Andy Blunden. June 2007

The Nature of Hegel’s Spirit

An appropriation of Hegel’s philosophy cannot simply dispose of his notion of “Spirit”; as the substance of Hegel’s philosophy, it must be criticised and transcended. A tripartite ontology is proposed which allows the key concepts of Subjectivity and “shape of spirit” (Gestalt) to be grounded in practical social psychology. The result points to how the gulf between social and psychological science could be overcome and brings insights into current social problems.


In Hegel’s earliest works, “spirit” meant the character of a people or a times, which is formed by their experiences in history, producing and reproducing their lives, enjoying victories and suffering defeats in war. Later on, after about 1804/5, it was a “World Spirit” which expressed or manifested itself in the life and times of civilisation as a whole. Rather than an outcome of history, it was present at the outset only needing to unfold and become conscious of itself.[1] Despite the metaphysics, there is a significant core of truth in this later concept of Spirit which is rational and still waits to be recovered.

Apparently-teleological processes (like market equilibrium and biological evolution) appear to be the work of a Subject, but disclosing the natural foundation of the teleology (such as in the theories of Adam Smith and Darwin) allows the teleological conceptions to be superseded and appropriated.

Thus it is with Hegel’s Spirit. It is frequently said that Hegel can be neither understood nor appropriated piecemeal, so the problem of Spirit cannot be bypassed. The underlying natural foundation of Spirit must be grasped so that Hegel’s insights into historical and cultural development, contained in his philosophy of spirit, can be appropriated and transcended. That is the aim of this paper.

In the present period, an appropriation of Hegel’s metaphysics must rely on some theory of social psychology with a genuine empirical scientific basis. Pragmatic readings of Hegel (such as those of Robert Williams[2] and Axel Honneth[3]), which implicitly (in the case of Williams) or explicitly (in the case of Honneth) rely on G H Mead’s Symbolic Interactionism[4], and render Spirit as the work of one-on-one interactions between individuals are inadequate. This approach uses a conception of “recognition” derived from a misreading of the master-servant relation[5] in the Phenomenology to create a model of intersubjectivity which relegates mediation of all kinds. By minimising the role of material culture and institutions in mediating interactions between individuals, they fail to capture the nature of Spirit, for it is precisely the mediating element in interactions which is the substance of spirit.[6] A social psychology which is indifferent to history and culture, or simply subsumes history and culture as attributes of individuals, is worthless.

A reading of Hegel which is able to overcome the limitations of the various forms of methodological individualism, relies instead on a critical appropriation of the social psychology of Vygotsky and A N Leontyev (Cultural-Historical Activity Theory)[7], and focuses instead on Hegel’s conception of subjectivity which is detailed in the Logic.[8]

To accomplish the link between Hegel’s Logic and social-psychology, a tripartite semiotic ontology is required, namely: psyche, activity and artefact, rather than the binary, individualist ontology of Self and Other used in pragmatic readings.

Shapes of Spirit and The Logic

Hegel cut the Gordian knot of the mind-matter problem and problematised the individual-society dichotomy by means of the notion of Gestalt, or “shape of spirit.”[9] Gestalt makes a unity of thought, social practice and material culture and is taken by Hegel as the subject matter of the Phenomenology. This sharply contrasts with modern social science which takes the psyche, social relations and material culture[10] to be separate entities in their own right and assigns them to different disciplines. Two key themes of the Phenomenology are: what is taken as immediately given and certain in a society, and how do subjects cope with the individual-social dichotomy.[11]

Gestalt, or “shape of spirit” was a very broad category for Hegel, with one and the same “formation of spirit” representing historical societies extending over centuries, before the scepticism in relation to the problematic of a formation of spirit brings forward irresolvable contradictions for resolution. The essence of a formation of Spirit was what it took to be incontrovertible, immediate truth against which other truths were to be tested, and the relation of what is true for the individual and what is true for the people as a whole. Formations of consciousness unfold one into another by means of a sceptical self-criticism directed at these essential relations. There is a strong sense in which we live today within the same formation of spirit as did Hegel, except that the process of sceptical self-criticism is more advanced.

It is in the Logic, however, that Hegel outlines in detail the “pure essentialities”[12] which constitute the dynamics of a formation of spirit. Whereas formal logic is concerned with the necessary laws of inference connecting propositions within a consistent formal theory, i.e., it is a propositional calculus, Hegel’s Logic, on the other hand, is concerned not with formal theories but with “shapes of spirit” and their vulnerability to sceptical self-criticism. Because formations of spirit are simultaneously ways of thinking, ways of doing things and constellations of material culture, the Logic appears to be simultaneously a “logic of events,” an immanent critique of reason and a schema of cultural-historical development.[13]

Individual, Universal and Particular

Subjectivity is the first part of The Notion, Book Three of the Logic. Because the Logic is concerned with the necessary dynamics of formations of spirit, Subjectivity is simultaneously three things: (1) Subjectivity is an abstract (i.e., new or undeveloped) Notion or Concept (Begriff), (2) Subjectivity is an emergent or immature social movement or self-conscious aspect or form of social practice, and (3) Subjectivity is a unique element of material culture, such a word or other sign, tool, machine, law or whatever.

If it were to be objected that, despite its suggestive name, “Subjectivity” refers only to a concept (and not people or things), the counter-objection can be made that the obvious movement[14] found in the Logic, including in the section on Subjectivity, is meaningless if the subject matter were to be understood solely as concepts: in what space does a concept move? The reader is brought to the Logic through the Phenomenology, where it is clear enough that a concept can only exist as part of a formation of spirit.[15] Insofar as he is concerned with necessity, rather than contingency or caprice, Hegel takes as one and the same object: an idea, its material objectification and its social bearer. The two earlier books (Being and the Reflection) concern the genesis of the subject,[16] and once a new subjectivity coming into Being, its development, or concretisation, proceeds through its objectification and re-internalisation until it becomes an integral part of the life of the whole people.[17] Hegel’s analysis of these processes is extremely rich, but if they are to be appropriated, the meaning of the Abstract Notion, subjectivity, is key.

