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1Hegel’s exceptional admiration for Aristotle is well known, and Aristotle often serves as an exemplar in key passages of Hegel’s work. A prime example is the passage from the Book Lambda of the Metaphysics quoted at the end of the doctrine of the Absolute Spirit in the 1827 and 1830 editions of the Encyclopedia; it crowns the entire Hegelian speculative edifice as its ultimate and highest expression. Hegel’s admiration is expressed in a particularly direct manner in the pages that the German philosopher dedicates to Aristotle’s thought in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy. The tone is clear from the start: “[Aristotle] was one of the richest and vastest (deepest) of all the scientific geniuses that have as yet appeared, and no time has produced anyone like him.” [1] And a few lines later: “Aristotle penetrated the entire mass and all aspects of the real universe, and made its richness and dispersion subject to the concept. Most of the philosophical sciences have him to thank for their differentiation and their beginnings. […] He is vast and speculative like no other.” [2] Bernard Bourgeois, who mentions these passages at the end of the Presentation of his translation of the Philosophy of Spirit section of the Encyclopedia, remarks on the deep similarities between the minds and perspectives of the two philosophers: in each one, albeit in different ways that we will examine later, there is the same intimate combination, “the same unity of empirical intuition and rational concept,” the same “reconciliation of the exploration of multiform effective reality […] and the conceptual determination of this reality.” [3] Without a doubt, what Hegel discovers with excitement in Aristotle is the brilliant anticipation, in the context of the beginnings of philosophy in Greece, of an approach that he also uses in the very different and more mature context of his modern achievement. As Bourgeois notes, Alain was correct in calling Hegel the “Aristotle of the modern era.” [4]

2I believe that this affinity, to which Hegel himself was clearly attentive, and that he showed in his emphatic praise, deserves further examination and explanation. It is confirmed in the different parts that he distinguishes in Aristotelian philosophy. As Hegel notes concerning the definition of nature in Aristotle’s Physics, it is presented “in the highest and truest manner.” [5] In it we can see the “true concept of nature,” [6] contrary to what it became in modern considerations of nature, which are characterized by the loss of an internal and living finality that was not rediscovered until Kant, albeit in a subjective mode. Hegel concludes his presentation of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature with these words: “The treasures contained in Aristotle have remained almost unrecognized for centuries.” [7] As for Aristotelian psychology, we can refer to the declaration at the beginning of the Philosophy of Spirit of the Encyclopedia where he states that:


The books of Aristotle on the Soul, along with his discussions on its special aspects and states, are for this reason still by far the most admirable, perhaps even the sole, work of philosophical value on this topic. The main aim of a philosophy of the mind can only be to re-introduce unity of idea and principle into the theory of mind, and so re-interpret the lesson of those Aristotelian books. [8]

4This praise is repeated and even extended to the ethical works in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy, where we can read the following:


The best that we possess on psychology up to the modern era is what we have obtained from Aristotle; the same is true of his reflections on will, freedom, and other determinations such as imputation, intention, etc. [9]

6There would certainly be much to gain from a more in-depth study of Hegel’s reading of these areas of Aristotle’s philosophy, as well as of his logic, [10] which, as a logic of understanding and not a speculative logic, a logic of ordinary, finite thought, still brings great honor to its inventor: “Aristotle has the immortal merit of having recognized the activities of abstract thought, of recognizing and determining the forms which thought assumes within us.” [11] What for my part I would like to examine as a priority is Hegel’s approach to Aristotle’s metaphysics, an approach that he develops in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy before moving on to the other parts that he distinguishes in Aristotle’s philosophy. There are two main reasons for this choice.

7The first is provided by Hegel himself when he remarks that “his [Aristotle’s] speculative idea is mainly to be gathered from the books of his Metaphysics.” [12] To be precise, it is found in the theory of substance that Aristotle develops there and which, as we will see, is the primary focus of Hegel’s reading. It is, as he indicates, what Aristotle, who did not know the term metaphysics, called ϖρώτη ϕιλοσοϕία, [13] or first philosophy, because its aims, as stated in the first book of the Metaphysics and quoted by Hegel, were “the most knowable (τὰ µάλιστα ἐϖιστητά),” “the first and original causes (τὰ ϖρῶτα καὶ τὰ αἴτια),” or as Hegel states, “the rational (das Vernünftige),” which is the ultimate object of philosophy and the means by which everything else becomes known. [14] He adds that we call it logic, [15] clearly understood to be speculative logic here and not the logic of understanding with which Aristotelian logic is generally associated. What Hegel finds in Aristotle’s metaphysics is the expression of a speculative logic containing and developing an “architectonic” [16] principle on which the other parts of philosophy rely, even if Aristotle was not able to realize this unified organization of philosophy as a whole—far from it. I will return to this point later. [17]

8The second reason for my choice is that what Hegel finds in the theory of substance presented by Aristotle in his metaphysics seems to be nothing other—and this will have to be established—than a first formulation of his own conception of truth as stated in the famous passage from the Preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit:


In my view, which can be justified only by the exposition of the system itself, everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject. [18]

10The thesis I have formulated here may seem surprising at first. Does not the above sentence state that it is not a question of grasping truth as substance, while Aristotle’s metaphysics develops precisely a theory of substance, of truth as substance? This statement in the Preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit should not be misunderstood: as Bernard Bourgeois has observed in his translation of Hegel’s first major work, “for Hegel, it is not a question of not grasping or no longer grasping truth as substance.” [19] On the contrary, as we will see, substantiality remains an essential determination of truth. The question then becomes: what type or what form of substantiality? Ari Simhon, in his commentary on this passage from the Preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, points to what he calls “certain (voluntary) hesitations in terminology” related to the use of the word “substance.” As he writes, “substance refers first to dead, static, motionless substance (as in Spinoza), but also sometimes designates living substance, true substantiality that is self-realized in the process where it becomes living.” [20] This is very precisely the case of substance as Aristotle conceives of it. According to Hegel, what we are dealing with in relation to Aristotelian substance is by no means an inert or indifferent substantiality but what the text of the Preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit calls “living substance (lebendige Substanz)” which he specifies as “being which is in truth Subject, or, what is the same, is in truth actual only in so far as it is the movement of positing itself.” [21] Yet beyond the brilliant and well-known phrases from the Preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, how should we understand this living substance, which is “just as much (eben so sehr)” subject? How are we to understand it, if it is clear that it should not be seen as a simple juxtaposition—by addition or succession—of substantiality and subjectivity, no more than a pure dissolving–a simple eradication–of one in the other? How, in what Hegel calls living substance, are we dealing with a substance, with the characteristics of substantiality, and which, as such, is “in truth, subject”? I believe that the Aristotelian theory of substance, as Hegel reads and interprets it in the texts of the Metaphysics, can provide some answers to these decisive questions.

11Before turning to the pages that Hegel dedicates to this theory in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy, however, we should respond to a preliminary objection: is not Aristotle a Greek philosopher who, as such, had no knowledge of subjectivity as Hegel conceives of it, since it is essentially an aspect of modern philosophy and its development since Descartes? Ari Simhon, whom I just cited concerning the Hegelian notion of “living substance,” the substance that is “in truth subject,” takes this position when he writes:


Hegel rejects the concept of the subject that comes from the Aristotelian tradition […]. In fact, this Aristotelian concept refers more to the notion of substance than that of subject. The theoretical model of the Hegelian notion of subject is not to be found in Aristotle, nor in ancient philosophy in general, for that matter, but in modern philosophy, and particularly in Fichte. [22]

13Without questioning the importance of modern contributions or even the ones made by Fichte to the issue that we are examining here, I think that this assertion must be strongly qualified.

