The Meaning of "Essence" in Hegel's Logic

by Andy Blunden

Hegel's Logic may be approached from a number of angles. If you can get the hang of it from one angle, then that understanding sheds light on other angles. I would like to go through Hegel's Doctrine of Essence from the point of view of a theory of cognition. I have chosen a number of excerpts from the Logic to explain my reading of them.

In Hegel's Logic, Essence is the Division which stands between Being and The Notion; Being and Essence constitute The Objective Logic, while the Doctrine of The Notion is The Subjective Logic. In the opening paragraphs of The Subjective Logic Hegel gives a summary of "the story so far":

Being - Essence - The Notion

from The Science of Logic, The Notion in General
The Notion is ... in the first instance ... the third to being and essence, to the immediate and to reflection. Being and essence are so far the moments of its becoming; but it is their foundation and truth as the identity in which they are submerged and contained. ...
Objective logic therefore, which treats of being and essence constitutes properly the genetic exposition of the Notion. ...
Now the Notion is that absolute unity of being and reflection in which being is in and for itself only in so far as it is no less reflection or positedness, and positedness is no less being that is in and for itself. This abstract result is elucidated by the exposition of its concrete genesis; that exposition contains the nature of the Notion whose treatment it must have preceded. The chief moments of this exposition ... has been given in detail in the Second Book of The Objective Logic.

Here Hegel is explaining Essence as the history of how a notion of something comes into being. In the first place there is just immediate consciousness "one damn thing after another" [which we could call the "philosophy of absolute awareness"] and then we recognise various things which do not simply pass away to be replaced by something else like unconnected images one after another, but something that lies behind Being. [Thought interupts awareness]. But each of these views prove inadequate, fails to explain various aspects of the thing, and is one after another negated. Each view or essence is not destroyed by its negation, but overcome retained and superseded by a still deeper essence, such as in the history of astronomy from flat Earth to geocentric to heliocentric to unbounded Universe, etc.

Prior to Hegel, this subject (The Doctrine of Essence) was not considered to be a part of Logic at all. Today it would generally be covered by History and Philosophy of Science and Research Methods. It is called Objective Logic because it describes the process whereby knowledge proceeds unconsciously as if determined by objective law. The Subjective Logic, on the contrary, begins with an abstract Notion, which is made more and more concreteby theoretical practice, such as the histry of development of a science once its central founding Notion is formulated; for example, the science of chemistry after the discovery of the concept of the periodic table of elements.

Essence describes how you come to the Notion, or "key" to understanding something which, once arrived at, is the basis for all analysis of and "logical thinking" about the thing, but, it would otherwise appear, can only be arrived at by "inspiration", a "hunch" or from "somewhere else" that process which goes through all sorts of mistakes before finding the "right road".

The Shorter Logic, §112n
Any mention of Essence implies that we distinguish it from Being: the latter is immediate, and, compared with the Essence, we look upon it as mere seeming. But this seeming is not an utter nonentity and nothing at all, but Being superseded and put by. The point of view given by the Essence is in general the standpoint of 'Reflection'. This word reflection' is originally applied, when a ray of light in a straight line impinging upon the surface of a mirror is thrown back from it. In this phenomenon we have two things - first an immediate fact which is, and secondly the deputed, derivated, or transmitted phase of the same. Something of this sort takes place when we reflect, or think upon an object: for here we want to know the object, not in its immediacy, but as derivative or mediated. The problem or aim of philosophy is often represented as the ascertainment of the essence of things: a phrase which only means that things, instead of being left in their immediacy, must be shown to be mediated by, or based upon, something else. The immediate Being of things is thus conceived under the image of a rind or curtain behind which the Essence is hidden.
Everything, it is said, has an Essence; that is, things really are not what they immediately show themselves. There is something more to be done than merely rove from one quality to another, and merely to advance from qualitative to quantitative, and vice versa: there is a permanence in things, and that permanence is in the first instance their Essence.
With respect to other meanings and uses of the category of Essence, we may note that in the German auxiliary verb, sein (to be), the past tense is expressed by the term for Essence (wesen): we designate past being as gewesen. This anomaly of language implies to some extent a correct perception of the relation between Being and Essence. Essence we may certainly regard as past Being, remembering however meanwhile that the past is not utterly denied, but only laid aside and thus at the same time preserved.

