Hegel's Speculative Philosophy

A Contemporary Interpretation


1. Hegelian Construction: Substance as Subject
continued on section 2)




    While some famous phrases from G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) are still quoted on sundry occasions these days, his speculative philosophy itself has utterly become obsolete. People even do not blame it for its irrationality and unrealism. Nor do opportunities arise to consult his metaphysics by Marxists, who, after the collapse of U.S.S.R., are endangered species except in a few countries.

   On the other hand, Hegel's name has always shone as one of the greatest philosophers in the history of Western philosophy. Its brightness is greater than that of seemingly more rational (in an ordinary sense) Neo-Kantians in these modern days as well and would keep its position after, for instance, Sartre and post-modernists buried in oblivion. If Hegelian speculations had been hollow fundamentally and a kind of fanfaronade, though his remarks on specific matters sometimes came to the point, then he could live in our memory merely as a local mystic, not a world-wide figure.

   We have not, in fine, got a proper understanding of the kernel of Hegelianism, i.e., Hegel's speculative philosophy or his metaphysics, until today. He once wrote with no presentiment of his own fate, "Lessing said in those days that the public treated Spinoza like a dead dog." (1) We should not, however, be satisfied with taking Hegel as something dead or obsolete, but rather try to understand him and intelligibly interpret his metaphysics in today's world.

   Fortunately, we can do this task by the help of three viewpoints:
(i) the concept of "meta" in a sense that it is used in "metalanguage,"
(ii) the ontological view of a "system of difference" used by structural linguists,
(iii) last but not least, Wataru Hiromatsu's interpretation of the ideas of Marx, who was an anti-disciple of Hegel.

   Those viewpoints, which all have their own ontology or, to put it up to date, pertain to semantics, entered only in the 20th century. (2) Just in our time their notions have been accepted broadly. Naturally, Hegel's thoughts were so unusual in the early 19th century that they could not have matured expressions sometimes, in spite of his effort to coin new ones. And it is quite understandable that his readers have often been thrown into confusion.

   Being helped by the three viewpoints, I think that Hegelian speculative philosophy opened the meta-world, or a world- view of the pluri-worlds, which supposes that there exists not a single, self-identical world, even if it can changes; but that the world layers itself into numerosity and then they, the worlds, again contract into one. Or rather the world is the circular movement itself of layering and contracting.
   The so-called alienation theory, which insists that the absolute being or something like that estranges itself into real and concrete things, is a metaphor or marking of that movement. We cannot, however, accept such a theory as an intelligible explanation of Hegel's metaphysics, today.

1. The Hegelian View of Substance as Subject


"In my view, . . . everything depends on grasping and expressing the truth not merely as substance, but also the subject." (1) So declared Hegel in the preface of his first book, The Phenomenology of Spirit, published in 1807.

   First, it might be helpful to explain a few words in that quotation.  The "truth" (das Wahre) means a being that truly exists; therefore not a state of the accordance between objective reality and our conception, with which the word, truth, is ordinarily associated closely, though.

"Substance" then is used a la Spinoza, who meant "that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself:  in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception." (2) There is, after Spinoza, only one substance in effect, God. (3) Our intellect can perceive merely its two attributes as constituting the essence of substance: thought [i.e., internal ideas] and extension [external things]. (4) Since substance has these two attributes, it essentially includes "the totality of reality," from our standpoint, as Fichte's Ich does. (5) So we could take "substance" as the whole world for the present.

   Concerning the meaning of the "subject," there are lots of discussions. Everyone would, however, agree that the "subject" above at least has the ordinary sense, that is, an autonomously thinking and acting being. According to Hegel, substance as the subject is "the unmoved [by others, but] self-moving," (6) or "the movement of positing itself." (7)

I. Further, many people take it for granted that the subject in the "the object " the subject" schema of modern epistemology is also attached to that "subject." But first, such subject, in the words of Hegel, "the simple substance of a soul as a common container of various contraposed activities," is the "most formal and contemptible." (8) For the young Hegel the modern subject has already ended with his elders; his second published essay in 1802 was subtitled "The Reflective Philosophy of Subjectivity in Its Completed Forms as Kantian, Jacobian and Fichtean Philosophy. [italics--Taki]"

   Secondly, substance has the subjective moment, thought, from the first, and Hegel himself called our attention in the same place: "It should be noted here that substantiality includes the universal or the immediacy of knowledge itself as well as being or the immediacy for knowledge." (9) So it would be pointless to take substance, which is also inherently subjective, as the subject again.

