Issue #40 May 2021

Fichte and Hegel On The Definition of Concepts

What are concepts? Normally one would expect there to be a discussion about what they are variously defined as and by, but what if what is at issue is definition itself? How do we really define things? How do we define definition?

If one goes with the immediacy of how we normally are taught to think, we may begin by offering tentative propositions merely positing this or that about facts, and in so positing the object as defined it is settled that, at least for us who define N as P, anything that matches this definition is properly under the concept we have defined. A definition cannot here be wrong as a definition, we could only misapply it. But in the reality of life we do not in fact go about definition as a private dictionary from nowhere in which we define in abstraction from real situations. As Ludwig Wittgenstein noticed, we are caught up in practical living and want to communicate such practical realities whether seemingly public or private in nature. Wittgenstein conceived meaning to be in use, not just because we use words to mean things, but because most meaning can be traced to the use of things themselves. Chairs, for example, are so wildly differentiated in their existence that almost anything we can sit on could reasonably be conceived as one. Wittgenstein, however, could never escape the limitations of endless language games which shifted hither and thither from one to the other, never quite keeping square with any hard definition. In many ways Wittgenstein gives up the ghost on there being true definitions which as definitions could be judged. Definitions as meanings only arise out of family resemblances which are more or less concretely apparent, and which become more strained the less concretely empirical their referents are.

There is a truth to Wittgenstein’s position; use does have much to do with how we understand the meaning of not just words as symbols, but of things themselves. But ‘use’ in a regular sense does not exhaust what we mean of things. The notion that language attains meaning through the web of con-textual references, a notion some say is Jacque Derrida’s, also does not exhaust what we seem to mean. While use and context both determine what we mean, this makes for a near impossible complete communication. No two people share the same context—subjective internal and historical experience is also a context—even as they seem to generally make the same use of language, particularly concepts. Can there be a way to ‘define,’ to conceptualize, that can refer both to a use and to a context that isn’t merely contingent generalities (family resemblances) or infinitely retreating into other terms in the web of meaning?

In the medieval Western tradition there was a not too uncommon identification of thought and pure activity, and in German Idealism this is continued in different ways by Fichte and Hegel. Thought is such a being that coincides with referring to its own activity as its being. While Wittgenstein denied that there could be any references outside of external public practices, Hegel’s treatment of logic and its metaphysical concepts refers to something distinctly non-empirical, internal, yet also publicly accessible to any thinker that understands a language. Hegelian concepts are defined by a ‘use,’ their activity of cognition, and their use is also to engage this same activity. These concepts are also shown to give rise to their context and mode of contextualization such that the concretely universal context contains immanently and completely its particularity and individuality. What Fichte has to do with this whole ‘picture’ concerning definition and meaning is that much of his emphasis on activity is sublated and resurfaces in Hegel’s methodology.


Fichte’s Foundational Act

“Our task is to discover the primordial, absolutely unconditioned first principle of all human knowledge. This can be neither proved nor defined, if it is to be an absolutely primary principle. It is intended to express that Act which does not and cannot appear among the empirical states of our consciousness, but rather lies at the basis of all consciousness and alone makes it possible. In describing this Act, there is less risk that anyone will perhaps thereby fail to think what he should—the nature of our mind has already taken care of that—than that he will thereby think what he should not. This makes it necessary to reflect on what one might at first sight take it to be, and to abstract from everything that does not really belong to it. Not even by means of this abstracting reflection can anything become a fact of consciousness which is inherently no such fact; but it will be recognized thereby that we must necessarily think this Act as the basis of all consciousness.” (Fichte, Foundations of the Science of Knowledge)

Fichte boldly claimed that at the foundation of Philosophy, Truth, and Being lay an original act beyond experience which grounds experience. Whether he could or did succeed in establishing this I cannot claim to know, however, I can give testimony and explication to the fact that in these seemingly obscure yet once famous words is a deep presaging of Hegel’s own intended path for the articulation and explication of thought and Being. There is a deep meaning to the claim that for Hegel the true beginning of metaphysics or logic is not Being or Nothing, but Becoming.

The reader now likely asks: What does a founding act or Becoming have to do with definitions? First, that thinking is fundamentally a self-activity, not merely an activity filled by another such as empirical or mystical sensations. Second, that this self-activity is the reference of so called pure thoughts, i.e. the thoughts of metaphysics and logic.


Self-Positing Thoughts: Pure Activity

While Fichte may have proclaimed the I—the Self—and its act of self-positing as self-consciousness to be the absolute principle, Hegel does something different for his beginning and his procedure. Fichte claims:

“The self’s own positing is thus its own pure activity. The self posits itself, and by virtue of this mere self-assertion it exists; and conversely, the self exists and posits its own existence by virtue of merely existing. It is at once the agent and the product of action; the active, and what the activity brings about; action and deed are one and the same, and hence the ‘I am’ expresses an Act, and the only one possible, as will inevitably appear from the Science of Knowledge as a whole.”

