Hegel’s Logic: An Essay in Interpretation. John Grier Hibben 1902

Chapter XIII: Actuality, or The Real World

Actuality is defined by Hegel as the unity of essence and its manifestation, or the unity of inner and outer. It is incorrect to conceive the inner as the actual, and the outer as merely the phenomenal, the fleeting, the unreal. The actual is the essence as it reveals its innermost being through external manifestation; it is the noumenal as it discloses its nature in the phenomenal. It is a false conception, also, to regard the external expression of that which is actual as the result of a transition from a preceding state of quiescent being to its outer manifestation, though the mediation of some force which acts in an external manner. The actual is not something which is produced, turned out as if by a machine, and therefore to be regarded as a mere product. It is rather that which is self-producing.

It is not merely the result of a process of development. It is the energizing force which underlies that process as well. We have already seen that, according to Hegel’s general conception of his system, the complete cosmic process is to be conceived as the expression of reason, and that reason is essentially the creative, constructive, and sustaining force in the universe. But this conception may also be regarded as the essential characterization of the actual, or the real. The two points of view are in reality one and the same, and their significance may be summed up in the Hegelian formula: “The real is the rational, and the rational is the real.” It is absurd, therefore, to draw the distinction between the unreality of thought and the reality of all objective phenomena. It is utterly misleading to say, therefore, that while an idea may be good, or true, that it cannot be realized in actual experience. Such a diremption of the world of ideas from the world of reality, Hegel insists, can arise only in the sphere of the abstract understanding, – that separating function of the mind, which is devoid of all synthetic capacity and unifying power.

There is a popular misconception that Plato recognized the idea and only the idea, as the truth, and that Aristotle, on the other hand, rejected the idea, and retained only the actual. The true conception of the relation between these two masters of Greek thought is this: that while the actual is the fundamental principle in the philosophy of Aristotle, nevertheless, the actual with him is not merely the brute fact immediately at hand, hut it embraces the idea as actuality also, which serves both to interpret and explain the given facts of consciousness. Aristotle characterized the idea of Plato as a mere dunamis, that is, a mere potentiality, – and insisted that the idea must be conceived essentially as it reveals itself in its manifestation, – that is, as energeia. He therefore defines reality as an entelechy (enteleceia) – that is, the self-realization of the essence in the phenomena[9]By this conception Aristotle reconciled the antithesis between the Eleatic and the Heraclitean points of view. Hegel’s position is substantially the same as that of Aristotle; for in his system throughout there is a fundamental recognition of the necessity of combining in one the complementary elements of potentiality and actuality. From this point of view the dialectic movement may be defined merely as a process of transition from the potential to the actual.

Approaching now a more careful analysis of the concept of actuality, we find that its primary and most fundamental element is the idea of possibility (die Möglichkeit). The possible, according to Hegel, is an essential moment in every actual phenomenon. It is, however, not to be confused with the barren possibility of mere fancy. In the world of the imagination, all things are possible. It is possible that the moon might fall into the earth. Caesar might not have crossed the Rubicon. Charles I of England might have been exiled instead of beheaded. Napoleon might have been killed at the battle of Waterloo. All such possibilities of the imagination must rank as footless speculations. The name given to them by Hegel is that of formal possibilities, that is, having the mere form or outer shell of reality. A possibility, however, to which some significance is attached, and which may be called a significant possibility to distinguish it from the merely formal possibility, must always be regarded as the preliminary stage of every form of development which in the very process of its unfolding reveals the necessity to which the potential must have been subjected in order to push itself forth into the actual. Such a possibility may be called also with appropriateness, real or actual possibility.

Actuality, however, considered apart from its inner potentiality as its essential ground, presents to us only its external face. Looking at it from this point of view exclusively, we find ourselves confronted with the external aspect of actuality which immediately discloses the category of contingency (die Zufälligkeit) as its basal characteristic. The contingent refers to the external relation which obtains between phenomena.

This relation may be such that one phenomenon depends externally upon some other phenomenon so that the one forms the condition of the other. The idea of the contingent when definitely expressed in a concrete relation is thus to be regarded as the condition (die Bedingung) upon the presence or absence of which depends the presence or absence of the phenomenon which is related to it.