14First, let us ask: is it true that ancient philosophy, according to Hegel, completely ignored subjectivity in the modern sense of the notion in favor of the sole reign of substance, and by this I mean a substance bereft of any subjective characteristics? We could respond that while it is important not to forget the distinction he makes between ancient and modern philosophies, it is all the more important to recognize the distinction he makes between Greece and the Orient, and consequently between the forms of thought that are encountered there. [23] In short, for Hegel, what comes to an end in Greece is precisely the compact substantialism that was characteristic of the Orient and its culture in general: the Greek spirit is no longer in this sense “an underlying substance to which the individual is related only as an accidental property” but it “emerges into an awareness of its own freedom.” [24] The growth and progression of this awareness come to form the specific characteristics of the West and its history, but this consciousness was only in the early stages with the Greeks. For this reason, instead of following the Christian and modern advances, it was “still bound up in the underlying substance” [25] in the figure of what Hegel calls the Greeks’ “beautiful freedom”, whose “union with the substantial end is natural and unreflecting,” [26] focused on this end and in harmony with it. [27] Oriental substantiality was not yet completely overcome; it remained a “presupposition” [28] of the Greek world, but its meaning was fundamentally changed by the involvement of a decisively new element. This element was rich in future developments: the value given to the singular and to individuality in its subjective freedom, a value that was completely absent from the Orient. More precisely, this valorization came from the recognition of the human individual, in his or her finite particularity—and with the limitations inherent in the world of Antiquity, most notably the presence of slavery—as a free person, as being universal, due to his or her quality as a self-aware thinking subject and in his or her singularity, and therefore granted an infinite value that called for absolute respect. That is why the subordination of the individual to substance—in ethical terms, to the state, the worldly expression of substantial power—could no longer be based on simple obedience to an unimpeachable authority out of principle. It had to come by free consent, the “free will of individuals,” [29] even if this intervention of free subjectivity remained limited by the immediate and unreflecting character of this consent, which had not yet been mediated, as under modern regimes, by the extremes of an abstract subjectivity which is completely withdrawn into itself. As Hegel writes: “Freedom has not yet been reborn from within the depths of the spirit.” [30] And yet, in Greece, we find the first free people in history. For this reason it was able to become the birthplace of philosophy, which had been strictly impossible under oriental despotism where the only possible form of thought was religion.

15What is it about philosophy that only allowed it to appear in this first land of liberty, ancient Greece, as we just mentioned? For Hegel, as we know, the business of philosophy is truth, the absolute that is essentially in the order of thought and that he calls the Idea. However, this is not enough to describe it. More precisely, the Idea in philosophy is essentially thought of as a concrete universal, or thought that is identical to being or reality in its multiform diversity that includes the particular and difference in its universality. In this sense, Hegel asserts, for example, in the Introduction to his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, that in philosophy, “the universal is taken up in the form of the universal, such that the universal has the meaning of taking up into itself the concrete, of being filled,” [31] and that the Idea is posited in it “as all-encompassing (als das Allumfassende),” as “the universal thinking itself as being.” [32] What does this mean other than that with philosophy, the Idea is grasped in its essential freedom, or according to the Hegelian concept of freedom, as being in its otherness—being, difference, the particular—in itself: not as a simple predicate attributed from the outside to another subject to determine it formally but as the subject itself that determines itself freely? In philosophy, the Idea is posited as free self-determination, as an Idea-Subject. As Hegel states, this is “thought that determines itself (der sich bestimmende Gedanke),” that “we see appearing in the Greek world.” [33] In this regard, the break with the empty, non-differentiated, and abstract universality of the Orient is confirmed on the level of thought. We can see in these few passages that the notion of subject and of free subjectivity were far from absent from Hegel’s depiction of ancient Greece, both in terms of the general spirit that governed it and of philosophical thought in particular. Otherwise, Greece would only have been a variant of the Orient and it could not have been the cradle of philosophy.

16We must, however, make the same remark here in relation to Greek philosophy that we did before with the “beautiful freedom” that characterizes the Greek world as a whole: while it is based on the perspective of the Idea-Subject that I have just outlined briefly, this perspective has not been considered thoroughly or in its full depth. Hegel makes the observation that “what is missing here is the absolute form, the self-determinant unity, subjectivity.” [34] We need to understand this statement clearly. It does not mean—as I have just shown—that there was no knowledge of subjectivity but that in Greek philosophy it had not been adequately thought in the appropriate form. Once again, it is necessary to maintain that Greece both breaks with the Orient—with the Greek endorsement of the Idea-Subject and the birth of philosophy—and, because of the immediacy of this break, which gives the impression that it is simply leaving the Orient behind without owing it anything, [35] that it is only an incomplete break. Greek philosophy remained indebted to the Orient in that the Idea-Subject is still expressed in the (inadequate) Oriental form of substance. Let us examine this point further.

17The philosophical Idea is the determined Idea that carries difference within its universality. Better yet, it is the Idea that freely determines and differentiates itself. What occurs in Greek philosophy, however, as the first stage in the historical development of philosophy, is that the Idea, while determining itself, does not really penetrate or occupy its determinations. It is content to take them as they are, in their finite particularity and to amass them superficially (and contradictorily) in the framework of what Hegel characterizes as an immediate unity of thought and being. This is the reason why he constantly refers to Greek philosophy as “naïve, unreflecting philosophizing,” [36] “which has not yet attained consciousness of the difference between thought and being,” [37] or which believes that thought forms the essence and truth of things directly. Thought does form the truth of things, but not in an immediate manner, where it would be enough to apply the form of the universal to their particularity to know them in truth, but mediately, after extensive work of appropriation on them that transforms them actively, universalizing them in an authentic way. Greek philosophy (like all traditional, pre-Kantian metaphysics that remain under its influence) lacks this mediation: it remains at the level of an abstract and immobile ideality—“metaphysical,” as Hegel notes [38]—that does not truly go outside of itself, that does not take the measure of the difference it contains and, as such, is still reflected in the insufficient form of being and substance. The other deficiency that Hegel detects in it is directly connected: its lack of necessity and systematization. [39] In fact, the determinations of the Idea, because they are not truly gathered into its universality, are exposed empirically in a way that Hegel calls narrative, by being unreflectively juxtaposed to one another. We should pay attention to this point, because it is a common refrain in Hegel’s presentation of Aristotle’s philosophy. Despite his admiration for Aristotle’s speculative mind, Hegel points out that


his philosophy does not give the general impression of a systematized whole, of which the order and connection also belong to the concept; the parts are empirically selected and juxtaposed; the part is known for itself as a determinate concept but it is not the movement in its continuous connection. [40]

19In short, it would be impossible for Hegel to speak of an Aristotelian “system.” [41] He is quick on this point to indicate that Aristotle is a product of his times, because “one cannot ask the concept of philosophy of that time to demonstrate its necessity.” [42]

20Given what we have just seen concerning the nature and the characteristics that Hegel attributes to Greek philosophy, it is not difficult to understand that he sees in it the first outlines and more or less clear and developed premonitions—and even some characteristic prefigurations of the Idea as it will be considered in modern philosophy in its essential subjectivity, even if it is clear that this notion of the Idea could only be realized completely on the terrain of modernity. As early as the pre-Socratic period, Hegel finds a first approximation of thought in the form of subjectivity with Anaxagoras and his theory of νοῦς governing the world, although it remains undetermined and abstract. As he writes, “a subjective totality begins here in which thought grasps itself: the determination of νοῦς is to be thinking activity.” [43] Even more with the Sophists, and Socrates in particular, thinking “set forth as principle” is grasped as a “subjective activity.” Hegel comments that “thus begins the age of subjective reflection, the position of the absolute as subject. The principle of modern times begins during this period.” [44] Yet there is no doubt that Aristotle and his metaphysical theory of the Idea are what Hegel sees as closest to the most complete modern notion of the truth. The various remarks found throughout his reading of Aristotle’s metaphysics all point in this direction. For example, when he turns to the Aristotelian theory of absolute substance, or of the divine, and states: “If in modern times it has appeared new to define absolute essence as pure activity (als reine Tätigkeit), we can see that this appearance of novelty arises from ignorance of the Aristotelian concept,” [45] adding, “there is no higher idealism than this one.” [46] The modern determination of absolute essence in terms of activity is already present in Aristotle as expressed in his metaphysical theory of the Idea: in this case there is a “definition that corresponds to modern definitions.” [47] Hegel admits, in his commentary on the Metaphysics, that “although Aristotle does not express himself in modern philosophic language, he shares the same fundamental manner of seeing.” [48] And he draws the following conclusion: “Of all of the Ancients, Aristotle is the one most deserving of study.” [49]

21What is it about Aristotelian metaphysics and the notion of the Idea that it contains that make Hegel believe he can find concepts in it that are close to modernity in its most complete idealist development? I will now turn to Hegel’s reading.

