Hegel uses the terms Actuality (Wirklichkeit) and Reality (Realität) often in his works. Can anyone help make determinations about the relation of these two terms? How are they distinguished from each other? Is the any scholarship on this issue?

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    Already in Kant : actuality is a category of modality and reality is a category of quality. The opposite of reality is negation; reality is positivity. Actuality is opposed to inactuality and to mere possibility. Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 15:52
  • @VinceVickler Thank you - that's helpful. Do you have a reference for that?
    – psitae
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 6:03
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    The sources of german idealism's ontology are to be looked for in Wolff's Ontologia. Abridged version in Baumeister( Philosophia definitiva). Also Baumgarten , Metaphysica ( there exists an English translation). As to Kant proper, the table of caegories is in the Analytics of pure reason ( Crit. Pure Reason). Kant's Lessons on metaphysics ( based on Baumgarten's book) are also useful . Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 15:55

1 Answer 1


While in many contexts of ordinary speech of German, the words 'Wirklichkeit' and 'Realität' make a distinction without a difference, Hegel contrasts them in an important aspect that can be associated with Aristotle's concepts of energeia and entelecheia (it is helpful to keep in mind when reading Hegel that he constantly converses with Aristotle as well as Kant in developing his fundamental notions and terms). Thus, he makes them into technical terms of his philosophy (like his differentiation of 'Negation' from 'Verneinung'), his usage is not regular without exception, though and may accord with their usual senses in the philosophical literature. As his specific terms, it has emerged as a convention to translate 'Wirklichkeit' as 'actuality' and 'Realität' as 'reality'.

It might be illuminating to take a glance at the etymologies. 'Realität' (reality; from the Scholastic term 'realitas') revolves around some sort of res, designates its sheer existence, and 'real' is related to that "res", connoting a contrast with 'ideal'. 'Wirklichkeit' (actuality) belongs to the cluster of words 'Wirken' (to have an effect, or be effective on something), Wirkung (impact, effective force), is wirklich (real, genuine). Notice that 'Verwirklichung' (realisation/actualisation) connects the real and the actual.

A key point is to appreciate the decisive role of immanent truth in Hegel's kernel vision of the world. It would not be much of an overstatement to say that Hegel's thought is the one indexed to truth at each step of it. This "truth" is not set beforehand like Plato's transcendent forms, but in a similar vein as Aristotle, something attains its truth when it actualises itself fully, that is, fulfils the sufficient and necessary conditions of its definition or its adequate characterisation. For Hegel, the world works out its path in stages (phases, moments) to truth on all parts and aspects of it. Before the moment of truth, no doubt, something has been real, but not yet actual. At the end of the path to get concretised in what is actual, which is constituted of stages, the preceding moments are preserved; they remain to be real, reality does not fade away into emptiness. Therefore, the locus of truth is the totality that comes into existence as an outcome of this path of actualisation. Only then, it can be said to be capable of properly playing its role (functions, effects) in the world: In Hegel's words, "Was wirklich ist, kann wirken" (what is actual can act -is efficacious).

Making comparisons with various contemporary views is a useful way to see and clarify characteristic divergences of Hegel's thought. We may consider the statement

  • 'Snow is white' iff snow is white

which, for Hegel, is not simply a record of some correspondence to a fact. Hegel would see the right-hand side is a dialectical process involving snow and whiteness, snow actualising its potential (realising its nature), and completed just when the left-hand side is fully realised. Hence actual snow is genuinely white; if not white, then it would not be snow at all. At the end, snow acts, or becomes so effective, as what has to be expected from it - say, covering the soil like a blanket, reflecting all the sun rays, etc. The process is not transcendent: It is realised in the world and real in all the stages; albeit "formal", or, so to be speak, in the name almost, lacking proper content. Hence, when actualised, snow is identified with its role in the world.

Another aspect important to Hegel's thought is that actuality is a rational transformation of reality. The actual is concretisation of rationality. The elements of the actual are already existent in particular contexts, but the actual gathers and develops them in a higher rational order. Hegel states this aspect in a formulaic fashion as "Was vernünftig ist, das ist Wirklich; und was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig (what is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational).

We have to see this aspect against the backdrop of what Hegel calls "Wissenschaft der Logik" (notice that 'Wissenschaft' has rich connotations that the word 'science' falls short of) which manifests an ontological theory from one viewpoint, a narrative of being. This narrative, while taking place immanently in the world, unfolds also a deductive structure (see also my post) that can be separated methodically in thought. As W. T. Stace expresses with felicity, "the world flows from the universal, not as an effect flows from its cause in time, but as a conclusion flows from its premisses" (The Philosophy of Hegel: A Systematic Exposition, New York: Dover Publications, 1955 (originally 1922), p. 22).

It should be clear by now that the reality-actuality distinction is a fundamental categorisation in Hegel's thought. I'd refer you to general commentaries, for I believe its genuine significance can be grasped when they are seen put to work.

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