The way Hegel analyses the Subject is by means of the moments of Individual, Universal and Particular. These are at one level logical categories by means of which one and the same concept represents respectively: a unique, existent individual concrete thing, a universal category or genre of things, or the particular quality of the individual which makes an exemplar of the universal. [18] This relationship is the same as Charles Sanders Peirce’s categorisation of signs as sinnisign, legisign and qualisign[19] but further, has a very profound basis in social relations. For example, the ruler of a nation may be an individual tyrant, but by means of a constitution they become a particular occupant of a constitutional position which is universal in character. Likewise, any universal concept is known to us, and indeed can be said to exist only through particular instances and these particular instances of a universal exist only in and through individuals who participate in the being and knowing of it. This tripartite logical structure of the concept does away with the need for “essences” and “thing-in-themselves” existing apart from or behind appearances.

At the same time, at the level of social practice, we see that the institutions of a society, understood as universals embodying principles and elements of the way of life itself, inscribed in language and law, can exist only in and through the activity and self-consciousness of individuals who enact the particular social practices by means of which the universal exists. What is true of concepts and social practices is also true of material culture. A law, a language or a tool are only meaningful, living and a part of the developing culture of humanity to the extent and in the manner in which they are interpreted and used by individual people in their social practice.

The subject is constructed through successive positing of abstract notion, judgment and the syllogism.[20] What this means is that in the first place each of the moments of the notion must exist and posited in its own self [Abstract Notions]; in relation to a social movement for example, there must be individual people who may participate in it, there must be actual social ties or activities by means of which such particular participation may be enacted, and the universal principle expressed by the movement must have some material existence. Next, the one-to-one links [Judgments] must be made for each of these moments: the individuals must know the principle, the particular activities must express the principle and the individuals must engage in the particular activities. Finally, Hegel’s idea of the Syllogism requires that each mediate between the other two, for example, the particular activities which the individual participates in must be known to that individual as expressing the principle, etc., etc., etc. If any one of these judgments or syllogisms is lacking, then the Notion is unreal or abstract, undeveloped. Hegel’s idea is that interacting with its object – the rest of the culture and life of a people – drives the development and concretisation of the notion as part of the life of that people, or destroys and/or transfigures the Notion.

The Subject

For Hegel then, “subject” is not taken to be an individual person.[21] Even though, self-evidently in certain senses it is individuals who bear moral responsibility and who initiate actions, whether committing a crime or simply rising their arm, it is rational to claim that individuals who do bear moral responsibility for their actions, do so only as part of a larger social whole, either as part of a social movement or company or nation or they do so in acting out the responsibilities of their particular social position, which is after all, a social or ‘universal’ entity, not their own particularity. Likewise, an individual knows things, but they can only know them by means of language, images, and other socially created and validated entities such as science, religion, the media, etc. Altogether, it is clear enough that an individual’s knowledge is but a certain fraction of the social knowledge in which they participate. Equally, the individual’s identity or self-consciousness, while self-evidently theirs and not somebody else’s is a social construct, something about which more recent social theory has become quite adamant.

So for Hegel a subject is some system of activity, which is only to be taken as an individual person in a limiting sense. At the other end it is a whole people; or rather, for the Young Hegel, it was the whole people, but after 1805, it was European civilisation as a whole which expressed itself as Spirit, a universal subject.[22] But an absolutely central concern of Hegel from the beginning, was how individuality could flourish, while the social solidarity was sustained.

So for Hegel, the subject is neither a collective subject, such as a nation or social movement, nor an individual, but rather a particular coordination of the two.[23]


The question has to be asked: how did Hegel see the consciousness of an individual human being, that is to say, thought in its common-or-garden meaning. After all, Descartes did not invent mind-matter dualism,[24] it is an everyday experience of any member of modern society: thoughts in our heads and things in the world outside. And nor did Kant invent the conception of an individual person as inherently a sovereign subject with an innate capacity for rationality and moral sense: this is the general consciousness of all of us moderns.[25] How then does Hegel differ from these conceptions?

Only late-19th and 20th century experimental science could provide the information that Hegel needed to have a theory of psychology as such, or even a philosophy of psychology. He nevertheless managed to contribute to a foundation for social psychology with an objective idealism which did not suppose that the medium of ideas was something different from the medium of social practice. Once an artefact or a social practice is understood to be a product of thought, its internalisation and objectification by human actors means only the movement of the idea from one material substratum to another and the nature of that material substratum, irrespective of its function as artefact, is literally immaterial.

But Hegel is not very concerned with how we get an idea of something in our heads: if it exists for us, that is to say, we are acting in relation to it, then we have obviously acquired some kind of ‘representation’[26] of it. The problem only arises when we presume from the outset the existence of a “thing-in-itself” which differs from the way it appears for us. Hegel does not have any thing-in-itself separate from its appearance. Both the thing-in-itself and appearance are moments in the genesis of the concept of the thing.

Because of the times he lived in, Hegel was not able to go beyond a certain point and as is obvious enough, his spirit remains a metaphysical entity.[27] To transcend this metaphysics it is necessary to break from Hegel’s metaphysical foundation and introduce an ontology which is true to the structure of spirit and recognises that our premises are:

“the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity.” [§1a, German Ideology, Marx 1845][28]

Psyche, Activity and Artefact

It has already been indicated on a number of occasions that spirit is to be understood as simultaneously three things: psyche, activity and artefact, or more precisely, what is necessary in each, rather than capricious, contingent or inessential.[29] But spirit is not to be understood as equal to each of these things, or that each separately are analogous to one another or to spirit. Rather, spirit exists only through the co-existence (coincidence, correspondence) of all three, just as ‘tree’ can exist only by means of individual trees, the quality of these individual trees that make them “trees” and the genre or species of “tree” itself.[30] So it is with spirit. And surely if spirit is understood this way it is no more to be regarded as metaphysical than trees.

So, having made the point that it is the co-existence, not symmetry of psyche, activity and artefact which is at issue,[31] it must be pointed out that it is in the first place the identity and inseparability of the three which is the specific nature of spirit. On a number of occasions I have mentioned the Individual, Particular and Universal in ways that are closely analogous to respectively psyche, activity and artefact. These two trichotomies are not identical, as individual, universal and particular are specifically logical relations; however, there is a sense in which individual = psyche, particular = activity and universal = artefact. I will return to this later, but in the meantime, we should clarify exactly what is meant by each term: psyche, activity and artefact, in turn.