22The first point that we should consider is the fact that, as we have just seen, Hegel finds an idealism in this metaphysics, and even the most accomplished idealism. In fact, Hegel places all of Aristotle’s philosophy (excluding his logic) [50] under the sign of this idealism; however, his metaphysics represents the undisputed core that feeds the other parts of his thought, both the philosophy of nature and the philosophy of spirit (even though this idealism tends to weaken in those places where Aristotle gives more consideration to the singular). It goes to show, as I have already mentioned, how Hegel is opposed to the traditional image of Aristotelian thought as a fundamentally realist and empirical philosophy opposed to the idealist vein of Plato. There is an empiricist “manner” of philosophizing that Hegel recognizes in Aristotle, but this empiricism is such that, instead of contradicting idealism, it leads on the contrary to “the deepest kind of speculation [and to] idealism.” [51] It must be said that for Hegel, the same idealist perspective is at work in both Plato and Aristotle. Even more, together they represent for him a decisive step in the development of philosophical idealism. After the immediate and abstract determinations of the Idea by the pre-Socratics, after the accent placed on the subjective act of thinking by the Sophists and Socrates, the fundamental ideality of being leads to explicit consciousness with them and to the reflected objectivity called the idea. In the idea, thought begins to think itself and determine itself as it forms the determined essence of all things, which becomes the point of departure for philosophical science proper. [52]

23The opposition between realism and idealism is not what differentiates Aristotle and Plato, but within the same idealism, they are distinguished by the degree of penetration into grasping the idea. On this point, Hegel’s thesis, which is repeated several times over the course of his Lectures on the History of Philosophy is perfectly clear: Aristotle went further and deeper than his master, Plato. Where does Aristotle’s superiority come from? It mainly comes from the fact that while both recognize the idea as universal in itself, determined and concrete, for Plato, this universality remains strictly “objective” and thus “inert,” lacking “the activity of realization (die Tätligkeit der Verwirklichung)” whereas in the Aristotelian notion of the idea appears the “principle of vitality, of subjectivity,” or the intrinsically active characteristic of the idea, which Hegel calls its “efficacy (Wirklichkeit).” [53] We could even say, paraphrasing a passage from the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, that with Plato, the idea is the “naked result,” cut off from the process of its realization, while Aristotle grasps it at the same time in “its development” and therefore in an authentically effective manner. [54] This is the point that now needs to be clarified by examining how Hegel develops and argues it in his reading of Aristotelian metaphysics.

24He begins his reading with the definition of “pure or metaphysical philosophy” given at the beginning of Book Gamma of the Metaphysics, which he translates as follows: “The science of that which is, in so far as it is, and of what belongs to it in and for itself.’” [55] He explains this definition by referring immediately to the Metaphysics, Zeta, 1: “The main object which Aristotle has in view is the definition of what this essence (dies Wesen) really is, the knowledge of this substance (οὐσία).” [56] We can see here how Hegel joins the two questions, the question of being and the question of substance, directly without any discussion of the passage from one to the other. This does not mean that he leaves this passage without any justification. Later, he specifies that by “that which is,” which is the object of metaphysics, Aristotle does not mean “pure being” identical to nothingness, “this abstraction which is really only the transition of the one into the other,” in other words becoming, the pure change that Heraclitus thematized and against which he is arguing, but it is “substance, [in other words] the idea.” [57] In fact, Aristotle’s metaphysical thought, in Hegel’s eyes, is already too evolved and advanced to concern itself with the question of pure being, the poorest and most abstract category. His intention is to interrogate “that which is” and in priority, substance. That said, Hegel continues, while Aristotle is opposed to the pure change of Heraclitus, it does not mean that he excludes any change from substance or idea, because he is also against the Eleates—and their descendants, the Pythagoricians, and Plato—who forbid change within the universal. Against them, he promotes the activity of substance, which implies change. Looking at it in a positive way, Aristotle, in his notion of substance, unites the Heraclitean and Eleate traditions, forming a “knot” [58] in the development of Greek philosophy. Substance, as fundamentally active for him, is subject to change; even more, it is change, but “change that remains self-identical,” change posited within the universal as change equivalent to itself.” [59] What does this mean? At the stage we have reached in our approach, we can identify two points: 1) in the change that characterizes it as active, substance maintains itself, conserves itself in opposition to pure Heraclitean change that does “not yet contain the self-conservation in change” [60], or as Hegel observes, that still lacks “the determination of identity with itself, the solidity (Festigkeit) and universality”; [61] it lacks a “self” that, while changing, preserves itself in its change. 2) In its change, substance is determined and realized. Its self-preservation in change is not static or indifferent; it is engaged in a process of self-determination and self-realization of which it is both the “moving cause (das Bewegende)” and “the end (der Zweck)” [62] and the moving cause in that it constitutes the end. As Hegel concludes, “this is the main determination for Aristotle.” [63] We should therefore turn to this question: what does it mean for Aristotelian substance to be an active substance, according to Hegel’s reading, that while changing remains identical to itself and preserves itself in change, forming a “self” engaged in the process of its self-determination in which it realizes itself?

25Hegel continues his examination by referring to the Aristotelian notions of potentiality and activity (δύναµις and ἐνέργεια); he notes that “these are determinations which occur repeatedly in Aristotle and that must be known, if we would understand him.” [64] As we know, Aristotle dedicated an entire book of his Metaphysics to them, Book Theta, and he includes them in the theory of substance that he develops there. It is first important to indicate how they can be defined according to Hegel’s explanation of these two key notions of Aritotelianism as well as the very wide extension he gives them. He begins by observing classically that δύναµις refers to matter, which is of the order of “possibility (Möglichkeit),” “faculty (Vermögen),” and “disposition (Anlage).” It is, he continues, “the in itself, the objective” and consequently “the abstract universal in general, the Idea [which] is only potentia” or “the essence (Wesen)” that he notes is “only in itself, only possibility, […] without [the] infinite form.” [65] For its part, ἐνέργεια is the “form,” the principle of formation” and, as such, “activity (Tätigkeit),” the instigator that confers “efficacy (Wirklichkeit),” “pure efficiency (Wirksamkeit) from itself,” and also “the self-relating negativity” or “more concretely, subjectivity.” [66] It is easy to see that Hegel performs a considerable expansion of the Aristotelian notions of potential and action, an expansion through which he appropriates them for himself by reflecting them in the light of modern categories that have no literal connection to Aristotelianism. I will return to this act of appropriation at the end of this study, when examining the overall meaning and legitimacy of Hegel’s interpretation of Aristotle’s metaphysics. For the moment, let us look at two points that Hegel identifies and that are important for the rest of his exploration of Aristotelian substance: 1. All being, and therefore substance, consists of both matter and form, or more precisely, potential and action; the same is true, Hegel assures us, of absolute substance except—and this is an essential point that needs careful description—that in it, they are not “separate from one another”, because “what is truly objective also contains activity in itself, just as what is truly subjective also has δύναµις.” [67] 2. Contrary to what is commonly thought, substance, if it has matter in it as a substrate, ὑϖοκείµενον of the change that it contains, cannot be reduced to matter. As mere possibility, matter does not constitute the substantial; only the energy of the form gives it efficacy and “matter cannot truly exist without the activity of form.” [68] Hegel confirms the Aristotelian precedence of activity over potentiality and is miles away from reducing Aristotelian substance to pure and simple ὑϖοκείµενον.

26On the basis of this explanation of activity and potentiality, Hegel takes a further step. It consists of establishing a sort of typology of the different modes of substance that are found in Aristotle. But before establishing this typology, he returns to the differences between the Platonic and Aristotelian versions of the idea. On this point as well, the potentiality/activity distinction allows him to identify things more precisely in a way that is not without interest for his understanding of substance in Aristotle’s work. In summary, where the idea for Plato is placed more under the sign of δύναµις, in Aristotle’s conception, it appears to be characterized more by ἐνέργεια. Which means that with the Platonic idea, Hegel explains, [69] we are primarily dealing with a universal or a unity in which the “the moment of efficacy, seems to be lacking, or it appears at least to be put in the background.” On the one hand, the Platonic idea is, in principle, a negative unity, a union of opposites that unites them by removing their opposition. However, this unity is characterized—and this is where it is lacking—by the way that its negativity, its “negative principle,” is not “immediately expressed” [70] in it, as Hegel notes. It does not appear as such, so that the Platonic idea presents itself as an abstract self-equality, unilaterally affirmative and therefore without true efficacy. In Aristotle, on the contrary, this efficacy is emphasized as effective energy in its intrinsically negative character. The characteristic of activity is separation: placed under the auspices of activity, the idea, as Hegel interprets it, becomes the negative act of splitting and differentiating, or of distinguishing from the abstract simplicity of its “being for itself” to create the moment of otherness and opposition and thus eliminate it at the same time. [71] In this way, as we have seen, Aristotle brings together the moment of the inert result and the living process of its becoming in his concept of the idea.

