G.W.F. Hegel




by Mike Marchetti

In the following article I present some general features of the Concept that may be understood without resorting to dialectical logic. Primarily, it is intended for beginning students of Hegel's philosophy, and also to provide an intuitive grasp of the Concept for those who may be struggling to understand what Hegel means by this important term that is so central to the philosophical science of the Absolute. Hegel considered that Aristotle also analyzed the Concept without dialectics, so it is shown here how Aristotle was, in fact, dealing with the Concept in his own metaphysics. Basically, it is concluded that an object is a unity of two essential determinations: (1) its being or that it is, and (2) its other determinations or what it is. This leads to understanding that the object is actually a subject-object unity or identity. The Concept is the concrete totality of these aspects and their relations, and provides a new foundation beyond empiricism for scientifically comprehending objects and objective reality in general. (You are invited to contact the author with questions or comments on this article. )

The roots of the Concept can be traced back to the attempt to rationally solve the ancient problem of the One and Many (e.g. Plato's Parmenides). An object may be treated as one entity - a unity of many diverse aspects or elements, just as in the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel dealt with the Thing with many properties. As simultaneously One and Many, the object or Thing is an existing contradiction, which the Sceptics claim makes it impossible to be real, while if we accept its reality we then have to determine how to comprehend it. In this way it becomes a very fundamental problem for philosophy.

For this reason we are not surprised that in Hegelian philosophy, the Concept (Begriff), which in some earlier translations of Hegel's works is called the Notion, is recognized as having such a fundamental significance. It is essentially the way philosophy deals with this ancient problem. Therefore, we want to have a good understanding of the Concept, not only to be able to make sense of Hegel's system, but also to realize the great innovation it brings to modern philosophy and science. In addition, the Concept is especially important in regard to the critique that it brings to the materialist empirical conception of reality that governs the philosophy of modern science.

The contradiction of the One and Many that the Concept harmonizes has universal application when we consider it as the comprehension of the Universal- Particular relation in its unity or Individuality. In this form it has far-reaching consequences for science, philosophy, religion, nation-sates and at every point in the study of reality and truth, as Hegel consistently demonstrates, especially in his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. Therefore, in its most general form the Concept invovles the moments of Universality, Particularity and Individuality, but instead of such abstract explanation, we will stick to the more concrete example of an object, which we hope will more clearly bring out the specific nature of the Concept.

Hegel freely acknowledges his profound indebtedness to Aristotle's contribution to Western philosophy, which he considers to be greater than Kant's or any other philosopher's. We want to show here how Aristotle was actually concerned with the study of the Concept in a somewhat 'empirical' or, at least, immediate way. Because Hegel recognized the intuitive presence of the Concept in Aristotle's writings he took great interest in his philosophy. Aristotle, of course, was the foremost student of Plato, to whom Hegel also gives great importance. Therefore, it will be more useful to understand the development of the Concept from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel, than to explain its development from Kant, Fichte, and Shelling to Hegel, as is generally done in more recent books on the subject. G.R. Mure's Introduction to Hegel is one of the few exceptions in Hegelian studies that takes the Aristotelian approach seriously.

Aristotle's thought was immensely detailed, but fortunately, for our purposes here, we only need to deal with some of the simpler and more basic concepts of his philosophy. In Western philosophy, Plato seems to be one of the first to clearly distinguish what he called the Forms (or Ideas) from their sensuousness or matter. However, these Forms do not exist in a world of their own beyond the sensuous realm, as Platonic Ideas are generally misconceived - as if philosophy had the task of trying to tie rocks to clouds. Rather Plato's Ideas actually were conceived as constituting the very essence of the sensuous material. In this way he recognized that Form or Idea is implicit to (hidden in) the sensuous content of knowledge. As one of the pioneers in this field Plato presented more of a description rather than a systematically developed conception of the relation of the Idea to its sensuous content (i.e. the relation of Universal to Particular). Further advancement in that field was made by Aristotle.

Hegel tells us that Aristotle's advance upon Plato's philosophy came through his introduction of the concept of inner teleology or entelechy, by which he made the attempt to enunciate the relation of Idea to content. In order to understand entelechy or entelechia, we have to introduce two other Aristotelian terms, viz. energia (actuality) and dunamis (potentiality). In some places, Aristotle also refers to these as Form and matter, which we will consider equivalent ways of referring to the same principles.


