Hegel’s Dialectic and Sublation

Hegel’s philosophy is generally considered to be underpinned by the dialectic.  Hegel is not the first philosopher to present the dialectic; dialectic is found in Greek and Christian philosophy – and since Hegel is largely drawing from Greek and Christian philosophy it shouldn’t be a surprise he’s in the dialectical camp.  What Hegel did do that makes his dialectic unique was he offered a presentation of the dialectic as something energetic, exuberant, and confrontation – the dialectic was essential to the agon which moved History, consciousness, and knowledge forward.  Tied to the dialectic is Hegel’s concept of sublation (aufhebung).

Most interpreters of Hegel present Hegel’s dialectic as flowing from Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis.  This is because the first reviewer of Hegel, his colleague and fellow idealist and romantic philosopher from the University of Jena, Johann Fichte described Hegel’s thought as reflecting his own thesis-antithesis-synthesis triad.  Fichte, the premier German intellectual between Kant and Hegel, was the first to use that terminology for his own work and Fichte and Hegel shared a heated rivalry with one another.  Hegel used concepts invoking ecstatic movement, liveliness, exuberance, and the positive-negative-synthetic within his dialectic.  Hegel felt Fichte’s dialectical triad was lifeless and didn’t effectively convey the energy of Spirit.  Nevertheless, it has stuck.

Hegel’s dialectic is one of confrontational process or development.  This is probably the single most important thing to understand from Hegel: Philosophy is an unfolding process which, upon reflection, a systematic understanding (actual knowing) can be derived (the synthesis) from what was experienced and reflected upon.  Thus, Hegel is uniting the transcendent (rational reflection and consciousness) with the phenomenological (experiential).  Again, Hegel is not necessarily new in this since this conceptualization of self and world, the transcendent and phenomenological, has been the core of Christian philosophy ever since Augustine and Hegel’s German counterparts, people like Herder, Kant, and Fichte, are also engaged in the same project.

Unlike the Socratic dialectic, however, Hegel’s dialectic is one of organic growth to the end.  Whereas the Socratic dialectic took dialectical conversation and inquiry and scrutinized it under rationality (reason) to determine if what a person was saying was true or not, Hegel’s dialectic does not permit this possibility.  Hegel’s Absolute is not something that all persons irrespective of time and place have access to.  The Absolute is coming into being over the course of History.  Hegel’s philosophy is the first systematic philosophy of history.  In fact, Hegel said as much – that philosophy is really the history of philosophy.

This does not mean that there was no truth in prior ages however.  In this swipe he rejects the Whig view of Dark Age to Enlightenment, no truth to truth, superstition to non-superstition.  Instead, each prior epoch of philosophy – like a previous age of growth in a plant – contained some truth but not the whole truth because, from their situatedness, they did not have the full picture in sight.  They had not reached the end.  Only the philosopher at the end of history, at the conclusion of the dialectical unfolding, would have the whole truth.  That said, each prior age of development has truth within it which supplements us in the present and we can only understand the totality of truth (actual knowing) if we reorient ourselves to recovery of the good, true, and beautiful, in previous ages (or stages) of development.

That dialectic unfolds through conflict is where the sublation (aufhebung) comes into play with Hegel.  For Hegel sublation is not the same as in Marx – which is the elimination of the prior to the new through material exhaustion.  In Hegel sublation retains a certain Greco-Christian (Aristotelian-Augustinian) nature to it.  That is, while the thesis passes away through the antithesis and the antithesis passes away into the synthesis, not all of the thesis or antithesis is eliminated.  Rather, that which was good and true in the prior gets subsumed into the newer.  A <–> B = A –> B (+A) <–> C = B(+A) –> C (+B+A), and so forth.

The dialectic unfolds in a process of concretization and particularization.  The universal, the Absolute Spirit, is becoming concretized and particularized in, and through, History.  Universals which are necessary for truth, and particularity, which is necessary for pluralism, work together and not against one another.  This is the problem of philosophy in Hegel’s time.  Universality in the new science threatens to homogenize everything and only concentrates on the results rather than the whole.  Particularity, emanating from subjective idealism, leads only to relativism and, inevitably, a denial of any absolute truth as we only have “my truth” and “your truth” which is a contradiction because Truth, by definition, would be universal and absolute.

The universal, in its process of concretization, is particularized because of many variables: environment, religion, language, random events even, and so on.  However, the universal’s particularization is true in each concretized manifestation.  For instance, the universal of honoring ones parents is manifested in a multiplicity of particular ways from culture to culture and place to place, but when you get at the “real issue” you recognize they are all united by the universality of filial piety.  Likewise, the universal of not murdering another human is manifested in a multiplicity of particular ways from culture to culture and place to place, and they each have their own ways of dealing with those who break this sacred universal law, but when you get at the “real issue” you recognize they are all united under that universal dictum that murder is wrong.