27Yet it is the way that Hegel, using the relationships between potentiality and activity, engages in his analysis of Aristotle’s typology of different modes of substance that interests me here. This is where the import of Hegel’s reading of the Aristotelian doctrine of substance and its contemporaneity—the modernity he ascribes to it—appears most clearly and completely in his eyes. I will not examine in detail the first two types of substances that he distinguishes, which are both finite substances, in order that I may concentrate on the case of absolute substance, which represents “the highest point” [72] of this doctrine and which Hegel develops the most fully.

28He begins by remarking how Aristotle, as an ancient philosopher, does not have a system of substances: “To him they appear more as a series of different kinds of substance considered one after the other than brought together into a system.” [73] The first two kinds of substances that Hegel distinguishes in this series are finite substances, or composed substances in which matter and form—potentiality and activity—are presented as separate from one another and external to one another: “This is what constitutes the nature of the finite: separation of form, of the external, from matter.” [74] It is important not to ignore the differences that exist between these two types of substances and especially the progression from the first to the second that Hegel sees. This progression comes from the involvement of the free productivity of the understanding in the second type of finite substances, and it is characterized by a superior integration of the moments of the agent, form, and purpose within change. Here, “activity [of the understanding or νοῦς] contains what must become.” [75] Consequently, the energy is determined more precisely as “entelechy,” which Hegel observes is “the same conceptual determination as energy, but inasmuch as this energy is free activity and has its end in itself, posits it for itself, and is active in positing it.” [76] Nevertheless, in this second type of substance “there is still a matter that is different from activity, although the two are connected,” and the understanding “still needs matter to which it is not identical, but that is presupposed.” [77] This reflection leads us to examine the third type of substance, or absolute substance, where this finitude is removed.

29Hegel’s interpretation of absolute substance, or the divine, in Aristotle is very original and rich in speculative intent. It relies primarily on how he sees that “δύναµις, ἐνέργεια, and ἐντελέχεια are united” [78] in it. Not that δύναµις, potentiality, is purely and simply eliminated but it is unified with ἐνέργeιa, activity or efficacy. Hegel is well aware that Aristotle defines absolute substance as a pure act, and he is amazed by this definition that, by making truth fundamentally active, gives Aristotle’s concept of absolute substance its modernity. It is necessary to examine what this definition comprises, exactly, according to Hegel, and the way that he analyzes it. Once again, it is not a question of the absence of δύναµις, even if it is clear that there is no question of matter as such in absolute substance which is “without matter.” [79] In fact, Hegel asserts, in this type of substance “we are dealing with a substance in which the potentiality also has efficacy” or more precisely, substance “of which the essence (potentia) is activity itself.” [80] In Hegel’s eyes, it is essential to maintain the potentiality—the pure possibility—of the essence in the pure activity that is characteristic of absolute substance, in other words the universal and self-identity, to avoid returning to Hericlitean pure change without any self-preservation. However, the self-identity that is essential to absolute substance, which is its dimension of “solidity” and permanence, is also fundamentally distinct from what is found in Platonic ideas where the essence is at rest, but at rest in a way that excludes the movement proper to the activity of action and that represents a simple δύναµις without efficacy, an abstract universalism without the principle of its determination. We can see here that what Hegel prizes the most in Aristotle’s absolute substance is the way that it closely unites δύναµις and ἐνέργeιa, the stable element of the essence in repose and the intrinsic mobility of activity— and that “the absolute in its quiescence is at the same time absolute activity.” [81] Yet this unity cannot be seen as a simple juxtaposition of the two—first an essence and then its realization—but as the formula of how the essence itself is to realize and determine itself and is therefore self-realization and self-determination without reference to a prior, ready-made essence onto which action would be attached. [82] This is very precisely what Hegel reads in the Aristotelian definition of absolute substance that he finds in the Metaphysics, Lambda 7. He presents it as follows: “It is the unmoved, the immobile, and the eternal, yet which is at the same time the motor, pure activity, actus purus.” [83] For Hegel, Aristotle shows a remarkable anticipation of the modern concept of truth in this definition, the very same as the one Hegel endeavors to present in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit where he characterizes it as “living substance,” substance which in its efficacy is “subject as well.” It is also telling that Hegel uses the modern notion of spirit (Geist) in reference to Aristotelian absolute substance, spirit in which “energy is substance itself.” [84]

30Aristotle’s absolute substance, unlike Platonic ideas, is thus not simply immobile and in repose, or more precisely, its immobility, which corresponds to its essence or to its essential self-identity, consists in being through and through energy, movement, activity, pure efficiency, in this case the movement of its own realization so that it proceeds entirely from itself, from its own action, without any presupposition. This movement, Hegel continues, is defined by Aristotle as circular motion (im Kreise), [85] closely connecting absolute substance and what Aristotle says about the “first heavens,” the sphere of fixed stars that he characterizes as a perfectly circular movement in which the divine makes itself visible. [86] This means that Hegel strictly associates absolute substance and its manifestation in the first heavens. It is important to see what this connection is based on: it is nothing less than the efficacy of absolute substance that Hegel’s reading continues to expand and enrich. As he reminds us, the efficacy of absolute substance is capable of being a first cause, referring to Aristotle’s thesis of the primacy of activity over potentiality, [87] for, as he remarks in paraphrasing Aristotle, “how could something be, if nothing were its cause according to efficacy (µηδὲν ἔσται ἐνεργείᾳ αἴτιον)?” [88] Absolute substance is “what brings [all things] into efficiency, into the objective mode” [89]: in its pure efficacy, it is fundamentally efficient. However, through the self-relationship that characterizes it, this productive efficiency of all being is in fact self-production; it is a circular return to self. [90] By entering objectivity, as Hegel notes, absolute substance objectifies itself. In the end, it is nothing other than the movement of its own objectification or manifestation, which, according to the Aristotelian perspective, brings about the first heavens. In their perfect circularity, the heavens are the manifestation or the objective realization of absolute substance which, in its strict efficiency, is nothing other than the process of its own phenomenalization. Here, it is a “visible God,” a God who “as living God, shows Himself in the universe” [91] and who exists “from the fact (ἔργῳ) itself” and “realiter in visible nature.” [92] As Hegel states: “[in Aristotle] the two modes of representing the absolute are thus thinking reason and the eternal heavens,” with the former constituting, like “reason turning [circularly] in itself,” the “center (Mitte)” that is objectivized in the sphericalness of the latter.” [93]

31The mode of this efficiency of absolute substance remains to be examined in more detail. Hegel, who is practically following the text of the Metaphysics, Lambda 7, word for word, begins the last step in his interpretation of the essential realization of Aristotelian absolute substance. He observes that it moves as a final cause, in that its essential immobility makes it an object of desire and thought (or more precisely of the desire of thought). As such, it is good and beautiful, not in that it appears good and beautiful because it is desired, but on the contrary, as Aristotle writes, it is desired because it appears and gives itself as such objectively and autonomously. Now absolute substance as an end that forms “the true principle” is, according to Aristotle, of the order of thinking because thought is essentially what it moves [94] and “thought is only moved by what is thought.” [95] Hegel’s work of interpretation consists of establishing on this basis that there is an identity between that which moves (absolute substance, immobile thought, content and end of the movement of thought that desires it) and that which is moved (thought in movement towards absolute substance), of showing, in other words, that through this arrangement, desiring thought is in reality the fact of absolute thought itself (of absolute substance which is “thinking”), so that in strict conformity with modern definitions (mit neueren Bestimmungen gleichlautend), [96] absolute substance in Aristotle cannot be seen as a simple object, or simply inert content of thought that tends towards it, a simple in-itself. It is fundamentally active, thought that tends actively towards itself and as such “a product of thought,” [97] thought that produces itself: “it [the objective content formed by absolute substance in its essential immobility] is unmoved, and thus altogether identical with the activity of thinking. Here, in thinking, this identity is present; that which is moved and that which moves are the same.” [98] Putting it in still other terms, if absolute thought is the goal, it is not simply as objective or external to itself but subjectively: the goal to itself and for itself. This is Hegel’s contention based on Aristotle, whom he translates in this way: “the concept shows that the in-view-of-which belongs to the unmoved.” [99]

