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 the philosophical/Hegelian jargon if possible. So in other words, please don’t give an explanation as if I already understand the topic I’m asking about.

There’s also this “explanation” which I don’t understand:

and there are three aspects of the dialectical process: 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.

What is meant by “synthesis contains its own antithesis”? What does it mean for a something to contain its own antithesis? How is this possible and what are some examples?

  • 1
    It is unfortunate that Hegel used all the Hegelian jargon. Now we are left with the task of figuring it out.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 30, 2022 at 0:12
  • Well technically "Geist" is just the German word for anything from "mind" and "consciousness" to "ghost" or "spirit". So something semi- or non-physical that is somehow able to be described but also of an intangible fleeting nature. Also it might be that none of that is helping you with Hegel as he had a habit of coming up with a technical term for almost literally every word in a sentence.
    – haxor789
    Sep 30, 2022 at 12:04
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    It seems you've already grasped the essence of Hegel's return to itself in some new synthesis as you returned to your similar but not quite exactly same question in this site asked by yourself 2 months ago... Sep 30, 2022 at 18:48
  • Herbert Marcuse had already written a “dissertation” on Hegel for Heidegger when he wrote this book: Reason and Revolution. Available at Internet Archive. It is good secondary literature on Hegel imo.
    – Gordon
    Oct 9, 2022 at 2:37
  • PS. I don’t think Heidegger liked Marcuse’s paper, if he even read it. I am just making the point that Marcuse had done a careful study of Hegel.
    – Gordon
    Oct 9, 2022 at 2:45

2 Answers 2


In Hegel, Geist realises itself in time by going through several stages of insights into...itself. Just look at the basic structure of his Phenomenology of Spirit, which can be seen as the basis of his mature philosophy. It is divided into six steps:

  1. (Individual) Consciousness
  2. (Individual) Self-Consciousness
  3. (Cultural) Reason
  4. (Cultural) Spirit
  5. (Universal) Religion
  6. (Universal) Absolute Knowledge

The pairs of opposites (1,2; 3,4; 5,6) can be described as the passive/receiving and active/thinking (or subjective and objective) aspects of one and the same level of consciousness, where the dialectical motion through both of them towards a sublation of both leads to a new level of the Absolute Geist coming to know about itself (realise its consciousness) through various steps in time.

That being said, while the triad thesis - antithesis - synthesis is a common characterisation of Hegel's philosophy, it is actually a bad one and iirc there is but one single textbit that uses these terms in the context of his own philosophical methodology. Yes, Hegel often uses triadic structures. But the dialectical method is rather more generally about how trying to bring two different forms of being of the same thing together and understand them as two aspects of the same thing leads us to ever higher levels of understanding.

We are always stuck with the subjective/receptive part, with immediacy, but in order to achieve knowledge we must actively use our share of spirit/geist to take a step back and also understand things more objectively and abstractly. And only by being able to bring the two together, we gain actual knowledge.

The more tangible triad in Hegel is Intuition - Concept - Idea: Generally, we are on the receiving end. We perceive things, we get taught. By experiencing different aspects and perspectives, we gradually build concepts of the things around us. But ultimately, only if we can correctly apply and act upon these concepts, our Geist starts to realise the idea of this thing by bringing the immediate, tangible, material amd the abstract, conceptual, ideal (in the classical philosophical sense) together. This is where Hegel is able to integrate theoretical and practical philosophy.

And it does not sound much like thesis - antithesis - synthesis anymore, does it?

  • Introspection has certainly been around a while. Meditation, for example.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 3, 2022 at 15:20
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    @ScottRowe I know that there are many people in the nonduality/perennial philosophy community who try to reinterpret Hegel as one of theirs. In some sense one can do that. In others (e.g. in Hegel Absolute Geist exists only in the form of opposites, they are its form of being and very much real, not illusions) not so much. The dialectical movement is necessary in Hegel. And you cannot reach higher levels without keeping touch to the world. Hegel is not about introspection, really. It is about Geist realising itself strictly by giving up its unity.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 3, 2022 at 16:48

A very simplified version of the Hegel method is:

  1. Start with a proposition (thesis)
  2. Extract an inverse or negation (antithesis)
  3. Conflict resolution of thesis and antithesis (synthesis) to create new proposition (thesis)

What is meant by “synthesis contains its own antithesis”?

The product of synthesis is a new thesis. From this a new antithesis can be extracted.

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