The Meaning of Hegel's Logic

VIII: Why do we say that Hegel is an “idealist”?

Hegel's writing is undoubtedly difficult to get into. It is not just a question of his style and vocabulary. As Hegel says in the introduction to The Shorter Logic:

When people are asked to apprehend some notion, they often complain that they do not know what they have to think. But the fact is that in a notion there is nothing further to be thought than the notion itself. What the phrase reveals is a hankering after an image with which we are already familiar. The mind, denied the use of its familiar ideas, feels the ground where it once stood firm and at home taken away from beneath it, and, when transported into the region of pure thought, cannot tell where in the world it is. [The Shorter Logic §3]

The subject Hegel is expounding in The Logic is one which even educated people are not accustomed to thinking about. Most subjects we can "visualise" or in some way relate to sensuous experience, but logic is one step further removed from sensuous experience than theoretical writing about history, society, nature or other definite science.

On the subject matter of The Logic, Lenin remarks in his Philosophical Notebooks:

It is noteworthy that the whole chapter on the "Absolute Idea" [the final and most abstract chapter in The Science of Logic] scarcely says a word about God (hardly ever has a "divine" "notion" slipped out accidentally) and apart from that - this NB - it contains almost nothing that is specifically idealism, but has for its main subject the dialectical method. The sum-total, the last word and essence of Hegel's logic is the dialectical method - this is extremely noteworthy. And one thing more: in this most idealistic of Hegel's works there is the least idealism and the most materialism. "Contradictory", but a fact! [Philosophical Notebooks, Volume 38 of Lenin's Collected Works, p234]

When Hegel turns his attention to the description of actual history and nature, his idealism proves to be a real handicap, but in the Logic, despite, or rather because of the ideal nature of the subject matter, idealism has virtually no impact on the enormous value of his insights. Marx's writings on history and economics frequently reflect insights which he owed to Hegel, but there is no question but that Marx's writings in these fields stand head and shoulders above Hegel. On the other hand, neither Marx, nor any of his continuators ever reworked Hegel's Logic basically because there is little more to add!

What is The Logic About?

In psychology, science sets its task to describe how people think. For psychology, the primary question is how human beings actually think and its object is the individual consciousness. Logic also is a "science of thinking", but the issue is to describe how thinking may be used to practical effect, rather than simply describing how people think. For logic, the primary question is: what forms of thought reflect or correspond to the material world? This is hardly a question which psychology can ignore, but it is not its primary subject matter. Contrariwise, how people actually think can hardly be ignored by logic, but it is not the primary question, since people may think in such and such a manner, but it is only to the extent that that manner of thinking has "truth" that it is of interest to logic.

Further, since logic is only interested in thinking in so far as it is true, in so far as it corresponds to the material world, logic reveals properties of the material world rather than properties of thought!

Any science requires some body of objective material against which to measure its findings. [Even mathematics, but that is a whole other topic!] Prior to Hegel, logic considered that the truth or error of any particular proposition (such as "all swans are white" and "that is a swan") was outside the scope of logic, since each such statement had a referent which was the proper subject of natural science or feelings (sensuousness, values, desire, morality, etc) but the proper subject of logic was whether or not such and such a proposition "followed from" other propositions.

For example. according to John Stuart Mill:

The province of logic must be restricted to that portion of our knowledge which consists of inferences from truths previously known; whether those antecedent data be general propositions or particular observations and perceptions. Logic is not the science of Belief, but the science of Proof, or Evidence. ... Logic neither observes, nor invents, nor discovers; but judges. [System of Logic, John Stuart Mill]

Now logic in this narrow sense is undoubtedly a perfectly legitimate branch of science, but the exclusive focus on logic in this narrow sense is inherently idealist in two ways:

  1. The maxim: "Do as I do, not as I say" embodies the truth that what we people do is far more profoundly an expression of truth than what we say or what we intend to do. The exclusive focus on propositions leaves entirely out of account the vast field of generalised concepts which talk about the "logic of events". This is what we call the "objectivity" of Hegel's method.
  2. By excluding from the field of vision the truth or otherwise (content) of a simple proposition, logic took for granted the logical categories with which the material of the senses was grasped mentally.

