Phenomenology of Spirit: Substance as Subject

In the Phenomenology‘s “Preface” Hegel makes some quick, dense, and seemingly unintelligible equations of certain terms. In §22, 37, and 54  of the Miller translation Hegel makes a boggling rundown of conceptual equivalences that to the uninitiated must appear as utterly unintelligible.

Hegel basically ends up making this astonishing chain of equivalencies:

Reason=purpose= self-movement =Subject=Negativity=Being-for-self = Self=Immediacy=Becoming=Concept= Actuality=Substance=Being-in-itself

In §22, Hegel says Reason is purposive activity, and that purpose is what is both unmoved and is self-moving, and this is Subjectivity. Not only that, but this power of self-movement is negativity, and this negativity is the self.  This actually isn’t that unintelligible if one merely slows down.

That Reason is purpose is not a crazy idea; indeed, when you ask for the reason for something, you are usually asking for the purpose for which it is. Purpose being self-moving is also not strange, for purpose in a sense seems to be self-realizing in that something purposive begins with its purpose in potential and ends with its purpose actualized. That Hegel calls this self-movement subjectivity, however, is definitely something that won’t find much traction in the section. We are told of it and Hegel swiftly races onward, but it isn’t an absurd notion when we think of it in a very broad sense: our subjectivity as we understand it in regular life is fundamentally tied to our own self-movement as free agents to do whatever it is that we want to do; thus, that self-movement is subjectivity in some basic sense is understandable. After all, think about it this way: when I do things as a subject I do things because of myself. Subjectivity moves itself, if it didn’t it would be the object moved by something else which was the source of activity. We can note here that we also see a strong immanent link between subjectivity and purposiveness, i.e. that to be a subject is to have a self-given purpose.

That self-movement is negativity is definitely strange if one is not thinking of negation—the power which undoes things as well as the opposition which stands—and instead thinks of negativity in the sense of negative and positive, but with negation in mind it’s quite clear why this equivalence is made: that which moves itself must somehow be negating (undoing and opposing) its state of being to change it. Negativity as the self-movement of purpose as a whole, Hegel tells us, is just what the self is. “The self is the sameness and simplicity that relates itself to itself.” Because purpose relates itself both as its beginning and end, and negativity likewise negates whatever it produces and in that sense also relates to itself—it is the negation of negation—this equivalence is formally intelligible even if we have little clue what Hegel fully means in these concepts. But why would self-relation have to do with negativity? Besides what Hegel has stated as equivalent, without giving much explanation for negativity there is little to say other than this: in order for self-relation to even be possible there must be a bridged gap of distinction or difference (negation). The strange thing is that the bridge is here the very gap, for in the Hegelian comprehension what divides is itself a negative unifier of what is separated. At the level of conscious self this negativity is not just a structure of opposition, but an activity of constant undoing from moment to moment.

The self is this kind of relation where a unity is a unity precisely because it is fragmented into parts, a fragmenting present because of an activity of negation creating them. Despite this fragmentation, the very fact that these are parts undoes their separateness and determines them as united in a whole once more through the very thread of this activity which makes them and to which they return. As such, the self is unified as the process of self-differentiation. Now, you may say that by the self you mean more than self-relation, but self-relation is key to the self no matter what. Take for example a person that is incapable of self-relation, i.e. incapable of self-consciousness or of self-determination in choosing what to do or be (even animals have both to some capacity). Are they really a self? Is there really someone there that we can recognize as a person? No, at best we have a puppet of some other person or just a puppet of external forces of physics—a philosophical zombie like Daniel Dennett perhaps, a curiously complex machine, but not a person with agency of their own since it’s all the doing of the inscrutable powers of unconscious nature.

More abstractly, does something that fails to self-relate at all really have a ‘self’? Conscious or not, that which fails to lead back to itself in its being is the kind of thing which does not last, does not endure because it is what it is not by its own power, but because of something else. It is a contingent configuration of independent elements which are indifferent to their unity and just as soon evanesce. The self is like a force that goes out endlessly (a negativity) and pushes out or through all opposed to it. If this force projects only in one direction it never returns to itself and forms nothing, but if it comes back to itself it simply circles as this repulsion which propels itself forward in its endless cycle while pushing against anything else external to it that attempts to break and enter its inner space. This circle forms a definite shape which is explained only in terms of this force’s self-relating activity which from outside seems nothing but a static presence which manifests resistance to us, and further, it presents to us an object which has its subsistence through its constant changes (negations).

In §37, Hegel brings all of what he states in §22 to continue the chain of conceptual connections.

He elaborates an addition to negativity; it is now the distinction between the I and the substance it investigates. How does that work? Well, in order for me to be the I opposed to the substance there has to be a negation, there has to be a negativity as opposition—we are differentiated through a negativity into {I}—{substance}. In this section, Hegel elaborates on the meaning of substance as subject. The negativity which separates  the I and Substance is the very power that is the I and the animating soul of substance. Substance is “in disparity with itself,” shows negativity active within it, and negativity is constitutive of substance’s very being; this is how Hegel cashes out the original enigmatic claim. Substance is Subject because it has negativity, absolute negativity. It negates itself, it splits itself, differentiates itself, becomes determinate and endures as an object through its own self-negating power. Substance relates itself to itself; thus, it has the very same self-moving power as the I in determining itself. Note that negativity splits and unites the I and its object, negativity flows through each and constitutes the opposition itself and is reflected within each as they embody a sub-totality. Substance must be subject, the static being must really be dynamism itself if we are to explain the self-relation of being at all, a relation which can only be accounted by activity which negates and splits while at once uniting through this very split.


