What is the role of subject and object in human history, according to Hegel?

I'm asking for two reasons, one a little inane, and the second a little naive.

  1. I'm wondering how much of our cultural life is based on subsumption of things into selves, and vice versa.

  2. Just curiosity about how "subject" and "object" even could play an important role in human history.

  • 1
    Could you expand by explaining why you are connecting Hegel with subject, objective, and subsumption of things into selves? (Hegel is deeply related to this, but it's hard to answer without knowing how much you know or how accidental the choice of terms and the choice of Hegel is... I'd estimate I've read 10 books and countless articles on the subject of Hegel and the self in the past two years and probably closer to 50 if we move away from Hegel).
    – virmaior
    May 10, 2017 at 23:09
  • @virmaior thanks for the comment. Please assume I have no background in Hegel at all (in effect the case). I tagged it like I did because I brought up subject and object, that is all. Thanks.
    – user25714
    May 10, 2017 at 23:35
  • Subject and object are really linguistic means especially in English to convey how the world is perceived. It can effect the way a person perceives reality. More of a linguistic question that a philosophical question (although it has philosophical consequences). You might like the book "The Geography of Thought" May 11, 2017 at 10:08

2 Answers 2


The terms subject and object have a very complex history (the terms have opposite meanings in classical and modern philosophy). For the purposes of this question, I'm going to restrict myself to the modern usage (as we find it in Kant and Hegel).

The basic concept is that there's a subject (let's say a self) and this self faces many particular things in its world, which it encounters as objects. The etymology of object [both the Latin Object and the Germanic Gegenstand] is something that stands against the self.

There are many different accounts of how selves then relate to their objects, but your phrase subsumption of things into selves is actually pretty spot on for an explanation Hegel uses in Encyclopedia Logic, Phenomenology of Spirit, and Philosophy of Right to describe how the self interacts with objects.

There's a hierarchy like this:

  1. there's an animal conception where the animal subsumes the object by consuming it. Here, on the basest level, everything is an object for that self to eat.
  2. This is supplanted by a more advanced conception where the self comprehends an object -- subsuming it without consuming it, which Hegel considers more advanced. Everything in the world is brought under the categories of the self (Kant is still on board for that and in a weird way so are thinkers like Aristotle and Aquinas).

  3. Hegel draws from 2 an interesting idea -- that the most interesting thing going on in thinking is the activity of the self in thinking.

Maybe to reword that, a dog eats, an unthinking human person encounters objects in the world and puts them in categories, and a thinking human person thinks about his categories and the contours of his thinking. (Here's another version appearing in Hegel's Lectures on Proofs for the Existence of God see esp. p. 276 -- in this version, the move is to recognize that the contingency of things is bound together by the necessity brought by Spirit [self and thought]).

Thus, for Hegel, there's a deep connection between social life and the self. To understand this, we need to merge the account above with an interesting section in Encyclopedia Logic (also in the longer logic) entitled "The Object," which looks at how the sorts of objects we encounter in the world and how we encounter them. Hegel believes these objects can really be divided into three categories: physical objects, chemical objects, and social objects (things split into these categories based in part on the sort of rules through which we understand them).

Physical objects follow physics. Chemical objects the rules of chemistry (as Hegel understood them). Social objects follow social rules. And in each of these, it's not to just something out there but rather something we contribute to the objectification of. To give an example, I can consider water as either a physical object (pressure drill?) or chemical object (solvent?) or social object (holy water? Ganges river? sign of purity? sign of peace?). Social objects, for instance, marriage do not have a physical thing to point to (in the absence of children) that constitutes the marriage, but marriages exist.

Regarding the reverse "subsumption of self into things," Hegel is going to deeply opposed to this, because again for Hegel the prize is to bring everything under thought with all of its distinctions.

Regarding subject, object, and human history, we can reconstruct it from the details I've supplied above, but for Hegel, the story of human history is the discovery of objects, then the discovery of subjects as on the other side of objects, then the discovery of the subject as that which thinks about objects, and finally as thinking itself... (this is Hegel's progressive arc of history).

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    My understanding was that Hegel's historicism was meant to "evolve" the Kantian "transcendental subject" with its cognitive apparatus of a priori out of historicized necessity, by "subsumption into self" perhaps, and to obviate the prohibition on metaphysics by presenting Spirit's rationally "self-legislated" as the real. Is that the idea? Maybe some references to accessible commentary might help.
    – Conifold
    May 11, 2017 at 1:05
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    Accessible Hegel commentary is hard to find, I guess the easiest to understand I can recall are en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quentin_Lauer and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_C._Beiser .
    – virmaior
    May 11, 2017 at 1:20

I must blur your questions:

One could think of it in terms of perception. The Greeks thought of someone who sees something and then regards the memory. And simply asked how that works. Outside and inside. Then, the consideration of the difference in perception among men was considered. Later all living things were thought as having a different perspective of the world. Finally a universal relativism was arrived at, by which consciousness as such, of any possible being, was called subjectivity. When one speaks of a representation one is roughly in the third stage or Hegel’s absolute. The difference is that some say that the representation matches something, others say it doesn't, Hegel says there is no representation but identity of knower and known. And Hegel claimed it all congealed in a way planed by god. These notions guided research, but one can say, for ordinary folks the transformation was felt derivatively and through the way the notions of the university disseminate and get into the ordinary life over time and at at a deficit.

This is a very crude statement, and blurs the problem of practical morality and that of knowledge. But, that blurring is not wholly misleading and it is part of the change in view. The current view is that morality is not part of the so-called facts of the world. Since there are only objects hitting objects. Only object, for Hegel there was only subject, full morality. Naturally such a view has an effect on the shape of life to the extent that it is powerful and living people hold the view.

  • Interesting question, thanks, hadn't even considered framing a reply in terms of 'morality'. I can't vote on the answer, though.
    – user25714
    May 10, 2017 at 23:43

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