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The philosophy of Hegel has been subject to many famous interpretations. One of the interpretations that has been better-received by analytic philosophers is the “nonmetaphysical” interpretation, first advanced by postwar German scholars and then adopted by many prominent American philosophers. This interpretation aligns Hegel with the disposition to dispense with questions about the nature of Ultimate Reality and concern oneself with the human character of our norms for discoursing about objective reality. On this line of thought, Hegel becomes a rather thoughtful precursor of pragmatism, and his exposition of “spirit” tells us much about the intersubjective constitution of reality. But the most recent interpreters of Hegel in the Anglophone world have begun to rebel against this picture of Hegel’s work, even the nonmetaphysical reading of his famous Phenomenology of Spirit.

It’s not hard to see why. In a dramatic reversal of fortune, serious metaphysics has become the primary interest of contemporary analytic philosophy: drawing much of their inspiration from the systematic work of David Lewis, young “lemmings” spend a great deal of time wondering about the status of properties and possible worlds, not practices and assertions. It would seem that this means the Hegel boom in analytic philosophy, such as it has been, would be drawing to a close. But it seems to me that this would be an unfortunate occurrence, for as recent work has begun to show a great deal of Hegel’s work is robustly metaphysical in the sense accorded that concept today. Indeed, I think that Hegel should perhaps be best known as a metaphysician. Kant and Fichte presented many aspects of experience and thought that held together in the absence of external constraints, and made the case that intellectual plausibility demanded a reassessment of what the mind was and what it was capable of, but left many implausibilities in the form of “unexplained explainers” like the thing-in-itself and the “check” that familiarized the ego with objectivity.

Hegel came along and provided a metaphysics that attempts to safely support an idealist philosophy of thought. A way of beginning to think about this is to examine the status of the concept Wesen, “essence”, in the early chapters of the Phenomenology. Now, Hegel’s concepts of “being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself” are well known, if still obscure, but an aspect of the Phenomenology’s construction that is often overlooked is the function of being für uns, “for us”. Since the Phenomenology begins with the simplest elements of experience, reality as it is understood by the developed mind is not comprehended by the consciousness under consideration. Hegel frequently adverts to what elements of consciousness are “for us”, for philosophers studying consciousness. This harks forward to the final development of the Phenomenology, “absolute knowing” in which the distinction between subject and object is permanently effaced.

But there’s no need to get epistemologically ahead of the game to appreciate Hegel’s use of “essence”. Early on in Section A (comprised of chapters on “Sense-Certainty”, “Perception”, and “Force and the Understanding”) an identity is established: what something is in-itself, is what it is for us: or, what is the same, that essence is transparent to the developed mind. It is manifestly not transparent to the dialectically developing consciousness, which is why essence is differentiated from being-for-itself – which is, contrary to simplistic intepretation, a property possessed by both conscious and non-conscious things. The being-for-itself of an object of perception is those characteristics of the object which are defined in terms of itself: and this in turn is identical with what the object is for another, for the perceiving consciousness. So, for Hegel, objects possess two types of “internal” or definitory characteristics: one transparent to consciousness, the other amenable to reason.

One reason this is interesting, from the standpoint of contemporary philosophy, is the way it can accomodate what is supposed to be one of the revolutionary insights of recent analytic philosophy: that some a priori truths are known contingently, could be different than they in fact are. The “textbook”case from Kripke’s Naming and Necessity is that the standard bar in Paris is one meter long: the bar defines what it is to be a meter, and yet it could easily have been a different length. Hegel’s essence is not necessarily a priori in the relevant way: coming as it does “after” the full exploration of all reality by reason, it is explicitly designed to easily accommodate facts determining essence which are known by methods other than “mathematical” a priori deduction. What the world is “in-itself” can be determined by reasoning that is not limited to what is immediately self-evident. So Hegel’s system leaves an opening for at least one aspect of contemporary metaphysics. I would argue that his distinctions have a useful resonance with contemporary debates about consciousness in the light of scientific realism: but that is a topic for another time.