The role of a phenomenon which fulfils the function of a condition may be characterized as follows: it is a special existence, an immediate thing; it has also a vocation, as it were, to be destroyed in its primary form in order to conserve the realization of something else. As such it fulfils its own destiny, and although dying in its own individuality, it lives in another, and the other form for which it was evidently designed by its own nature is so near of kin that it may be properly regarded as its own true self. In other words, to use an Hegelian expression, the condition is aufgehöben in the resulting phenomenon to which it gives rise, and into whose actuality its own essence enters and is there conserved.

When, however, the point of view is not exclusively confined to the external manifestation, but when the external manifestation is regarded as the necessary development of an inner organizing activity which has been characterized as the real possibility, or the possibility regarded as the potential of reality, then the potential, the process, and the resulting product may be conceived as constituting together the actual fact. The actual fact, moreover, embraces all the purely external relations of contingency, including all the conditions which both contribute to and are merged in the actual fact itself.

In such a process, wherein on one side the potential tends to become actual, and on the other the purely external conditions themselves contribute to the process as essential factors, and so far forth lose the external character of their relations, – in such a process the development reveals some underlying necessity which expresses itself as a law of uniformity and universality. Hegel defines the idea of necessity, (die Nothwendigkeit) as the unity of the potential and the actual. The development of the one into the other we are constrained to believe must take place, and that it must take place in some one definite way rather than in any other. That is what is meant by necessity. Necessity signifies something more than that one thing has been derived from another. The idea of derivation does not exhaust the meaning of necessity. What is merely derivative is a product which is what it is, not through itself but through something else. That which is necessary contains the additional idea that it must be what it is through itself and through the activity of its own inner processes; and even if it is derivative, it must still contain the antecedent whence it is derived as a vanishing element within itself. The necessary is something which is mediated (vermittelt) and yet mediated through that which belongs to itself, – that is, mediated by the inner constraint of its own nature. Such an inner determination which arises from the very nature of a thing itself, Hegel refers to as gesetzt. Any characteristic, according to Hegel, is said to be gesetzt when it can be shown as the necessary outcome of the very nature of the object to which it is referred. Whenever that which is given in thought leads by the very necessity of the thought processes themselves to a conclusion dependent upon it as its premise, the resulting conclusion is always described by Hegel as gesetzt. All phases of the dialectic process are gesetzt in the sense of following by a necessary constraint of thought from the very nature of that which precedes them. This term is so intimately associated with the idea of necessity which underlies the whole dialectic movement of thought that it has seemed worth while to explain it somewhat at length.

The contingent represented by an external condition of a fact is not merely a condition external to the fact and sustaining only a passing relation to it; it must be conceived also as an essential element of the fact itself. The condition and the fact fall together in one and the same system. It is the business of philosophy to reveal the necessity which, although at a far deeper level, nevertheless always underlies the contingent.

It is again the work of the abstract understanding which draws a sharp line of distinction between the idea of necessity and that of freedom (die Freiheit). When we regard all phenomena as necessitated, ourselves included, we at first sight seem to occupy, as Hegel puts it, “a thoroughly slavish and dependent position."[20]It must be borne in mind, however, that any kind of freedom which is wholly devoid of the element of necessity is nothing more or less than mere caprice. There is such a thing as a perfectly free activity which nevertheless recognizes the inherent law of its own being, and endeavors freely to realize it. Such freedom is the only true freedom. Were a man to feel that he is under the spell of an inevitable fate and that he is not in the remotest degree dependent upon his own exertions, then it would follow that all his activities would become paralyzed, and he would find himself out of harmony with the world system of which he is a part. To realize, on the other hand, that he is the architect of his own fortune and the master of his fate, is to inspire him with the earnest desire and strong purpose to realize the best that is in him. Hegel holds that the individuality of man is so embraced in the absolute universal as to be conserved and not destroyed. This conception will be more fully developed when we come to the exposition of the notion, which in its highest expression is the divine reason to which all personalities owe their being, and which constitutes at the same time the charter of their freedom.

