Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2004
Retrieved May 20, 2022, from

4. The system: metaphysical foundations

Hegel’s systematic philosophy attempts to comprehend reality in all its manifestations as a self-representation of reason (Vernunft). His conception of what he calls ‘reason’ combines various specifically Hegelian connotations, both ontological and epistemological. For him, ‘reason’ is not merely the name for a human faculty which contributes in a specific manner to our gaining knowledge; he also uses ‘reason’ to describe that which is ultimately and eminently real. This is the ontological connotation. Reason is reality, and that alone is truly real which is reasonable. This programmatic credo, which has become famous from the foreword to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, is the basic precept determining the entire approach to his system.

At least three different convictions make up this basic precept of the ontological dignity of reason. The first is that the everything which in one sense or another is real must be considered as the differentiation and partial realization of a primary structure which in turn forms the basis for whatever is real in whichever sense. Hegel calls this primary structure ‘the absolute’ or ‘reason’. He shares this conviction of the necessity of assuming a primary structure he called ‘reason’ (interpreted ontologically) with Fichte, Schelling, Hölderlin and other members of the post-Kantian idealistic movement who used different names for it. It is this assumption which makes them all (ontological) monists. For Hegel this conviction is justified not only because it alone offers a basis for systematic philosophical considerations, following the failure of all previous philosophical attempts to conceive of a unified and complete representation of the world. It is also justified because, according to Hegel, without it one cannot make sense of the concepts of an object and of objectivity. This latter justification is part of the task of his Phenomenology of Spirit

This first conviction, which forms a part of Hegel’s ontological conception of reason, is still too imprecise to provide a clue as to why exactly the concept ‘reason’ can be used to characterize the primary structure. Hegel’s second important conviction, however, makes this clearer. It relates to the internal constitution of the structure which he characterizes as reason. He understands this structure to be a complex unity of thinking and being. The relevant motives for this conviction can be summarized as follows: the only philosophical approach which can organize the whole of reality into a unified and coherent picture accessible to knowledge is one which insists that everything taken to be real is only real inasmuch as it can be comprehended as the actualization of some specific structural elements of reason. This assertion of the essential reasonableness of all being, together with the first conviction of the necessity of assuming a primary structure, leads directly to the concept of this primary structure as a unity of thinking and being, understood in the very radical sense that thinking and being are one and the same, or that only thinking has being. If we now call this unity of thinking and being ‘reason’, and if, like Hegel, we are convinced that the requisite primary structure must be thought of as this unity of thinking and being, then reason will be declared on the one hand to represent what in the final analysis is ultimately real, and on the other that which alone is real. Since a monistic position is one in which a single entity is maintained as the ultimate and sole reality, Hegel‘sphilosophical conception has rightly been called a ‘Monism of Reason’ (see Monism).

The third conviction which enters into Hegel’s basic assumption of reason as the primary structure constituting reality and thus being ultimately and only real is that this structure constitutes reality and thus its own objectivity in a teleological process which must be understood as a process of cognition. It is this conviction which leads to the characteristically Hegelian dogma that there can be no adequate theory of reality without a dynamic or process-oriented ontology (see Processes). The formula which Hegel uses to characterize this process from his early Jena works onwards shows very clearly the dominant role which he assigns to what he defines as ‘reason’ in the systematic approach designed to elaborate his third conviction. This process is described as ‘self-knowledge of cognition’ (Selbsterkenntnis der Vernunft). Hegel tries to integrate within this formula various aspects of his conception of reason. The first aspect is that it is necessary to take reason, understood as the primary structure, as something which is essentially dynamic. By this he means that the element of self-realization forms part of the moments which determine the primary structure. It is difficult to understand the way in which Hegel links this element of self-realization into his idea of reason as the unity of thinking and being. In order to get a rather over-simplified idea of the background for Hegel’s claim, it might help to rely metaphorically on the theory of organism: just as an organism can be described as an entity whose development is linked to the concept or the structural plan of itself in such a way that the (more or less) successful realization of this concept or structural plan belongs to its being real, so we should think of Hegelian reason, understood as the ontologically relevant primary structure, as realizing in a quasi-organic developmental process the unity of thinking and being which characterizes its concept, thereby representing itself as real or as reality.

The second aspect Hegel has in mind when he speaks of ‘self-cognition of reason’, describing a process which must indeed be understood as that of the self-realization of reason, is that this process represents a process of cognition for reason. It is apparently not sufficient for Hegel to embed his idea of reason as the ontological primary structure in a conception of realization based on the paradigm of the organism. Such a grounding seems to be too unspecific for him, because it does not show how to describe a process which is typical of all organisms in such a way that we understand more precisely and in detail what it means for the process to be one of self-realization of reason. The specific way in which reason realizes itself is to be characterized first of all as a process of cognition, because only this characterization takes into account the fact that that which is being realized, namely reason, must be thought of strictly as nothing more than thinking qua cognition. But even this way of conceiving the realization of reason is still too imprecise, unless one includes in the concept of realization the thesis that reason is the ultimately and only real ontological primary structure. The inclusion of this thesis then leads directly to the teleologically conceived description of the process of the realization of reason as a process of self-cognition. For if only reason - by which is meant the unity of thinking and being - is real, and if an integral part of this concept of reason is the conception of its realization in the form of a process of cognition, then this process can only be directed towards the cognition of reason itself, because nothing else exists. Since this process aims to make reason aware that it alone is real, the presentation of this process, in Hegel’s view, must take on the form of a system in which each manifestation of reality documents its reasonable nature. His philosophy aims to elaborate this system.

The project of exhibiting reason not only as the basis for all reality, but also as the whole of reality itself, was Hegel’s sole, lifelong philosophical goal. It took him some time to be able to formulate this project explicitly. This is linked to his intellectual development (see §2 above). He also considered various approaches to the realization and development of this project (see §3 above), but he never felt any need to question the project itself.

Citing this article:
Horstmann, Rolf-peter. The system: metaphysical foundations. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831), 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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