In this note to the first § of The Doctrine of Essence in The Shorter Logic, Hegel explains the meaning of Essence in its contrast to Being. At first, as I remarked above, it's just "one damn thing after another". Prices go up and down, politicians have scandals, strikes, take-overs, elections, etc. In so far as we are talking about "what is going on", these are "immediates", news items, things which appear and disappear, but "mean nothing to us". This is Being: how we perceive a thing before we recognise anything at all - chimera, images that do not show us the essence of the thing - but of course they do contain the essence, as well as these passing images.

We are only capable of recognising things that we already know from the past. A new concept of something cannot spring right out of immediate perception, it must be mediated through a whole process through things we already know about, and this process is Essence. To ascertain the essence of things, what lies behind the immediate, we begin by recognising things, the concepts of which we already have in our brains. But here we have not just images that appear and pass away again, but what it is, so to speak.


The truth of being is essence.
Being is the immediate. Since knowing has for its goal knowledge of the true, knowledge of what being is in and for itself, it does not stop at the immediate and its determinations, but penetrates it on the supposition that behind this being there is something else, something other than being itself, that this background constitutes the truth of being. This knowledge is a mediated knowing for it is not found immediately with and in essence, but starts from an other, from being, and has a preliminary path to tread, that of going beyond being or rather of penetrating into it. Not until knowing inwardises, recollects itself out of immediate being, does it through this mediation find essence.
When this movement is pictured as the path of knowing, then this beginning with being, and the development that sublates it, reaching essence as a mediated result, appears to be an activity of knowing external to being, and irrelevant to being's own nature.
But this path is the movement of being itself. It was seen that being inwardises itself through its own nature, and through this movement into itself becomes essence.

This excerpt is the opening of the Doctrine of Essence in the Science of Logic. "Essence is the truth of Being". It is the process of getting to the essence of what's happening, of going into it, of discovering its laws of motion, of explaining at first the main lines of development. Contradictions arise; the seemingly accidental aspects of the thing - the inessential - force us to deeper and deeper essence.

It is called "mediated" knowledge, because the concepts we use to perceive Being have themselves their origin in Being. We recognise a cad because "we've met his type before". Thus Essence is the movement of Being itself, rather than something external to, foreign to Being.

The Shorter Logic, §111n
In the sphere of Essence one category does not pass into another, but refers to another merely. In Being, the forms of reference is purely due to our reflection on what takes place: but it is the special and proper characteristic of Essence. In the sphere of Being, when somewhat becomes another, the somewhat has vanished. Not so in Essence: here there is no real other, but only diversity, reference of the one to its other. The transition of Essence is therefore at the same time no transition: for in the passage of different into different, the different does not vanish: the different terms remain in their relation. When we speak of Being and Nought, Being is independent, so is Nought. The case is otherwise with the Positive and the Negative. No doubt these possess the characteristic of Being and Nought. But the Positive by itself has no sense; it is wholly in reference to the negative. And it is the same with the negative.
In the sphere of Being the reference of one term to another is only implicit; in Essence on the contrary it is explicit. And this in general is the distinction between the forms of Being and Essence: in Being everything is immediate, in Essence everything is relative.

Here Hegel points out that in Being, things come and go, rise and fall, and pass in one another - the opposites are independent of one another, whereas in Essence the opposites contradict one another and exist in contyrast or opposition to one another. As a concept of the thing reaches its limit, and is transcended, it is superseded by its Other. The former retains its truth, although its truth is now shown to be relative and not absolute.

In the following excerpt from the Doctrine of the Notion in The Shorter Logic, Hegel contrasts this process of the struggle of opposites characteristic of the process of Essence, with the Development of the Notion from the initial abstract Notion to the absolutely concrete Idea, in which the former is not overcome by the later, but rather is absorbed into it, as one and the same Notion becomes more concrete:

§ 161 Development of the Notion
The onward movement of the notion is no longer either a transition into, or a reflection on something else, but Development. For in the notion, the elements distinguished are without more ado at the same time declared to be identical with one another and with the whole, and the specific character of each is a free being of the whole notion.