32By this interpretative path, Hegel reaches the highest determination that Aristotle confers on absolute substance, that of “thinking of thought,” [100] a determination that he understands, as we have just seen, as designating an essentially active and productive self-relationship. Like Aristotle, he qualifies this relationship as “necessary,” or unchangeable and eternal, unable to be other than it is, and on which, according to Aristotle’s famous statement, “the heavens depend and the whole of nature.” [101] To conclude our examination, it is necessary to analyze the way that Hegel sees this “chief moment (Hauptmoment) in Aristotle’s philosophy.” [102]

33In fact, in line with the above development, he invites us to look closely at what the excellence of this supreme moment consists of, which he does by means of a close reading of the Metaphysics, Lambda 7, 1072b 18-30. In the thinking of thought, there is an identity between that which thinks and that which is thought (in modern terms, the subjective and the objective). Yet it seems that there is some receptiveness or passivity in thinking that receives itself and possesses itself as object (Aristotle’s text in 1072 b 20 speaks of µετάληψις, which Hegel renders as Aufnahme, admission, reception) or, more precisely, in order to be able to think itself, thought must receive itself passively as an object. [103] This is not the case, however, and there is no real passivity, since the possession or the having of self that is involved here is strictly one with the efficiency of thought; thought only possesses itself objectively to the extent that it acts on itself, [104] such that, as Hegel writes, the “object turns itself into (schlägt um) activity, into energy.” [105] According to Hegel’s reading of this key passage of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, object is only here productively, in and through the act of thinking that produces itself, such that, he observes, Aristotle can write that “it (effecting, activity) is more divine than the divinity (νοητόν) that thinking reason (νοῦς) supposes itself to have.” [106] The superiority of the νοῦς over νοητόν comes from the fact that the latter is the result of the former’s activity. As a consequence, Hegel notes: “It is not what is thought that is the more excellent, but the very energy of thinking.” [107] The self-productive energy of thought, he continues, is therefore what Aristotle sees as most excellent and admirable—which is the divine itself—and what he defines as θεωρία, or as speculation in Hegel’s translation. It is the seat of supreme good and pleasure, a pleasure that is said to be the permanent state of God and a state that we humans can only reach rarely and briefly. We must be careful not to see speculation, attributed par excellence to the divine by Aristotle, as mere passive contemplation; on the contrary, as Aristotle himself insists, it is fundamentally living, in other words, efficient activity, and in the end action through which the divine, by thinking itself, endlessly creates itself to be authentically equal to itself.

34As will have been noted, the passage of the Metaphysics that Hegel carefully comments on here is the same passage that he quotes, in the original, at the end of the Encyclopedia. It is important to keep this commentary in mind to grasp the exact meaning of this quote in the prominent place that Hegel attributes to it in his own system. On this point, the present study can suggest that it does not signify a return to the past or nostalgia for ancient Greece and its thought in Hegel’s mind; it is a demonstration by him of how a text from Antiquity anticipated, expressing it in the most clear and deliberate way, the very modern notion of truth and the absolute, an absolute that, insofar as it is essentially Idea or thought “eternally sets itself to work, engenders and enjoys itself as absolute Mind.” [108] In Hegel’s eyes, this is Aristotle’s speculative genius; and that is why, at the beginning of his presentation of the philosopher, he indicates, as we have seen, that no one from any other period could be compared to him, even though this most profound and true notion of the absolute, thanks to Antiquity, was never made into the cornerstone of a complete philosophical system.

35Hegel once more emphasizes Aristotle’s modernity in a final important commentary, returning to the essential identity of absolute substance, the identity that was ultimately revealed to be the speculative identity of thought with itself. With the benefit of reflection, he states, the term identity or unity does not fit: “Unity is a poor expression; it is abstraction, simple understanding. Philosophy is not a system of identity (Identitätssytem), which is non-philosophical.” [109] Hegel is not disputing that self-unity characterizes Aristotelian absolute substance as thinking of thought. However, it is important to distinguish what type of unity we are dealing with here. As the text I just cited shows, Hegel rejects an abstract unity, a “dead identity,” or what he calls “the empty identity of understanding”; [110] he is against a closed unity that is reduced to only its unitary definition coinciding immediately with it. If this had been the identity that Aristotle attributed to absolute thought, Hegel observes, he would never have reached the “speculative idea” that can be found in his work, an idea that is entirely act and activity, according to the characteristics of ἐνέργεια given to it. Here is the issue in question: the unity or self-identity that this energy implies, contrary to what has just been mentioned, contains difference within it, or more precisely, it contains the act and movement of differentiation and in this way, at the same time, is identical to itself (im Unterscheiden zugleich identisch mit sich). [111]

36What does this difference mean? This is the final point that remains to be examined so that we can have a complete view of Hegel’s reading of Aristotle’s absolute substance. In truth, Hegel’s commentary here is extremely brief and allusive and it is useful to bring in what Hegel says elsewhere about Aristotle’s concept of thought in his presentation of De Anima. [112] I will not study this final examination in great detail—it would merit an entire study on its own—but I will focus on those aspects that relate to the case of absolute thought, which is what interests us here.

37The difference that concerns us here, the difference that intervenes in the essential self-equality of absolute thought, is described by Hegel as the difference between passive and active νοῦς that he applies to the case of absolute thought. This description is completely consistent with his interpretation of absolute substance as a complete unity of potentiality and activity, of δύναµις and ἐνέργεια. As we have seen, it is essential for Hegel to maintain the dimension of potentiality here: the absolute νοῦς is also potential and is thus a passive νοῦς. We know what this potential moment in absolute thought corresponds to: the moment of its “in itself,” [113] of its essential self-identity, the identity of νοῦς and νοητόν, subject and object, that is constitutive, in its immobility, of its solidity and permanence, and in virtue of which it is universal, “capable of becoming all things.” [114] Hegel also characterizes it as a trinity, with “the Father” that is “entirely in itself,” [115] carrying the possibility of all things or every kind of νοητόν. [116] He continues, however, saying that “it is only as something active (erst al Tätiges)” that absolute thought “is posited,” that it is authentically the truth of all things. [117] Put in another way, it cannot be limited to the simple possibility of becoming all things, or a passive νοῦς—to remain at that point would be to describe νοῦς as a thing, making it an inert object among others—but it must also be an “efficient force” as an active νοῦς to “produce (machen) all things” [118] and therefore to produce itself. Now, as we have seen, activity separates. [119] The activity of absolute thought thus implies the separation of what is essentially one within it; it implies that it differentiates itself from the immobile identity of its essence. However–and this is the essential point that I have continued to insist on–the two moments in the absolute νοῦς of passive νοῦς and active νοῦς must not be considered to be two different bodies that would be added together and juxtaposed externally, such that there would first be the moment of universal and immobile essence of the passive νοῦς followed by the moment of active and differentiating mobility of the active νοῦς. As we have seen, δύναµις and ἐνέργεια are strictly one within it, which more explicitly means that the act is at the origin and it constitutes the true essence of the absolute νοῦς in such a way that the passive νοῦς must be comprised within it in its very distinction with the active νοῦς, like a moment or an effect of the active νοῦς. After briefly distinguishing and specifying the passive νοῦς and the active νοῦς in the absolute νοῦς, Hegel adds: “Yet this first term, the unmoved, as distinguished from activity, as passive, is still, as absolute, activity itself.” [120] For this reason, the absolute νοῦς, differentiating itself actively from itself, does not eliminate itself but remains on the contrary identical to itself: “Im Unterscheiden zugleich identisch mit sich” as we saw above. In fact, this activity is its essence, such that in this activity it returns in a circle to itself and is in itself within this activity: in itself in the act of differentiating itself from itself, which is the only way to be authentically in itself, truly and fully identical to itself. In this notion of an absolute that is entirely action, combining absolutely the opposing moments of potentiality and activity, the possibility of immobile essence and the mobility of effective energy, or of objectivity and subjectivity, according to the correspondences Hegel establishes between these terms, in this notion, Hegel sees Aristotle’s greatest speculative triumph. With this notion, Hegel claims, he reached an unsurpassable speculative depth that is the most explicit prefiguration—for those who know how to read him in an authentically philosophical manner—of the most complete modern concept of truth, the one that the Preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit characterizes as “living substance,” substance that is “just as much” and “truly subject.”

