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Hegel on Thought

"Was ist vernünftig, das ist wirklich, und

was ist wirklich, das ist vernünfitg"

[What is rational, that is real, and what is real, that is rational]

(Hegel, 1820)

The Philosophy of the Subjective Spirit, contained inside the broader didactical project of the Encyclopaedia (Hegel, 1817; 1827; 1830), is a section that is particularly controversial. Published in the midst of the end of German Romanticism, the Encyclopaedia mirrored its times and wanted to represent the same quest for extensive knowledge of the Human and Nature found in literature and art, as many paintings by Caspar David Friedrich showed, in philosophy. Of the need for a "finite", "subjective" spirit, Hegel had dealt with in the previous chapter, the famous Introduction to the wider Philosophy of Spirit: in §386, the author had in fact already outlined the further movement of the Spirit that he would go on to deal with: "[...] The destination of the finite Spirit is to dwell on the different degrees of this activity as it goes through them. They are the degrees of its liberation" (Hegel, 1820); a movement that is both task and necessity, in view of a "liberation". The simple articulations (Gestaltungen) of this process are now set out synthetically as Anthropology, Phenomenology, and Psychology, as highlighted within paragraph §387:

The Spirit, developing in its ideality, is the Spirit as cognizing. But cognition is not conceived here merely as the determinateness of the idea is logical (§223), but as the concrete spirit determines itself to the same. The Subjective Spirit is:

A. In itself or immediately; thus it is soul or natural spirit, the State of Anthropology;

B. For itself or mediated, still as identical reflection in itself and in others; the spirit in relation or particularity; consciousness, the object of the Phenomenology of the Spirit;

C. The spirit determining itself in itself, as subject for itself, the subject of Psychology.

In the soul, consciousness awakens; consciousness sets itself as reason, which has awakened directly to reason knowing itself, which frees itself through its activity to objectivity, to the consciousness of its concept.

(Hegel, 1830)

This paper will deal in particular with the latter, the “Self-determining Spirit”, whose ultimate development will be analysed here. The Self-determining Spirit is the main structural object in the Hegelian system, extremely complex to define as different interpretations of the noun are given. It could be generally described as "Hegel's message to the age of reason and enlightenment, that Reason must be transformed into Spirit. It is the task of the Phenomenology of Spirit to prove that it is a fundamental misjudgment to take Reason as the highest human faculty, the fundament of moral and legal action, and the goal of history" (Siep, 2009). "Spirit" (Geist) is therefore the ultimate systematic answer to Kant's formalism, as theorised in the Critique of Pure Reason (Kant, 1781), both ontologically and epistemologically. As Hegel found himself in the midst of the discussion that followed the publication of Kant's work, despite being preceded by Fichte and Schelling, it seems true that he was the only one truly able to solve the impasse in Kant's concept of Subject, as it will be pointed out in this article.

The Kantian Subject found itself in an epistemological gridlock that prevented it from fully achieving true knowledge of the Thing-in-itself (intended as objects grasped in their true Essence, their purest identifying form), as that ability was not of human subjects to have. This attitude was later defined as "criticism" (Hillard, 1992), meaning that a limit shall be posited on knowledge, a limit that shall be based on demonstrable propositions and categories, being this the only way for Philosophy to reach a scientific status. Going against this idea, Hegel enhanced, instead, the immense holistic possibility of knowledge, a knowledge based on a progressive movement towards a pure form, that is, the Absolute Spirit of Phenomenology. To achieve this, a system was needed, and one of the most conclusive attempts to theorise this system was in fact the late Encyclopaedia. The small section dedicated to the Thought (das Denken) is extremely short and dense theoretically, circumscribed to just five paragraphs. Its main purpose is to constitute the last moment of the controversial development of an epistemology inside the Encyclopaedia, the notorious “theoretical Spirit” section of Psychology that culminates after the Spirit has developed itself as a knowing Subject through Intuition and Representation, precisely with Thought.

Figure 1: Hegel-Logic (Benson, 2003)

In order to provide advanced critical tools to better analyse the following paragraphs, a methodological and structural issue will be briefly discussed, i.e., the Hegelian triadic logic structure (the logical structure of the Spirit's movement made of three moments, namely, universal-particular-synthesis). As highlighted in the Zusatz (Addition) in §387:

Already in the beginning we have to grasp the Spirit not as a mere concept as a mere subjective, but as an Idea, as a unity of the subjective and the objective, and every progress from this beginning is a going beyond the first simple Subjectivity of the Spirit, a progress in the development of the Reality or Objectivity of the same. This development brings forth a series of forms (...) - At first, however, we can now only state the different forms of the subjective Spirit by way of assurance; only through the definite development of it will their necessity emerge. (Hegel, 1830)

