Europe.

Hegel used the words ‘concept’ and ‘intuition’ in the sense given to them by Kant, as the two basic kinds of idea or knowledge. ‘Intuition’ means immediate knowledge, knowledge resting only upon itself, including self-evident truths or knowledge of particulars given in immediate perception and ‘feeling’. ‘Concept’, on the other hand, means knowing that is mediated through socially determined forms of Reason, universal knowledge acquired in the form of abstractions, language, and so forth. Rather than confounding ‘concept’ and ‘intuition’ as two distinct of faculties of the mind, Hegel introduced the concept of ‘Idea’ as the identity of Intuition and Concept. Thus:

“Knowledge of the Idea of the absolute ethical order depends entirely on the establishment of perfect adequacy between intuition and concept, because the Idea itself is nothing other than the identity of the two. But if this identity is to be actually known, it must be thought as a made adequacy.” [System of Ethical Life, Introduction]

Fichte’s dictum held that ‘inner sensation arises only through the reproduction of outer sensation’. Similarly then, Hegel claims that an adequate Idea cannot enter the head of the thinker until the adequacy of Concept and Intuition has been madehistorically, or at least is in the process of formation. Likewise, the concept of Subject is also an historical product, which has to be made, or at least be in the process of formation, before it can be adequately conceived.

Specifically what does it mean to conceive of the identity of Intuition and Concept being the outcome of an historical process? At any given moment, in any actual form of life, there is a dissonance between the actual forms of activity in which people are engaged and therefore the content of intuition, and the concepts by means of which these forms of activity are represented in language, law, religion, etc.. That is, socially validated concepts do not fully correspond to people’s direct experience – a failure which is registered as something wrong, something which needs to be fixed. For example, existing, constitutional arrangements can come to be seen as unjust or an explanation of the weather seen as unreliable. Ethical life is therefore conceived as the resolution of an on-going struggle to create adequate forms of social life, in which people are able to fulfil themselves without repressive or restrictive measures against their freedom.

The telos implicit in this conception points to an ethical life in which the unity of the Idea is attained, an ethical conception of the state which is distinctly different from that of Kant and Fichte:

“The intuition of this totality [the unity of concept and intuition] is an absolute people, while its concept is the absolute oneness of the individuals.” [System of Ethical Life, Introduction]

With this Hegel sums up his conception of the ideal of modern subjectivity (‘ideal’ because the totality is not yet made, but is the tendency of modernity) in which individuality flourishes inseparably from social solidarity. How is Hegel to realise this conception?

The exposition takes the form of a description of a succession of forms of social and political life rising through a succession of levels, the ‘formative education of mankind’, from ‘absolute ethical life’ up to the modern state, in which ‘concept is subsumed under intuition’ and alternately, ‘intuition is subsumed under concept’. Although the work has a distinctly historical form, nowhere is there any date or place, or any reference to an actual historical event. It seems to be an ‘idealised history’, beginning from an generalised image of tribal society and rising to a vision of the modern state which is nevertheless distinctly at odds with what existed in Hegel’s own times.

The starting point of this “absolute ethical life” is variously referred to as:

“intuition – the complete undifferentiatedness of ethical life, ... wholly something particular” and “intuition, wholly immersed in the singular, is feeling, and we will call this the level of practice.”

- equally interpretable as an analytical part of ethical life or as its starting point.

This starting point is one in which the individual makes no distinction between themself and the community, does not reflect on the community as something other; labour is cooperative, social, but there is no division of labour, so that ‘feeling is something entirely singular and particular’. The only separation is between need and enjoyment, and the process of supersession of this separation is labour, directly working on plants and animals, for the immediate satisfaction of needs.

This community is neither a simple collection of individuals nor a herd, but is constituted by ‘rational’ forms of mediation: – the raising of children (a natural relation through which the norms of ethical life are made “ideal” in order to be passed on in another human being), tool-making (in which a rational form is given to inert matter so as to act as a universal norm of labour), and “speech – the tool of reason, the child of intelligent beings.” By means of these ideals (or universals), individuals act out and sustain a collective form of life, alike but independent individuals, independent insofar as each carries the whole culture within them, and therefore undifferentiated. They can reproduce and perform all the practices, tools, speech and ways of their culture as a single person or couple. They relate to nature, inclusive of other human groups, both as the means of life and the source of threats.

