Hegel’s Logical Consciousness
E. John Winner
The knowledge, which is at the start or immediately our object, can be nothing else than just that which is immediate knowledge, knowledge of the immediate, of what is. We have, in dealing with it, to proceed, too, in an immediate way, to accept what is given, not altering anything in it as it is presented before us, and keeping mere apprehension free from conceptual comprehension. (…) This bare fact of certainty, however, is really and admittedly the abstractest and the poorest kind of truth. It merely says regarding what it knows: it is; and its truth contains solely the being of the fact it knows. (…) In the same way the certainty qua relation, the certainty “of” something, is an immediate pure relation; consciousness is I – nothing more, a pure this; the individual consciousness knows a pure this, or knows what is individual. 
After Kant and Hume, G. W. F. Hegel is probably the most important philosopher of the modern era. Certainly, at one point in time, it could be said he was the most influential. His impact can be discovered in the writings of the so-called Continental tradition of philosophy, but also in American Pragmatism. It can be identified in policy decisions made in the West in the 19th century, in the development of psychology, anthropology, sociology, and in arts from around the world, long after WWII. But there’s no denying that his writing is extraordinarily obscure, and his thinking intense, demanding, and difficult to get around, once one has decided to follow it.
We’re going to try to get a handle on how Hegel thinks logic. That way of putting it already remarks the sense that Hegel’s relation to logic is an odd one. He doesn’t think about logic; he doesn’t think logically; he thinks logic. That is, Hegel thinks logic the way I am now writing English. It is a language for him, and not surprisingly, he understands language as an expression of logic. But not in the way that later Analytic philosophers do. For Hegel, there is nothing in a given language to clarify or purify in order to speak more logically; all language is already completely logical. It is just a matter of reading a given language in such a way as to grasp its underlying logic.
However, Hegel certainly has an odd understanding of logic per se, which one immediately sees in his re-invention of the term ‘dialectic’. Prior to Hegel, dialectic was assumed an art of logical discussion, whereby one argument would be put forth, another argument put forth against that, an argumentative reply to that, a countering reply to that, and so forth. Eventually, terms would be so clarified in the discussion that the interlocutors could reach a reasonable resolution of their differences. If such dialectic has any literary form, it is drama.
Hegel, on the contrary, reads dialectic as fundamentally narrational. None of the interlocutors is the protagonist — the idea they are discussing is. Thus, the dialectic is a story of how the idea struggles through affirmation and negation, until it achieves self-realization.
Since this is what people usually mean when they speak about Hegel’s logic, we will here primarily deal with the clearest instance of Hegel’s idea of dialectic struggling toward self-realization, in his first major text, The Phenomenology of Mind.
We’ll start by clarifying a term Hegel frequently uses to name the leading actor in his narrative of how we acquire certainty in philosophic thought, which is Hegel’s principle interest in his formulation of the dialectical method in relation to logic per se: Spirit. Hegel’s use of the term is easily misunderstood, but it hasn’t anything directly to do with the self-subsisting soul of Christian ontology (although indirectly, Hegel presumes that the soul was an incomplete attempt to realize what he means by ‘spirit’). For Hegel, spirit is equivalent to mind, although it has a surplus, in that individual minds naturally die off with their possessors, whereas spirit continues in the lasting impact that minds have on our histories. But now we have to understand what mind is for Hegel, for it is not simply consciousness, but consciousness plus the ideas and knowledge it has acquired, through which it thinks, and by thinking, apprehends the world. This is why for Hegel experience must always be immediate, here and now, if it is to be valid; but it is always also mediated, through thought, which thus removes it from its here and now, into the realm of ideas.
Mind wants to know its world, which is filled with objects. But to really know is to be able to articulate that world. For instance, take the statement “I am looking at a tree and a bench.” This tells me nothing about trees or benches. Their mere presence is a singularity that tells me that things exist, but not how they exist, not what they are, nor even what they mean to me. Coming to understand all of that will take thought.
In Hegel’s epistemology, all objects of thought come to us in a two-fold manner: an inner “for-itself,” and an outer “for another.” So, when Hegel writes of an object “turning inward” — which sounds very strange — what he’s saying is that mind’s attempt to understand the object has gone “into” the object as affirmation of the object’s self-subsistence: “That thing exists and does so wholly in and for itself.” But this affirmation is actually a negation, because the idea of the thing in its self-subsistence is empty: “Okay, the thing exists, but as what?” Mind only begins to comprehend the thing when it begins accounting for the thing’s relationship to other things. “That object is a tree; it is not the bench standing next to it.” “That tree is living wood, not metal,” and so forth. But in this, the object has been negated again, but in a positive way: the individual tree has lost its unique importance, but its substance has been preserved and brought into the idea of “trees” — a universal manifesting itself in this particular.