Additionally, the dialectic includes the element of “Othering.”  A is opposed to B and B opposed to A.  A does not fully understand itself alone as it-self (as purely A) and only comes to more fully understand itself through its dialectic Other.  The same goes for B.  B does not fully understand itself alone as it-self but comes to more fully understand itself in relationship to A.  Thus, an integral part of Hegel’s dialectic of understanding comes in opposition: the Other.  C, (the synthesis) does not fully understand itself as it-self without its relationality to what came before it: A and B.  This process repeats.  Consciousness grows through this dialectical Othering.  At the very least, I am not that.  In being not that, I have the possibility of more fully coming to understand myself in relation to the Other.  This is a monumental moment in the history of consciousness and phenomenology.  Consciousness and self-actualization is dependent upon difference, upon plurality, and upon particularity.

Concerning the embodiment of the dialectic and where it is most purely seen, Hegel argues the embodiment of the dialectic is generally culture: religion, literature, and the arts.  Culture is where most of the activity of the Spirit unfolds and where the dialectic takes root.  That said, the dialectic also obviously influences everything too: politics, economics, the social, ethics, etc.  It is just that culture is the most visible realm where the Spirit and dialectic unfolds because culture is the realm that first attempted to understand the Spirit and dialectic and capture its essence in its works.

The unfolding of the dialectic in Hegel is the movement to actual knowing.  Actual knowing is not merely reflective (rational) and not merely experiential (phenomenological).  It is both.  Actual knowing has ramifications for how one acts, lives, and experiences, the world.  It has consequences for one’s actual life.

Lastly, the dialectic does not always unfold in a smooth and orderly manner.  Sometimes the dialectic unfolds in great explosions of the ecstatic.  No doubt Hegel was being influenced by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars during his time.  There are world historical moments, namely when the antithesis arises to counter the thesis.  This is the moment of great movement and ecstasy within the dialectic before the transformation into the synthesis occurs.  It is precisely these world historical moments when “something big is happening” so to speak, which Fichte’s triad failed to capture and Hegel felt his dialectic did.

So what is the dialectic in Hegel?

The dialectic is the unfolding progression, or development, toward the truth – actual knowing.  This is a process, like the famous image he gives in Section 2 of the Preface of the Phenomenology of plant blossoming into a fruit bearing organism from a tiny seed.  It is only at the end of this process, when the full plant has blossomed and borne fruit, can we actually fully know the whole.  The seed was an integral part of this process, as were the periods of slow and ecstatic growth to get to the fruit.  But we should not just concentrate on the fruit, Hegel warns, but on the totality of the whole.  This is where his idea of sublation is important to his dialectic.  The seed is A (thesis).  The blossoming is B (antithesis).  The fruit borne by the plant is C (synthesis).  But the seed was necessary to get to the fruit bearing end, so in this sense A is attached to C.  Just as B is attached to C because the blossoming was necessary also, and the blossoming needed the seed.  The seed may be “gone” but that is because it got subsumed into the new.

If you take Aristotle, or Augustine’s metaphysics, which is hierarchal, and flip it to its side and make it linear, that is what Hegel has done.  Rather than growing upward, or stacking, or ascending, what the dialectical process in Hegel is doing is moving in a linear direction.  Furthermore, this process is not fixed.  Whereas the Greek and Christian rationalist traditions maintained that all could possess truth at any time, this is not the case with Hegel.  Only those at the end of the process, the end of history, could fully ascertain and embody actual knowing.  Hegel had no illusions as to whom he thought that person was.

But Hegel’s dialectic of confrontation and sublation is of tremendous importance.  The idea of the world historical moment arising in the moment of antithesis is deeply consequential and influential. As is his understanding of sublation (contra Marx) and its implication of looking back to the past and finding the truth in the old thesis, and antithesis, and how that impacts us today.  Thus we find Hegel’s essential romanticism bound up in his understanding of sublation.  At the synthesis point we risk not understanding ourselves if we don’t understand what came before us.  Thus, the dialectical progression in Hegel is bound to the whole – we are not isolated in our position from what came before, we are deeply intertwined and related to it.  And thus the importance of culture within Hegel’s dialectic and philosophy of history becomes ever more apparent to readers.

What is the goal of the dialectic?  Besides the obvious answer of actual knowing, formal knowledge.  It is the Absolute (the Transcendent) becoming embodied and made concrete in particular ways within the phenomenological realm.  In this manner Hegel is very much part of the Christian tradition in being a child of the earth with the ability to embody and live the Truth and Absolute in life irrespective of his otherwise modalistic theology.  The Absolute (God) has come to earth (the phenomenological realm) to bring knowledge (truth) to us so that we may embody and live that truth in our own unique and particular ways which enriches the world and allows us to know ourselves.  Thus, we can say that the end goal of the dialectic is self-actualization; absolute knowing, the absolute knowing of ourselves, our relations with the whole, and our place within the whole.  Though we should ask ourselves this question with regard to Hegel: is historicism necessary for this?


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of Finding ArcadiaThe Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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