Necessity, then, is the expression of that binding connection which links together condition, fact, and activity in one and the same system, and the question naturally suggests itself, What is the fundamental nature of that system which exhibits the underlying necessity as a bond uniting all of its essential elements together? Hegel’s answer to this question, as might be surmised, is a threefold one. He views the idea of necessity under the following categories: –

(1) Substantiality. (Die Substantialität.)

(2) Causality. (Die Kausalität.)

(3) Reciprocal activity. (Die Wechselwirkung.)

These categories express the several possible ways by which any fact is connected with its corresponding condition through some mediating activity.

The category of substantiality is the immediate and primary form which the relation of necessity assumes in connecting every potential state of development with its corresponding actual. The actual which is present as a fact, appears and then disappears; for a fact regarded as a mere fact, and a separate existence regarded merely as a separate existence, have no permanency. Such facts rise and fall again; they are and again are not. There is a perpetual ebb and flow, growth and decay, throughout all nature.

“Our little systems have their day, They have their day and cease to be.” But underlying all these ephemeral forms and evanescent properties, there is nevertheless some underlying basis which remains absolutely constant. This is the fundamental substance. Upon its surface all things appear in their brief moment of individuality. They sink again into the all-absorbing element whence they arose. Their fleeting existence marks them as the veriest accidents of being in contrast to the stability which characterizes the substance of which they are but the passing modes. They are the many; the substance is the one. This distinction corresponds to that which was drawn between the whole and its parts already referred to in the preceding chapter upon the nature of the phenomenal world.

Hegel’s conception of substance bears upon its face the stamp of Spinoza. There is, however, a radical point of departure, inasmuch as Spinoza ascribes no reality to the phenomenal world. The Ersekeinung is merely Schein, – that is, the phenomenal is only an illusion, and possesses no separate individuality of its own. Hegel suggests that this is an oriental strain which has appeared in Spinoza’s thinking owing to his Hebrew ancestry. Hegel himself enters a protest against the elimination of the idea of a real individuality. In this connection he introduces into his system the principle of individuality, as insisted upon by Leibniz in opposition to Spinoza.

At this point Hegel also emphasizes the impropriety of calling Spinoza an atheist. His infidelity is not toward God so much as toward the world. His system is essentially one of acosmism. He denied the reality of the world; and in losing the world lost his own soul at the same time, for the unreality of the Ego follows logically from the unreality of the world of which it forms a part.

In the passage in which Hegel criticises the defects of Spinoza’s system,[21]there is clearly revealed on Hegel’s part the desire to save his own system from a pantheistic drift. He there disclaims most stoutly any profession of pantheism. It is a question, of course, whether his system as a whole may not logically lead to pantheistic conclusions, despite its author’s protests to the contrary. Nevertheless, it is a fact which is most significant, that Hegel did not himself judge that his system necessarily demanded a pantheistic interpretation. And this fact should not be ignored in a criticism of Hegel’s general position. In the third part of the Logic, moreover, Hegel maintains that the Absolute is more than mere substance, for in the doctrine of the notion the supreme reason or God is regarded as subject rather than substance, a personality rather than an empty and indefinite abstraction. Without this qualification the substance of Spinoza would be, as Hegel puts it, “merely the universal all-devouring [negative] power, like a vast, dark, and boundless abyss, into which all things sink and are forever lost."[22] Hegel’s conception of substance marks but a preliminary stage which must be further developed and supplemented. The Hegelian substance, regarded merely as substance, while constant and abiding is nevertheless only static. The individual manifestations of the phenomenal occur in connection with it, proceeding from it and again returning to it. But substance, as such, lacks the dynamic power to initiate action, and to produce the results flowing from it. That which is thus connected with it is still only accidental in reference to it. And therefore the concept of substance is necessitated by the inner constraint of thought to develop the idea of causality inherently connected with it. The substance becomes cause; the static passes over into the dynamic. The relation of substance and accident (that is, of substance to any one of the properties connected with it and which rank as accidents in reference to it) we may regard as corresponding to the relation already discussed, – that of the whole to its parts. In a similar manner, also, the relation of cause and effect may be considered as corresponding to that of force and its manifestation.