“Psyche” is the consciousness of an individual person in its most general sense; the specific nature and limits of psyche need to be the subject of special and careful consideration and it is the special task of psychologists to do this. Only a few points ought to be made here. Firstly, a clear distinction needs to be made between the psyche and the brain or ‘brain-state’, or for that matter, the nervous system or even the human body as a whole, which underlies the activity of the psyche. As problematic as it is, when considered as something on its own and in itself, the psyche is not a brain state or any such thing. It is a fundamental category. The state of the nervous system is something other than the psyche as is the social relation, language, representational images, etc., etc., which may ‘fill’ or form the psyche at any given moment. How one ought to conceive of the psyche has proved over centuries to be problematic, but that it exists is a matter of controversy only for those who think that physics is the science of meter-readings.[32] Secondly, it is not proposed that the psyche is a substance or that it is a thing which has this or that state, nor do I suggest that it “contains” thoughts which are conscious or unconscious, and certainly not that there is a one-to-one correspondence between a state of the nervous system and what could be called the “state of the psyche.” Hegel agreed with Fichte that the ego was pure activity, not the activity of something, but simply pure activity. Prior to Freud of course “ego,” the Latin word for “I,” did not have the specific meaning that Freud gave to it.[33] Indeed, for Fichte and Hegel, the notion of practice united both inner and outer activity, both intention or will, and consequences intended and unintended.[34] ‘Activity’ referred to subjective-objective activity, both inner subjective activity and outward objective activity, but ‘pure activity’ meant just that aspect of activity which was inner and as yet unmixed with the outer world. “Psyche” is not to be in its essence as associated with the head, such an association being something that ought to be resolved by specialised experimental science, not philosophy, but it is certainly to be associated with an individual human being, even though it is something distinct from the person’s body and cannot exist other than in and through, not just objective material practice, but social practice in its broadest sense.[35]

“Activity” is what human beings do, with their body, with their brain, with each other, and with artefacts, both in its social aspect tied up with their intentions and awareness of what they are doing, and objectively, inclusive of the inessential, unintended and unconscious, although insofar as we are talking of spirit, we are concerned with activity as social practice and so what is inessential and contingent lies somewhat in the background until it shows itself to be essential and necessary. But ontologically, we make no distinction. The issue of how activity is to be grasped and understood is a methodological problem which follows on from this ontological distinction. While activity may at a given instant be the activity of one person, by its very nature, activity is to be understood as social,[36] an individual person’s activity being meaningful only in relation to its meaning for others, or its meaning for the actor as something reflected out of social practice. It is essentially social, or interpersonal[37] in the broadest possible sense.

“Artefacts”: Taken together, psyche and activity constitute the whole of social practice, except that no social practice, or any kind of human life at all, can take place other than by means of and through the use of artefacts, material entities such as words, commodities, land, images, laws, machines, buildings and so on, material entities, whether vibrations of the air, marks on a piece of paper, constructions of concrete and metal or living organisms. All such things, which I will call “artefacts,” are material things, fashioned from the matter provided by Nature, but they are what they are only by virtue of the significance given to them and the interpretation made of them, by human beings in social practice. Any such interpretation is possible of course only thanks to the material properties of the thing and its palpable, material existence. Artefacts are signs in the sense that C S Peirce gave to the word: they mean something (an object) to something else (an interpretant).[38] And for Hegel as for Peirce, the distinction between sign and tool is secondary and relatively arbitrary.[39] All artefacts are part of both an infinitely interconnected continuum of material nature, and a global network of human activity. In that sense, artefacts are universals. The existence of millions of guns in neighbourhoods in the USA, for example, is not something which can be wished away and nor is it simply a matter of interpretation; true, guns only kill people only if someone uses them to do so, but their existence in millions of homes and hands is a material fact; the distribution of guns in the US is therefore to be regarded as an artefact, and social policy has to figure with that. Artefacts are like that: although subject to interpretation, they have an objective, material existence, and to some extent, there is always a residue which lies beyond human usage and interpretation. Likewise, vulnerability to smallpox is a material fact, and an artefact, a product of human history and society.[40] In fact, the human body is in its entirety an artefact, and this perhaps need special clarification.

The Body as an Artefact

Whether from the standpoint of the evolution of species, medical science or from the standpoint of sociology, the human body is itself an artefact,[41] not only in the sense that it is subject to interpretation insofar as it is used in social practice, but as a product of the industry and social activity of our hominid predecessors and all human societies up to the present.[42] That fact that it is also a natural object like the bodies of wild animals is neither here nor there: all artefacts are also natural material objects subject to the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, as well as being shaped by and for their use in human society, just like our domestic animals and our environment. It is their use in human activity which marks human bodies as artefacts. But “in themselves” they are simply material things, they are not activities and they are not thoughts; they are subject to interpretation, but they are not interpretations in themselves, and they do not make interpretations.

So when I talk of ‘activity’, it is in the first place a human body which is active, but always along with other artefacts, and it is conscious activity in which the psyche also participates. Activity is not even conceivable without artefacts in this sense, as inclusive of all material formations, even the human body itself, together with all the signals it makes, whether spoken words, written words, body language or using weapons or machines for whatever purpose. So activity, in the meaning given to it here, is always the activity of artefacts.

But an artefact is an artefact only thanks to its having significance for human beings and being subject to interpretation. An artefact is a dead thing however. It betrays its artificiality by the fingerprints left by human hands, and there are always traces of its use and manufacture, of its being an artefact. But as a dead thing, it lives only by its being used or interpreted in some human activity, and is an artefact only to that extent. Because it is a material thing, of course, it does not disappear as soon as it falls out of use. A book or stone tablet continues to exist exactly as it is, even when the language with which it is inscribed is forgotten, and while it remains buried and lost to the sight of human beings, tucked away, mislaid on a library shelf where it will never be opened. But then at some point and in some way, long-forgotten artefacts can and do enter again into social practice, and the activity of perhaps long-dead and forgotten human beings enters again into social life, thanks to the nature of artefacts as material objects, subject to new interpretations. Some artefacts, such as spoken words, have a transitory nature, but being material things, they are nevertheless part of a universal material world, existing beyond any human society. In general artefacts have their significance only as part of a whole system of artefacts, and removed from this system – whether a symbolic system or language or a system of production and its tools – it is meaningless.

