Hegel-by-HyperText Resources

Glossary of Isms


Usually used to mean denying the possibility of knowing the nature or existence of God, but used by Marxists with the meaning of denying the possibility of knowledge of the objective world. Agnosticism is an extension of Scepticism in that while scepticism is always a valid aspect of investigation, Agnosticism elevates this doubt into an absolute denial of the possibility of knowledge. The term was coined by the British natural scientist Thomas Huxley and could be used to encompass the philosophy of Hume, Kant, neo-Positivism and others.



Alienation means ‘making something foreign’, and was used by Marx in the context of the labour process to refer to products of labour becoming ‘foreign’ to the labourer, that is, becoming hostile things with no apparent connection to the person who produced them. The market entails the alienation of all commodities since they are the property of the employer and pass from hand to hand in the process of exchange. The worker thus ‘makes a rod for her own back’. Alienation is also used in reference to mental or ideal products which take on the appearance of objective, natural things.

Alienation is to be distinguished from the concept of Objectification which is the characteristic of all labour processes, referring to the labourer transforming her own powers into objective things, outside of consciousness, but not necessarily ‘foreign’, hostile forces.

Alienation is related to Reification, which refers to the conception of social relations as relations between things, and the ‘Fetishism of Commodities’, a phrase Marx used to describe the reification of the commodity relation, by analogy with unsophisticated religions which impute divinity to icons.



System of views denying the existence of God (Deism) and usually other religious ideas such as life after death. Inasmuch as the concept of God generally represents the dominant forms of consciousness of an age, atheism is historically associated with political radicalism. Atheism dates from the time of the Greeks (including Heraclitus, Democritus and Epicurus) and is generally associated with philosophical materialism. See also Theism.

Marx saw Atheism as associated with crude communism and sought to transcend Atheism by revoluntionising the social conditions which create the need for people to believe in God, rather than atheistic polemics against belief in God. See his Private Property & Communism.



Hegel says: “Axioms are commonly but incorrectly taken as absolute firsts, as though in and for themselves they require no proof. Were this in fact the case, they would be mere tautologies, as it is only in abstract identity that no difference is present, and therefore no mediation required. If, however, axioms are more than tautologies, they are propositions from some other science, since for the science they serve as axioms they are meant to be presuppositions. Hence they are, strictly speaking, theorems, and theorems taken mostly from logic.”



Consciousness is the most fundamental category of philosophy in that it refers to all that is given as such in contrast to that which exists outside consciousness (Matter) and which is in one way or another reflected in consciousness.

In Hegel's system, Consciousness is the middle term in the development of the Subjective Spirit, from Soul (unconscious mental activity) to Consciousness (the forms of which are studied by Phenomenology) to Spirit, the unity of Soul and Consciousness. The stages of Consciousness are Consciousness-as-such, Self-Consciousness and Reason. “Self-consciousness is sparked, however, by the consciousness of life; for as consciousness has an object, as an entity different from itself it is also true in life that the difference is no difference” and “The unity of consciousness and self-consciousness has in the first place individuals existing in contrast to each other as beings for themselves. ... its truth is the unmediated generality subsisting in and for itself and the objectivity of self-consciousness, — Reason”.



In the section on Synthetic Cognition in the Science of Logic, Hegel makes a criticism of the formal kind of reasoning based on Definitions and Axioms, an aribtrary division of the subject matter and theorems. Here Hegel says: “Definition, in thus reducing the subject matter to its Notion, strips it of its externalities which are requisite for its concrete existence; ... Description is for representation, and takes in this further content that belongs to reality. But definition reduces this wealth of the manifold determinations of intuited existence to the simplest moments”



Deism means belief in God as a prime cause or creator of the world, after which God has no hand in its affairs. Like Pantheism, Deism is a form of belief in God which provides a basis for materialistic criticism of Religion. Deism is particularly associated with the philosophers of the Enlightenment who prepared the way for the French Revolution — Voltaire and Rousseau — and British philosophers such as Locke and Newton.



Dialectics is the method of reasoning which aims to understand things concretely in all their movement, change and interconnection, with their opposite and contradictory sides, as opposed to the formal, metaphysical mode of thought of ordinary understanding which begins with a fixed definition of a thing according to its various attributes: ‘a fish is something with no legs which lives in the water’.

Darwin however, considered fish dialectically: some of the animals living in the water were not fish, and some of the fish had legs, but it was the genesis of all the animals as part of a whole interconnected process which explained the nature of a fish: they came from something and are evolving into something else.

Darwin went behind the appearance of fish to get to their essence. For ordinary understanding there is no difference between the appearance of a thing and its essence, but for dialectics the form and content of something can be quite contradictory — parliamentary democracy being the prime example: democracy in form, but dictatorship in content!

And for dialectics, things can be contradictory not just in appearance, but in essence. For formal thinking, light must be either a wave or a particle; but the truth turned out to be dialectical — light is both wave and particle. (See the principle of excluded middle)

We are aware of countless ways of understanding the world; each of which makes the claim to be the absolute truth, which leads us to think that, after all, “It’s all relative!”. For dialectics the truth is the whole picture, of which each view make up more or less one-sided, partial aspects.

