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Possibility and Contradiction: An Introduction to Hegel’s Doctrine of Essence

Lecturer: Nahum Brown

Originally Taught: Summer School 2021

Hegel’s Science of Logic (1812-1816) is one of the most complicated but rewarding books of ontology ever written. This course presents a second installment of an initiation into Hegel and the Logic by focusing on the Doctrine of Essence division of the book. Hegel’s Doctrine of Essence is filled with insights about the underlying substratums of reality. We will look at Hegel’s thesis that the various modes of outward appearance (shine, concrete existence, actuality, etc.) dialectically overlap with, even emerge as, their underlying substratums (essence, ground, absolute necessity, etc.). Hegel claims that each particular thing constitutes the entirety of itself as essence; each particularity is at the same time both itself and the universal; each thing expresses the whole and is thoroughly interconnected with everything. To explore this insight, we will explicate Hegel’s dialectical analysis of the fundamental structures of the doctrine. We will also look closely at Hegel’s modal argument, as it appears in the “Actuality” chapter. As one of the core themes of the Doctrine of Essence, Hegel claims to have discovered the developmental relationship between actuality, possibility, necessity, and contingency. We will pay special attention to Hegel’s discussion of actuality and possibility as transitional concepts, Hegel’s contentious claim that possibility only seems to be different from necessity, and we will also investigate the roles that negativity and contradiction play in terms of modality. This course is built to be a continuation of an advanced introduction to Hegel’s philosophy, and to the Logic as a book, but this course is also designed, for those students who did not attend the first installment, to be a stand-alone introduction to Hegel. As with the first installment, this course is ideal for students who are interested in the historical foundations of continental philosophy and who would like to explore Hegel’s Logic as a precursor to the contemporary tradition.

Primary Readings

  • Hegel, The Science of Logic, translated by di Giovanni, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Suggested Readings (Hegel commentaries)

  • Brown, Nahum. Hegel on Possibility: Dialectics, Contradiction, and Modality. London: Bloomsbury, 2020.
  • Burbidge, John W. The Logic of Hegel’s Logic. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2006.
  • Carlson, David Gray. A Commentary to Hegel’s Science of Logic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
  • Hahn, Songsuk Susan. Contradiction in Motion: Hegel’s Organic Concept of Life and Value. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.
  • Houlgate, Stephen. The Opening of Hegel’s Logic: From Being to Infinity. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2006.
  • Hyppolite, Jean. Logic and Existence, translated by Leonard Lawlor and Amit Sen. Albany: SUNY Press, 1997.
  • Longuenesse, Béatrice. Hegel’s Critique of Metaphysics, translated by Nicole J. Simek. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Maker, William. Philosophy without Foundations: Rethinking Hegel. Albany: SUNY Press,1994.
  • Malabou, Catherine. The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic, translated by Lisabeth During. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • Moss, Gregory S. Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics: the Logic of Singularity. New York: Routledge, 2020.
  • Nancy, Jean-Luc. Hegel: The Restlessness of the Negative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2002.
  • Winfield, Richard Dien. Hegel’s Science of Logic: A Critical Rethinking in Thirty Lectures. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.

Week 1: Being and Essence

We focus on the large-scale relationship between the Doctrine of Being and the Doctrine of Essence. We review some of the major motifs from Being, such as Hegel’s claim that the Logic is a presuppositionless science, the being-nothing-becoming nexus, and the good infinite passages. We do this review so that we can examine how Hegel develops these insights in terms of Essence. In the second half of this week’s seminar, we discuss Hegel’s analysis of “shine” as the first conceptual layer of the Doctrine of Essence. Hegel proposes that when we look back at being from the advancement of essence, being appears first as “shine,” that is, as the surface of reality, whereas essence appears as the substratum.  


  • “Being,” 59-60
  • “The Doctrine of Essence,” 337-340
  • “Shine,” 341-353

Week 2: Essence Must Appear

This week is devoted to Hegel’s primary thesis from the Doctrine of Essence, that is, his dialectical account of outward appearance and substratum. As a critical response to numerous conventional metaphysical models (from Plato and Aristotle to modern philosophy), which view outward appearance and the substratum to be fundamentally distinct, Hegel claims that particularity and universality cannot be fully separated, but are instead dialectically intertwined, each emerging in and as the other. This has the big consequence of causing us to revise our common sense notion that there are other worlds or realms beyond our everyday world. Hegel’s dialectical account is epitomized in the catchphrase “essence must appear.”


  • “Appearance,” 437-448

Week 3: Hegel’s Theory of Possibility

In the final three weeks of the seminar, we do an in-depth study of Hegel’s theory of possibility as it appears in the “Actuality” chapter (the penultimate chapter of the Doctrine of Essence). The “Actuality” chapter offers a dense but engaging developmental conceptual analysis of the modal categories of “actuality,” “possibility,” “contingency,” and “necessity.” In week 3, we give an overview of Hegel’s theory, present Hegel’s modal theory as a solution to the problem of modal indeterminacy, and situate his analysis of the modal categories within the history of responses to the problem. We also compare Hegel’s solution with two popular solutions to modal indeterminacy – (1) modal priority and (2) world separation.   


  • “Actuality,” 477-488

Week 4: The Possibility Not to Be

This week, we focus on the role that negativity plays in Hegel’s theory of possibility. As the basis of the “Actuality” chapter, Hegel claims that if something is possible, this means that it can become actual, but that it also can not become actual. There are, in effect, two sides of possibility in Hegel’s account. There is a positive side, which is that something can become actual. But there is also a negative side, which is that something can remain merely possible as the possibility not to be. We look at Hegel’s argument that the negative side of possibility plays a significant role in the constitution of modal reality. We also look at Hegel’s contentious claim that, because of the existence of the negative side of possibility, the actualization of possibility leads to a productive contradiction, that this contradiction cannot be sustained, and that, because of this, modal reality takes on a developmental structure in which actuality expands to include in concrete existence the totality of possibility.


  • “Actuality,” 477-488
  • “Contradiction” and Remarks, 374-385

Week 5: Expanded Actuality and Substance

In our final session, we come to terms with Hegel’s developmental revision of the concept “actuality” as a term that includes both the positive and negative sides of possibility as one expanded actuality, rather than as a conventional conception of actuality that excludes various unactualized possibilities for the sake of actualization. Ultimately, in Hegel’s theory, actuality expands so much that it eventually becomes a transitional concept with possibility. To address how this expansion works, we outline three strategies Hegel takes up in the text. (1) The indifference strategy presents actuality as contingent, and thereby unifies the sides of possibility through an actuality that could have been otherwise. (2) The dispersion strategy presents the process of conditional, material actualization, where the possibilities of one thing exist dispersed in the actualities of others. And (3) the substance strategy presents an actuality that is itself both the particular thing and at the same time the universal substance, that is, both the instantiation and the totality of all possibilities of the thing in question. This course ends with the recognition that, according to Hegel, actuality expands to the point of being substance, and that as the culmination of the Doctrine of Essence, substance gives way to a new domain of logic in the Doctrine of the Concept.


  • “Actuality,” 477-488
  • “The Absolute Relation,” 489-492