The "Logic of Events"

Consider a description like this: "A core group began to crystallise around this issue and focused on the irritation which had begun to infect members and the heated debate which followed soon boiled over". The comment contains seven natural metaphors referring to biology, crystallography, optics, epidemiology and thermodynamics. We all use these concepts which reflect familiarity with a kind of "logic" which is common to many different kinds of phenomena, and these concepts are, more or less, the subject of Hegel's Science of Logic.

Hegel sets to the task of studying these concepts which reflect the most general laws of motions of all processes of nature and "spirit" in the most profoundly scientific manner, which comes close to being a model of scientific thought.

"Levels" of Movement of Matter

The world is given to us in various "levels of the movement of matter": atomic physics Chemistry solid state physics etc cosmology, ... or arithmetic algebra calculus, etc. Each constitutes a field of study, a "definition of the absolute" with its own "axioms", admissible to formal logical analysis up to a point. For example, mechanics, which can plot the movement of two bodies under the influence of each other's gravity, but even in the case of three bodies does not allow analytical solution, let alone in the case of a large system. Formal logic cannot in principle comprehend the transition from one to the other.

Dialectical logic provides the only system of concepts adequate to this task of comprehending the transition, the "leap".

The Categories of Logic

We can fruitfully interpret Hegel's Logic in many ways, but when we do this, we are really making metaphors of the kind used in the above description, but in the reverse direction much as when we apply mathematical methods to the solution of natural scientific problems. The actual subject of Hegel's writing is everywhere concepts, thought-objects. Hegel was almost the first to rigorously study thought-objects as such. He is able to do this because he does not regard thought-objects as subjective phenomena of the mind at all. The mental phenomena of the human brain are but a small part of the scope of his study of concepts, which are manifested in social practice. I specifically mention practice, because it is practice, social-historical practice, which is the source and pre-condition of concepts. Concepts cannot arise out of immediate, individual perception, but are acquired by individuals through social practice. Mentally speaking, we are born social animals. If we live at all, it is only through social interaction. As we grow up from infancy we internalise the practice of society and through social practice, the history of the society of which we are part and the properties of nature which sustain that society. Language and thought are forms in which social practice is internalised.

Thus these concepts are not things which come out of our inner self and surface in speech and behaviour, but on the contrary, come from without and are internalised in the form of the psyche of, eventually, a mature individual adult.

So there is a real material basis for Hegel's approach to concepts as objective, as existing outside thought independently and prior to thought, that is, outside of and prior to the consciousness of any given individual human being. Concepts have no other existence than in human brains, but the human brain is like a particularly marvelous mirror. It can only reflect what already exists outside of it, or at least the conditions for it are in the process of formation.

Every particle in the universe interacts with every other. The property of reflection is a universal property of matter. Humans are material things, and as it happens have a more profound and thorough-going interaction with nature than any other material thing. So it is hardly surprising that a study of concepts gives us knowledge of objective nature. In fact, we have no other way of learning about nature than through "categories" in the sense in which Hegel deals with categories.

Materialism and Idealism

Philosophical idealism and philosophical materialism are opposite camps in relation to the fundamental question in philosophy the relation of being and thinking. Does thinking reflect a material world which exists independently and outside consciousness, or contrariwise, is the objective world a product of thought or altogether a fiction?

Marxists, in common with other materialists, answer this question unambiguously in the affirmative, but that is by no means the end of the problem of knowledge, the problem of the correspondence between thought and the material world. Can thought adequately apprehend the material world - the material world may exist, but is it knowable? Further, what are the respective roles of reason and experience in knowing? Do intuition and faith have a necessary role in knowing?

Materialism and idealism have quite definite meanings in relation to epistemology (the study of the nature and validity of knowledge). Materialism is the correct standpoint and most people will have no hesitation in affirming the materialist position. However, maintaining a consistent materialist position proves to be no easy matter. Whenever we turn to reflect on things we will find it almost impossible to avoid momentarily reasoning along a line which, if looked at in isolation or if extended beyond a certain point, will show itself to be consistent with idealism, not materialism.

Most of us, when surprised by a turn of events will choose to revisit our ideas, rather than deny reality and do not have any doubt about the priority of the objective world. Even the philosophical pedant who denies the objectivity of experience looks before crossing the road.