The German word for cause, die Ursache, indicates an original or originating element. Cause in this sense is to be regarded as a causa sui.

It possesses, from this point of view, the capacity of initiation, and of producing its effect as the necessary consequence of its own being and activity. From one’ point of view cause and effect are distinct terms. But this represents a finite and abstract view of their relations, such as is the result of the mere understanding. From a more comprehensive point of view the two terms, which seem to be distinct, in reality fall together as one. The cause reveals itself as a cause only so far as it is manifested in the effect. And the effect has significance as an effect only so far as it is seen to be connected with its cause. In a sense, we speak of the rain as the cause of the dampness of the ground, and yet a deeper consideration reveals the fact that the dampness is the rain itself, only in another form.

The rain causes the dampness and it is the dampness. The effect, therefore, is merely the manifestation of the activity of the cause. The cause is conserved in the effect and the effect is potential in the cause.

Although the relation which obtains between the cause and the effect may be regarded as a transition from one state to another, with an accompanying conservation of the former state in the latter, nevertheless there is nothing to limit this process and so render it thoroughly satisfactory as a final account of the matter. Cause leads to effect, and the effect in turn becomes a cause, and so on ad infinitum. Thus, the causal relation may be traced backward from a given effect to its cause, and the cause of that cause, and so on without limit, or forward from effect to effect also without limit. There seems to be no starting-point and no end. As thus stated, the doctrine of causation is incomplete, and therefore most unsatisfactory. A natural complement to this conception of causation is one that is found growing out of its very limitations, and is known as the doctrine of reciprocal activity, or the relation of action and reaction.

Causation, therefore, is to be regarded, according to Hegel, as finding its most complete expression in the concept of reciprocal activity (die Wechselwirkung), which represents the relation obtaining between cause and effect as consisting of a mutual interaction. The cause produces the effect, and yet the effect in turn reacts upon the cause in such a manner that the cause is as much a product of the effect as the effect is of the cause.

This principle of interaction is best illustrated by the reciprocal relations which parts of one and the same organism sustain to each other, – for example, in the human body the several organs are related in a reciprocal manner, so that they function in such a way as to act and react upon one another, in an indefinite variety of manifestations. Hegel draws attention also to the relation of the character and customs of a people to their constitution, and insists that this always is of the nature of a reciprocal relation. The constitution is in a sense the outgrowth and the expression of the national character, but from another point of view the national character is intimately affected and modified by the constitution.

So also we often say that drunkenness causes poverty; it is quite as true that poverty causes drunkenness. There are instances, therefore, as indicated by these illustrations, wherein the cause in question does not lead to an endless causal progression or regression, but the causal series in such cases is to be conceived no longer as a line extending without limit in either direction, but as a line which bends backward upon itself, representing the reacting influence of the effect upon the supposed cause.

This connection being established, the circulatory movement of causation always works back again to the starting-point. Within the bounds of this circle there is disclosed a certain kind of self-sufficiency. Cause and effect fall together in one and the same area, and in their mutual dependence they are nevertheless independent of everything else. The cause finds in the effect, not merely its other, but its own real self. Cause is not one thing, and the effect something which is outside of the cause, and externally related to it. They together form one closed system. From this point of view, cause must be conceived as possessing in a measure the power of initiative, of self-direction, and self-construction. It ranks no longer as a mere force resident in some underlying substance. It rises to the higher dignity of proceeding from a source which partakes of the nature of a subject rather than a substance. The underlying necessity, a self-imposed necessity, is such as to form a natural transition to that which is, therefore, actually the expression of the truest kind of freedom.

The highest form of substance we have found to be that of cause.

The highest form of cause is that of reciprocal action and reaction. The highest form of reciprocal action is that which passes over into self-directed and self-determined action. The transition now is a natural and easy one to the doctrine of the notion (der Begriff), the self-directing formative principle of reason which is the underlying and essential principle of all being. This transition from the category of essence to that of the notion may be expressed in a word, – it is a transition from the idea of substance to that of subject; from the idea of necessity to that of freedom.