The key is the role played by these ‘rational’ forms of mediation. Hegel claims that these processes achieve a totality, or unity, of intuition and concept, by means of the ‘subsumption of the concept under intuition’; the crops and herds, the tools and practices of their use in labour, the means of raising children and speech, all are products of the people and are ideals, or bearers of ‘rationality’, but appear to people and are used as immediate and ‘natural’, things found at hand in the world around them.

The tool, for example, has been fashioned over time to be used in a certain kind of way, consequently it is intuitively obvious that it must be used in just that way in a certain kind of labour. The rationality therefore, which is materialised in the making of the tool, appears to its user as the property of a material object, not the activity of an intelligent being (i.e., a concept). The same is true of the land, crops, domestic animals and so on as well as language, which are the product of many generations of labour, but appear to each new generation as natural things.

Conversely, the raising of children is a natural process, common to all species of animal, but in the case of human beings the bearer or product of this natural activity is an intelligent being. Moreover, the human infant is a universal being, capable of learning any language, any trade, etc. Speech is both immediate and particular (like gestures and facial expressions) but also universal and ideal, using words which are inherently universal (the eyes intuit red, but the word ‘red’ is a universal).

Hegel then moves to consider the next level of ethical life which is founded upon division of labour, labour not for the immediate satisfaction of need, but for exchange, the appropriation of surplus labour, contract, and the rupture of society into social classes. This Hegel describes as the ‘subsumption of intuition under the concept’, as the ideal (surplus labour, value, capital) dominates feeling and practical life. Individuals are no longer self-sufficient, capable of reproducing the entirety of the culture in their own activity, but are separated from the product of their labour which confronts them as social property, especially with the introduction of machines, which makes the labour process mechanical and alien. The division of society into classes leaves one class absorbed in particularity while another is dominated by individuality (the business class) and another identified with universality (the aristocracy or political class).

Separate communities at the lower level do not recognise each other in any way differently from wild animals, and so any contact leads to violation of each other’s rights, and warfare. The conflict is resolved initially through conquest and enslavement; different, separate ways of life are thus drawn into a modern economy, their ‘natural’ way of life subordinated to a division of labour; defence of property through warfare is superseded by a system of justice, property rights, contract and law, money and trade. The conquest of peoples which initiated the formation of the modern nation state, gives way to subordination based on inequality of wealth, within a condition of formal, legal equality.

This is the process of formation of the modern state, in which peoples are brought under the subjection of dominant classes, and labour not for the satisfaction of their own needs, but for the needs of the dominant class, while the dominant class have their needs met by the labour of others. On the division of labour arises the division between theory and practice.

In a third level, the state develops forms of representation, which Hegel saw as a type of constitutional monarchy, so that the people see in the state an expression of their own freedom: “The ruler is ruled.” Here Hegel proposes that the identity of intuition and concept can be made through an ethical life and a rational state.

As has been already noted, the exposition of The System of Ethical Life is only apparently historical. As it lacks any specific historical material or claim, even of a general nature, it is equally interpretable as analytical; that is, as seeing life in the modern representative state in terms of three co-existent levels of activity and consciousness. In the first place, there is the day-to-day activity in which feeling or intuition dominates concept, that is, the law, politics, culture, etc., of the larger social entity subsides into a background, while life is absorbed in labour, the raising of children and elementary social exchanges. Outside of a person’s own circle of activity, there is the economic, social, political and legal activity of others in the same society, but which appears to the person as something external and alien to them, a ‘concrete jungle’ of particular and conflicting interests. But finally, on top of this, there may be the life of the nation and religion in which the ruling ideals, via the pronouncements of national and religious leaders, are understood directly as expressions of each person’s own consciousness.

Hegel’s sketch is incomplete; the latter part tails off into headings, but is clearly idealized, more a picture of how things ought to be, rather than simply as they are, especially in the latter part where Hegel is dealing with legal and constitutional forms. Actually-existing modern society is seen as not yet true to its own idea, as incomplete, internally contradictory. Likewise, Hegel’s description absolute ethical life is recognizable as an idealization of tribal society.