38As announced, I will conclude by examining the legitimacy of Hegel’s reading of the metaphysical doctrine of absolute substance in Aristotle, in other words, the question of Hegel’s fidelity to the Greek philosopher’s thought. The first point to make is that Hegel does not neglect Aristotle’s texts. On the contrary, he cites them abundantly, at times almost following them word for word, as we have seen. He also seems careful to base his reading on these texts, even though the versions that were available to him—as I also noted—were most often old editions that sometimes vary significantly from modern editions. [121] It is no less true, however, that Hegel interprets and appropriates Aristotle’s texts by introducing modern notions into his commentary, such as subjectivity and objectivity, or negativity, which were not part of Aristotle’s vocabulary. Proceeding in this manner, he gives Aristotelian doctrine an inflection towards modernity, and it is legitimate to ask whether this is a valid approach. Questions like these have come from authorities as recognized as Pierre Aubenque and Dominique Janicaud, who agree on the quality and the interest to be found in Hegel’s reading of Aristotle and on the in-depth knowledge of the texts that it displays; however, they remark that “Hegel is too quick to make the Stagirite’s thought dialectical” [122] and that he is guilty of “the retrospective illusion” by which “the metaphysical horizon of speculative idealism […] imprints itself over Aristotle’s texts.” [123] While this may be true, it does not fully answer the question. We must continue to explore the legitimacy of this appropriation of Aristotle, knowing that Hegel exercised the same appropriation, in different ways, on previous philosophers and that it is characteristic of his approach to the history of philosophy in general. On this point, it is best to start by letting him speak first, since Hegel did not practice this “appropriation” in a random or unreflective manner; he theorized it to justify it in the most precise and complete manner he could.

39In the Introduction to his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, we see him deliberately criticize what he calls the “abstractly historical tendency” [124] or “purely historical behavior.” [125] He is referring to a strictly erudite attitude towards history that cultivates the past for its own sake, the past reduced to its local and contingent particularities, making it a “lifeless” past. [126] It is a surpassed past where abstraction is made of the single and universal truth that resides within it, while it is this truth that is solely capable of giving it true interest for the modern era. This attitude is especially frowned on in philosophy where the imperative is to focus expressly and thematically on truth. In opposition to this attitude—which in Heideggerian terms we could call historicizing—Hegel declares that we can no longer be followers of Plato, Aristotle, or the Stoics, [127] that we can no longer just accept these philosophies as literally our own, and he opposes more generally any attempt to recreate the past, in philosophy or elsewhere. This does not mean that he rejects history as outside truth. We know that history represents an essential and privileged vector of the truth for Hegel. Through it—in particular in the history of philosophy—the truth is developed and constituted in its highest expression as spirit. However, it is essential to have a correct understanding of the relationship between truth and history and of the way truth is present in history, the way that it nourishes and supports it and gives it its true dignity and true interest. Once again, the question should not be reduced to the purely erudite concern over an exact representation of the past—or of past philosophical doctrines in this case—that reproduces its teachings exactly. From Hegel’s perspective, this approach is purely ahistorical; it ignores the true import of history, what we could call its historicity. Because of it, Hegel teaches us, [128] although we, as historical beings, have inherited a past and traditions that carry us forward and cannot be forgotten, we can never have this past exactly as it was. We must always reappropriate it, make it our own, make it new, which means that we preserve it but not identically or redundantly but by changing it and renewing it constantly.[129] This is the law of history that distinguishes it so profoundly from nature according to Hegel: it is one and continuous, characterized by a fundamental self-identity, but this self-identity is ceaselessly being differentiated and transformed through the action of the mind. Truth is present in history precisely in this way, not as an immobile self that needs to be preserved or restored but living, like the constant process of its own active change and recreation. Hegel understands this process of truth as its dialectical process, marked by the operation of Aufhebung, the negation that preserves what it negates by transforming it and enriching it.

40Under these conditions, we can return to our question and ask where the truth of Aristotelianism, and true fidelity to Aristotle may be found. Hegel’s answer to this question is clear: it consists of taking up his thought reflexively, reappropriating it, and therefore transforming it; this is the only way to bring it to what it is in truth. Of course, this transformation cannot be purely arbitrary; it must be based on a deep penetration into Aristotle’s texts and precision is an essential part of the search for their truth. However, it is only the start, not the end in itself. This truth can only come from the interpretative work of thought, which brings out what in other contexts we would call the unsaid from what was actually said by elaborating and producing it. An approach such as this one is not without risks and Hegel himself was far from thinking that there was a clearly marked path to follow with every guarantee of success. Yet it was a price he was willing to pay in the search for truth, a search for which he fully expected to be evaluated and judged, even in his reading of Aristotle.


