Introduction to Hegel

Ultimately what we want to know, or what is at least important to know, when considering someone like Hegel in terms of radical thinkers like Žižek and radical concepts like ethics is what these fulcrums (reference points, authorities, grand philosophers, etc.) actual do say and whether there is any link actually there. This, with a thinker like Hegel, is almost impossible. Hegel is the thinker that is read in the most divergent ways bar none! Hegel has simply been everything to everybody and this is no exaggeration. He is a Fascist, an Anarchist, a liberal, you name it!

For us and for our purposes the best to satisfy this notion of Who Hegel is? And What good is he if any? is to ask two different question; 1) How radical is Hegel? and 2) What does it mean to be radical? (Assuming that Žižek is or wants to be radical) In short the answer to these questions are that 1) he is the most radical thinker possible and 2) I don’t know! The Oxford dictionary has it something like this:

radical /"radIk(@)l/ a. & n.
lme. [Late L radicalis, f. L radic-, radix root: see -al1.]

A adj. 1 Forming the root, basis, or foundation; original, primary. lme.

2 a Of a quality etc.: inherent in the nature of a thing or person; fundamental. lme.
b Of action, change, an idea, etc.: going to the root or origin; pertaining to or affecting what is fundamental; far-reaching, thorough. m17.
c Polit. Advocating thorough or far-reaching change; representing or supporting an extreme section of a party; spec. (a) Hist. belonging to an extreme wing of the Liberal Party; (b) US Hist. seeking extreme action against the South at the time of the Civil War. Now also, left-wing, revolutionary. e19.
d Characterized by departure from tradition; progressive; unorthodox. e20.

For me, at least, the most important aspects mentioned above are the notions or ‘root’, ‘basis’, ‘foundation’, ‘inherent ... nature of a thing or person’, and ‘thorough’. This all sounds pretty good and all these qualities are in Hegel aren’t they? Maybe! What about point 2c isn’t this what Žižek, and perhaps most of us here, are really talking about? If it is how do we account for Hegel’s fundamental statement in his preface to the Philosophy of Right (PR):

A further word on the subject of issuing instructions on how the world ought to be: philosophy, at any rate, always comes too late to perform this function. As the thought of the world, it appears only at the time when actuality has gone through its formative process and attained its complete state. This lesson of the concept is necessarily also apparent from history, namely that it is only when actuality has reached maturity that the ideal appears opposite the real and reconstructs this real world, which it has grasped in substance, in the shape of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, a shape of life has grown old, and it cannot be rejuvenated, but only recognized, by the grey in grey of philosophy; the owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk.[i]

Doesn’t this sound a tad conservative? This is not the only problem Hegel throws up in this challenging preface, for he also declares that his ethical and political philosophy ‘is based on the logical spirit’ and that ‘it is chiefly from this point of view that I wish this treatise to be understood and judged’.[ii] For Hegel this ‘logical spirit’ is what is established in his magnum opus the Science of Logic (SL), what we might call ‘speculative knowledge’. What this means is that the content of the Philosophy of Right is structured by the content of the SL (which in a way elaborates the form of the system as such). Hence the form of Hegel’s philosophical thought is intimately tied up with the content of that thought (in this case ethics and politics). For me this is what makes Hegel the most radical thinker, but it is also what prompts many commentators to label him as conservative. Hopefully you are totally confused, because I am and have been for some time now! I am not sure if I can answer or respond to this conundrum but together we may be able to explore some ideas. However to ease, but not to remove, this confusion I will partake in a brief elaboration of the system.

Some of the questions you may want to try and answer in the meantime are: The two primary ones of 1)How radical is Hegel?, 2) What does it mean to be radical? 3) Also does a logical structuring of reality make it conservative? 4) Is Hegel contradictory? 5) If the real philosophy is not logically structured what structures it? 6) Does it need to be structured? 7) What is the role of agency? 8) What does it mean for Žižek, especially considering he takes Hegel’s speculative philosophy of form and content seriously? And lastly what the hell is going on?

The System, Logic and Nature

In this section of the presentation I will outline some of the key ideas of the logic and how we move from this abstract realm of pure thought to the real philosophy. I will also introduce some of the ideas surrounding the logical structure of the later sections of Hegel’s system. This will include a very brief introduction to the Philosophy of Nature by way of the spirit of the work (rather than its structure) this may aid us in understanding a fundamental aspect of the real.