A methodological novelty of Hegel’s approach is what he calls ‘relation’; ‘ethical life as relation’ is a process in which to begin with life is not ethical, but has internal tensions which are resolved in the formation of ethical life. So not-ethical life is a means towards both defining and making ethical life. Likewise, intuition and concept are not identical in the idea, but ‘as relation’, through each subsuming the other, they tend towards a ‘made adequacy’. Hegel devised an extremely fruitful approach to overcoming dualism. Instead of inventing a concept which abstractly united the opposing terms, and simply abolishing the dualism, without overcoming the dichotomy itself, Hegel saw such unifying concepts as containing a real contradiction whose overcoming is a process which has to be realised in history. Specifically, faced with a ‘duality’ of two distinct concepts, Hegel explores the transformation of the one into the other, their interpenetration, transformation and unification.

Throughout this work, Hegel uses the term ‘subject’ more or less in the modern sense, as an individual knowing agent, in contrast to object, but he explores the interrelation of subject and object, individual and universal, ideal and real. In his use of the words ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ he blurs the distinction in such a way that the meaning of ‘subject’ begins to take on a new meaning.

Human activity (for example making a gesture) is subjective, in that it immediately expresses a human feeling through the human body, but objective, in that it is constituted in material action. So, as Fichte had already observed, activity is both subjective and objective. Further, artefacts, material objects which are the product of subjective activity, play an indispensable role in human society, are also in different ways, both subjective and objective. So Hegel can use terms which are normally reserved for thoughts to denote objects, because of the role they play in human activity.

The concept of subject had already become a very ‘abstract’ concept, as even while identified with an individual human being, the ‘subject’ was not any part of the body, or material thing or function. For Kant, the subject was ‘transcendental’, and for Fichte an activity of cognition whose agency was only putative. It had become a ‘nothing’. Fichte had already shown that a subject could not exist outside of a relation to other intelligent beings. So while it is clear that a tool or a crop or a word cannot be subjective in the same sense as a person, nor can a corpse. A living individual is a necessary condition for subjectivity, but does not exhaust the content of subjectivity. By moving away from an exclusive focus on some intangible inner condition of the human brain, into the wider social world, Hegel opened up the possibility to resolve the riddle of the self; but to do so, it was necessary to look at subjectivity and objectivity in relation to one another. After all, subjectivity which is at odds with objectivity is illusory and deficient. For example, when Hegel says that:

“rationality must enter as such and be real; ... This rational element is what enters as mediator; it shares the nature of both subject and object or is the reconciliation of the two.”

he points to the indubitable fact that rational, human behaviour is only possible by means of the whole range of objective products of rationality from language to artefacts to our own bodies which are the products of a rational upbringing, and in fact, the entire history of humanity.

By ascribing properties of subjectivity to material things, such as tools and signs, and uses terms such as ‘ideal’, ‘rational’ and ‘universal’ to describe material things and activities, Hegel retains the fact that what is ideal in a real object remains so only insofar as and for as long as it is used by a living human individual. But instead of ascribing subjectivity to some transcendental substance of consciousness, with everything outside the mind, including both nature in itself and humanity’s ‘second nature’ – the artefacts, symbols, language, means of production, and so on, he places all those social products by means of which human society and the human individual is formed on the side of the subject. Instead of an unbridgeable mind-matter dichotomy, we have a subject-object relation.

In this way, Hegel is able to deal with the concept of ‘subject’ historically, something whose nature changes historically, the historical coming-into-being of the subject in fact, rather than trying to define a transhistorical, transcultural, abstract subject, which inevitably becomes detached from all real content. Hegel is dealing with ‘subject as relation’.