Whenever I use the word “culture” I refer to the mass of artefacts, dead things, but from the standpoint of their use in activity.[43] So “a culture” refers to some system of artefacts in which there are shared meanings. I do not use the word “culture” to mean the activity itself nor the psyche of those who participate in the using the culture and interpreting the artefacts of which it is composed. Except for the transitory artefacts such as spoken words or living human bodies, culture is accessible to archaeologists, who are posed puzzles by the discovery of artefacts disconnected from the activities in which they made sense. Although culture is in that sense dead, and only comes to life when it is used, as material things, artefacts place inherent limits on their use, and have their own inherent linkages “built into” them, so to speak, which may be conventional, but possibly rooted in the physical properties of the object or its resemblance to something else.

Spirit as a Universal Subject

Returning briefly to the concept of Subject: a subject is a self-conscious system of activity. It can be asked: what constitutes a “system”? This is an inherently open question, and cannot be answered arbitrarily or from outside, according to some kind of criteria. It can only be answered in the way Hegel demonstrated in the Logic, that is, by means of “immanent critique.” Artefacts in themselves are open-ended in regard to their potential for interpretation; they are universal. Individuals on the other hand are by definition, finite, however much their lives and their consciousness is tied up with and determined by material and social practice. Activities, which organise themselves into systems, are neither infinite nor self-enclosed, and what constitutes a ‘system’ is resolved by the process of self-reflection. The subject will announce itself.

What credence can we give to Hegel’s claim that Spirit is a subject then? Frankly none. By definition a subject is self-conscious, and the claim that Spirit is self-conscious is to claim that the entire historical process is self-conscious. It could be argued that although we are not yet a collective self-consciousness, understanding ourselves collectively as a product of the history we have ourselves made, we are in the process of becoming self-conscious. But United Nations notwithstanding, there is not even a semblance of such a collective self-consciousness, even now in 2007, let alone in 1807. Perhaps a global environmental crisis immediately and obviously threatening the existence of life on Earth could help us along? But not so far.

When we look at Hegel’s original idea of spirit, of Volksgeist and Zeitgeist, then there is a rational sense in describing this kind of spirit as a subject; a people does have self-consciousness, connected to their shared history and culture and their common fate, personified in their leaders and objectified in their popular institutions, affirmed in their art and religion, a people go to war to defend their nation, take pride in its achievements and usually know themselves to be a child of their nation in some manner or degree. Even the people of a certain times share in some way in the dominant spirit of the times and identify themselves in a way with their times, though self-consciousness here is extremely thin. But once the concept of spirit is transformed into a presence that pre-exists its manifestation in history, which awaits return to its self as self-consciousness, then we have left the domain of science and entered metaphysics.

But the error of ascribing self-consciousness to spirit does not destroy the rational core of Hegel’s idea of the nature of human beings en masse, which is equally people’s “second nature.”

Social Psychological Foundation

The ontology proposed for the conception of spirit has the advantage that it facilitates an appropriation of that current of social psychology founded by Lev Vygotsky, Alexei Leontyev and Alexander Luria. According to Vygotsky, Leontyev and Luria, human beings modify their own nervous systems by inserting new links into the network of stimulus-and-reaction which Vygotsky calls “psychological tools.” The “psychological tool” is just another reflex, subject to the same natural laws of behaviour as other reflexes within the nervous system; but it is constructed, a product of social practice, not given by nature. It is the same as when we build a machine: each component is a natural object, subject to the laws of physics and chemistry, but as an artefact, it meets the purpose of its builder and is intelligible only as an artefact with a certain social purpose. Thus, for Vygotsky and Leontyev, the human nervous system is an artefact. The nervous system is constructed through the use of artefacts of all kinds, tools, words, etc., etc. These artefacts are provided to the child or other learner by those with whom they are collaborating in some activity, drawn from the stock of artefacts found in the pre-existing, shared culture. In using the artefact, the learner gradually internalises the artefact in the form of some kind of internal, symbolic representation, modifying the form of their own nervous system, and gradually learning to operate without the use of an external, material artefact.

Leontyev’s specific contribution was the concept of ‘system of activity’. According to Leontyev: “Man’s activity is the substance of his consciousness.” Collaborative activity is internalised in much the same way that Vygotsky demonstrated how the use of artefacts is internalised by modification of the person’s own nervous system and body generally. Furthermore, it is in systems of activity that artefacts are created, objectified and internalised by those participating in the activity.[44]

A weakness of Leontyev’s approach was that the notion of ‘system’ was somewhat ill-defined and arbitrary.[45] Leontyev did not say ‘system’ but rather simply referred to ‘an activity’. ‘Activity’ could be for example ‘work’ or ‘play’, and activities were made up of actions and acts according to their content in terms of particular motives and immediate aims.[46] What constitutes an activity, who defines it? Hegel’s Logic overcomes this weakness, as Hegel demonstrates how the subject arises through a process of immanent critique as described in the Doctrine of Being and Essence. In this way, Hegel shows how the subject is self-generating, and provides criteria for recognising what is a system of activity.

Leontyev and Vygotsky’s psychology has generated a substantial school of empirical, experimental and applied psychology, particularly in the areas of education and child development. Although it has never been made explicit, Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (one of several names under which this current of social-psychology travels) implicitly rests on the ontology that has been proposed here as a foundation for spirit. Consequently, CHAT provides a social-psychological foundation for a scientific conception of spirit. CHAT has not, within itself, generated such a notion of spirit, partly because it lacks the Hegelian concept of Gestalt, as a ‘shape of spirit’. With its historical origins in the USSR, CHAT was developed by specialist psychologists within a division of labour in which social and political theory lay outside of the domain of social psychology and was out-of-bounds for critical consideration by psychologists. Thus a highly objectivist conception of social theory was married to a psychological theory pertaining to the individual. This reinforced an already strongly communitarian ethos amongst proponents of CHAT, at first in the USSR and later in the US. It also entrenched the individual vs. social dichotomy in the theory, despite the fact that it had the theoretical means to transcend this dichotomy.

