Resource for Hegel + CHAT Symposium, April 2013

Essence: Reflection, Appearance and Actuality

Essence for Hegel is not quite what it means for other people. When feminists talk about “essentialism” for example, meaning believing that women differ from men because of what is in their biological nature, or when the ancient philosophers debated what was the “essence” of this or that thing as opposed to what was contingent or inessential. For Hegel, Essence is this process of “peeling the layers off the onion,” of searching for what is behind appearance, of probing reality, but in no way did Hegel think that there was some fixed end point to that process; Essence is just that process of probing the in-itself and bringing to light what was behind.

Essence is reflection. So if we have something going on in the world, maybe or maybe not, some emergent project, some emergent new form of social practice, or some new thought that is doing the rounds, maybe not yet corresponding to any apparent change in social practice, some new art form, some detectable change in fashion, then this may come to light in terms of meaningless observations, measurement of quantity and quality, but people try to make sense of it, people reflect on it. And this is what we're interested in.

When people reflect on things, they do so only with the aid of what they already know. So reflection is a good term. In German, Essence is Wesen, meaning “the was.” It is Being now, but reflected in the mirror of old concepts. It’s like what Marx was talking about in the “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”:

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” (18th Brumaire, I)

So Essence is a whole process, which begins with the simplest kind of reflection on quantitative and qualitative changes, the discovery of difference and eventually leads up to a new concept, an adequate concept befitting a unique form of social practice. The final emergence of the new concept is a kind of leap; it can’t be given by any kind of formula because the notion arises out of this process of reflecting what is new in an old mirror. But Hegel outlines the Logical stages through which the genesis of a new concept can go, broadly a series of counterposed propositions, a contradictory struggle of Fors and Againsts, an ‘on the one hand and on the other hand’. In the course of its genesis, the new phenomenon, if such it proves to be, penetrates and sheds light on everything else, every other aspect of life, summoning it up for an opinion on the matter.

The grades of Essence are as follows.

Firstly, we have Reflection, or Reflection into Self. The process of Reflection is described as the dialectic of Matter and Form. This means that at first a quantitative-qualitative change which oversteps the bounds of Measure and announces itself as a new Thing; the question is: is this a new Form of the same material or a completely new kind of material? Are the daily demonstrations in Belgrade just further expressions of discontent or is this an organized campaign in preparation for a coup?

At bottom, Form and Matter are the same thing. As a form of self-consciousness this is the dilemma as to whether you are just doing the same old thing in a new way, or whether this is a new thing showing itself in the shape of an old thing. The idea of a matter is a substrate that underlies different forms; wherever you propose a different kind of matter, it can be reduced to the same old matter in a different form. “Matter” is just an abstraction.

The second division of Essence is Appearance. Appearance is the dialectic of Form and Content. This can be seen as the struggle of the new content to find a form adequate to itself; it is manifested in the succession of a whole series of forms, each bringing forward new content and ultimately proving to be inadequate to its content.

The third division of Essence is Actuality, which is the dialectic of Cause and Effect. The entity arises as the effect of something, but then it is also in its turn, the cause of things. Each effect is also a cause, just as much as every cause is also an effect. As the cause-effect chain extends out everywhere in all directions until it feeds back on itself, this culminates in the notion of Reciprocity, that everything together forms a complex of mutually causing effects all inseparable from one another. Simple propositions turn out to have ramifications when they come under criticism, simple proposals become concretized and a new concept becomes actualized. But still remains a form of reflection, and even the infinite network of cause and effect, and the increasing adequacy of form and content, do not yet constitute a notion of what it is.

This is the process of a new type of self-consciousness struggling to find itself, so to speak, still testing out all the old categories, trying to find a fit. The process of genesis is always the struggle between opposing propositions, like Empiricism and Rationalism, two opposite currents in the history of philosophy, but although their struggle is characteristic of just certain periods of history, it never goes away; to this very day a new problem in science will find itself rationalist and its empiricist proponents. The struggle between Empiricism and Rationalism was overtaken by the struggle between Dogmatism and Skepticism, which moves into the limelight. That’s the nature of Essence: a series of oppositions which persist, but as one moves into the limelight it pushes others to backstage. It is the genesis of a Notion out of its abstract Being; it is the truth of Being; it is what is essential in the coming-and-going of Being, Being stripped of what is inessential.