When it has shown this completely, Spirit has made its existence identical with its essence ; it has itself for its object just as it is, and the abstract element of immediacy, and of the separation of knowing and truth, is overcome. Being is then absolutely mediated ; it is a substantial content which is just as immediately the property of the ‘I’, it is self-like or the Notion [Concept].

To skip a bit ahead in the Phenomenology, Spirit in the end shall find nothing but itself in its objects of investigation. The reason is already clear in one sense, first because Spirit too is negativity, the self, and substance. Secondly—and this shall be shown in the next section—because Spirit is thought and its knowledge of objects is their very Notion/Concept, and objective substance shares the nature of thought. All that thought knows is thought, all that can be known is itself thought, and all the world is is thought, but these are not representations within whimsical minds. Substantial content is self-like, substance is subject, because there is no absolute distinction to be made between Being and thought. Independent objects are only possible if they are their own active self-determination from within, and thinking cannot know objects without itself being an activity of self-determination from within.

Finally, in §54 Hegel brings forth for a moment the concepts of identity and thought.

The subsistence or substance of anything that exists is its self-identity ; for a failure of self-identity would be its dissolution. Self-identity, however, is pure abstraction ; but this is thinking.

Self-identity is the locus of being that keeps substance together as the negative unity of self-relation. It  is also pure abstraction in a literal sense: it rips substance away from any connections and determinations, and as Hegel has already told us earlier in the Preface, abstraction is thought. Being, he states, is thought. This is meant literally and not in any metaphorical way. Being is thought not just because it is a concept of abstraction that certainly applies to existent beings despite its poverty of meaning, but Hegel means something more radical than simply saying that Being is just a mental concept. No, to be is to be a thought in the sense that to be is to be abstracted. That which exists does so only because it manifests itself as different to something else which opposes it as what it is not. From the absolute standpoint the Absolute must negate itself, create difference in itself, and in that difference the oppositions stand against each other as independent and separate to some degree, they are literally abstracted. Without negativity, without difference and its abstractions of Being from Being, there would be no possible existence and all that would remain is an indeterminate nothing. One must not confuse thinking and thought to be mental representations, they are not. They are not our subjective mental phenomena, nor are they the mental phenomena of some God-mind which exists as nothing but a bigger and better version of our individuality. Thought is the name for the fact of abstraction as the standing opposition of things, and so Being is thought by the fact that all that is is always already differentiated.

Now, since the subsistence of an existent thing is a self-identity or pure abstraction, it is the abstraction of itself from itself, or it is itself its lack of self-identity and its dissolution—its own inwardness and withdrawal into itself—its own becoming.

Things are, they subsist, through their self-abstraction, i.e their self-negation. This abstraction is a difference, and self-identity is only possible through this difference. Without negativity and abstraction A could not enact the fact of A=A, it could not stand out for itself and exist if there is no way for A to differentiate itself in order to establish an identity. True substance is not dependent, it exists only in need of its own self-relation just as an subatomic particle revolves around itself and maintains its own being. But if being as substance splits itself from itself in abstraction, then it becomes other to itself. It becomes its own inner opposition and dissolves its static identity into another; thus, substance is subject. What is subject is as it does, and in that it does it is negativity, it is the undoing of all and itself; therefore, substance as subject is its own vanishing in the fact that its being is only its perpetual undoing—it is its own becoming in the fact that it is and at once is not. Becoming is the truth of Being, the static is truly the reality of dynamism, i.e. endless change itself is the only enduring and changeless thing. The being of substance left to itself is its own free self-negation, self-determination, and shows the link to that which is beyond the static thing we imagine it to be. This movement maps the path of Spirit which goes beyond itself only to find itself. The process of the negative returns to the negative in absolute unity: the negative is a negative of a negative, an opposite is the opposite of an opposite, what is is a dialectical movement of self-contradicting determinations which dissolve themselves endlessly but with a necessary clarity and stability as this instability.

Substance is subject because substance is the enduring image of endless activity which relates to itself. This endless activity acting upon itself seems from the outside as a merely complete and static circle. To give an image: the concept of substance as subject is like a ball tied to a string spinning so fast that to us it seems like a solid wheel. Concepts are, however, not spatio-temporal and thus there is no temporal gap to finish their process. They are always already complete. The Absolute is substance and subject at once in that we can see it as the unity of their opposition, but also in that they are both the single process seen from two standpoints of the dynamic and static.

Some of the equivalencies aside, it goes to show that Hegel really had something interesting to say in all these seemingly bizarre terms and phrases, however, he was unable to explain them due to the constraints of a Preface, and well… it demands a lot of us as readers. It demands that we be very careful to detail, to keep things in mind, it demands that we be very charitable. Even with an everyday view of things Hegel’s claim make very good sense.

4 thoughts on “Phenomenology of Spirit: Substance as Subject

    1. For the Absolute? No. For us? Anything which we haven’t noticed yet as well as any other existent forms of sense which we are not capable of. Until there is reason to think there is a specific beyond, there is no reason to believe let alone attempt to conceive such. Hegel is pretty practically grounded in the matters of speculation: if there is no reason unsolvable by already developed concepts why waste time dreaming up the impossible to verify?

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