The Individual vs Social dichotomy

According to the Phenomenology, the succession of formations of spirit passes through the stage of consciousness, in which the problematic centres around the subject-object relation (culminating in the Kantian conception with a distinction between things-in-themselves beyond experience, and a world of appearances which is lawful and cognisable), and this is then followed by the stage of self-consciousness in which the problematic centres around the individual-social dichotomy. This culminates in what Hegel deems the stage of Reason, or modernity, the resolution of a series of rival conceptions of how the individual-social dichotomy can be overcome and an individual’s own view known to be valid for the society as whole. Self-consciousness hinges around the fact that the subject has become aware that its view is from a certain social position, and not some kind of God’s eye view. This stage is opened by the Enlightenment and the development of a society in which science is normative, market relations ensure that individuals pursuing their own conception of the good thereby also further the social good, and society is governed by a participatory democracy in which every citizen finds their worth validated in cooperative industry and mutual aid amongst peers and identify with the collegiate state as an expression of their own will.

Hegel could never have foreseen the impact of proletarian class war within bourgeois society,[47] and he did not see the significance of the growth of the movement for universal suffrage, let alone movements like the Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation and so on which began over one hundred years after his death. The resolution of the individual vs. social dichotomy that he foresaw in the Philosophy of Right[48] was a dead letter, and beginning from about the time of his own death a new dialectic got under way. Hegel was himself troubled by the dehumanising effects of factory labour and the apparent inability of the market or even civil society to stem growing inequality. The participatory democracy outlined in the Philosophy of Right was, despite Hegel’s claims to the contrary, wishful thinking.

In Hegel’s conception, a ‘formation of spirit’ is a whole epoch of history, even though the ‘spirit of the times’ will ebb and flow and transmogrify on a much shorter time scale. Marx had it right when he identified the commodity relation[49] as the central problematic of our epoch, defining the relation between subjective and objective truth, between the individual and the community as a whole. Marx suggested that the entire period of modern capitalist development had to be conceived in terms of this relation. Although the word ‘commodification’ did not enter the language until the 1970s, this word clearly expresses Marx’s idea when he observed that “all that is solid melts into air.”[50]

Abstract General vs Concrete Universal

Not only does the commodity relation express the individual-social dichotomy in the clearest terms: i.e., that the value of an individual’s labour is determined by its market value, but the system of universal suffrage translates this ethos into the domain of the state where the process of electing a government is for all the world indistinguishable from the process of marketing a product. Just as every individual economic agent has been reduced an isolated atom of rational calculation and an object of manipulation, every citizen has been reduced to an isolated voter, casting their ballot every few years in a vast geographical electorate with which they have no organic ties, an object of media manipulation. Increasingly, the commodity relation is being translated even into the domain of the family, with transfer payments of various kind funding child-rearing in single families, pre-nuptial agreements and other forms of contract invading the marriage bond. Bourgeois society is subsuming the whole of Ethical Life.

In the domain of logic, this ethos is expressed in the abstract general relation and the process of sorting things into sets according to the sharing of common attributes and counting the numbers in each set, apportioning everything accordingly. The formal sorting of objects according to their attributes can never grasp the notion, and universal suffrage under the system of parliamentary elections can never produce a government which the whole people see as their own; it will never be anything more than any other product selected from the supermarket shelves on the basis of quality and price. But the abstract general is the currently dominant relation of the individual to the universal; the universal has been reduced to particularity. Commodities are produced in variety and number to match expected markets which in turns are shaped to fit under the ethos of “choice.” And Identity is invariably presented by contemporary theorists as a question of belonging to this or that category determined by the possession of inessential attributes

The abstract general concept in all its forms must be subject to immanent critique.[51]

Social Solidarity and its Crisis

One of the most serious social problems that arise from the dominance of the abstract general relation is the destruction of social solidarity.[52] Hegel’s concept of spirit, and in particular his conception of the subject as a concrete universal, offers an insight into how social solidarity is constructed and this was exactly what Hegel intended.

For example, the rise of “subscription organisations” supplanting “branch-based organisations” is far wider than the political parties. Organisations like the Automobile Associations, World Fund for Wildlife and Oxfam and so on, which collect funds by means of monthly direct debits from subscribers’ bank accounts to employ professional staff, contribute nothing to social solidarity while working with great effect to press an agenda with which all the subscribers agree.

For example, mass media, especially television, distribute information as a medium for the distribution of paid advertisements. Increasingly, media diversification is able to utilise the myth of “choice” to deliver news to people tailored to the world view that the recipient already holds. “Choice” means that the tenuous social solidarity generated by the modest fact that everyone at least reads the same news and watches the same soapies, giving minimal opportunities, perhaps, for casual chatter at work, is now eliminated as everyone is receiving customised media which is more and more simply a reflection of their own personal prejudices.

For example, the subjects in civil society have long since ceased to be family companies, and are now units of capital owned by an anonymous and constantly changing mass of shareholders governed even in their internal constitution by the laws of the market.

The attempt to establish the truth of the whole by combining each individual truth through relations of exchange – the abstract general relation – is leading to a collapse in social solidarity and the inability of the community to mobilise people on any other basis than payment for services rendered. This is very dangerous.

Spirit, in Conclusion

Now, some will respond to my call to renovate the Hegelian concept of Spirit by denying that such a thing exists. Such objectors must also deny that there can be any sense in claiming that there is a decline in social solidarity under way in the most economically powerful countries around the world. You can’t combat a problem if you don’t accept the premises by means of which it could exist.

But the problem of the fragmentation, indeed disintegration of society needs urgently to be addressed, and it is a problem of the spirit of postmodernity. It is a problem in the social relations in all domains of our lives; it is a problem of consciousness, and it is a problem of culture.


1. This change in the meaning of “spirit” is dealt with in more detail in my article “The Young Hegel Against Liberalism,” June 2007. Comparison between The System of Ethical Life (1803-4) and The Philosophy of Spirit (1805-6) shows a change in the conception of Spirit.

2. See Hegel’s Ethics of Recognition, Robert R. Williams. University of California Press 1997 and critique, “Hegel, Recognition and Intersubjectivity” May 2007.