In this context, it is not hard to see why early conceptions of the subject, such as Aristotle’s, make the individual subordinate to the community, while still taking subjectivity as something natural and immediate, rather than constructed and mediated. And why modern conceptions of subjectivity locate the subject in the individual person. But the mutually alien, externally related subjects which have to be brought into relation to one another in the modern state, have originated in the first place only by way of a differentiation out of ‘absolute ethical life’. What is posed is not a ‘return to nature’ į lą Rousseau, or a homogenisation į lą Kant, or an ‘unspiritual’ reconciliation į lą Fichte, but rather a ‘spiritual’ unification of the modern state, in which the state is not just a guarantor of individual rights, but the very expression of freedom and good.

“Intellectual intuition is alone realised by and in ethical life; the eyes of the spirit and the eyes of the body completely coincide. In the course of nature the husband sees flesh of his flesh in the wife, but in ethical life alone does he see the spirit of his spirit in and through the ethical order.”

In this work, the ‘subject’ is an individual throughout, but it is clear that ‘subjectivity’ is also the ideals and relations by means of which the subject is constituted and these ideals are the attributes not so much of individuals but of communities.

If subjectivity is a unity of intuition and concept, then the content of subjectivity can be none other than the content of that intuition and concept, a content which is overwhelmingly a product of subjectivity. Subjectivity is therefore a process which necessarily includes our ‘second nature’.


Two elements of Fichte’s philosophy have proved of particularly enduring value: recognition and activity, both of which facilitate a ‘pragmatic’ conception of subjectivity. In his critique of Fichte, Hegel passes over the fact that Fichte had made activity the substance of this philosophy, and in what Hegel has to say about human activity, Hegel makes no reference to Fichte. However, Hegel’s introduction of the conception of mediation in the formation of subjectivity can be understood as a development of Fichte’s simpler concept of activity. Nevertheless, it appears that Hegel accepted Fichte’s definition:

“The I is, first of all, as such, pure activity, the universal which is by itself.” [Philosophy of Right, §7ad]

The whole exposition of the formative education of humanity through labour is a process of self-construction of the subject through activity mediated by cultural products. This approach is compromised in Hegel’s later work with the introduction of the concept of Spirit, but it remains a fruitful line of interpretation of Hegel’s insights. Spirit is after all nothing other than human activity.


Recognition is used in System of Ethical Life in a sense similar to how it was used by Fichte, in terms of subjects recognising each other’s rights:

“[In recognition, t]he subject is not simply determined as a possessor, but is taken up into the form of universality; he is a single individual with a bearing on others and universally negative as a possessor recognised as such by others. For recognition is singular being, it is negation, in such a way that it remains fixed as such (though ideally) in others ...” [System of Ethical Life]

Recognition, i.e., securing one’s property rights (the sphere of one’s freedom, as Fichte would have said), spares the subject from actively and unceasingly defending their rights against violation, and the descent of the community into havoc.

“By recognition the relative connection itself becomes indifferent and its subjectivity also objective. The real cancellation of recognition cancels that tie too and is deprivation, or, when it purely affects the tied object, theft.” [System of Ethical Life]

That is, recognition is a process of making subjectivity objective. Recognition is a matter of life and death for a people, for if its sovereignty is not recognised by others, then it will be enslaved or destroyed.

“The people that finds itself unrecognised must gain this recognition by war or colonies.” [System of Ethical Life]

But in The System of Ethical Life, Hegel did not deal with the idea of recognition in terms of personality or ego development. As time went by, “recognition” played a smaller and smaller role in Hegel’s system. This is because “recognition” is inherently a binary or intersubjective relation, whereas the key component in Hegel’s conception of subject-relations is mediation. Insofar as ‘recognition’ survives in Hegel’s system, then it is not an unmediated binary relation, but is rendered by Hegel as an elemental type of mediated relationship. We will return to this later.


Quite apart from the fact that System of Ethical Life is incomplete, and aside from the truly revolutionary innovations it makes in the conception of subjectivity, there are some serious problems with this first effort at a new conception of the subject.

Despite what appears to be a schematic taxonomy of society, including a series of stages in the development of labour, Hegel never went on to construct an idealised theory of history in terms of a series of stages of political, economic and cultural development. This idea was taken up by the positivists (such as Comte) and the Marxists, and the only theory of historical development, with empirical content, which Hegel developed was his history of philosophy. It is clear that throughout, Hegel regarded the life of a society, inclusive of labour, politics, art and everything else, as an totality, so a history of philosophy has considerable implications for a theory of history. But this is not a step which Hegel actually took, at any time. His Philosophy of History is more about the writing of history than the making of history.