In order to bring greater clarity to the terms - energia, dunamis and entelechia - we may begin by considering an object as a unity of diverse elements. At first, the immediate object as an enity is only an inner, implicit or potential concrete, i.e. a totality. In other words, the immediate, non-spiritual, inanimate object is simply the concrete concept as real possibility, merely an inner, potential totality, which Aristotle calls the dunamis. In truth it is the unconsciousness of it as an absolute totality. As an explicit totality, i.e. in its conscious or mediated form, it is the actuality of the object or its energia. The mediate act or thought-activity that connects dunamis and energia is the entlechia. We will try to clarify all of this in what follows.

In itself the concrete unity of the object is differentiated, where, because of its primary immediacy, the various elements form a mere diversity. Since the immediate object is self-identical, its reflection into itself (its self-identity) is just the unity of its diverse elements, where this internal reflection gives it the character of a subject, so that the object is essentially both object and subject. The diverse elements are the objective side, and their containment within a unity is the subjective side of the object. In other words, the unity is implicit in the object -- its unity does not reveal itself explicitly or in sensuous form. This is the situation that obtains from the perspective of the object itself as an immediacy.

TO help clarify the subjective aspect of the object we may note that a self-identity such as A = A, when applied to an object of diverse elements means that on one side of the identity we have the object as a one, and on the other side the diverse elements. The two sides are identical since it is considered one object. Because the oneness or unity of the diverse elements is paramount, the many diverse elements are contained in or by that unity, thus making the unity the subjective aspect (the implicit), with its objective content being the diverse elements. This is essentially what is implied by the reflection-into-itself or self-identity of the object.

Unity implies that one element is united with another, which further implies an activity of conjoining the elements. Because the object is considered only in its immediacy, the activity uniting its diverse elements seems to lie outside of them, i.e. their true unity remains only implicit (subjective). This leaves causality as the only way that unity may be introduced at the immediate level, since immediate relationships are established by a necessity external to the diverse elements themselves (e.g. by a law of physics, etc.). This is a crucial point in understanding why Aristotle had to use various 'causes' to establish the unity of objective reality.

In summary, dunamis refers to the immediate, implicit, or potential totality of the object as simultaneously one and many, and energia refers to the actualization of that totality as Idea, i.e. the mediated totality that accounts for the relational activity or entelechia that unites the two terms. Hegel considered both Plato and Aristotle to be "Spekulative" thinkers since they conceived the totality of differences in their unity as Form or Idea. For Plato this unity remained generally at a descriptive level, while Aristotle analyzed the aspects of the unity in an almost empirical fashion, i.e. in their separated immediacy. It is because he maintained the perspective of immediacy that he could only combine or unite such elements externally, i.e. through the numerous causes he enunciated. This was, therefore, also the defect of his approach, which Hegel had to rectify by showing how the unity could be established in a completely mediated manner through explicitly developed "Spekulative" or conceptual thinking, i.e. by reason.

Thus there are two levels of necessity implied here - the causal necessity of Aristotle, and the rational necessity of Hegel. Causal necessity is the form the Understanding applies to unity, and this supplies the groundwork for the higher grasp of the rational necessity of Reason. The realm of causality conforms to the Aristotelian logic (either/or) of immediacy or Understanding, while the realm of rational necessity is developed by Hegel using dialectical logic (simultaneous identity and difference).


Before getting into the perspective of consciousness we want to distinguish two distinct aspects of this perspective, viz. subjective consciousness and objective consciousness. The thoughts or thought-determinations I have about an object, may be considered my thoughts or my determinations of the object, yet, they are also the determinations of other subjects besides myself. In other words, an object or thing is considered basically the same whether I am experiencing it, or others are experiencing it. Therefore, the determinations of the object must belong to the object as much as to the subject experiencing the object. The perspective that considers the determinations of the object to belong to myself as a finite subject among many other subjects is called the perspective of subjective consciousness. On the other hand, the perspective that considers that the determinations of the object belong to the object, since they are determined by all subjects to be the same, is called the perspective of objective consciousness.