Idealism shows itself usually in such presumptions as assuming that people do as they say, for example, or in extending a principle beyond the domain in which it is known to be true or failing to subject to criticism a belief that has in fact long out-lived its validity, believing that a person's social position is a matter of their personal choice, that social movement express "new ideas" rather than social interests, etc..

In fact, 99 per cent of the time we operate within a particular system of concepts and the materialist or idealist content of our thinking and practice is determined by the content of this system of concepts. Most of the time we do not question the concepts with which we operate, but it is a merit of Hegel that he directed us to criticise the content of our concepts, rather than limiting ourselves simply to what follows from what.

In other words, our capacity to act consistently as materialists is to a great extent limited by the philosophical content of the concepts we use in our practice. For example, if we only know the concept of "capitalism" as meaning "accumulating wealth", or "job" as some thing which is offered as some kind of gift by employers, or believe that "money makes money", then we cannot get close to a materialist understanding of day-to-day events and changes in capitalist life. To revolutionise your understanding of "capitalism" you are either the one person in a century who creates a new concept of capitalism, or you acquire a new concept of capitalism through Marxist education.

Furthermore, materialism is limited by the level of development of scientific knowledge. If we unable to subject a given proposition to criticism, simply because we have no knowledge of the relevant subject matter or there exists no established body of scientific knowledge about the subject, we will have no choice but to reason idealistically, on the basis of guesswork! [Until we have the opportunity to scientifically investigate the matter]. If we deny ourselves the luxury of reasoning from unproven facts, presumptions and principles and guesses, we will be unable to reason at all.

Thus it is that until the middle of last century, by which time the mass of scientific knowledge had built up to a certain level, idealism was the dominant "camp" in philosophy. The thousands of years of human culture before the middle of last century is proof that idealism is perfectly capable of producing valid knowledge. Or more accurately, the rigorous idealist line is even more difficult to adhere to than is the consistent materialist line. Despite the idealists' epistemological belief, objective reality enters into his/her thinking! And Hegel is the supreme example of this phenomenon.

Attempting to adhere to consistent materialism means to continuously direct our attention to the source of knowledge in the material world, to be continuously aware of the genesis of our ideas from material life and to continuously subject the concepts with which we grasp the world to criticism. For this latter task, Hegel has given us the most powerful instrument.

Subjective Idealism and Objective Idealism

Subjective idealism is the variety of idealism which places individual consciousness as primary to the objective world. In its purest form, subjective idealism regards nature, society and history as nothing more real than one's fantasies and dreams. For instance, quantum physics gave rise to an upsurge of "physical idealism" at the turn of the century, a form of subjective idealism which asserted that the behaviour of sub-atomic wave-particles is dependent upon the consciousness of a human observer. It is also found in that line of thinking which says, too insistently, that "everyone has their own reality", and so on.

Objective idealism sees the objective world as a product or expression of some entity of an ideal nature, but not the individual's own subjective consciousness rather an entity specifically greater than the human individual, be it named God, Gaia, The Supreme Being, Progress, Nature or some other product of human imagination.

Hegel is perfectly correct in ascribing an objective existence to Logic, to insisting that thought has an objective content. But logic is but one abstract aspect of the objective world (even Hegel's wonderful version of logic); Hegel deifies logic, he makes it the governor and driving force of everything. Just as the capitalist who believes that "money makes money", the engineer who sees the world as a giant machine, the priest whose God is a Wise Old Man, the professional logician Hegel has elevated the object of his own interest into the Lord presiding over all.


The material world is indeed "law governed", or "systematic". If we conceive any finite state of knowledge of the laws and properties of the objective world as something existing outside of human consciousness and give to it an independent, i.e. supra-natural, "governing" existence, then we have an apparently reasonable "objective idealism". And such a standpoint is closer to materialism (if we could say such a thing) than for example, the point of view of Kant, in which human knowledge is knowledge only of "phenomena" (i.e. the world as it is manifested to us in experience) while the world "in-itself" is unknowable. For example, to this line of thinking, even if we believe we have a theory to explain why the Sun rises every morning, in fact we have only a theory which reliably predicts that we will see and feel what we call Sunlight, but no knowledge of thing we choose to call "Sun". As materialists we must assert that these laws and forms which are known to us do indeed exist in the material world, and come to consciousness only because they exist objectively, although we must remind ourselves that these laws and forms are only a part or aspect of the material world. Never but never will human beings attain exhaustive (infinite) knowledge of the world. But we rightly believe that we have knowledge of the objective world which is adequate, more or less, to practice.