“The self in the first sense, and that in the second, are supposed to be absolutely equivalent. Hence one can also reverse the above proposition and say: the self posits itself simply because it exists. It posits itself by merely existing and exists by merely being posited.”

“And this now makes it perfectly clear in what sense we are using the word ‘I’ in this context, and leads us to an exact account of the self as absolute subject. That whose being or essence consists simply in the fact that it posits itself as existing, is the self as absolute subject. As it posits itself, so it is; and as it is, so it posits itself; and hence the self is absolute and necessary for the self. What does not exist for itself is not a self.”

“If the self exists only insofar as it posits itself, then it exists only for that which posits, and posits only for that which exists. The self exists for the self—but if it posits itself absolutely, as it is, then it posits itself as necessary, and is necessary for the self. I exist only for myself; but for myself I am necessary… To posit oneself and to be are, as applied to the self, perfectly identical…’I am absolutely, because I am’… Furthermore, the self-positing self and the existing self are perfectly identical… The self is that which it posits itself to be; and it posits itself as that which it is. Hence I am absolutely what I am.

What Fichte is referring to is not really self-consciousness, but self-hood via the concept of self-consciousness as a concrete form of self-hood’s operation. Self-hood is not identical to consciousness.

For Hegel it is not at first the Self of consciousness which self-posits, but what he calls ‘the Concept,’ which is the subject as such, the pure Self not of mere consciousness but of being or thought itself. Fichte quickly proceeds to state (and show at least hypothetically) that the self exists only as it posits itself, and so it is a self-subsisting via self-activity. Hegel does not at the outset describe to us the nature of thought and how we are to understand its thinking, but in being given a thought to think we naturally find ourselves shifting into activity, into thinking, even when we are given something unthinkable and conclude from our failure to think that its concept is un-thought. So, thought falls into thinking as if by gravity, thinks of this same thinking when it is all it has to think, and so returns to thought in a self-orbiting action without a definite operative end from within, i.e. its circuit has no stopping point from its inner standpoint and simply repeats until a new operation is engaged, the operation of transcendental speculation which thinks the whole circuit of thinking as itself a thought. This is what thought is: pure self-activity as such. It acts and produces a second opposite, acts upon this act and returns to the first, and then acts upon this total return and begins anew.

It is activity that defines Hegelian concepts, and the Science of Logic may in external descriptive terms be viewed as the science of how definitions define themselves. Fichte terms the most basic form of it positing, and Hegel himself takes up this language in his system for specific dynamics and relations. However, since positing has specific technical meanings to do with essential relations, I shall here speak of a more common-sense ‘activity’ which itself is not unproblematic for the same reasons of specificity, but we must be able to speak of things from somewhere to the beginner even if only in an analogical approximation. By this I don’t mean anything esoteric, rather I mean literally what we mean in an everyday sense: activity is doing. What makes Hegelian logical concepts hard to grasp for a layperson is precisely that it involves the direct exercise of the activity of cognition on cognition, i.e. thinking of thinking, and this is not immediately like thinking about anything else.

Thoughts posit themselves for Hegel in the sense that when thought in their purity they engender themselves through a reflex, a self-referencing or self-relating, inherent to their thinking, an automatic turning back that has happened even as we consciously intend to go only in one direction. If we have the thought of cause, we think of cause by relation to effect, and if we have effect we think of it by relation to cause. From any of the two we believe there is only the relating to another thought, not of that thought to itself, but for Hegel this entire circuit of thoughts is the true thought which they are two sides of. It is in the true thought, action, that we have the explicit self-relation. The circle is a favorite symbol and analogy for Hegel since immanent to it are many dialectical characteristics, and for the example of reflex one can hardly do better than the fact that if one travels the entire circumference from any point one curiously gets closer to the same point in going farther from it along and in reference only to the circumference line. In going forward and away one has only gone backward to where they began; the end is the beginning.


How is thought self-activity? Self-positing is only a dynamic of differentiation in a totality as activity. With Hegel we step away from self-consciousness to pure thought: thought exists only because it thinks itself, and it thinks itself only because it exists. This too can be verified in an undeniable fact and act: think purely and truly, hold steadfast to the aim of thinking and one shall find that any pure thought shall think itself with the same necessity by which a cannon ball shot up returns to ground.

For pure concepts which are a priori and are not derived or immediately related to empirical experience the matter of activity is nothing given other than the givenness of thought itself. But if we are not thinking about anything other than thought, what is there to think? This first arises explicitly as logic, and it is here where at first it is thought that objective characteristics about proper thinking are to be discovered. These laid the foundation for the so called laws of logic which in modern times more than less have lost all objectivity due to the discovery that the rules of inference were in so many ways arbitrary formal systems, and that validity could always be conceived otherwise if one so wished.