  • [1]
    Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Leçons sur l’histoire de la philosophie, trad. P. Garniron, tome 3 (Paris: Vrin, 1972), 499. (Hereinafter cited as LHP, followed by the volume number). All of the Hegel quotes have been verified against the German text, and the French translation referred to here is sometimes modified as a result. [Translator’s note – To account for these modifications, all passages of LHP cited are translated from the French.]
  • [2]
    LHP 3, 499.
  • [3]
    Bernard Bourgeois, Presentation of G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopédie des sciences philosophiques III. Philosophie de l’esprit (Paris: Vrin, 1988), 86.
  • [4]
    Bourgeois, Presentation, 88.
  • [5]
    LHP 3, 540.
  • [6]
    LHP 3, 544 and 546.
  • [7]
    LHP 3, 563. At the beginning of his presentation of Aristotle’s philosophy, Hegel remarks how the opposite is true of Plato. Aristotle is “almost unknown in the modern era” especially in terms of his speculative philosophy, and when he is dealt with, he is subject to “the most false prejudices” and views are ascribed to him which are “diametrically opposed to his philosophy” (LHP 3, 500). On this ignorance of Aristotle’s philosophy, we can consult the brief note by the editors of the Lectures on the History of Philosophy in G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen, Ausgewählte Nachschriften und Manuskripte, Band 8 (Hamburg: Meiner, 1996), 279, where they describe the extensive study of Aristotelian philosophy that Hegel carried out in Jena (cf. my note 53 below). By his own acknowledgement, he was faced with a situation where both studies of Aristotle and editions of his texts were severely lacking, and he had to resort to the 1550 Erasmus edition.
  • [8]
    G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Mind. Part Three of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), trans. William Wallace and A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), §378. (Hereinafter cited as E III).
  • [9]
    LHP 3, 586.
  • [10]
    The proceedings of the Cagliari Congress of April 1994 are interesting in this regard: Hegel e Aristotele (Cagliari: Edizioni AV, 1997).
  • [11]
    LHP 3, 602. On Hegel’s appreciation of Aristotelian logic, there are important details in the Preface to the second edition of G. W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George Di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 11–22. In this Preface, Hegel undertakes a sort of genealogy of logic, noting the “infinite progress” the establishment of traditional logic with Plato, and especially Aristotle, has made—it is “a necessary condition, a presupposition to be gratefully acknowledged” (12) for the development of the speculative logic he is undertaking. However, he also points to the “incompleteness” (20) of this same traditional logic, which is not able, by reason of its inevitable formalism, “to hold the truth, which is in itself infinite” (18). He also observes, in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, that Aristotle did not follow the forms of this logic in his philosophy, otherwise “he would not be the speculative philosopher that we have recognized him to be”: “We should not think that Aristotle, as a speculative philosopher, would have thought, progressed, and demonstrated according to his own logic [in other words] according to the forms [that are found] in the Organon; in that case, he would not have been able to make any step forward, he would not have reached any speculative propositions” (LHP 3, 605).
  • [12]
    LHP 3, 516.
  • [13]
    Cf. LHP 3, 516.
  • [14]
    Cf. LHP 3, 514.
  • [15]
    Cf. LHP 3, 517.
  • [16]
    LHP 3, 514.
  • [17]
    We should note that Hegel traces the emergence of the tripartite structure of philosophy as a speculative philosophy or logic, a philosophy of nature, and a philosophy of spirit back to Plato (cf. LHP 3, 432-433). This division, which is the same as the one he uses for the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, serves in his study of both Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophies. It also allows him to assert that “philosophical science as science begins with Plato” (LHP 3, 389).
  • [18]
    G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 9–10 (§17). (Hereinafter cited as PoS). [Translator’s note: A more direct translation of the French translation quoted by the author here would read “not grasping and expressing truth as substance, but grasping and expressing it just as much as subject.”]
  • [19]
    B. Bourgeois, trans., Phénoménologie de l’esprit (Paris: Vrin, 2006) 68, note 2.
  • [20]
    A. Simhon, La Préface de la Phénoménologie de l’esprit de Hegel. De la Préface de 1807 aux Recherches de 1809 (Brussels: Ousia, 2003), 86.
  • [21]
    PoS, 10 (§ 18).
  • [22]
    Simhon, La Préface, 87.
  • [23]
    I take the liberty of referring to my work on these two points in Le Concept hégélien de l’histoire de la philosophie (Paris: Vrin, 2008), 143–165 and 169–186 respectively.
  • [24]
    G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, trans H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 130. (Hereinafter cited as LPWH).
  • [25]
    LPWH, 130.
  • [26]
    LPWH, 202.
  • [27]
    In the Introduction to his presentation of Greek philosophy, Hegel declares: “The stage reached by Greek consciousness is the stage of beauty. For beauty is the ideal; it is the thought which is derived from Mind, but in such a way that the spiritual individuality is not yet explicit as abstract subjectivity that has then in itself to perfect its existence into a world of thought” (LHP 1, 24).
  • [28]
    LHP 1, 23.
  • [29]
    LPWH, 202.
  • [30]
    LPWH, 130. In this sense, in his presentation of Aristotle’s political philosophy, Hegel observes that ancient states “were still unacquainted with the abstract right of our modern states that isolates the individual, allows of his acting as such.” In other words, they were unaware of the principle of “freedom of citizens” that is “the perfect independence of points” and that is “a necessary moment” that allows modern states to benefit from “a superior freedom” (LHP 3, 592-593).
  • [31]
    G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen. Ausgewählte Nachschriften und Manuskripte. Band 6. Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie. Teil 1. Einleitung in die Geschichte der Philosophie. Orientalische Philosophie, eds. von P. Garniron and W. Jaeschke (Hamburg: F. Meiner, 1994), 134. (Hereinafter cited as V 6.)
  • [32]
    V 6, 189.
  • [33]
    V 6, 310.
  • [34]
    V 6, 136.
  • [35]
    Hegel refers to this as the “ingratitude” of the Greeks, who forget the “foreign origins” of their world (LHP 1, 22) and whose lack of historical sense prevented them from freeing themselves completely from Oriental substantiality by reappropriating it authentically. They reappropriated it, but only in a superficial and insufficient mode that only allowed their “beautiful” freedom (cf. note 27 above).
  • [36]
    V 6, 99.
  • [37]
    V 6, 310.
  • [38]
    V 6, 310.
  • [39]
    Cf. for example V 6, 100.
  • [40]
    LHP 3, 499.
  • [41]
    Cf. LHP 3, 510.
  • [42]
    LHP 3, 513. We should note that while this deficit of necessity is characteristic of Greek philosophy as a whole, it seems to be particularly present in Aristotle, according to Hegel. The “Aristotelian manner” of philosophizing (cf. LHP 3, 511) proceeds most often from observations and experiences. However, as Hegel indicates, it is a very specific empiricism that has nothing to do with the way it developed after Locke in the modern era. Hegel sharply criticizes those interpretations of Aristotelianism that reduce it to this type of empiricism (cf. LHP 3, 500). Aristotle’s empiricism is a total empiricism (LHP 3, 539) which is characterized by its rejection of abstraction and its unilateralness and is based on a “full intuition” of phenomena that he considers without neglecting “any aspect, however common it may appear” (LHP 3, 511). This empiricism is by no means an obstacle to speculative depth and Hegel insists on the way that Aristotle, in his empirical gathering of all aspects of a thing, masterfully brings out the speculative concept (cf. LHP 3, 511-513). It is another example of the combination of empirical plenitude and speculative meaning that makes Aristotelianism so worthy in Hegel’s eyes. However, while this manner of proceeding can reach “a series of determinate concepts” with high speculative content, it makes it impossible to attain “unity” with “the concept that unites them absolutely,” which “was not emphasized”(LHP 3, 607) by Aristotle, even in his metaphysics. Therein lies the “deficiency of Aristotelian philosophy” (LHP 3, 607) that gave rise to “the need for a systematic philosophy” (LHP 3, 610) among later Greek philosophers, one in which the particular is understood in and from the universal principle. For Hegel, this is the impetus behind the second major phase of Greek philosophy (following the first that ended with Aristotle), the period of Stoicism and Epicureanism. The unilateralism and dogmatism that characterize them nevertheless failed to satisfy this necessity authentically. And if we observe that the third and last phase of Greek philosophy, the period of Neo-Platonism, was also incapable of attaining true systematicity (cf. for example V 6, 136), the conclusion is that, for Hegel, it remained a goal that was decidedly beyond the reach of Greek philosophy as a whole.
  • [43]
    V 6, 270. Hegel begins his presentation of Anaxagoras’s thought with the following words: “Only here did a light (albeit a weak one) begin to dawn, because understanding was now recognized as the principle.” (LHP 1, 197).
  • [44]
    LHP 2, 239. For more details, see Hegel’s presentation of the Sophists and Socrates (cf. LHP 2, 241 and 273)
  • [45]
    LHP 3, 524.
  • [46]
    LHP 3, 525.
  • [47]
    LHP 3, 527.
  • [48]
    LHP 3, 532.
  • [49]
    LHP 3, 610.
  • [50]
    Cf. above, in particular note 11.
  • [51]
    LHP 3, 500. Cf. note 42 above.
  • [52]
    Cf. on this point the division of the first period of Greek philosophy: from Thales to Aristotle, LHP 1, 35.
  • [53]
    LHP 3, 517. It is hard not to be struck by the reversal in his preferences compared to the first texts of Jena. In the article on Natural Law of 1802, Hegel explicitly asserts the “superior vitality” of Plato over Aristotle (G. W. F. Hegel, The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T. M. Knox (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975). Far from being a simple anecdote, this reversal must be placed in direct relation with the important change that takes place in Hegel’s thought during the Jena period, which leads him to establish his mature system (cf. on this point my Critique et dialectique. L’Itinéraire de Hegel à Iéna (1801-1805) (Brussels: Publications des Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis, 1982)). As R. Haym has already noted, it is significant that Hegel, during the last years of his stay in Jena, as he was beginning the Phenomenology of Spirit, “launched himself into the study of the Stagirite’s writings” (R. Haym, Hegel et son temps, trans. P. Osmo (Paris: Gallimard, 2008), 288). A hand-written translation of passages of De Anima from 1805 is a testament to this study (cf. on this point, W. Kern, “Eine Übersetzung Hegels zu De Anima III, 4-5,” in Hegel-Studien I, (1961), 49–88).
  • [54]
    Cf. PoS, 4–5.
  • [55]
    LHP 3,516.
  • [56]
    LHP 3, 516.
  • [57]
    LHP 3, 518.
  • [58]
    A philosophical doctrine, Hegel explains, can be considered as forming a “knot (Knoten)” to the extent that it integrates the unilateral principles of preceding doctrines and turns them into “moments,” or “elements” of the “higher, more concrete” principle that it promotes. It is not the external unification of eclecticism but a “true unity” that forms an “absolutely accomplished identity [of] differences” that it unifies in it (cf. V 6, 229–230). Aristotle represents a “knot” to the extent that, like Plato before him, but in a more accomplished way, he “unites those who preceded him” (cf. LHP 1, 34).
  • [59]
    LHP 3, 518.
  • [60]
    LHP 3, 518.
  • [61]
    LHP 3, 517.
  • [62]
    Cf. LHP 3, 517.
  • [63]
    LHP 3, 518.
  • [64]
    LHP 3, 518.
  • [65]
    LHP 3, 518.
  • [66]
    LHP 3, 518.
  • [67]
    LHP 3, 519.
  • [68]
    LHP 3, 519.
  • [69]
    Cf. LHP 3, 520.
  • [70]
    My emphasis.
  • [71]
    Hegel’s reference here is to the text of the Metaphysics, Zeta 13, 1039 a 7, where Aristotle writes that “entelechy separates.” This is another “appropriation” by Hegel of the Aristotelian text: the separation of the act becomes the expression of its negative and differentiating activity. This point will be further developed below.
  • [72]
    LHP 3, 524.
  • [73]
    LHP 3, 521.
  • [74]
    LHP 3, 521.
  • [75]
    LHP 3, 523.
  • [76]
    LHP 3, 524. It seems that what Hegel envisages in this second type of substances is those that come from the finalized activity of thought, as typical products of τέχνη.
  • [77]
    LHP 3, 524.
  • [78]
    LHP 3, 524.
  • [79]
    LHP 3, 525,
  • [80]
    LHP 3, 525.
  • [81]
    LHP 3, 525.
  • [82]
    In this context, Hegel takes up the Aristotelian thesis of the essential primacy of activity over potentiality (cf. LHP 3, 526), writing in a free translation of Aristotle (cf. Metaphysics, 1072 a 10): “The absolute first essence is that which always remains equal to itself with an equal efficiency (in gleicher Wirksamkeit).’”
  • [83]
    LHP 3, 524 (Metaphysics, 1072 a 25–26).
  • [84]
    LHP 3, 525; my emphasis.
  • [85]
    Cf. LHP 3, 527.
  • [86]
    We can refer to the explanations of P. Aubenque concerning the presence of an astral theology in Aristotle (cf. P. Aubenque, Le Problème de l’être chez Aristote (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, “Quadrige,” 1991), 335).
  • [87]
    Cf. note 82 above.
  • [88]
    LHP 3, 526 (cf. Metaphysics, 1071 b 28–29).
  • [89]
    LHP 3, 527.
  • [90]
    Cf. LHP 3, 527.
  • [91]
    LHP 3, 534. “Gott, als lebendiger Gott, ist das Universum; im Universum bricht Gott als lebendiger Gott aus,” as the German text reads (G. W. F. Hegel, Werke in zwanzig Bänden, Bd 19 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1971), 167). P. Garniron omits the second part of the sentence in his translation.
  • [92]
    LHP 3, 527.
  • [93]
    LHP 3, 527. As P. Garniron remarks in a note to his translation (LHP 3, 527, note J), Hegel’s qualification of absolute substance as Mitte (center, middle, middle term) is based on the lesson of the text of the Metaphysics provided by the Erasmus edition (known as the Basel edition) used by Hegel, which is different from the lesson of more recent editions, such as the one by D. Ross that is consistent with J. Tricot’s French translation (cf. Aristotle’s Metaphysics. A Revised Text with Introduction and Commentary, by W.D. Ross, 2 vol. (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1924); Aristotle, La Metaphysique, trans. J. Tricot, 2 vol. (Paris: Vrin, 1986)). Following the latest edition by Ross, the Aristotelian term µέσον in 1072 a 24 (that Hegel translates as Mitte) should not be attributed to absolute substance but to the first heavens as an “intermediary” between absolute substance and corruptible, sensible substances.
  • [94]
    Not only conscious thought but thought as it forms the essence of all being and all reality: as Hegel states, “The speculative philosophy of Aristotle simply means the direction of thought on all kinds of objects, thus transforming these into thoughts; hence, in being thoughts, they exist in truth” (LHP 3, 532).
  • [95]
    LHP 3, 528.
  • [96]
    Cf. LHP 3, 527. (“We scarcely believe our eyes,” remarks Hegel, LHP 3, 528)
  • [97]
    LHP 3, 528.
  • [98]
    LHP 3, 528; my emphasis.
  • [99]
    LHP 3, 528 (cf. Metaphysics, 1072 b 1–2).
  • [100]
    LHP 3, 530.
  • [101]
    LHP 3, 529 (cf. Metaphysics, 1072 b 13–14).
  • [102]
    LHP 3, 530.
  • [103]
    Cf. LHP 3, 529.
  • [104]
    The text of the Metaphysics to which Hegel is referring here says: “ἐνεργεῖ δὲ ἔχων” (1072 b 22–23). The French translation by Tricot reads: “The intelligence is active when it is in possession of the intelligible.” Hegel renders it thus: “It [thinking] acts (wirkt) to the extent that it has,” combined with the commentary: “its possession is one with its efficiency (WIrksamkeit)” (LHP 3, 530). These expressions must be understood correctly: as the next part of the text shows, and as I examine them in more detail below, action is posited as the condition for possession and is declared superior to it—more excellent and more divine than it.
  • [105]
    LHP 3, 529.
  • [106]
    LHP 3, 530 (Hegel is referring to Metaphysics, 1072 b 23).
  • [107]
    LHP 3, 530.
  • [108]
    E III, §577.
  • [109]
    LHP 3, 531. The critical allusion to Schelling’s system of identity is obvious. Yet it is also a self-critique to the extent that Hegel embraced this type of system during his first years in Jena (cf. on this point my work, Critique et dialectique. L’itiniéraire de Hegel à Iéna (1801-1805)).
  • [110]
    LHP 3, 531.
  • [111]
    LHP 3, 531.
  • [112]
    Cf. LHP 3, 577.
  • [113]
    LHP 3, 531.
  • [114]
    LHP 3, 580.
  • [115]
    LHP 3, 531.
  • [116]
    It is important to remember here that Hegel sees Aristotle as a fundamentally idealist philosopher who follows and adds decisive depth to Plato and who therefore makes thought the center of all being and all reality (cf. the text quoted in note 94 above). He is therefore opposed to the common empiricist conception of the passive νοῦς as a “tabula rasa” that is only filled in by external objects. As Hegel states, “It is just the contrary of what Aristotle says” for “the understanding is not a thing, it does not have the passivity of a writing-tablet”; what he says when speaking of νοῦς as an “unwritten book” is that it “is all in itself (an sich)” but “it is not in it self (in sich selbst) this totality; it is like a book that contains all things potentially, but contains nothing effectively before it is written on” (LHP 3, 579).
  • [117]
    Cf. LHP 3, 531.
  • [118]
    LHP 3, 580.
  • [119]
    Cf. note 71 above.
  • [120]
    LHP 3, 531; my emphasis.
  • [121]
    Cf. on this point the note by P. Garniron on the editions of Aristotle used by Hegel LHP 3, 615, note 6.
  • [122]
    P. Aubenque, “Hegel et Aristote,” in Hegel et la pensée grecque (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1974), 105.
  • [123]
    D. Janicaud, Hegel et le destin de la Grèce, (Paris: Vrin, 1975), 293.
  • [124]
    V 6, 231.
  • [125]
    V 6, 232.
  • [126]
    V 6, 231.
  • [127]
    Cf. V 6, 49.
  • [128]
    Cf. V 6, 6.
  • [129]
    In this context, Hegel writes: “Inheriting comes both from receiving and collecting the heritage and from the heritage being simultaneously reduced to a matter that is metamorphosed by the mind. What is received has been modified and enriched and at the same time preserved,” which corresponds precisely to its “appropriation (Aneignung)” (V 6, 8).