Appearance: dialectic of Content and Form

The second Division of the Doctrine of Essence is Appearance, which is the dialectic of Form and Content. The claim of Kantianism is that Appearance is absolutely separated from the Thing-in-Itself. Hegel’s aim is to refute this and show how the Thing-in-Itself is given in Appearance, there is a continual movement from the Thing-in-Itself into Appearance and no hard and fast line between appearance and the thing-in-itself.

“The Essence must appear or shine forth. Its shining or reflection in it is the suspension and translation of it to immediacy, which, while as reflection-into-self it is matter or subsistence, is also form, reflection-on-something-else, a subsistence which sets itself aside. To show or shine is the characteristic by which essence is distinguished from Being – by which it is essence; and it is this show which, when it is developed, shows itself, and is Appearance. Essence accordingly is not something beyond or behind appearance, but – just because it is the essence which exists – the existence is Appearance.” (Shorter Logic 131)

The point is that Appearance is objective too, just as much as the content of Reflection is objective, and Hegel says that Kant’s mistake was to put Appearance solely on the subjective side. But Existence and Appearance are stages in the self-determination of a shape of consciousness.

Appearance for Hegel is the domain of laws; so, in the flux of things, as they enter Essence as reflected Beings, as a continual flux of Existence (the first division of Appearance), Appearance is what remains stable in that flux. Appearance is the correlation or the relation of essential Existence. This is not just a subjective process.

Hegel describes Appearance as dialectic of Form and Content, the transformation of form into content and vice versa, the repulsion of form by content, and the search of a content for its adequate form, and so on.

“Form and content are a pair of terms frequently employed by the reflective understanding, especially with a habit of looking on the content as the essential and independent, the form on the contrary as the unessential and dependent.” (Shorter Logic 133n)

Every content must have a form, every form must have a content, but form and content may be at odds with one another. Like a campaign against the harmful effects of drugs which takes the form of a ‘war on drugs’. So it is certainly wrong to say that form is indifferent to its content or that content is indifferent to form. When a content and its form come into conflict with one another, then we can see their reciprocal revulsion. Like a person who is appointed to a job that they are not really fit for – a kind of explosion can result. In order for the content to show itself, it has to find a form in which it is adequately expressed, for it is form that appears; but neither is less essential than the other. The search of a content for an adequate form, the struggle for a content to realize itself in an appropriate form, brings us to Actuality.

What we are looking at here is a new project or form of social practice finding a form in which it can be conscious of itself. A content must exist in some form, so if we are looking at an emergent social practice that is only beginning to reflect on itself, and for which there is as yet no adequate concept, then so long as an adequate form has not been found for it, the relevant shape of consciousness will be mistaken for something else, that is, be expressed in a false form, and as a result, will be distorted and misunderstood. If we are dealing with a reality, the content will shed an inadequate form, and go on shedding forms, until a form adequate to the content is arrived at. The content then appears. The way Hegel looks at this is that the Content has found its true Form. The skeptic could say that the content which lies behind the form at any given moment is unknown and inaccessible. But content without a form is meaningless; the dialectic of content and form is a process, and content shows itself in form. When we see that the content is itself active, and that the relation between form and content is not an arbitrary or subjective one, but that the content ultimately shows itself in some form, then the line between existence and appearance is broken down. Existence passes into Appearance and Content passes into Form, continuously.

The content is accessible only through the form in which it is manifested. Appearance is the correlation of form and content, because at any given moment, content and form are not identical. This is the analysis which Hegel makes of what is called law. The formulation of a law indicates on the one hand that we haven’t got to the content, but on the other hand, we can describe the way the content is manifested. That’s why the dialectic of form and content is described as the ‘world of appearances’.

Actuality: dialectic of Cause and Effect, Reciprocity

The third and last division of Essence is Actuality. Actuality is the dialectic of Cause and Effect, and its subdivisions are Substance, Causality and Reciprocity. In this stage, the emergent shape of consciousness is still yet to find an adequate Notion of itself, but is becoming more and more concrete, implicating every aspect of social life. In this section of the Logic, Hegel uses the opportunity to make a critique of a range of misconceptions to do with Freedom and Necessity, Blind Necessity, Free Will, the maxim that “Anything is possible,” Causality and so on.