3. See Axel Honneth: The Struggle for Recognition. The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. 1995. Polity Press and my review, “Honneth’s ‘Struggle for Recognition’,” December 2003.

4. Honneth only refers to Mead and Williams does not cite any social psychologist, Mead or otherwise, to justify his reading. “Symbolic Interactionism” was the school which based itself on Mead’s theory but is currently dead, although it existed for about 30 years after Mead’s death.

5. See my “Hegel and the Master-Servant Dialectic. Excerpts from Hegel’s writing in which the Master-Slave relation is explored, with annotations,” May 2007.

6. See my “Masters, Servants and Mediation,” May 2007.

7. See my “Empirical Social Psychology and Critical Theory” June 2006.

8. See my “Hegel: The Subject as Concept,” 2006.

9. “Gestalt” is more commonly translated whole, but in the case of its use by Hegel is usually translated as “shape of consciousness” or “formation of consciousness,” and includes both the way of thinking and social practices in a society. I have chosen to translate it as “shape of spirit” or “formation of spirit” because it is important for my point that it is understood that the concept of Gestalt is not limited to subjective thought, which is what would be commonly understood by the word “consciousness.”

10. By material culture I mean everything from land and livestock to libraries. I use the word material to make it clear that what is intended is not mental at all. For example, the letter ‘A’ on this piece of paper is a material thing, and the whole class of letter As is a category of material things and therefore to be regarded as equally material. This is what is directly inherited from the past. The interpretation of the letter A, our idea of it and what we do with it, is of course, something else, and I do not subsume this thinking and acting under the term “material culture.”

11. Specifically: §90. I. Immediate Consciousness, §111. II. Perception §132. III. Things-in-themselves and appearances. §166. IV. Self-consciousness recognitive: §178. A. Independence of master’s thought. §198. B. Stoicism §202. Scepticism §207. Unhappy Consciousness. §231. C. Reason. §240. A. Empiricism §347. B. Hedonism to Adam Smith; §392. C. Participatory democracy, and then Hegel turns to what would become known as “Objective Spirit” and Absolute Spirit.

12. Hegel explained the relation between the Gestalten of the Phenomenology and the “pure essentialities” of the Logic as follows:

“I maintain that it is this self-construing method alone which enables philosophy to be an objective, demonstrated science. It is in this way that I have tried to expound consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Consciousness is spirit as a concrete knowing, a knowing too, in which externality is involved; but the development of this object, like the development of all natural and spiritual life, rests solely on the nature of the pure essentialities which constitute the content of logic.” [Science of Logic, §§9-10]

13. See my article “The Subject Matter of Hegel’s Logic” where the issue of what the Logic is about is taken up in detail, and “Getting to know Hegel,” 2000 or “The Meaning of Hegel’s Logic,” March 2007, for expositions of the Logic in more accessible language.

14. The question of the movement of the Logic I take up in “The Subject Matter of Hegel’s Logic.” Stephen Houlgate says, for example:

thought thinks – or tries to think – the utter indeterminacy of being, but that thought is so utterly indeterminate that it evaporates in the very attempt to conceive it. The thought of pure, indeterminate being thus slides into the thought of nothing ...” (p. 32)

it leaves us nothing to think and thus immediately disappears into – and so becomes – the thought of nothing at all.” (p. 33)

“... thought leads itself from pure indeterminacy to the thought of bare indeterminacy. It is the process whereby – without taking anything for granted – thought freely determines the manner in which all determinacy, at least initially, is to be thought.” (p. 35)

But Houlgate never confronts his reliance on the idea of “thought” as a subject on some occasions, and as a substance on others, and as an activity on other occasions.

15. Just one example, in the Preface to the Phenomenology:

“The particular individual, so far as content is concerned, has also to go through the stages through which the general mind has passed, but as shapes once assumed by mind and now laid aside, as stages of a road which has been worked over and levelled out. ... in this educational progress we can see the history of the world’s culture delineated in faint outline. This bygone mode of existence has already become an acquired possession of the general mind, which constitutes the substance of the individual, and, by thus appearing externally to him, furnishes his inorganic nature. In this respect culture or development of mind, regarded from the side of the individual, consists in his acquiring what lies at his hand ready for him, in making its inorganic nature organic to himself, and taking possession of it for himself.” [Phenomenology, §28]

16. From the Science of Logic:

Objective logic therefore, which treats of being and essence constitutes properly the genetic exposition of the Notion.” [Science of Logic, §1281]

17. The dialectic of the notion is the subject-object relation. In the Subject, a concept, or social movement or proposition is posited; in the object, it is objectified, that is to say it is incorporated into the sum of all existing concepts, movements, etc., modified by them and modifying them; the subject then interacts with the Object as an other of itself, and the process which this sets up, Hegel calls the Idea, the unity of Lief and Cognition, or the Good and the True.

18. As Hegel puts in the Shorter Logic:

“The Notion as Notion contains the three following ‘moments’ or functional parts. (1) The first is Universality – meaning that it is in free equality with itself in its specific character. (2) The second is Particularity – that is, the specific character, in which the universal continues serenely equal to itself. (3) The third is Individuality – meaning the reflection-into-self of the specific characters of universality and particularity; which negative self-unity has complete and original determinateness, without any loss to its self-identity or universality.” [Shorter Logic, §163]

Note that the Universal, Particular and Individual are not stages of the Notion or of Subjectivity, forms through which the Notion passes. Every stage or form of the Notion is simultaneously all three, in just the same way that in the Doctrine of Essence (Reflection), everything is two-fold, containing both a positive and a negative.

19. See Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler pp. 101-4. I have inserted the Hegelian equivalents in square brackets in Peirce’s definitions to follow:

“A Qualisign [Particular] is a quality which is a Sign. It cannot actually act as a sign until it is embodied; but the embodiment has nothing to do with its character as a sign.

“A Sinsign [Individual] ... is an actual existent thing or event which is a sign. It can only be so through its qualities; so that it involves a qualisign, or rather, several qualisigns. But these qualisigns are of a peculiar kind and only form a sign through being actually embodied.