The question then arises: what is objective consciousness? By "objective" in this case we mean "universal" - for example, the universal consciousness of God. In this case, thought is not merely the possession of the finite subject, but has its universal origin and ground in God. Only that thought which is universally objective, i.e. the same for all subjects, belongs to God -- not that every subjective thought or fancy that the finite subject has comes from God. Only that thought which is universally true belongs to God. In other words, thoughts that correspond with the object, and are considered true from every other subjective perspective, is Divine thought or Reason. We may consider such objective thought as the noesis noeseos, the thinking of thinking that Aristotle identifies with God.

In the section that follows we consider the perspective of subjective consciousness, in accord with the Kantian tradition. But the same result will hold for the perspective of objective consciousness or universal consciosness, because we are essentially dealing with consciousness and its object in both cases. Furthermore, we are considering that the thought-determinations of the subject actually correspond with the truth of the object. In this way also it corresponds to objective consciousness.


Thus far the object has both objective and subjective aspects. The diversity of elements is considered the objective side, while the unity of the diverse elements is the subjective aspect. On the other hand, from the perspective of subjective consciousness, where the Concept is presumed to be subjective, i.e. outside of and opposed to the object, we have a complete reversal, such that the diverse elements are considered subjective while the unity of the object is the objective --this unity in Kantian philosophy takes the form of the thing-in-itself, which is no less the objectivity of the abstract "I" or "unity of apperception" - this latter being the implicit Idea or Concept of the object. Let us now try to analyze this situation.

In the perspective in which knowing is presumed to be part of objective reality, which we are calling the perspective of the object, the Concept is the essence of the object. In the perspective of consciousness the Concept is considered abstractly or subjectively, i.e. outside of and opposed to the object. This dramatic change in perspective that occurs historically in Western culture and philosophy has its turning point, according to Hegel, in Descartes, although this point is reached only after a gradual development that can be traced back through Socrates, Christianity, and Luther. This is a subject for study in the history of philosophy.

When we consider an object, i.e. that which is objective to consciousness, in its first instance or immediacy, it is merely an indeterminate object external to consciousness. "It" is used to refer to an object that is completely undefined or indeterminate. All that consciousness knows of the object is that it is, i.e. its being is the sole truth for consciousness - its only knowledge of the immediate object. However, being is a purely indeterminate determination because it reveals nothing distinct about the object, since every object is. It is the nature of an object, because of its being an object, to be for consciousness as well as being opposed to it.

We want to especially note that the term "object" is used here in the sense of "that which is objective to consciousness." This corresponds to the German word "Gegenstand." In a more technical sense the German word "Objekt" would correspond to the more scientific sense of "Object" as determined in the Science of Logic. But for our presesnt purposes we use "object" in a more generic way rather than in its specifically technical significance. Unfortunately, English does not seem to have different words for "Gegenstand" and "Objekt." To "posit" is another term we will be using, and this means to think of something as being there, present to thought.

With this understanding of object, let us consider the following example.

If we enter a room and are only able to apprehend objects at the level of being - all that can be determined at that level is that they are there. In order to understand what those objects are, we require a higher level of comprehension than mere being. Objects become things (objects with determinate properties) when something more than mere being is apprehended - this "more" we may call their determinations, or determinate properties. Ordinary thinking does not separate a thing's being - as a single thing - from the being of its multiple properties. However, this distinction will prove to be a vital in what follows.

Properties belong to the object (define the object, are constituent of it) but are, at the same time, different from the object. For example, a blue object is not the same as the color "blue." What does this difference of properties from their object imply? The answer is forthcoming when we consider where these determinations come from -- they come from us, or from consciousness, i.e. they come from a percipient subject. We say that the object is "white" or the object is "sweet," etc. It is the subject that determines the object to be flat, a table, something to eat upon, etc. Therefore, these properties are not determinations of the object in itself, which is first determined as merely being. Rather they are appended to objective being by consciousness and then assumed to belong to the object itself. Consciousness knows only the appearances of the object, and the sole knowledge it has of the object initially is that it is. This is also the conclusion of Kant's analysis of the perspective of subjective consciousness, but in the case presented here even the being of the object is known or posited by consciousness, while Kant erroneously considered the nascent being of things to be beyond knowing.