While the endeavors of logic never appealed to empirical experience for their subject matter, it likewise never appealed to the contents of the thoughts which it sought to understand in structural relations, as such it only understood these structural relations but left the contents of these structures, the thoughts themselves, beyond the scope of logical determination, i.e. thinking was left out of the matter of thought. What logic both ancient and modern—more so the modern than the ancient—had overlooked was that a special kind of thought itself had internal to it a determinate thinking which had no need to appeal to external relations of subjects and predicates or propositions, but was in the fact of its being thought operative with certain dynamic structures and relations of logical nature themselves, i.e. these thoughts were each and every one already a fully determinate logical operator and logical entity which could be operated with and upon. These thoughts tend to be regarded as two kinds: metaphysical, and logical. What is of interest in both of them, however, is the same: the way they are to be understood and comprehended is in the way they operate, i.e. in their activity.


Defining Being

Unlike others who define the form of thought, universality, against particular sense existents or abstractions of particular nature, and so assume the determinacy of thought as determined by another determinacy, Hegel simply gives up the ghost of assumptions of this kind. While it may indeed be true that thinking is always already determinate in its form, this does not by itself lock us into having to assume just what this determinacy is and how it operates. The Science of Logic, therefore, begins with an immediate immediacy, the simple is which by itself is Being. This is not a being, or the being of beings, or universal being, or genus, or the being of cognition or thought as opposed to the being of matter or anything else. It just is.

To determine that something is does not tell us what or how it is. By simply stating ‘is’ we say even less. It has no relation in the statement, at least no explicit relations. Thought and is are not differentiated, for that would determine and bring in definitions behind our back as given and ready. From the is of Being, what can we determine? How can we determine the indeterminate from within without already calling upon something outside it to determine it? We attempt to think this thought, we enact it and find necessarily that from its unrelatedness we go nowhere, but we also do not remain where we were. What is is revealed to not be, what is present is absence, what is is nothing. Stated in terms of cognition as thinking, we find that cognition in its immediate being is absent. This, as stated, is already stating a far too determinate account. To communicate is already to say too much, but there is also no other way to bring up this crucial indeterminateness of Being.

If Hegel were faithful to the movement in words, he would not have stated more than what follows:

Is.—The thought being given, now we think. An immediate thought has neither relation to other nor relation to itself, it is simply absent of any definability, including its indefinability. This total absence is not what we understand with is, it is what we understand by another name and act, Nothing.

Nothing.—The thinking immanent to the thought, now we think the thinking and it is grasped as a thought. Concluding from the absence of is that Nothing is the truth, we immediately reflect upon this result and notice we contradict ourselves. Nothing is, total absence is present to us and we are flung back immediately to the surface of thought.

Is nothing, nothing is. Becoming—The circle of thinking the thinking of thought and the thought of thinking is grasped as Becoming. Nowhere here do we appeal to determinate concepts or even the concept of determinacy to start the process of determination which allows us to define Being and Nothing as well as Becoming.


Defining Space

Let us run as far as possible from Being, the abstract metaphysical, to the concretely physical. How does Hegel show us the grasping of space as such? Through thinking the activity of spacing.

Space, Hegel tells us, is self-externality as such. To be external to itself is the concept of space. Immediate absolute space runs away infinitely from itself and never contains itself as it is always outside itself. Without determinacy, without distinctions of spatial or any other character, this self-externality fails to be self-external. It does not succeed in going outside itself and is immediately inside itself, and so space is itself revealed as non-spatial to itself, it is the zero-dimensional point. The point, however, is also the beginning of the success of space to be spatial, for a point is how space as outside itself appears as and relates to itself. From the standpoint of the absolute runaway expanse of immediate space, its encounter with another space which is outside it is the presence of that space as a point in relation to it. Mutually these two spaces are points to each other, but how can this be? In order to appear as points they must themselves be separated, they must be divided from each other by a third self-externality which enables them. One-dimensionality, or the line, is the self-externality of points. Two-dimensionality, or the plane, is the self-externality of lines. Three-dimensionality, or volume, is the self-externality of planes.

Space, for Hegel, is unthinkable if not conceived as this active self-externalizing which operates itself and reveals it has operated on itself by doing so. Space, however, is still too abstract to make the point about definition based on activity.


Defining Everydayness: Practice and Use

There is a certain ‘analytic’ thinker who thought himself brilliant in seemingly being the first one in history to realize that ‘meaning is use’—that thinker is Ludwig Wittgenstein, and his insight was published in the brilliant Philosophical Investigations. I dare to say that Wittgenstein, proud as he was of his ignorance of the philosophy’s history, was wrong to attribute this view as his unique insight. Hegel, I think I have shown, can be said to be a predecessor who basically arrived at this conclusion from a very different basis.