But the living substance of trees, while now recognized as manifest in the object, is actually an as yet empty universal; because even should we analyze the tree before us in the most detailed manner, we will be missing something essential to it — what it is that makes it a living substance. In order to completely realize the idea of “tree,” we need to account for where this particular instance originates as relating to what we already know of trees, and what its destiny might be, given that.
Consider an example of the usefulness of dialectic as an understanding of the movement of history — within a life, within a community, and within a culture. First, there is a fertilized seed. It may be the seed of a tree, but it is certainly not a tree. Up from it shoots a sapling, but though the sapling of a tree, it is still not itself a tree. At last it reaches adulthood, and we safely call it a “tree,” but as noted before this is not yet complete realization of the idea of a tree, because that must include the seed and the sapling, without which there would be no tree. So the idea of “tree” must subsume our knowledge of the seed, the sapling, the adult plant (and will include the requisite environmental factors, e.g., sunlight, soil, moisture, etc.), bringing all that forward into what we can know of “tree” per se, while leaving behind those aspects of our previous knowledge of these objects that were negated in the process. And in fact the tree itself manifests this process — the seed as-not-yet sapling passes away as idea, becoming the sapling, the sapling as not-yet-adult passes away as idea, and becomes adult; the adult itself eventually passes away, as both entity (it dies) and idea, but the essential of the idea is preserved and made complete in the subsuming idea of “tree.”
Let’s note two very important terms we’ve used here. ‘Subsumption’ has actually stood in for the more technical term ‘sublation’. This is the movement of the dialectic in its resolution of difference, through realizing relationships between those differences over time. The second term is ‘becoming’; this is the inward movement of the dialectic as an idea realizes itself, in the plenitude of its differences over time. These are for Hegel logical terms, not metaphors. (The dialectic is a logic, because its movements are necessary and inevitable). Consequently, the structure of the Phenomenology of Mind is really a narrative of discovery, rather than a series of inter-supporting arguments. What persuades the reader to Hegel’s cause is his ability to provide explanations that make sense, given our experience of change.
So, back to the story: With the idea “tree” safely secured as knowledge, mind is happy that it knows something about the world. But this happiness does not last. For, as it happens, consciousness itself comes to the world in a two-fold manner, it also has its inner “for itself” and its outer “for another.” So its outer “for another” now has an idea that can be communicated with others concerning the tree, but its inner “for itself” has every right to demand, “but what is this tree for me?” (For Hegel, completely disinterested knowledge is simply not possible, for this is pure negation of the inner aspect of the knower, without elevation of the knower’s mind to a level where disinterestedness itself can be realized as itself in the mind’s interest.)
So we have to start again, to find the mind’s own place in its relation to the tree. We begin by reconsidering the bench that stood by the tree, which we first understood as simply “not tree.” But now we recognize that the bench is made of wood. And we know that trees are also wood. In the tree, wood is of its living substance. In the bench it is that substance now dead and drawn out of the tree. As there is a process by which the seed became the adult, now there must be a process by which the tree becomes mere source for the wood of the bench. And here’s where things get interesting.
(This announces a change in the scope of this discussion, which is discoverable is in the Phenomenology itself. Epistemology is incomplete if merely abstract: no one knows anything except as conditioned by the social.)
Asking after the process by which the tree is chopped down, its wood cut to be of service to the carpenters in their construction of the bench, is not without interest. But just like the empirical description of events, this won’t reveal to mind what it seeks to find for itself, in its inner dimension as mind, in its effort to comprehend either trees or benches.
The process we really need to discover is the manner in which mind, in it’s outer, “for another” aspect, interacts with its environment to discover the utility of wood; to develop the craft needed for carpentry; to share its desire for an object on which to rest with others. In short, the processes we now have to account for include the history of carpentry, the history of practical geometry, and the history of culture. Because unlike the tree, the bench doesn’t simply grow out of a seed. (Although we must admit that the seed played its part in the bench’s story, since otherwise there would be no tree to cut down for its wood.)
These histories will reveal quite a bit about the people who invent chairs, who make them; the cultures in which chairs appear; the social and economic pressures that influence their design. But mostly, they will reveal the relationships between people and between humans and their environment, both natural and social. Yet more importantly, they will reveal why they are histories, and not simply a compilation of static facts scattered across time — stories, with real plot development. Benches are the products of human hands and human minds. There is nothing you can know about a bench that isn’t always also a knowledge of the humans that made it. Consequently, when the inner aspect of consciousness seeks to learn its own relation to the world through its outer aspect, it finds itself — in the history of human mind per se, in all of its expressions in different cultures at different times, all engaged in the dialectical development of mind towards self-realization, through the practices of living humanity. 