In Actuality, Essence and Existence have become identical and this identity is immediate; every aspect of Being has been incorporated in Reflection, and is part of the picture, so to speak. All the myriad of things and events around us, everything which is existent, is intelligible. So Hegel argues against the counterposing of the Ideal and the Actual. He conceives of Actuality, not as senseless and unintelligible, and the opposite of the ideal, but on the contrary, everything that is actual, must in that measure be rational, that is to say, intelligible. This conception of the world of indefinitely complex seeming contingencies, as nevertheless intelligible, is summed up in the maxim “All that is real is rational; all that is rational is real.” The converse of this maxim is the dictum: “All that exists deserves to perish,” (Goethe, Faust) for not everything that exists is rational, and those elements of reality which have no basis in Reason, he says, sooner or later pass will away. He calls this conception: infinitely intelligible reality – Substance, and he associates Substance with Spinoza.

This myriad of relations manifested in Actuality as Substance, is made sense of by the relation of Cause and Effect, which according to Hegel is a limited point of view, which science must transcend. In Hegel’s view, to say that something is caused by something else, is to say that is has its being in another, and therefore fails to capture the Notion of the thing itself, because the question of its existence has been simply moved to something else, its cause and its conditions.

An emergent social movement concretizes itself through all of its actions having some effect in the world, and ricocheting back on itself, and through the reactions of others, the emergent movement gets a more objective understanding of itself.

The relation of Causality sets up an infinite regress, and the chain of cause to effect, which in turn becomes cause, etc., etc., which eventually bends back on itself. There seems to be no proper starting point, everything is the cause of everything else and the effect of something else. This conclusion, that a certain set of circumstances do not have any one of those circumstances as the cause of the others, but all together constitute a reciprocal relation of causation, is called Reciprocity. It is often regarded as the end of the investigation. If poverty is the cause of unemployment, urban decay, poor health and dysfunctional schools, each of which is in turn the cause of unemployable workers, bringing up unruly children in a decaying neighbourhood, endlessly extending the cycle of disadvantage, then there is nothing more to be said. To finger any one point in this complex as the cause would be foolish; so says Reciprocity. Hegel exemplifies this with the question of the nature of the Spartans:

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

This failure of Reciprocity leads us to the doorstep of the Notion. Only by grasping Actuality and the infinite network of cause and effect under an adequate Notion of what is going on, can the basis for a real science be created. Otherwise we remain mired in the conundrums of Reciprocity.

Let’s look at how Hegel deals with the notion of Free Will.

“When more narrowly examined, free choice is seen to be a contradiction, to this extent, that its form and content stand in antithesis. The matter of choice is given, and known as a content dependent not on the will itself, but on outward circumstances. In reference to such a given content, freedom lies only in the form of choosing, which, as it is only a freedom in form, may consequently be regarded as freedom only in supposition. On an ultimate analysis it will be seen that the same outwardness of circumstances, on which is founded the content that the will finds to its hand, can alone account for the will giving its decision for the one and not the other of the two alternatives.” (Shorter Logic 145n)

The narrow view of free will, associated with this stage in the development of the idea, is that of making a decision between this or that option, but misses the question of where the options come from and the supposedly free will was left only the task of figuring out which of the given options is the better. So Free Will turns out to be an illusion, but only because of the limited terms, that is of decision theory, in which it is conceived.

This brings us to the notion of “freedom and necessity.” The following observation presages Hegel’s views on the State.

“A good man is aware that the tenor of his conduct is essentially obligatory and necessary. But this consciousness is so far from making any abatement from his freedom, that without it, real and reasonable freedom could not be distinguished from arbitrary choice – a freedom which has no reality and is merely potential. A criminal, when punished, may look upon his punishment as a restriction of his freedom. Really the punishment is not a foreign constraint to which he is subjected, but the manifestation of his own act. In short, man is most independent when he knows himself to be determined by the absolute idea throughout.” (Shorter Logic 158n)

Which leads to the famous aphorism about Freedom and Necessity, that Freedom is the understanding of Necessity, or that “Freedom is the truth of Necessity.”

Freedom in fact essentially depends on Necessity. The truth of Substance is the Notion, Freedom concrete and positive. In a realm of arbitrariness and irrational contingency, there could be no freedom.

“Necessity indeed, qua necessity, is far from being freedom: yet freedom presupposes necessity, and contains it as an unsubstantial element in itself. (Shorter Logic 158n)