When it comes to questions of how to define anything, Hegel would not, as the analytics are fond of doing, ask us to define in abstraction in a merely non-contradictory manner. Like the ancients, Hegel has good reason to ask us to start investigating what we believe we are referring to with these concepts, for we do not concoct definitions out of nowhere first and then apply them, rather we concoct definitions precisely to grasp something that has appeared to us. What are these things we refer to? They are all very complex ensembles of activities: things, relations, self-relations, causes, effects, doings. To define what human being is, for example, we cannot succeed without observing what human beings immediately and mediately are, but also what they immediately and mediately do. From one side of observation actions become things, e.g. forces become particles, certain social processes become justice, internal combustions become engines, etc. From another side, things become actions. Seeds become growing plants, humans become thinking and humane beings, Truth becomes scientific verification and exploration, and the knowledge of things becomes the act of (re)producing things.

How do we define the human skeletal system? Once we simply had a taxonomy of bones, but now we have a far more complex understanding. We now understand these bones as being cause and consequence of muscle structures, organ support and organization in the body, of the distribution of forces on the flesh and on other bones. Every bone in our body is consequently revealed as a function, a doing or action, latent within the physical form or content. What the skeletal system is is what it does, and without this doing it is simply dead matter which no longer functions as bones for a body. Look upon everything that has become genuine knowledge for us, truly intelligible concepts, and you will see that everything is an action which is only reified for an understanding that lacks observation of the particular function of existing.


· · ·


The Content of Concepts Is Not Words, But Acts of Thinking

In descriptive terms that are external to the operation of the immediacy of Being and Nothing, we may say that the content and form of concepts—not just these first concepts, but all concepts—is thinking or cognition. What is immediacy or Being? It is thinking which is present, but not yet engaged in anything. It is thinking, but of what? Itself. But what is it here at this indeterminate beginning? It is not thinking of anything, not even thinking of thinking, let alone determinate thinking of thinking. What is thinking here anyway? It is. Upon inspection, upon thinking itself immediately as immediate, it concludes that, no, it is not. Why? Thinking finds itself absent as thinking, it fails to think itself immediately as immediate. It is Nothing. As Nothing, thinking immediately doubles back upon its absence and realizes that its absence is its immediate Being. A present absence, a Being that is Nothing at once, a fleeting and immediate vanishing of elements that fall incessantly into each other, is Becoming.

These acts of thinking which turn out to be acts of self-thinking are the content of thinking which also are its form. Hegel does not look out of thinking toward a ‘Real,’ a ‘World,’ an ‘in-itself,’ or an ‘Absolute’ to which thinking is relative. These acts of thinking may be historically enabled, but they are themselves not really reducible to historical contingencies of social linguistic constructs or dogmatic practices. Being—the is—is just immediate thought, Nothing immediate thinking, and Becoming the thinking of the thinking of thought. Indeterminate thought, or the thought of indeterminateness, is the generative seed of determinate thought and thinking. Thinking is capable of going from Nothing to Something by virtue of immanently enacting a self-relation of thinking to thinking itself not because it itself is already fully determinate, but because it is a power capable of othering itself and in so doing remain with itself as and in this other.

Hegelian concepts, therefore, are all thought determinations originated in thinking itself, and this thinking can not only begin with any determinate content to show its self-relation, but can show its self-relation with its own capacity to reflect its own absence, its own radical Nothingness, as content which can be built upon without problem. Thinking can do this without ever calling attention to itself as a determinate being called thinking as opposed to any other kind of being. Mere immediate thinking has no need to refer to itself as thinking as opposed to Being. Thinking is and is not as much as anything else is and is not, it makes no difference if we externally reflect on the is as an absolute entity called Being, or as an absolute entity called thinking, for each is undefined against anything else, and has the same operative nature. The reason to use the external reflection of the concept of thinking as opposed to Being, however, is to call attention to the active nature of the enterprise (which is passive to its own activity, a contradiction just as so many others), one that we are enacting even if we believe we are dealing with the absolute of Being and not cognition.

Thinking, therefore, can begin from the act of its non-thinking. This is most curious, but it is a fact that we can all enact this immanent reflection of thinking’s own thoughtlessness as itself an act of thinking. Right from the beginning, from the indeterminacy of thinking, is already the active being of thinking in relation to its inactive indeterminacy. Thinking has already thought, and thought is already thinking. For Hegel concepts are nothing but these acts of thinking.

Antonio Wolf is a former philosophy student, and continuing autodidact. Currently he’s focusing on Hegel. He authors a blog, the Empyrean Trail, which tries to expound Hegel’s philosophy to make it accessible without watering it down.


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