But the clearest expression of these differences, which yet realize themselves in the unity of a spirit that preserves itself over time in order to accomplish that self-realization, is the recorded thinking of philosophy. It is philosophy’s burden to encompass all the human practices of a given culture and give them their most precise, rational exposition. It is philosophy’s burden to explain the relationship between humans and trees in a given culture; where geometry comes from; why there is a certain engineering useful in carpentry; the nature of the decorative designs carved into the bench as materialization of human desire for beauty and self-expression; why the bench is to be found in a park, cemetery, or church. It is not surprising that for Hegel the most important history is the history of philosophy, as the ongoing dialectic between the clearest, most complete ideas of a given culture, “for themselves” and yet, “for others,” with all their many differences that must be accounted for and sublated into a greater whole; a knowledge clearer, more complete, and with greater logical ground and greater certainty, than any previously in history.
The goal, which is Absolute Knowledge or Spirit knowing itself as Spirit, finds its pathway in the recollection of spiritual forms as they are in themselves and as they accomplish the organization of their spiritual kingdom. Their conservation, looked at from the side of their free existence appearing in the form of contingency, is History; looked at from the side of their intellectually comprehended organization, it is the Science of the ways in which knowledge appears. Both together, or History (intellectually) comprehended, form at once the recollection and the Golgotha of Absolute Spirit, the reality, the truth, the certainty of its throne, without which it were lifeless, solitary, and alone. 
Now, it sounds as if we find ourselves transported out of the realm of any logical considerations and into some odd realm of myth, but not quite. This knowledge that mind acquires by the end of the Phenomenology of Mind is absolute. It knows all it needs to know. Indeed, it even knows itself, in all its plenitude and universality. What it hasn’t yet accomplished is the ability to express this universality in a manner that accounts as well for individuals as for classes; that accounts for its own personal experiences as for the course of human history.
That is the story Hegel will tell in the first or “Greater” Science of Logic (as distinguished from the “Lesser Logic” that appears in the Encyclopedia of the Philosophic Sciences). In the Phenomenology, Hegel begins his story by discussing our experience with individuals, moving through to universality. In the Logic he begins with the largest “absolutes” imaginable — the emptiest “categories of thought” (as he understands them), Nothing and Being — and gradually works his way towards claims that can be reasonably made about concrete individuals, giving us a logical explanation for the syllogism.
Well, that comes as a surprise, doesn’t it? The syllogism, which Hegel considers the formal structure of logic par excellence and which was primarily constructed to relate universals and particulars, has problems, which have been understood but rarely adequately discussed historically. How do we know the universal claim is true, especially if it hinges on prior induction? How do we recognize the particular as somehow an expression of the universal, so that we can rest assured of the truth of the conclusion? How does the context of an argument shade the conclusion, if at all? Historically, questions like these have been treated in relation to misfired syllogisms; i.e. fallacies. But as we move from formal logic to informal argumentation, fallacies become problematic, revealing an underbelly of prior assumptions concerning the relationship between universals and particulars.  In the Science of Logic, Hegel sets himself the task of demonstrating that critical treatment of such problems must begin with examining how the mind thinks through the universal to find the particular.
But I won’t get into that text further here. It’s been many years since I read it, and I’ve just recently dusted off my copy in order to prepare for this essay.  It’s language even more technical than the Phenomenology, and it is more strictly argumentative than narrational. It will take some reading again, before I can adequately give account of that story. Perhaps the dialectic of my history demands it of me, and only by adhering to the dialectic can one achieve the true freedom of the spirit.
- The Phenomenology of Mind (1807); A – Consciousness; I: Certainty at the Level of Sense Experience – the “This”, and “Meaning;” 1. The Object of Sense Certainty; translated by J B Baillie (1910); Harper and Row edition, 1967. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ph/phconten.htm
- Because Hegel sees the dialectic everywhere, he reasons various histories analogically. Thus we can think of philosophy itself as ‘seeded’ in the pre-Socratics, sprouting as a sapling in the era of Plato and Aristotle, achieving adulthood through the Middle Ages, and at last reaching full flowering and fruition in the modern era. The story will have many variations, given the plenitude of differences, but the narrative structure remains the same.
- Phenomenology of Mind, Section DD/ VIII, Absolute Knowledge; Baillie translation.
- Those familiar with the history of philosophy will hear the echo of the Medieval debate between Realists and Nominalists in this. Hegel, who was conversant with Medieval philosophy, well understood this.
- One of the fascinations that the Logic has for me is that, when Charles Sanders Peirce writes of Hegel, it is the Logic that most concerns him; and his own various triadic systems originate there.