This means that we cannot refer to anything in the world without also referring to the thoughts or determinations of consciousness that have been posited (or deposited) as those things. We may note that this is tantamount to denying that there are any things-in-themselves that are independent of knowing (consciousness). Nonetheless, ordinary consciousness does assume that such things-in-themselves do exist independently of knowing, and shortly we will explain exactly what this implies.

At the level of objects (as mere being opposed to consciousness), we do not connect any of the properties to the object that determine that object as a distinct thing. Thus this stage corresponds to mere sensuous consciousness without any higher perception. By itself, this pure sensuous mode of apprehension might belong to a sub-human consciousness. Yet it is the essential beginning of all higher forms of consciousness. Generally, when we refer to sensuousness we think of sense perception. However, sense perception is a higher stage of consciousness where sensuousness is mixed with perception. Pure sensuousness refers merely to the detection or feeling of a stimulus to the senses without any interpretation of the quality of that stimulus. The specific way we are using 'sensuousness' as the abstract feeling of being is contrary to the popular use of the term, which corresponds to sense perception, so we want to be especially mindful of this distinction. Many, if not most, commentators on Hegel fail to make this distinction. Even Hegel, himself, confesses (Encyclopedia § 418) to prematurely having introduced spatio-temporal determinations ('Here' and 'Now') at the level of sense-certainty in his Phenomenology of Spirit. This does not affect the development presented in that book, but it does warn us about the difficulty of maintaining the purely abstract nature of being as the only determination of sensusousness.

Words like "per-ception" or "con-ception" contain the Latin root capere, which means, "to seize; to grasp." If we use "grasp" in the sense of "comprehension" then perception becomes a pre-grasping, or pre-comprehension of what will later become a con-ception, or integral comprehension, while sensuousness corresponds to mere apprehension -- a detection of uninterpreted, undigested, raw data. It is only when the subject grasps the object as consisting of certain determinations that the object is no longer merely an object but becomes a thing with properties. In other words, there is a distinction between the experience (1) that an object is, and (2) what an object is.

Thus the actuality of a thing (as thing and not as generic object) has two aspects: its being and its determinations. The latter are the determinations by a subject of an object - thus the determinations are related to the subjective aspect of the thing, while its being is the objective aspect. Empirical consciousness conflates these two aspects and presumes that the thing is given in its objective totality to consciousness without acknowledging that the determinations of the thing are subjective features posited as objective.

Whenever we refer to something in the universe, it is already existing in and therefore determined by consciousness before we ever refer to it, yet we do refer to it as existing there in objective form as if it were never touched by thought. Whatever determinations it has, it has as a result of interaction with the senses and thoughts of a rational consciousness. Only then can we speak of it as a particular thing. This is also the case with what are called "facts." The English word "fact" comes from the Latin "factum" that refers to "something done; a deed." We may call it an objective act. Thus a manufactured item is something "made" by hand (L. "manu"), or by machine, rather than by nature. The point is that a "fact" implies something made or done -- by whom? A subjective agent is implied.

A similar relation holds between the English words "thing" and "think." Hegel pointed out the same similarity between the German words "Ding" and "Denken." The point is that objects may not be considered as being entirely devoid of thinking subjectivity. A subjective element exists along with the objective aspect in a conflated unity, or an apparent a priori synthetic unity. This unity is the Concept in implicit form, and the task of scientific philosophy is to make it explicit to consciousness.

Empiricism is quick to assert, Nihil est in intellectu quod non fuerit in sensu -- there is nothing in intellect (or thought) which has not been in sense experience. But if that is the case then the converse, Nihil est in sensu quod non fuerit in intellectu cannot be denied. What we conclude from all of this is that a subject-object unity is really involved in what we may less thoughtfully consider merely an object.

We have shown that there are two basic stages involved in the consciousness or knowing of things: a preliminary object stage characterized as mere being, and a determined objective stage called the actual thing. To put this into Aristotelian terminology these two stages may be respectively referred to as dunamis (potentiality) and energia (actuality). The preliminary stage of object-consciousness or immediate sensuous-consciousness is the potentiality (dunamis) of what later becomes thing-consciousness, or the actuality (energia) of the object. Thus we arrive here at the same conclusion that derived from the previous perspective of the object.