“A Legisign [Universal] is a law that is a Sign. This law is usually established by men. Every conventional sign is a legisign [but not conversely]. It is not a single object, but a general type which, it has been agreed, shall be significant. Every legisign signifies through an instance of its application, which may be termed a Replica of it. ... The Replica is a Sinsign. Thus, every Legisign requires Sinsigns.”

20. The stages of the Notion are: Subject, Object, Idea. The Stages of the Subject are: Abstract Notion, Judgment, Syllogism. The Abstract Notion is I, U or P simply posited. The Judgment is a proposition in which I, U or P implies I, U or P. The Syllogism is an argument in which I, U or P mediate in a Judgment. So when I say an Individual can know the Universal only by means of some Particular, this is the Syllogism I – P – U.

21. Kant introduced the terminology in which an individual person, insofar as they are a sovereign end in themselves, is referred to as a Subject, based on Descartes’ use of the Latin term subjectum to refer to that substance to which attributes are attached, in Descartes’ view, invariably, the mind. This usage remained within the confines of philosophy and jurisprudence. Fichte took this to its limit, deducing society as a whole from the concept of the individual subject, which he saw as ‘pure activity’. According to Hegel, an individual cannot be a subject, i.e., a sovereign, independent being, since every individual is an individual of some state or people, and partakes of only such a part of the freedom of that state or people as he or she can acquire from it. See the Phenomenology, Preface §28.

22. And in his later lectures in Berlin, it became the “World Spirit,” beginning in the East and moving on through the Islamic peoples to Europe.

23. Habermas claims:

“Discourse theory altogether jettisons certain premises of the philosophy of consciousness. Either these premises invite us to ascribe the praxis of civic self-determination to one encompassing macrosubject, or they have us apply the rule of law to many isolated private subjects. The former approach views the citizenry as a collective actor that reflects the whole and acts for it; in the latter, individual actors function as dependent variables in system processes that move along blindly. Discourse theory works instead with the higher-level intersubjectivity of communication processes that flow through both the parliamentary bodies and the informal networks of the public sphere.” (Habermas, Three Normative Models of Democracy, in “Democracy and Difference. Contesting the boundaries of the political,” Seyla Benhabib, ed., 1996)

These “the higher-level intersubjectivity of communication processes,” I believe, cannot be described in terms of “subjectless communication.” What is required is a better idea of the subject, which makes use of Hegel’s insights.

24. Descartes for example stated what appeared obvious to him:

“So my mind is a distinct thing from my body. Furthermore, my mind is me, for the following reason. I know that I exist and that nothing else belongs to my nature or essence except that I am a thinking thing; from this it follows that my essence consists solely in my being a thinking thing, even though there may be a body that is very closely joined to me. I have a clear and distinct idea of myself as something that thinks and isn’t extended, and one of body as something that is extended and does not think. So it is certain that I am really distinct from my body and can exist without it..” [Sixth Meditations, Descartes 1639]

25. For example:

a man is an end to himself as well as others, and it is not enough that he is not permitted to use either himself or others merely as means (which would imply that be might be indifferent to them), but it is in itself a duty of every man to make mankind in general his end. The principle of ethics being a categorical imperative does not admit of proof, but it admits of a justification from principles of pure practical reason. Whatever in relation to mankind, to oneself, and others, can be an end, that is an end for pure practical reason: for this is a faculty of assigning ends in general; and to be indifferent to them, that is, to take no interest in them, is a contradiction.” [§IX. Metaphysical Elements of Morals, Kant 1780]

26. If I am able to act as if the thing was actually present when it is not, and coordinate my own actions in a way I learnt to only by use of the external stimulus, then ipso facto, I have constructed an internal representation or stimulus of it. I do not for a moment suggest that any image of the thing exists somewhere in my head. That is altogether another question.

27. See for example, my article “Hegel and the State of Nature” in which I draw attention to the fact that Hegel had no concept whatsoever of the origins of the human species; he says for example:

“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.” [Philosophy of Nature, §339]

28. Marx was little inclined to formulate or express his ideas in the terms of a systematic philosophy. However, this apparently uncontroversial claim that what is given to us is “the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live” is precisely what I shall go on to claim. “The material conditions under which they live” I refer to as “material culture.”

29. Ontologically speaking, what is necessary and what is contingent is immaterial, but from the point of view of logic and law, that is to say, spirit, it is what is necessary which is intelligible and therefore of concern.

30. The individual spirit is a human psyche, but what we are concerned with here is not ‘tree’ as an artefact in relation to the idea of a tree and the various human activities centred around trees and the idea of a tree; I am simply making an analogy here, an analogy to a thing presumed to exist independently of thought: the individual tree is just that tree I see out my window at this moment, the universal ‘tree’ is the whole species and genre of tree that existed long before this tree was planted and will continue on after it; the particular here is the living process, including the transmission of genetic material and nutrition which connects this individual tree to the whole genre of living things called trees.

31. The danger here is that the Logic be reduced to a kind of schema which can be applied to thought, history and culture, a metaphor of some kind. This is not the claim being made here. Hegel intended that changing in how people think are to be identified with the changing institutions and movements they participated in and the changing cultural products they created and used. This is stronger even than cause-and-effect, which still presumes the separate existence of thought, activity and artefact.

32. It was Noam Chomsky who remarked:

“the term ‘behavioural science’ suggests a not-so-subtle shift of emphasis toward the evidence itself and away from the deeper underlying principles and abstract mental structures that might be illuminated by the evidence of behaviour. It is as if natural science were to be designated ‘the science of meter readings.’” [Language and Mind, Noam Chomsky 1968]

33. Freud analysed the psyche into Ego, Id and Super-Ego. If Super-Ego is understood as an objectively existing social construct, internalised by the psyche, and Id is understood as the body, which we claim must be regarded as an artefact, then the Freudian and Hegelian configurations differ greatly, but are close enough that a dialogue is possible between the two.

34. See my Article “Johann Fichte: The Subject as Activity.”

35. Poststructuralists and Deconstructionists seem to expend their whole energy arguing against Descartes, but it is self-evident that the foundation of Descartes’ view and that of common sense, that there exists a psyche, which adheres to the individual and lacks extension, and furthermore the psyche is self-evidently distinct from biological processes which underlie it and act upon it. But it is necessary state exactly what is the relation between the psyche and other, material and social, components (nb, not ‘influences’) of consciousness. The point is that the psyche is not a separate thing or substance, but simply consciousness taken in its aspect as an individual, just as ‘tree’ is also each immediate, individual, concrete tree, in and through which the genre of ‘tree’ only can exist.