Hegel’s historicism is not is a foundation myth like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or Moses leading the children of Israel to the promised land. The famous master-slave relation, which arises twice in the System of Ethical Life, is always dealt with as a relation, albeit relations associated in the first place with the emergence of modern society and secondly with the process of capital accumulation, both of which are, admittedly, historical processes. But Hegel never wrote of this relation as if it were an historical event.

This leaves a question over exactly what the status is of such philosophical categories as ‘concept’, ‘intuition’ and their unity: ‘idea’. If we accept the historical exposition at face value, then what does this mean? Are we to assume that the Idea is an entity like ‘technology’ or ‘law’ which undergoes an historical evolution? If so, what is the relation of the Idea to human activity? Is the Idea, like technology and law, something which is constructed by human activity, or is it rather something like God or Laws of History which has an extramundane existence and governs human activity?

The answer to this question was dealt with in a fragmentary and incomplete draft written in 1803/4, known as the First Philosophy of Spirit. By the Jena lectures of 1805-6, known as the Realphilosophie, his system has evolved to the form in which it was finally published as The Phenomenology of Spirit in 1807, the most well-known and influential of Hegel’s works. But the Phenomenology is itself only a step towards his mature work set out in the various drafts and components of The Encyclopędia of the Philosophical Sciences.

The Subject as Spirit

To return to an earlier topic, Spirit is the ‘substance’, the most basic category of Hegel’s philosophy, so on one hand, there can be no definition of ‘spirit’ in Hegel’s system, but on the other hand, and more true to the spirit of Hegel’s idea, we can say that the whole system, the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, is the definition of Spirit. It is God, or the Absolute, in its various definitions given in the history of philosophy from the Pure Being of the Eleatics through to the God of the Lutheran church and Hegel’s own World-Spirit.

Spirit begins as Logic:

“If nature as such, as the physical world, is contrasted with the spiritual sphere, then logic must certainly be said to be the supernatural element which permeates every relationship of man to nature, his sensation, intuition, desire, need, instinct, and simply by so doing transforms it into something human, even though only formally human, into ideas and purposes.” [Preface to the Science of Logic, §7, my emphasis]

and then “alienates itself” as Nature:

“The Idea, namely, in positing itself as absolute unity of the pure Notion and its reality and thus contracting itself into the immediacy of being, is the totality in this form - nature. But this determination has not issued from a process of becoming, nor is it a transition, as when above, the subjective Notion in its totality becomes objectivity, and the subjective end becomes life.” [Science of Logic, §1817]

Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature has however proved markedly unproductive, and for all intents and purposes, Spirit is thought: the Logic describes thought in its most general and necessary forms, and the Philosophy of Spirit describes thought in its actuality, both subjective and objective. Nature acts as the middle term which serves to explain why thought confirms to an extramundane form which confronts it as objective and necessary.

This schema bears a striking resemblance to the Kabbalist and Gnostic conceptions of God. In Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s words:

“However, when the work was finished, the Great Artisan desired that there be some creature to think on the plan of his great work.”

The construction of such an all-embracing system was very much in the spirit of Hegel’s times; nowadays such system-building is very much contrary to the spirit of our times. There is not a lot to be gained here by expending energy on ontological criticism of Hegel’s Spirit. The point is to understand what Hegel contributed to an understanding of subjectivity. To that end, the significant novelty introduced in The Phenomenology of Spirit is the differentiation of Spirit into Subjective Spirit and Objective Spirit, concepts which are not clearly differentiated in the System of Ethical Life.

It is my thesis that the Logic, the Subjective Spirit and the Objective Spirit each contribute a unique insight into the notion of subjectivity.

We will break from the chronological consideration of Hegel’s thinking here, and use his mature expositions of these three concepts: Volume II of The Science of Logic, 1816, Part I of the Philosophy of Mind, 1830 version, and The Philosophy of Right, 1821.