Hegel’s Preface

Hegel’s preface has a trenchant polemical dimension…

Hegel’s acidic attack on romantic school in philosophy and art, which sought to grasp reality by special non-rational gift – intellectual intuition, poetic vision, faith…- rather than by reason. Remember NIGHT IN WHICH ALL COWS ARE BLACK. Hegel develops his own distinctive understanding of absolute knowledge as the product of dialectical process of mediation and self-differentiation.

Hegel also severely criticized the abstract formalism of Fichte by which he applied a single a priori formula –thesis, antithesis, synthesis – to all domains of reality. Ironically this view has been most often associated with Hegel than other s.

Obviously I cannot present the whole of Preface. That would require from to have actually understood it, and since I have barely scratched its surface, I cannot lay claim to any understanding worth of Hegel. Secondly, going paragraph by paragraph it would only be a monotonous repletion of what Hegel says it with poetic articulation. So I will concentrate on TWO issues and see if I have actually got anything substantial from Hegel, or have I got right what Hegel wants to convey through this preface.

The two issues which shall be the topic of this presentation are:
1) The Absolute as Subject
2) The True is the Whole

But first few words about the preface itself. Hegel wrote the preface after he wrote Phenomenology, but he warned that only reading the preface and not the book itself is misleading and superfluous.


In the 17 Hegel says:

“In my view, which can be justified only by the exposition of the system itself, everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject…

Substantiality embraces:

a) the universal, the immediacy of knowledge itself
b) being, immediacy for knowledge.

As I understand it the Absolute as subject means that being itself exists as a process, it is not given in its perfect state from the outset but has to be actualized. Absolute being is a result of its own movement and process of self-becoming. It is therefore a purposive process which has itself as the immanent goal of its movement… This already suggests that the movement of mediation – philosophical knowledge – is not external to being but is being’s own motion. Being as subject knows itself and this knowledge actualizes being according to its true essence. Viewing the Absolute as subject does not abolish its being substance but adds a dimension to it. The addition has the form of sublation in which the new form negates its predecessor’s inadequate form but incorporates its essence within itself. However the concept of subject is a higher concept since it is constituted by the dialectical negation of the concept of substance while preserving its ground.

Put simply, the absolute is not some sort of inert thing but the product of a subject like process of self-positing, self-differentiation and self-determination. To this process of cognitive self-development Hegel gives the name of the CONCEPT.

This movement we are talking about here is not the movement of something in being, but the movement of being itself, its development towards higher levels of actuality. The subjectivity of being has two complementary senses in Hegel
1) the self actualizing movement of being and,
2) the self knowledge of being.

We could say that the second flaws from the first. But both senses are united in a stage where being is fully actualized through knowing itself. From Absolute as Subject it follows that human culture is not some external, contingent relation into which being happens to enter, but is a state of being’s own development.

This conception has of course consequences for Hegel’s understanding of the Truth, but we’ll come to that in a moment.

In 18 Hegel says that the Substance as Subject is pure, simple negativity. For Hegel subjectivity is primarily construed as a negative power. To be a Subject is to exist according to certain Logic or structure which differs from that of a substance or mere thing. It is to transcend every partial, immediate identity and to go beyond any given state. The difference lies in the subject’s characteristic activity, which is to negate or produce negation. The negation is first directed at the subject itself, and at any content or definite statement with which the subject seems initially to be identified. The subject therefore exists as distinguished from itself, it transcends its own particular states and negates any immediacy that exists within it or is attributed to it. It presupposes a series of negations which do not return the process to its point of departure, but rather each negation constitutes a new state of affairs and a new state of consciousness.

Hegel further makes a distinction between
1) the identity of a substance and,
2) the identity attributed to a subject.

Substance is directly identical with itself, conveyed by A = A, obeys the law of non-contradiction. Subject does not have this sort of simple identity. It is on the contrary an activity of self-identification which takes place through the mediation of otherness and is attained only at the end of the process as its result. Absolute being itself has the structure of a subject. It is not from the outselt that which it will ultimately become but proceedes towards itself through its opposites: through multiplicity and otherness as subject’s own particularizations.

Absolute being because it is a subject, is not immediately identical with itself, it is not a static, finished totality, but exists as a becoming totality. This means that being constitutes its identity by becoming other than itself, or that the essence of being externalizes itself in the empirical and historical world. The result of this externalization is that the essence seems to have been lost in its contradictions. However for Hegel the essence remains present within its contradictions and through them continues to structure the movement of the evolving reality. The process ends only with the actualization of absolute being when the totality reaches self-understanding, probably through philosophy.