The initial moments of Essence are partial, limited impressions. Reality is infinitely complex and multi-sided, so what we think we see initially soon proves inadequate. It is the "exception which proved the rule". What seems at first inessential, accidental, not bearing on the question at issue at all, proves in fact to be essential, but can only be so perceived as we run into contradictions and are forced to penetrate deeper. The movement of Essence is to become ever more comprehensive and more and more adequate to actuality, although not yet able to grasp the Notion of the thing itself:
§SL114, The Unessential
This identity, as it descended from Being, appears in the first place only charged with the characteristics of Being, and referred to Being as to something external. This external Being, if taken in separation from the true Being (of Essence), is called the Unessential. But that turns out to be a mistake. Because Essence is Being-in-self, it is essential only to the extent that it has in itself its negative, i.e. reference to another, or mediation. Consequently, it has the unessential as its own proper seeming (reflection) in itself. But in seeming or mediation there is distinction involved: and since what is distinguished (as distinguished from identity out of which it arises, and in which it is not, or lies as seeming) receives itself the form of identity, the semblance is still not in the mode of Being, or of self-related immediacy.
The sphere of Essence thus turns out to be a still imperfect combination of immediacy and mediation. In it every term is expressly invested with the character of self-relatedness, while yet at the same time one is forced beyond it. It has Being - reflected being, a being in which another shows, and which shows in another. And so it is also the sphere in which the contradiction, still implicit in the sphere of Being, is made explicit. ...
The theory of Essence is the most difficult branch of Logic. It includes the categories of metaphysic and of the sciences in general. These are the products of reflective understanding, which, while it assumes the differences to possess a footing of their own, and at the same time also expressly affirms their relativity, still combines the two statements, side by side, or one after the other, by an 'also', without bringing these thoughts into one, or unifying them into the notion.

Simple Essence (Reflection) - Appearance - Actuality

The Sub-divisions of Essence

We shall now go through the three main sub-divisions of Essence, namely Reflection (or Existence or Simple Essence), Appearance and Actuality. In the Science of Logic, Hegel sums up the divisions of Essence as follows:
At first, essence shines or shows within itself, or is reflection; secondly, it appears; thirdly, it manifests itself. In its movement, essence posits itself in the following determinations:
  1. As simple Essence, essence in itself, which in its determinations remains within itself.
  2. As emerging into determinate being, or in accordance with its Existence and Appearance.
  3. As essence that is one with its Appearance, as Actuality.


In this first section of Essence Hegel himself is uncertain of how to structure the material. He apparently revised the material countless times and between the publication in the Science of Logic in 1813 and the final revision of the Shorter Logic in 1830, the Chapters of this Division change unrecognisably. Within this first section he deals with "Identity, Difference, Opposition" and Contradiction; with the maxims of identity and diversity; with positive and negative (polarity); with the unity of the essential and inessential, likeness and unlikeness.

We will return to Reflection and the various subjects Hegel expounds under this category after a consideration of the subdivisions of Appearance and Actuality.


Appearance = Form & Content

Appearance is the dialectic of form and content [inner and outer].
Part C of Essential Relation in The Science of Logic
The movement of essence is in general the becoming of the Notion. In the relation of inner and outer, the essential moment of this emerges, namely, that is determinations are posited as being in negative unity in such a manner that each immediately is not only its other but also the totality of the whole. But in the Notion as such this totality is the universal - a substrate which is not yet present in the relation of inner and outer.

As soon as, by the accumulation of the properties of a thing or event, we have been able to identify what it is, there begins a process of penetration from essence to deeper essence. This is the dialectic of form and content or Appearance. We see a crowd of people coming along the road, we see the anger, the close-packed ranks, the shouting. We see that the crowd is a demonstration or march (manifestation). We talk to some of the participants as they come along the road, determine their objective, the motive forces: a march against a new measure by the government has been diverted into a clash with the police which will split the participants and isolate the militants from the mass - the demonstration is a provocation.

It must be seen here that the dialectic of Form (crowd ... demonstration) and Content (demonstration ... provocation) is driven forward by the continual "in-flow" of being to essence (more and more observation). Being does not "stop" and pass over to Essence; Being drives Essence deeper and deeper. Every appearance retains its validity as it is overcome by a deeper truth. (The demonstration is a crowd, the provocation is a demonstration).

The movement from Existence to Appearance. "What it is turns out to be just an appearance" - leads towards an understanding of the relation between form and content - of why the content has this form, and not another. Thus appearance does not get away from Essence, but contains it as "show".