Hegel wrote in the first decades of the nineteenth century a particularly marvelous summation of human knowledge as it existed at the time. There can be no argument but that human knowledge has rolled forward with immense speed and breadth ever since. Our collective knowledge of these most general laws let alone their "detail" is obviously far more profound than was available to Hegel.

"Just as the dialectical conception of nature makes all natural philosophy both unnecessary and impossible, it is no longer a question anywhere of inventing interconnections from out of our brains, but of discovering them in the facts. For philosophy, which has been expelled from nature and history, there remains only the realm of pure thought, so far as it is left: the theory of the laws of the thought process itself, logic and dialectics." [Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach etc, Part IV]

Just so long as we recognise that human knowledge is relative, so long as we do not elevate any particular and partial truth to an absolute, then we have no need of a God in any form.

Materialist Dialectics

In 1873, Marx summed up his difference with Hegel as follows:

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of "the Idea", he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of "the Idea". With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought. [The Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital]

"it's direct opposite"! No small difference.

Like Hegel, Marx and Engels understood very well that their theoretical achievements were the outcome of a long period of social development. It is possible to understand these achievements only on the basis of an understanding of how the problems of philosophy have been posed and resolved in the history of philosophy. In this history, opposite tendencies in relation to different aspects of the problem of knowledge have interacted over long periods: idealism and materialism (the question of priority of matter or thought), rationalism and empiricism (the question of the priority of reason or experience), dualism and monism (whether the ideal and material are two different substances or two aspects of one and the same substance), etc.

During this time, the development of human society, in particular the forces of production and the production relations resting upon these forces of production, not to mention the countless effects of warfare, conquest, language, exploration, etc., etc, etc., has radically transformed our relation to Nature.

An approach to understanding what Engels meant when he said that: "The dialectic of Hegel was placed upon its head; or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing, and placed upon its feet" [Ludwig Feuerbach, etc, Part IV], is to follow the development of the materialist thread in the history of science and philosophy in its main outlines up to Marx. This I will attempt to do, very schematically, in the next section, but for now we need to summarise why it is we call Hegel an idealist.

Hegel's Objective Idealism

In talking of the history of philosophy, in §13 of the Shorter Logic, Hegel says:

For these thousands of years the same Architect has directed the work: and that Architect is the one living Mind whose nature is to think, to bring to self-consciousness what it is, and, with its being thus set as object before it, to be at the same time raised above it, and so to reach a higher stage of its own being. [Shorter Logic]

This is a fairly explicitly idealist statement. The last words of The Shorter Logic are: "this Idea which has Being is Nature". Almost the last words of The Science of Logic are: "The Idea, in positing itself as absolute unity of the pure Notion and its reality and thus contracting itself into the immediacy of being, is the totality in this form - Nature".

This is not a lot different from the Moslem's belief that every movement of every particle in the Universe is at the command of Allah, and an Islamic physicist is as capable as his atheist counterpart of elaborating the laws by which these movements may be described. The Christian Isaac Newton was able to create an enormously powerful mechanistic description of the world requiring only God to set the world into motion at some long ago time for the world to continue its state of motion forever after.

In a sense, Marx's "turning of Hegel upon his feet" is just a small "correction", a matter of detail. The whole of natural science, Marxist political economy and any body of genuine knowledge can be asserted without bothering about this little matter of detail. The problem comes when our knowledge proves inadequate in the face of experience or otherwise when we have to create new concepts or new sciences - to make a new tool, rather than purchase one from the hardware shop.

When Marx set about building a scientific theory of socialism he looked in the direction of the relations of production, not politics, law, morality or religion. This was a choice made on the basis of philosophical materialism.

Hegel's logic was of great value in assisting Marx in arriving at a concept of capitalism as "generalised commodity production" and the commodity as a unity of exchange value and use value. But only Marx's consistent search for the roots of social, political and legal relations or concepts in the relations of production allowed this scientific discovery. Likewise, Marx drew not upon the history of the "idea of Socialism", but upon the actual history of people producing and reproducing themselves as the source material for his research.

Karl Marx, The German Ideology
The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way. The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself - geological, orohydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of people. People can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence ...[First Premises of Materialist Method]