In his History of Philosophy, in the section on Aristotle, Hegel states that energia is “subjectivity." We can see the connection between actuality and subjectivity in the above, since the actual thing becomes known to be what it is only by the active determination of a subjective agent. Understanding the contribution of subjectivity in the formation of reality may also lead us to better grasp what Hegel means by "the rational is the actual, and the actual is the rational" or that absolute truth is essentially substance that is Subject.


The empiricist assumes or presumes that the object is already a "given" thing -- in other words, that the "whatness" or properties of the thing are inherent in the thing before consciousness comes on the scene, so it is assumed that the subject makes no real contribution to the thing. As we have shown, the actual situation denies the validity of this presumption of the "given", and furthermore that it is a presumption or positing by the subject (or consciousness). In other words, the "given" is posited by consciousness as not posited, i.e. as "given." The empiricist is unconscious of this truth of the "given." We call this the "fallacy of the given."

Let us, therefore, look more closely at the situation of how the empirical "given" comes about. By articulating this process we are able to bring what is unconsciously assumed to consciousness, i.e. to actual knowing and truth.

First we have the apprehension of an indeterminate object, or the mere being of an object. Next we have the determination of the object as having particular qualities or properties. This determination is made by the subject. Simultaneously, the determinations are posited by consciousness as existing in the object, the correspondence of the subjective and objective determinations being called truth or the actuality of the thing. Thus thinking (determination) is essentially related to the actuality of the thing.

By positing the determinations of the subject or consciousness as being in the object, and by forgetting that consciousness has done this, we come to conceive that the object's determinations as a thing come from the thing itself. This "forgetting" is the negation of the positing activity of consciousness, or, what is the same thing, consciousness posits the positing as not posited, in other words, as "given."

Here we thus uncover the root of the empirical "fallacy of the given." But more than this, we also reveal the objective and subjective aspects that constitute the actuality of things, leading us to inquire into the relationship of these two opposed aspects.

The object appears to be a passive element in our considerations thus far. This passive element may be identified with the "matter" or that which is simply there to be formed by an active agent. Thus we have the object as passive matter (with the potential to be formed) and the subject as the active agent that gives form to matter. Matter and Form never really exist independently of one another, although Aristotle seems to conceive the highest Form as the noesis noesios (thinking of thinking) as being a state devoid of matter, i.e. as pure actuality. However, Hegel shows that the "matter" in the thinking of thinking, viz. the object of thinking, is itself thinking -- i.e. the "content" of thinking is thinking. But before we can understand how Hegel reaches this conclusion we have to further inquire into the nature of the object. Further consideration will also lead us to understand that referring to the object as mere being is not meant to identify being and object. Being and object are two different categories, but this can be clarified only in a detailed study of Hegel's "Science of Logic." It is important to know this, but this distinction will not be significant for our present purposes.


The object, or matter, cannot be static, however, but must be changeable -- since it goes from a formless to a formed condition, or from one form to another. The subject acts and the object changes, thus both change, the only difference is that the subject changes freely and spontaneously by its own will, while the object changes only by the influence of the subject upon it. The formative activity of the subject upon the object changes the object. This formative activity (which we also encountered in the Master-Servant section of the Phenomenology) is the "work" that the subject does on the object to change or negate its presented form.

By denoting the activity of the subject upon the object by the term "work" we can easily understand why Aristotle calls subjectivity "energia." Even modern science defines energy as a measure of "the ability to do work." Thus there is a connection between energy or energia and work, so that we now see why this comes directly into the conception of the subject-object relationship, or the form-matter relationship that Aristotle developed.


The relationship that is involved here is not between two separable independently opposed elements - a "form" and a "matter," or a "subject" and an "object." These never exist as isolated from each other except in an abstract sense, i.e. each as a mere identity with itself. Thus the activity that relates one to the other is an essential part of their actual unity. Aristotle called this relational activity "entelechy," and the result of this activity was the 'actuality' (energia) of the object.

In order to understand the details of the entelechy, we have to remember that it is the subject that causes the object to change. The object (potentiality) thus changes in such a way as to conform to the formative activity or work of the subject. It is in this way that potentiality achieves its actuality or truth. The "cause" (energia or actuality) affecting the object to produce its actuality is therefore prior to the object. Actuality-as-cause and actuality-as-end are therefore two distinct phases that are yet both unified as true actuality giving us what is called a teleological process. We may note that this is an internal teleological process, one not directed toward some end external to the object itself.