§ 131n - note to first § of Subdivision of Appearance in The Shorter Logic
Existence stated explicitly in its contradiction is Appearance. But appearance (forth-showing) is not to be confused with a mere show (shining). Show is the proximate truth of Being or immediacy. The immediate, instead of being, as we suppose, something independent, resting on its own self, is a mere show, and as such it is packed or summed up under the simplicity of the immanent essence.
The essence is, in the first place, the sum total of the showing itself, shining in itself (inwardly); but, far from abiding in this inwardness, it comes as a ground forward into existence; and this existence being grounded not in itself, but on something else, is just appearance. In our imagination we ordinarily combine with the term appearance or phenomenon the conception of an indefinite congeries of things existing, the being of which is purely relative, and which consequently do not rest on a foundation of their own, but are esteemed only as passing stages. But in this conception it is no less implied that essence dose not linger behind or beyond appearance. Rather it is, we may say, the infinite kindness which lets its own show freely issue into immediacy, and graciously allows it the joy of existence. The appearance which is thus created does not stand on its own feet, and has its being not in itself but in something else. ...

Existence - Appearance - Essential Relation

We are still in the phase of recognising a thing, of reflection of Being in past Being (knowledge in the form of Notions, as Essence). We are still in the phase of characterisation, but not yet of connecting with others, of concrete understanding, of cause and effect, of freedom and necessity.
From Science of Logic Section Two of the Doctrine of Essence
Thus essence appears.
Reflection is the showing of illusory being within essence itself. Its determinations are enclosed within the unity simply and solely as posited, sublated determinations; or, reflection is essence which, in its positedness, is immediately identical with itself. But since essence is ground, it gives itself a real determination through its reflection, which is self-sublating or which returns into itself; further, since this determination, or the otherness, of the ground relation sublates itself in the reflection of the ground and becomes Existence, this endows the form determinations with an element of self-subsistence. Their illusory being completes itself to become Appearance.
The essentiality that has advanced to immediacy is, in the first instance, Existence, and an existent or thing - as an undifferentiated unity of essence with its immediacy. It is true that the thing contains reflection, but its negativity is, in the first instance, extinguished in its immediacy; but because its ground is essentially reflection, its immediacy sublates itself and the thing makes itself into positedness.
Secondly, then, it is Appearance. Appearance is that which the thing is in itself, or its truth. But this merely posited Existence which is reflected into otherness is equally the transcending of its itself in its infinitude; to the world of appearance is opposed the world that is reflected into itself, the world of essence.
But the being that appears and essential being, simply stand in relation to one another. Thus Existence is, thirdly, Essential Relation; what appears manifests what is essential, and this is in its Appearance.
The relation is the still-imperfect union of reflection-into-otherness and reflection-into-self; the perfect interpenetration of both is Actuality.


Actuality = Cause & Effect

Actuality is the dialectic of Cause, Effect (Reciprocity), of Possibility and Necessity or Necessity and Freedom, and is the immediate precursor of The Notion. The movement in Appearance, from form to content and content to form, becomes the process of concretising the picture of the thing. Through Essential Relation, the relation between each form and each content, we draw together the essential and the unessential; all the parts becomes identical with the whole: "All that is rational is real and all that is real is rational".
§ 142 start of Subdivision of Actuality in the Shorter Logic
Actuality is the unity, become immediate, of essence with existence, or of inward with outward. The utterance of the actual is the actual itself: so that in this utterance it remains just as essential, and only is essential, in so far as it is immediate external existence.
We have ere this met Being and Existence as forms of the immediate. Being is, in general, unreflected immediacy and transition into another. Existence is immediate unity of being and reflection: hence appearance: it comes from the ground, and falls to the ground. In actuality this unity is explicitly put, and the two sides of the relation identified. Hence the actual is exempted from transition, and its externality is its energising. In that energising it is reflected into itself: its existence is only the manifestation of itself, not of another.

The concrete, all-sided study of the phenomenon leads to an understanding in which the circle of cause and effect has been closed - it could not be other than it is. The dialectic of cause and effect has reached the point of "reciprocity" - where every effect is equally a cause, and every cause equally an effect, and cause and effect is dissolved into mere relativity by absolute reciprocity.

The completion of the stage of Actuality is summed up by Hegel as "Freedom is the understanding of Necessity":

from § 158n in the Shorter Logic
the process of necessity is so directed that it overcomes the rigid externality which it first had and reveals its inward nature. It then appears that the members, linked to one another, are not really foreign to each other, but only elements of one whole, each of them, in its connection with the other, being, as it were, at home, and combining with itself. In this way, necessity is transfigured into freedom - not the freedom that consists in abstract negation, but freedom concrete and positive.

This understanding of the thing, at which the dialectical development of the opposite tendencies within a thing has become quite comprehensive, brings thought to the Notion of the thing, the conception of the object as a unity of opposites - to the "freedom of the Notion".