The absolute as subject amounts to saying that actuality is shaped by dialectical logic rather than formal logic. Dialectical logic does not obey the law of non-contradiction since it is constantly evolving and in which double negation produces something new. Moreover it amounts to also saying that philosophical logic must derive from the structure of the subject matter under investigation rather than externally imposing upon it.

Hegel’s demolishing critique of the dialectical formula.


P. 20
It is ironic that Hegel in the preface could come with a proposition of this kind. Sinced we can only arrive at the whole after the process of reading the Phenomenology, dialectically speaking this sentence is false.

The three ingredients of the same idea:
1) The true is subject
2) The absolute is result,
3) The true is the whole

Hegel seems to be speaking of an organic, dialectical whole, and that the whole in question includes its own generation as one of its own elements. One cannot abstract the result from its genesis. The process is as much important as the aim and the result. True is the whole also in that knowledge is therein unified with its object. Truth does not denote the property of a sentence or a statement but certain mode of being which is revealed to itself in philosophical knowledge.

The true is the whole has consequences for the concept of truth in philosophy: philosophical statements are only true within their total dynamic context, which is the system as a whole. It is not possible to cut off a proposition from its overall context and still ascribe a truth-value to it, as the analytic philosophers do. In precisely here lies the danger of dogmatism: the conviction that truth can be fixed in a proposition, a dogma which can be immediately know and remain the same. Hegel seems to grant this kind truth to historical sciences and even mathematics. A statement of historical fact or mathematical equation may be true in this non-dialectical sense even after the process of arriving at them has been discarded, viz. without the mediation involved. This is certainly not true of philosophical knowing and cognition. In historical or even mathematic cognition there is no necessity involved, no necessary connection between the events and the knowledge of them.

I am no expert to judge Hegel’s understanding of mathematics, but whatever it was it seems that the point of Hegel is simply that mathematics does not provide any kind of a model for philosophical science, it therefore must be rejected as superficial. Mathematical proof tells us a great deal about the surface of reality nothing about its inner dynamic. Mathematic proofs are not dictated by the movement of mathematical content; the process is extrinsic to what is being proved. Hegel also says that not only is the matter of mathematic deficient as object of true knowing, but also even the knowing is faulty

1) the necessity of the construction employed is not eveident, which is to say that the construction is not dictated by the problem but by the established rules of doing mathematics
2) the end, what is to be proved is related to the means of proving externally, there is no genuine integration of means and ends.

Philosophical knowledge, like any science, is concerned with what characterizes the reality it knows. But unlike other sciences it is concerned only with the ESSENTIAL characteristics of reality, and what characterizes reality essentially is its own self-determination, the CONCEPT wherein the reality is “the self positing, having its own life in itself. This of course makes sense only if reality as a whole is an organic totality, which is what precisely Hegel claims that it is. It is a whole made up of essentially interrelated and mutually complementary parts, and the life of this whole like the life of consciousness as SPIRIT is its CONCEPT.

An organism generates its own moments, and as such it is the positive reality which contains its own negative viz. it constantly becomes, thus negating what it is.


What concerns Hegel in Introduction is a metaphor whose consequence is scepticism, and concern the contingent relationship between knowledge and truth.
1) Knowledge as a tool through which we grasp hold of the truth
2) Knowledge as a medium through which the light of truth must pass.

Hegel’s point seems to be that the metaphor is simply mistaken. If knowledge is a tool there must be a certain necessary distortion due to the operation of knowledge on reality and therefore we can never know reality (the Absolute) itself but only as it has been manipulated and distorted by the instrument of knowledge. We can only have mediated knowledge of the Absolute and never know the absolute itself. If knowing is either an instrument with which or medium through which the object is made available to consciousness, then the object is altered by this contact with what is other than itself, and the subject cannot be sure that the object is available to him as it is in itself.

Hegel as I said sees no reason to accept this view. He recognizes an othering of being in consciousness but denies that this otherness is foreign to it. It is the essential self-othering whereby the object of consciousness becomes what it really is. What consciousness first took to be its object changes itself as the consciousness of it changes, it becomes other and the other it becomes is the true object. The dialectical self-alteration of the object and the dialectical experience of it are the same.


About albphilosopher

"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge." B. Russell
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