It may also help to understand this as unmanifest actuality-as-cause, manifesting itself or appearing in the form of being. This may be compared to an architect's concept or blueprint before the actual construction work manifests the thought determinations or ideas of the architect. The thoughts or original ideas must be there first before they can become concretely manifest or actual through the work of construction. It is important to keep in mind that there are three distinct yet inseparable stages here: (1) the conceptual actuality or original idea, (2) the concrete or material actuality, which comes about as a result of (3) the formative work of construction.

The object (potentiality, dunamis) becomes what it is in actuality (energia) due to (or, caused by) the unmanifest actuality (energia) working on the object (matter) to bring forth its manifest actuality. This whole process, as activity, is called the entelechy. In the word "entelechy" we have the root "telos" on which its connection with teleology is founded. We also have to understand that activity or entelechy is different from the actuality or energia that produces that activity, although they are logically related through their common root, "act."

This is the same relation we have, for example, between the activity of seeing and the thing that is seen as a result of that activity, so that "seeing" and "seen" are different even though one is produced by the other. Generally we do not think of the thing seen as being produced by the activity of seeing, because, due to empirical thinking, we consider the "seen" as a given -- a first. "Seeing" then comes as a secondary factor. This confusion arises on account of the "fallacy of the given" as described above.

Let us summarize the movement or activity of thought that is involved here.

1. Subjectivity (energia, form) works on or moulds the object (dunamis, matter).
2. The object responds to this influence caused by the energia and changes.
3. This activity of both energia and dunamis (or of the subject and object) is called entelechy.
4. Thus potentiality (dunamis) becomes actuality (energia) through this activity (entelechy).

For example, we know that a child will become a man, because there is a natural tendency in children to develop or mature into what we call men. To say that the impulse or tendency to become a man is due to the archetypical form "Man" working within the child may not be wrong if we can logically and scientifically show how that occurs. Hegel takes up this task by demonstrating how the Concept and its objective content are dialectically related and ultimately identified through 'Spekulative' philosophy -- also known as conceptual thinking.


Let us now look at the Concept, an entity or subject-object unity or identity that we have before us as the new foundation of reality. If we begin our study with the immediate juxtaposition of subject and object, we note that subject and object are different types of being. Generally, two objects confronting each other have similar types of being, but when subject and object confront each other we have a very different situation. The subject has being as much as the object, but the being of the subject is negative compared to the positive being of the object. In fact, the subject is pure negativity, since it cannot be seen, touched, etc. -- basically it cannot be detected by the senses, and therefore it cannot be measured or directly detected by any sensuous instrument. Thus we call it 'negative being' or 'pure negativity' as compared to positive being. Another way to understand negative being is as pure restlessness, unceasing movement or pure mediation. Positive being, in that case, is momentary being, i.e. merely an immediate moment of being when conceived as pure restlessness.

The subject can detect or experience its own existence, as well as its own activity (thinking). Its subjectivity as consciousness when directed toward itself is self-consciousness or "I." But these are all non-sensuous aspects of its being; they cannot be detected by the senses, although they can certainly be experienced by the subject in its own thinking. In addition, subjects can experience sensuous objects.


The primary misconception of modern science, and ordinary thought, is that the universe consists of material objects or things that have no relation to consciousness -- things are presumed to be there even before human consciousness or Man appears on the scene. In fact, Man is assumed to evolve from such material things. What is lacking is a proper recognition of the fact that the things or objects of the universe already contain the thought determinations of Man before we may even refer to them. This error of positing the elements of the universe as not posited by thought is the fallacy of the given we mentioned previously. Science can no longer base itself upon this error if it is to make advancement in understanding the true nature of Man and the universe.

Hegel founds Science upon the Concept - the unity of an objective content, an abstract subjective concept, and the dialectical movement of which they consist and are related. This allows for a philosophy that explicitly accounts for more than just the objective aspect of experience. It does not do away with any of the advancements of modern science, but it does situate them in a broader perspective. By re-integrating Mind and Matter in a rational reality, thinking is freed from the bonds imposed upon it by materialism and empiricism, as well as the irrational philosophical assumptions they embody. This greater freedom allows Man to study the depths of his own spiritual nature with the complete backing of scientific justification it deserves.