The purpose of this article is to attempt to elucidate the reasons for Hegel’s exceptional admiration for Aristotle. The thesis put forward is that what Hegel discovers in the Stagirite, particularly in his Metaphysics, is, in the context of the Greek origins of philosophy, the brilliant anticipation of his own understanding of substance as subject. This thesis is developed in two stages. In the first place the aim is to show that in Hegel’s eyes ancient philosophy in general in no way ignored the notion of subjectivity in the sense it will take on in modern times, even if it was unable to develop it fully. The goal is then, based more specifically on the pages devoted by Hegel to Aristotle in his Lectures on the history of philosophy, to establish that it is in him, in the dynamic conception of substance as active and realizing energeia that he develops in his Metaphysics, that modern philosophy emerges in the clearest and most complete way.


Le propos de cet article est de chercher à dégager les raisons de l’exceptionnelle admiration vouée par Hegel à Aristote. La thèse avancée est que ce que Hegel découvre chez le Stagirite, en particulier dans sa Métaphysique, c’est, dans le contexte du commencement grec de la philosophie, l’anticipation géniale de sa propre compréhension de la substance en tant que sujet. Cette thèse est développée en deux temps. Il s’agit tout d’abord de montrer qu’aux yeux de Hegel la philosophie ancienne n’a de façon générale nullement ignoré la notion de subjectivité au sens qu’elle prendra au sein de la modernité, même si elle n’a pu lui conférer son plein déploiement. Ensuite, il s’agit d’établir, en s’attachant plus spécifiquement aux pages que Hegel consacre à Aristote dans ses Leçons sur l’histoire de la philosophie, que c’est chez lui, dans la conception dynamique de la substance comme energeia active et effectuante qu’il développe dans sa Métaphysique, que cette modernité affleure de la façon la plus claire et la plus complète.

Gilbert Gérard
Catholic University of Leuven
Uploaded on on 03/03/2014
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