II. Sometimes the interpretation of the "subject" at issue is biased by the later argument about the relation between the subject and the predicate in the same preface of The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel argues:

"The need of people for imagining the absolute as the subject [i.e., as an autonomous, self-moving being; italics--Hegel] made use of statements like 'God is the eternal, or the moral order, or love etc. In such statements the truth is merely posited as the subject [in the grammatical sense,] but not set forth as a movement of its reflecting into itself [i.e., as the subject of self-movement]. A statement like those is commenced with the word 'God.' This is, by itself, a meaningless sound and only a name. The predicate alone says what it is and gives it content and significance. . . . As far as it goes, it is not understandable why they do not begin with the eternal, the moral order, etc. or, like the ancients did, pure concepts, being, the One, etc., that is, what has meaning, without attaching a meaningless sound." (10)

   Evidently it is useless for Hegel to put the absolute or the truth, which is subjective or self-moving according to him, into the place of the grammatical subject. The Hegelian subject, i.e., "substance as the subject," therefore, does not implicate the grammatical one.

   We suppose that the reason why he opened up argument on the subject in the grammatical sense in his first book was, for one thing, his refusal of Fichte's Ich. J. G. Fichte, his elder by eight years, wrote on the absolute I, which is the basis of Fichteanism, in Foundations of the Science of Knowledge (1794): "The absolute I has no predicates, nor can it have any," but "it is simply what it is. And this can not be explained." (11) While the Fichtean I, which is the equivalent of the Spinozistic substance for the young Hegel and his friends, e.g., J. C. F. Hölderlin (12) and F. W. J. Schelling, should be detached from predicates, if placed in the subject of a sentence, the Hegelian substance or absolute, on the contrary, should be combined with them. We shall consider this in the framework of Hegelian idealism later.  

   "Substance as the subject" is the basic structure of the Hegelian philosophy. Now, two questions would arise:

(1)     Such substance is called spirit (Geist) as well and its direct existence is consciousness, according to Hegel. (13) Then what is this consciousness, which, of course, we should not take in the ordinary sense, i.e., as our awareness or perception?

(2)      Is there really any Hegelian movement of substance, which must be "self-moving" or "the movement of positing itself," at all? This activity goes by the alias of dialectic movement. It is neither in physical space-time nor in our psyche; by the same movement develops also Hegelian Logic, which is "the description of God as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of nature and a finite mind." (14)

Though movement in real space-time, e.g., Zeno's arrow, sometimes appears in Hegel's writings by way of illustration of dialectic movement (15), yet such sensory and external movement, as well as imaginary and internal one, is merely a natural or psychological phenomenon of spirit. So we should first keep our eyes on metaphysical, or semantic a la contemporary style, movement of spirit, where Hegel originally got his idea of movement. If we otherwise observed an apple fall from a tree carefully, we could not find any dialectical truth.

   Let's investigate the first question.

 (continued on section 2)

Notes (to Contents)


(1) Vorrede zur zweiten Ausgabe, Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 1989) 22. (return)

(2) The word, metalanguage, first appeared in 1936 on the authority of Random House Dictionary. Course in General linguistics, which was a reconstruction of F. Saussure's lecture notes and marked the starting point of structural linguistics, was posthumously published    in 1916. W. Hiromatsu's The Horizon of Marxism was issued in Japan in 1969 and The Intersubjective Ontologic-Structure of the World by the same author in 1972. (return)

1. The Hegelian View of Substance as Subject

(1) Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes [The Phenomenology of Spirit] (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, Werke in zwanzig Bänden) Bd. 3, S. 22-23 (Return)

(2) Spinoza, The Ethiks, Part One, Definitions III, trans. R. H. M. Elwes <http://www.ets.uidaho.edu/mickelsen/texts/Spinoza%20-%20Ethics/spineth1.txt>. (Return)

(3) op.cit., Definitions XIV. (Return)

(4) op.cit., Definitions XIV, Corollary II. (Return)

(5) Vgl.: Insofern gesagt wird: das Ich bestimmt sich selbst, wird dem Ich absolute Totalität der Realität zugeschrieben." J. G. Fichte, Grundlage der Gesamten Wissenschaftslehre (1794), (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1997) S. 50 (Return)

(6) Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, S. 26 (Return)

(7) op.cit., S. 23 (Return)

(8) Hegel, Glauben und Wissen [Faith and Knowledge] (Suhrkamp Verlag, Werke in zwanzig Bänden) Bd. 2, S. 407 (Return)

(9) Phänomenologie des Geistes, S. 23 (Return)

(10) op.cit., S. 26-27 (Return)

(11) Fichte, Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre (1794) S. 30 (Return)

(12) S. Friedrich Hölderlin's letter to Hegel dated 26 January in 1795: "His [Fichte's] absolute I (=Spinoza's substance) includes all reality;" The complete works of Hölderlin, ed. Tomio Tezuka, trans. Kojima, 10th ed., vol. 4 (Tokyo: Kawaide Shobo Shinsha, 1991) 201. (Return)

(13) "The direct existence of spirit, consciousness, has . . . ," Phänomenologie des Geistes, S. 38 (Return)

(14) Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik [Science of Logic], (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, Werke in zwanzig Bänden) Bd. 5, S.44 (Return)

(15) Hegel, Enzyklopädie [Encyclopedia], Abschn. 261, Zusatz. (Return)

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