This could be considered a significant example of the Hegelian triadic logic structure's ultimate ontological purpose ("The Unity of Subjectivity and Objectivity", "The absolute Unity of Concept and Objectivity"; Hegel, 1812), which would be even more crucial later on: developed as the ultimate answer to Kant’s criticism since the Jena phase (Hegel, 1801; 1802) and especially in the Science of Logic (Hegel, 1812), it finds its most simplified description in §15 of the Encyclopaedia:

“The Whole, therefore, presents itself as a circle of circles, each of which is a necessary moment, so that the system of their peculiar elements constitutes the whole Idea, which likewise appears in each individual moment“ (Hegel, 1830).

The “circle of circles” as a metaphor for a logically structured movement is the ultimate structural method for Hegel to achieve unity of subjectivity and objectivity, resolving the impasse in which Kant, Fichte, and Schelling found themselves before. This impasse is both logical, ontological, and epistemological: how so? The answer lies in the more complex issue of the systematicity of philosophy, which will not be addressed here. Nevertheless, understanding the logical ground ultimately gives access to the Hegelian system. Looking at the Logic of Concept (Hegel, 1812) only, it could be found that the three logical moments, each of them necessary in their relation to the "Whole as Truth" (das Wahre ist das Ganze), as Hegel wrote in the Phenomenology, and destined to constantly surpass themselves at different logical and ontological levels as circles containing circles, are briefly described by Hegel in the second section of the Science of Logic (Hegel, 1812), as the movement of Concept as the unity of Being and Essence (Subjectivity and Objectivity). Therefore, the juxtaposition of these two moments (α and β) does not proceed ad infinitum, but it resolves itself logically in a unity (γ). Thus, the resulting sequence being:

α First, then, the concept is truth only in itself; because it is only an inner thing, it is just as much only an outer thing. It is at first an immediate thing (...) so it is an external form in which the concept (...) can be regarded as only a thing or a subjective thing.

β. Secondly, the concept in its objectivity is the per-se Thing itself (...) But this is still an immediate, not yet negative freedom (...) its differences are objective existences in which it is itself again the inner.

γ. Thus, in the form of the free, which he did not yet have in objectivity, he confronts it and in it makes the identity with it, which he has in and for itself as an objective concept with it, into one that is also posited. In this completion, in which he likewise has the form of freedom in his objectivity, the adequate concept is the idea (...) as he recognises this his objective world in his subjectivity and this in that.

( Hegel, 1812)

Figure 2: Circles in a Circle (Kandinsky, 1923)

1. The Intellect

Having this introductive scheme in mind, it would now be possible to analyse the process towards the fulfillment of Thought. Thought is a concept posited at the end of a stricken epistemology built on obscure and excessively synthesized moments. The section starts with an analysis of the faculty of Intellect, the main agent of Thought, that is therefore its content; §465, as any introductive paragraph in Hegel’s production, is extremely dense in terms of theoretical tension:

(Intellect) is recognising for itself in itself; - in itself the general its product, the thought is the thing, simple identity of the subjective and the objective (...) the thinking of Intellect is having thoughts; they are as its Content and Object. (Hegel, 1830)

Intellect is the logical result of a tension previously existing between Representation and Memory, unresolved moments of Hegel's theoretical Spirit. As a new identity, Intellect perceives itself as “it is recognising for itself in itself” (Hegel, 1820). A logical circle has been completed, but as the Spirit is in constant development, another grade of its movement should be now addressed. As highlighted in §466, at this level Thought is still at its first logical step (α), “formal”, “The Subjectivity of Intellect” (Hegel, 1830): the aim is to reach the concrete identity of Subject and Object (γ), form and content as anticipated before. Again, the reader has to deal with a rather obscure passage. A possible solution is to be found in the Zusatz in §465, in which Hegel also provides a summary of the theoretical Spirit. The most significant part could be considered the "eternal philosophical question":

Those who do not understand philosophy clap their hands over their heads when they hear the sentence: Thinking is being. Nevertheless, the presupposition of the unity of thinking and being underlies everything we do. As rational, thinking beings, we make this presupposition. (Hegel, 1830)

Figure 3: Ruins of an Abbey in Eldene (Friedrich, 1807)

The aim is therefore to have the concept of Thought ascending to a rather complex theoretical and ontological level, allowing it to grasp "The-Thing-Itself" (die Sache selbst), as Thought is not separated from Being. Moreover, Thought is already posited as utterly significant to what would be the practical spirit, in Aristotelian fashion. The impasse is quickly highlighted, as said, in §466, but since in itself that determinacy, that subjective element, is included in thinking knowledge, the second logical moment (β) is contradicted by such formalism (by formalism, it is intended an incomplete development): the Concept is only at a first level of the movement (therefore, a mere Subjectivity) and it is still imprisoned in an ad infinitum dynamic, which is thus overcome by Thought. As a consequence, the passage to §467, the second logical moment, is particularly hostile:

As infinite negativity in itself, thinking is 2. essentially direction,- judgement, which, however, no longer dissolves the concept into the previous opposition of generality and being, but distinguishes according to the peculiar connections of the concept, and 3. thinking abolishes the determination of form and at the same time sets the identity of the differences; - formal reason, concluding understanding. (Hegel, 1830)

It is possible to observe how this paragraph has been triadically organised, both in its main division and in regard to intelligence as self-recognizing thinking, described as:

1. the Intellect understands the individual from its generalities (the categories), so it is called Knowledge;

2. it declares the same for a general (genus, species), in the Judgement; in these forms the content appears as given;

3. in the conclusion, however, it determines Content from itself: abstract content, given content or opposition, and self-determined or concrete content to conclude the syllogism. (Hegel, 1830)

This dense and structured theorisation of the second logical moment finds a main explanation in its extremely tense nature, therefore open to contradictions to be later solved. Hegel himself notifies in the following addition: "Here is Reason as the Truth of the opposition as it had determined itself within the mind“ (Hegel, 1830). What is ultimately of extreme interest, also given the topic of this section, is the Addition to the same paragraph, in which Hegel confronts himself with Kant’s theoretical system again and in doing so provides the reader with a summary of what is briefly addressed in the main text. Intellect is described as a necessary moment of rational Thought and its activity mainly consists of abstracting (as in §466 and briefly underlined at the beginning of §467); despite the fact that in intellectual Thought the content is indifferent towards its own form, in rational knowledge Intellect produces its own form from itself. Therefore, the main risk of Intellect is formalism, in which Kant fell early on: this also represents the first logical moment.

The second logical moment is again here described, as in §467, as "Judgement" (Urteil): as Intellect, it forcibly separates the various abstract determinations immediately united in the singularity of the Intellect, and separates them from the object; it proceeds at first to connect the object with these universal determinations of Thought, then to regard it as a relation, as an objective connection, as a Totality. This activity of the Intellect is frequently called conceptual knowledge. But the identity of the phenomena related to each other is still a merely inner identity, and for this very reason a merely outer identity. The Concept is still in the second moment, therefore pure opposing Negativity, as something external to the Subject: a total dichotomy that seems hard to be resolved. Therefore, Thought for now seems incapable of creating a true connection between the Subject's categories (conceptual knowledge) and the external Reality, which is the essence of what knowledge (Intellect) should consist of. Another stage is needed.

Figure 4: The Sleep of Reason produces monsters (Goya, 1798)

It can be concluded that, despite the more active nature of the second moment, it is still not able to overcome subjective dynamics. It is only at the third degree of Thought that the Concept as such is known. This degree then presents the proper conceptual understanding. Here, the universal is known in its particularisation. Consequently, the universal here is no longer an external form in relation to the Content, but it is the true form, which produces from itself the content, the concept of the Thing that develops from itself. The consequence is that, quoting Hegel:

(Thus) Thought stands here in a completely free relation to the object. In this thinking, identical with its object, intelligence reaches its completion, its goal; for now it is indeed what it should only be in its immediacy, - the knowing truth, the self-recognising Reason. Knowledge now constitutes the subjectivity of reason, and objective reason is posited as knowledge. (Hegel, 1830)

Having reached the third and last logical moment, it is, therefore, possible to conclude that the Spirit has finally concluded its theoretical moment: this reciprocal interpenetration of Thought, Subjectivity, and objective Reason is the final result of the development of the theoretical Spirit through the degrees prior to pure Thought (Intuition and Representation). The result is immediately underlined in §468:

“As Thought, as the free Concept, is now also free according to content. The Intellect, knowing itself as the determining of the content, which is just as much its own as it is determined as being, is Will (Hegel, 1830).

