I am reading a secondary source that has a section dedicated to Hegel. It says “For Hegel, the whole of history is such a dialectical process—one that is driven by Geist returning to itself, having “emptied” itself into time.” What exactly is meant by Geist returning to itself? How is it possible for something to return to itself? That implies something can leave itself in order to return back to itself. How does that even work exactly? Can someone give me other examples of things returning to themselves? And also, what does it mean for something to empty itself into time? Please understand, I am a novice when it comes to philosophy, so please spare me philosophical/Hegelian jargon if possible. So in other words, don’t give an explanation as if I already understand the topic I’m asking about.

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    You have to understand the dialectical process to grasp what Hegel is talking about. That means some reading
    – Nikos M.
    Jul 3, 2022 at 21:48
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    Per Hegel reality is a dialectic process of becoming and is fundamentally spiritual (Geist). Thus the whole history is evolving and converging to an end point which he called the absolute spirit where all contradictions are resolved and the Geist comes to an end. Throughout such a long process the Geist is said to emptied itself into time...And there're 3 aspects of the dialectic process as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis which is made up of thesis and its antithesis, however, this synthesis contains its own antithesis and thus resolves in a new synthesis, thus "returning" to itself... Jul 4, 2022 at 3:58
  • @DoubleKnot what do you mean by “contains its own antithesis?” Could you provide an example of what that would be like? Jul 4, 2022 at 12:17
  • A child does everything parents say is the necessary normal state (the thesis of obedience), and later the child becomes a teenager and begins to resent the oppressive nature of parental control and rebel against everything they say (antithesis of rebellion), Through the realization that true independence is required which neither involves obedience nor rebellion, independence is the synthesis that emerges from the clash of those two forces. But after this independent youth makes some mistakes and has to resort to parents for help, it's a case where the synthesis contains its own antithesis... Jul 4, 2022 at 22:12
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    Maybe the ancient story of Yajnadatta described in Shurangama sutra is easier for you to taste the common cases of "not return to itself": Have you not heard of Yajnadatta in Shravasti who on impulse one morning held a mirror to his face and fell in love with the head in the mirror? He gazed at the eyes and eyebrows (thesis) but got angry because he could not see his own face (anti-thesis, negation). He decided he must be a li mei ghost. Having lost all his bearings, he ran madly out (his synthesis, negation of negation)... Jul 6, 2022 at 2:13

1 Answer 1


This passage (you are quoting) takes something from the general structure of Hegel's Encyclopedia, and mixes it together with a quote from the end of Hegel's (early text) the Phenomenology of Spirit.

Let me start with general things about Hegel's system.

Hegel starts with Logic, which develops all the categories of thinking considered as pure thoughts, without reference to anything external. So Logic discusses basic philosophical categories (being, nothing, existence, cause, effect, finite, infinite, one, many, etc.) and tries to show that each one, if taken in isolation, is self-contradictory. Then, Hegel attempts to show that we can systematically derive the entire system of all philosophical categories based on how they contradict themselves. He does this through what he calls the Dialectical Method

The Logic transitions into the Philosophy of Nature, which dialectically develops all the categories of thinking, yet understood in terms of the "thought of externality." For example, instead of starting with Being, Hegel starts with pure space (space is "externality"). Instead of turning into Becoming, Space turns into Time (time is the movement of becoming with reference to externality. It's not a "pure thought," but the thought of becoming occurring within nature).

The philosophy of nature develops the concept of life, and life itself already shows signs of implicit mental activity. This leads to the final portion of the Encyclopedia, which is The Philosophy of Mind/Spirit.

Now Logic was already engaged with mind, because the Logic is a science of pure thought. So in this sense, the Philosophy of Mind is a return to itself from out of the externality of nature. Yet the Philosophy of Mind examines what we might call "embodied thought", or thought considered as it develops itself through the concrete activity of minds. This book of the Encyclopedia will end by discussing different attempts to give expression to the idea of "absolute mind/spirit", including various forms of representational art and the content of various religions. Yet for Hegel, absolute spirit is philosophy, which is in fact "thought thinking itself," what Aristotle described as God. Philosophy is the system itself, which Logic expresses as a science of various logical categories, nature as thinking that's external to itself, and mind/spirit as thinking that has returned to itself out of nature and attempted to understand itself concretely as its own activity.


Logic: pure thoughts, thinking about thinking.

Nature: thoughts but of nature, of external things, thinking about thinking about things outside of thinking.

Mind/Spirit: thoughts about mind, or thinking about thinking. Yet different from Logic because mind as "evolved" as it were out of nature, and thus is a return of mind to itself out of nature.

Answer to your question

So then, you asked about history. Importantly, Hegel understands the history of philosophy to have a certain affinity to the logical development of the logical system itself. For example, Parmenides puts "being" as his first principle, Buddhism puts "nothing" as its first principle, Heraclitus puts "becoming" as his first principle, and so on. So we could see the history of philosophy as a history of various attempts of the mind, or thinking, to know itself.

Moreover, he understands world history to be a progressive attempt to realize the concept of freedom concretely.

Your secondary source is likely based on a popular misreading of Hegel, that attempts to theologize Hegel's "absolute spirit" into some kind of metaphysical spiritual God-entity that guides the flow of history and attempts to realize itself through human activity. Based on this misinterpretation, some scholars think that Hegel believed in some kind of spooky "world spirit" that guides the rational course of history. Hegel does sometimes speak this way, but he likes to wax theological, using ideas borrowed from religion to help us picture the philosophical process of development. Yet you will never find Hegel develop this concept of the spooky world spirit, or the absolute in a rigorous philosophically defensible way! In fact, Hegel explicitly rejects the view that all of reality can be understood to be parts of some larger "absolute," claiming that this metaphysical position is nonsensical and undialectical.

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