Hegel begins by demonstrating that the categories of thought through which the mind grasps objects are not as stable or certain as his predecessor Kant seems to assume. This instability even applies to that apparently fundamental, universal category, “being.” To be able to say that something “is,” that it exists, implies another category: nothingness, or not being. Being always implies nothingness, and vice versa, such that one cannot call to mind one category without invoking the other. Being and nothingness are understood as both opposed and identical, a unity of being and nothing. Consciousness experiences this unity of opposites as contradiction, which it seeks to resolve by invoking a third category called “becoming,” which captures both nothing and being at once. This dialectical process is how thought moves, according to Hegel’s model. Consciousness posits a basic category that engenders a contradiction, is “negated,” and falls apart, creating a need for a more complex category that smooths over the contradiction. This new composite category in turn reveals its own contradiction and points to another category, and so on.
Essence, the subject of book II, is a higher, more complex mode by which consciousness grasps objects. Consciousness of being tries to get at objects through the simple binary of being/not being and through the outcome of the tension between these two categories, namely, becoming. Essence, on the other hand, points to qualities beyond mere existence or nonexistence, to particular qualities of the object. These qualities manifest themselves in the appearances of objects. Instead of being or not being, objects appear to have different natures. Being and essence are both features of objective logic—that is, they pertain to qualities of objects themselves. Subjective logic, on the other hand, gets at ideal properties of knowledge, those emanating from products of the mind—namely, concepts or notions—which make up the third and highest level of consciousness. It is at the level of concepts that subjective and objective are considered together. This is the domain of philosophy or metaphysics, where the concern is the interrelation of consciousness and inputs from the world of material objectivity.
The Phenomenology of Spirit is regarded as Hegel’s “first shot” at establishing his own unique philosophical approach. He covers a lot of ground and introduces many of the major themes that reappear in his later philosophical writings, but the work is very confusing. His Science of Logic, published in stages beginning in 1812, is no less difficult for the uninitiated, but it benefits from the five intervening years Hegel had to reflect carefully on his ideas. The latter book is widely understood to be a more systematic treatise on ontology, which is the study of being, and epistemology, which is the study of knowledge. Here Hegel explicitly lays out his famous dialectic, the concept that, along with the equally challenging concept of Geist, is most frequently associated with his name. The slogan “thesis – antithesis – synthesis” has long circulated as a useful shorthand for understanding the basic idea of Hegel’s dialectical method. However, Hegel himself never uttered this construction, and most Hegel scholars agree that it is both helpful and potentially misleading.
In the Science of Logic, Hegel sets out to show that the process by which consciousness assimilates objects into mental concepts is more dynamic and, one might say, messier then Kant describes it. Just as he does in the Phenomenology, Hegel traces here the movement of consciousness, or the idea, from basic categories to more complex ones. Consciousness attempts to grasp objects at a most basic level, finds this first attempt somehow unsatisfying as exposing inadequacies or contradictions, and proceeds to a higher level, and so on. In the Phenomenology and elsewhere, Hegel seems to imply that this dialectical unfolding is an inherent feature of the world we inhabit, governing history and culture. In Logic we see that the dialectic is a phenomena of ideas. But the two dimensions of reality (i.e., history, culture, and the world in general) and our ideal, mental, or conceptual grasp of things are not really separable. The world we live in is a world created by ideas. But our ideas do not emanate from the mind of a single individual, as other idealists such as Kant seem to imply. Concepts have an objective status. They exist outside of any individual as taken-for-granted reality. They belong to common cultural understanding.
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