Figure 5: Chalk Cliffs on Rugen (Friedrich, 1818)

2. The Will

The concept of Will is the result of this last theoretical moment and the first moment of the practical spirit. Will had to be derived from free and fulfilled Thought, as the second is the main substance of the first, as “without Thought, there can be no Will, and even the most uncultured man has will only in so far as he has thought, whereas the animal, since he does not think, cannot have any will either” (Aristotle, ca. 400 B.C.E./2019). Here Hegel clearly chooses to reference Aristotle (Ferrarin, 2019), as in other moments before, in particular the works De anima, Ethica Nichomachea (Aristotle, ca. 400 B.C.E./2019). Hegel knew the influence of Aristotle's works on modern Philosophy, as it is possible to observe in the many university courses that Hegel gave about the greek Philosopher, also translating directly from Ancient Greek. But differently from Aristotle, Hegel reaches his conclusion about Thought through a more complex dynamic:

Since comprehending Reason is absolutely with itself in the Object, it must recognise that its determinations are determinations of the thing and that, conversely, the objectively valid determinations are its determinations. Through this Recollection, through this going into oneself of Intellect, it becomes Will. For ordinary Consciousness, however, this transition does not exist; to the Imagination, rather, Thought and Will fall apart. (Hegel, 1830)

The concept of "Recollection" (Erinnerung) is extremely crucial in regard to the Hegelian system as a self-conscious Totality: it is only through remembering all the previous logical stages, each of which has rationality only in relation to the Whole, that one can attain what has been called the “Self-Knowledge of the Absolute" (Paperzak, 1987) and, in this case, a free conscious Will. Will is the object of practical spirit, as Hegel underlines in §469; its main pulse is Freedom, and the aim of this new stage of development is reaching the Objective Spirit, in which Will has not an egotistic but universal goal:

True Freedom, as Ethics, is this, that the will does not have subjective, i.e. selfish, but general content for its ends; but such content is only in Thought and through Thought; it is nothing less than absurd to want to exclude thinking from Morality, Religiosity, Law, and so on. (Hegel, 1830).

Looking back at §387, and its schematic division, it is possible to say now that here the reader is put in front of the stage in which the Spirit moves from a being-for-oneself moment, as practical spirit, towards the upper stages of inter-subjectivity, that would be further addressed in the Objective Spirit or, more extensively, in the Philosophy of Right (Hegel, 1820). In this section and work, Hegel confronted himself with ethics and politics, addressing the Subject as a moral agent in an intersubjective setting, in the forms of Abstract Law, Morality, Family, Civil Society, and State.


It could be pointed out that the reader has to deal with a rather complex passage, as it is considered one of the most crucial moments of what is known as "The Theory of Will": Will is derived and coexists within a level of development of the Self, the Thought, that has been theorised with a complex procedure constituting the basis of intersubjective settings. This could be considered a brief but significant answer to Kant's theoretical and practical Formalism as well, a peak of Idealism's discussion. The logical and ontological analysis of Hegel's theoretical Spirit as the basis for the further development of Ethics is considered one of the keys to understanding his significance in Western Philosophy, which has been briefly brought to light in this article. The practical agency of Hegel's Subject has been presented as extremely solid in his being derived from Thought: the possibility of both theoretical and practical knowledge has been disclosed. It is this key theorisation that made Hegel's Subject significant for the following generations of thinkers, who all navigate on Hegel's corpse.

Bibliographical References

Aristotle (2019). Etica Nicomachea. Bompiani. (Original work published ca. 400 B.C.E.)

Ferrarin, A. (2019 ). Hegel and Aristotle. Cambridge University Press.

Hegel, G.W.F. (2011). Enzyclopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften. Meiner. (Original work published 1817)

Hegel, G. W. F. (1801). Differenzschrift.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1971). Glauben und Wissen. Adriano Tassi. (Original work published 1802)

Hegel, G. W. F. (2014). Fenomenologia dello spirito. Bompiani. (Original work published 1807)

Hegel, G. W. F. (2018). Lineamenti di Filosofia del Diritto. Laterza. (Original work published 1820)

Hegel, G. W. F. (2021). Wissenschaft der Logik. Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main. (Original work published 1812)

Hillard, K. (1992). German Philosophy and Criticism. In J., Raimond & J. R., Watson (eds.). A Handbook to English Romanticism. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Peperzak, A. (1987). Selbsterkenntnis des Absoluten: Grundlinien der Hegelschen Philosophie des Geistes. Friedrich Frommann Verlag Gunther Holzboog.

Siep, L. (2009). Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Cambridge University Press.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Schlesinger, J., (1831), Philosophen Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. [Painting] (

Figure 1: Benson, P. (2003), Hegel-Logic. [Scheme). Philosophy Now. (

Figure 2: Kandinsky, V. (1923) Circles in a Circle. [Painting]. All Posters Images.


Figure 3: Friedrich, C.D., (1807), Runis of an Abbey in Eldene. [Painting]. (

Figure 4: Goya, F., (1798), The Sleep of Reasons produces Monsters. [Painting]. (

Figure 5: Friedrich, C.D. (1818), Chalk Cliffs on Rugen. [Painting]. Histories Drawing Prints. (


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Sara Spelta

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