36. From the 1844 Manuscripts:

“Social activity and social enjoyment exist by no means only in the form of some directly communal activity and directly communal enjoyment, although communal activity and communal enjoyment – i.e., activity and enjoyment which are manifested and affirmed in actual direct association with other men – will occur wherever such a direct expression of sociability stems from the true character of the activity’s content and is appropriate to the nature of the enjoyment.

“But also when I am active scientifically, etc. – an activity which I can seldom perform in direct community with others – then my activity is social, because I perform it as a man. Not only is the material of my activity given to me as a social product (as is even the language in which the thinker is active): my own existence is social activity, and therefore that which I make of myself, I make of myself for society and with the consciousness of myself as a social being.” [Private Property and Communism, Marx 1844]

37. The word ‘interpersonal’ should not here be taken to overlook the fact that every transaction taking place between two persons is mediated by language and motives which belong to a wider society, and by bodily images which are produced and interpreted socially.

38. Peirce’s definition:

“A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” [Papers of CS Peirce §2.228]

39. For the essential identity of the concepts of ‘tool’ and ‘sign’, see “The Concept of the Ideal” by Evald Ilyenkov, in Problems of Dialectical Materialism, 1977 and “Activity, consciousness and Communication” by David Bakhurst in Mind, Culture and Activity, Ed., Michal Cole, Yrjö Engström and Olga Vasquez, Cambridge University Press 1997.

‘Tool’ is nowadays used in a very broad sense, always within the context of some labour process, but with no particular implication that ‘tool’ is a thing which has physical properties which interconnect with the physical properties of other things. The common usage of ‘sign’ does include Peirce’s ‘index’ which is a sign of something by virtue of its physical connection with the object of which it is a sign. Normal usage does distinguish between ‘sign’ and ‘tool’ by limiting ‘signs’ to being ‘tools for the mind’. For Peirce, all material process involves ‘signs’ even when no artefacts or human activity is involved. But in our context, both tool and sign are artefacts which are what they are within an infinite system of artefacts which we call our ‘second nature’. We are not here concerned with the specific nature of the labour process in which the artefact is used.

40. This is why the notion of ‘discourse’ has shortcomings: although it focuses attention on the fact that institutions and perceptions are shaped by ideology, it tends to overlook the fact that artefacts are also material things which have an existence outside of ideology. The same is true of semiological theories which are based on a binary ontology of signifier and signified, as if the sign and its object occupied different spaces.

41. As will become clear, in pointing out that the human body is an artefact, there is no sense in which the body is “only” an artifice, for as the case for all artefacts, it is produced from what is provided by nature, within the limits of what Nature makes possible. This is in fact also true of activity.

42. Artefacts therefore contain an internal contradiction, between being products of human activity, and being used or interpreted in human activity. This is a real contradiction, and the very essence of culture is in fact the gap between production and consumption. See Hegel’s “System of Ethical Life,” which begins from this contradiction. It is not a point of deciding which – production or consumption – is the definitive factor in being an artefact, for production and consumption is an infinite process which is rioted in the very origins of human life, and within which artefacts are defined.

43. This is not idiosyncratic. The whole current of philosophy and psychology from Vygotsky and Leontyev to Ilyenkov and the whole school of Cultural-Historical Activity Theory adopt the same usage.

44. See my paper, “Modernity and the Foundations of CHAT,” published in Mind, Culture and Activity, Volume 14 No. 4, 2007.

45. See Erik Axel’s “One developmental line in European Activity Theories” in Mind, Culture and Activity op. cit. The problem of how a subject constitutes itself, under the conceptions suggested here, needs to be the subject of further research.

46. See Leontyev, A. N. “Activity and Personality,” in Philosophy in the USSR. Problems of Dialectical Materialism, Progress Publishers, 1977.

47. Blanqui rallied students and workers under a Communist banner in Paris in 1832, about the same time as workers in England marched behind demands for universal suffrage and democratic rights. When Hegel died in 1831, his conception of social class included peasants and landlords together in the “agricultural class” and factory workers and employers together in the “business class.” He had no conception of self-emancipation of the kind that was popularised by the workers’ movement, particularly after 1848.

48. Hegel’s conception of “Ethical Life” as elaborated in the Philosophy of Right was an intricate network of self-regulation, mutual aid, collegiate representation and mediation, a kind of social-democratic form of corporatism.

49. See Chapter One, Volume I of Capital.

50. From the Communist Manifesto:

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” [Communist Manifesto, Chapter 1, Marx 1848]

51. Hegel took the question of the abstract general and its distinction from the concrete universal in his polemic against the political theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In a note to the section of The Doctrine of the Notion where he introduces the subject as Individual, Universal and Particular, he notes:

“The distinction referred to above between what is merely in common, and what is truly universal, is strikingly expressed by Rousseau in his famous social contract, when he says that the laws of a state must spring from the universal will, but need not on that account be the will of all. Rousseau would have made a sounder contribution towards a theory of the state, if he had always kept this distinction in sight. The general will is the notion of the will: and the laws are the special clauses of this will and based upon the notion of it.” [Shorter Logic, §163n]

In the History of Philosophy, he says of Rousseau’s Social Contract:

“Man is free, this is certainly the substantial nature of man; and not only is this liberty not relinquished in the state, but it is actually in the state that it is first realised. The freedom of nature, the gift of freedom, is not anything real; for the state is the first realisation of freedom.

“The misunderstanding as to the universal will proceeds from this, that the Notion of freedom must not be taken in the sense of the arbitrary caprice of an individual, but in the sense of the rational will, of the will in and for itself. The universal will is not to be looked on as compounded of definitively individual wills, so that these remain absolute; otherwise the saying would be correct: “Where the minority must obey the majority, there is no freedom.” The universal will must really be the rational will, even if we are not conscious of the fact; the state is therefore not an association which is decreed by the arbitrary will of individuals.” [Philosophy of Right]

52. See my draft study “Social Solidarity vs. ‘Social Capital’.” 2004