In Hegel’s philosophy the subject matter is the Absolute, which is the Totality, reality as a whole, the universe. Hegel says as much (PS ¶20)[iii] in that ‘[t]he True is the whole.’ However, this ‘whole is nothing other that the essence consummating itself through its own development.’ Whilst the Absolute is the whole of reality it is not merely some Spinozaist ‘Substance’. It is not a mere undifferentiated unity, for it is only complete when the spiritual subject has ‘tarried with its negative.'[iv] That is, when it has gone over into its other. Hegel states this more poetically in the Phenomenology (¶ 18);

Only this self-restoring sameness, or this reflection in otherness within itself — not an original or immediate unity as such — is the True. It is the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as its beginning; and only by being worked out to its end, is it actual.

Hence we should understand the system, reality or the Absolute as teleological. It is in a process of its own self development which includes this ‘tarrying with the negative’. However, it should be understood that the Absolute Idea is the presupposition, the giver of significance to the developmental process and the goal itself.

This holistic immanent self-developmental process that the Absolute undergoes renders itself as foundationless (self grounding, in that it does not rely on givens obtained form the outside) which in turn renders it unconditional. Hegel’s speculative system of science is then the first great modern philosophical work.

The immanent and unconditional nature of the system and more specifically the Science of Logic allows Hegel to make the kinds of demands about the realphilosophie ('real philosophy'), including the Philosophy of Right, that were mentioned above. What this specifically means is that the sections or concepts unfurled in the Philosophy of Spirit/Mind (which includes the Philosophy of Right) can be understood to strictly relate to categories developed in the Science of Logic. The is great dispute on how these categories line up; one example is that the ‘Syllogism of Existence'[v] is said to structure the content of ‘Abstract Right.'[vi] This material is extremely complex and will be dealt with in an introductory manner only.

Between the realms of Logic and Spirit lies Nature, which is understood by Hegel as the Idea in its complete otherness. It initially appears to be contradictory to contemporary progressive approaches to nature, however, this is not the case. We will try to see what his approach actually is and perhaps how we can use or apply these insights to our current reality and environmental crisis.

Subjective and Objective Spirits

Following this there will be a fairly brief working through the structure of Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit in a descriptive manner so as to lead into the later paper presented by Neli and the general discussion of ethical politics that may proceed. Again the logical structure will be mentioned. Subjective Spirit or Mind is broken into three sub-categories; Anthropology (or the Soul), Phenomenology of Spirit/Mind and the Psychology. This section in turn passes over to the Mind Objective (Objective Spirit) which is broken into three subcategories Law (which includes property), Morality, and finally Ethical Life. The discussion here is predominantly a primer for the discussion in the afternoon session.

History and Historicity

Finally (believe it or not!) will be a discussion of Hegel’s philosophy of history. His unique and amazing approach to the subject revolutionized the field for ever and again radicalizes Hegel’s philosophy in a way unimagined before his times. We will confront how Hegel combines his logical system that in some way sits outside of time with the real historical development of ethical life in the world. To be sure philosophy becomes historical with Hegel. Also of importance here is his discussion of the end of history. We will now be in a better position to asses many of what could be conceived of Hegel’s radical or conservative perspectives which will have come to a head and this should lead us off into a stimulating discussions concerning the Hegel and the contradictory approaches and readings that exist. In the end it will be up to you to decide what is the best way to read Hegel, I can only guide the process not determine it.


Hegel, G. W. F., The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller, New York, Oxford, 1977.

Hegel, G. W. F., Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Allen Wood (ed.), trans. H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Hegel, G. W. F., Science of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller, New Jersy, Humanities Press, 1997.

Nicolacopoulos, Toula and George Vassilacopoulos, Hegel and the Logical Structure of Love: An essay on sexualities, family and the law, Aldershot, Ashgate, 1999.

Žižek, Slavoj, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology, Durham, Duke University Press, 1993.


i G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. H. B. Nisbet, Allen Wood (ed.) Vol., Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 23. Cited in text as 'PR'. Compare with his 1819-1820 Lectures on the same topic: 'The modern age has determined what is in itself rational and perfect through thought, and simultaneously removed the cloak of dust and rust from the positive. This is nothing but the fundamental principle of philosophy, of the free cognition of truth, no longer cloaked by contingency. The age has at present nothing to do except to cognize what is at hand, and thus to make it accord with thought. This is the path of philosophy.'

ii Ibid., p. 10. Cited in text as 'SL'.

iii G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller, New York, Oxford, 1977. Cited in text as 'PS'.

iv iv See Slavoj Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology, Durham, Duke University Press, 1993.

v G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller, New Jersy, Humanities Press, 1997, pp. 644-685.

vi vi Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, pp. 65-131, §34-§104. This includes the sections of 'Property' (to be discussed by Neli), 'Contract' and 'Wrong'. This is how the sections are aligned by Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos, Hegel and the Logical Structure of Love: An essay on sexualities, family and the law, Aldershot, Ashgate, 1999.