At times, people complain in frustration that they lack the Means to achieve their Ends, or alternatively, that they can justify their corrupt methods of work by the lofty aims they pursue. For dialectics, Means and Ends are a unity of opposites and in the final analysis, there can be no contradiction between means and ends — when the objective is rightly understood, "the material conditions [means] for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation" (Marx, Preface of Contribution to a Political Economy)

One example of dialectics we can see in one of Lenin's call: “All Power to the Soviets” spoken when the Soviets were against the Bolsheviks. Lenin understood, however, that the impasse could only be resolved by workers’ power and since the Soviets were organs of workers’ power, a revolutionary initiative by the Bolsheviks would inevitably bring the Soviets to their side: the form of the Soviets during the time (lead by Mensheviks and SRs) were at odds with the content of the Soviets as Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Councils.

Formal thinking often has trouble understanding the causes of events — something has to be a cause and something else the effect — and people are surprised when they irrigate land and 20 years later — due to salination of the land, silting of the waterways, etc — they have a desert! Dialectics on the other hand understands that cause and effect are just one and another side of a whole network of relations such as we have in an ecosystem, and one thing cannot be changed without changing the whole system.

These are different aspect of Dialectics, and there are many others, because dialectics is the method of thinking in which concepts are flexible and mobile, constrained only by the imperative of comprehending the movement of the object itself, however contradictory, however transient.

Dialectics has its origins in ancient society, both among the Chinese and the Greeks, where thinkers sought to understand Nature as a whole, and saw that everything is fluid, constantly changing, coming into being and passing away. It was only when the piecemeal method of observing Nature in bits and pieces, practiced in Western thinking in the 17th and 18th century, had accumulated enough positive knowledge for the interconnections, the transitions, the genesis of things to become comprehensible, that conditions became ripe for modern dialectics to make its appearance. It was Hegel who was able to sum up this picture of universal interconnection and mutability of things in a system of Logic which is the foundation of what we today call Dialectics.

As Engels put it:

“the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process — i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this movement and development.” [Socialism: Utopian & Scientific]

It was in the decade after Hegel’s death — the 1840s — when Hegel’s popularity was at its peak in Germany, that Marx and Engels met and worked out the foundations of their critique of bourgeois society.

Hegel’s radical young followers had in their hands a powerful critical tool with which they ruthlessly criticised Christianity, the dominant doctrine of the day. However, one of these Young Hegelians, Ludwig Feuerbach, pointed out that Holy Family was after all only a Heavenly image of the Earthly family, and said that by criticising theology with philosophy, the Young Hegelians were only doing the same as the Christians — Hegel’s Absolute Idea was just another name for God! For Feuerbach, ideas were a reflection of the material world and he held it to be ridiculous that an Idea could determine the world. Feuerbach had declared himself a materialist.

Marx and Engels began as supporters of Feuerbach. However, very soon they took up an opposition to Feuerbach to restore the Hegelian dialectic which had been abandoned by Feuerbach, and to free it from the rigidity of the idealistic Hegelian system and place the method on a materialist basis:

“Hegel was an idealist. To him, the thoughts within his brain were not the more or less abstract pictures of actual things and processes, but, conversely, things and their evolution were only the realized pictures of the ‘Idea’, existing somewhere from eternity before the world was. This way of thinking turned everything upside down, and completely reversed the actual connection of things in the world. ” [Fredrick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

Thus, for Marx and Engels, thoughts were not passive and independent reflections of the material world, but products of human labour, and the contradictory nature of our thoughts had their origin in the contradictions within human society. This meant that Dialectics was not something imposed on to the world from outside which could be discovered by the activity of pure Reason, but was a product of human labour changing the world; its form was changed and developed by people, and could only be understood by the practical struggle to overcome these contradictions — not just in thought, but in practice.

Since Dialectics is a concept which attempts to capture in a method of thinking, something as concrete and historical as human practice, there are many, many definitions of dialectics. See the Sampler.



Dogmatism is thinking which minimises the validity of doubt (See Scepticism), asserting the possibility of certain and unalterable knowledge of the world. “Dogmatism” is invariably used in the pergorative sense. Dogmatism denies the relativity of knowledge which results from the continual development in the objective world, the connection of knowledge with historically changing practice and social relations, and the need to concretise knowledge.



In philosophy (as opposed to psychology), Ego refers to that aspect of an individual human being which capable of initiating activity, as opposed to passively reflecting events or entities affecting it.



Epistemology is the study of the origins, limits and validity of Knowledge.



Ethics is the study of how people live which is concerned with the concepts of Values and Rights and Will. Ethics is concerned with morality (ethics when referred back to self), right and wrong, decision-making, law (formalised ethics) and social norms, rather than with the question of knowledge and is closely related to its off-spring political economy.



Existentialism is a philosophical current having its roots in the 19th century reaction against the “impersonal” Rationalism of the Enlightenment, Hegelianism and Positivism, especially Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and specifically the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Its founders are Heidegger, Jaspers and Sartre. The diverse current included here share a distinction between the categories of Being (Sein) and Existence (Existenz), holding that Being cannot be grasped through rational thought and perception, but only through personal existence.



Fetishism is the form of social relation and the conception in which human powers and characteristics are attributed to things in themselves. The term originally referred to very early societies in which trees and thunder bolts and so on were deemed to have a personality and religions in which icons are deemed to possess a soul. Marx used the terms specifically to refer to the way in which commodities create the illusion that relations between people are in fact relations between things (commodities) and people, thereby investing human powers in things. See The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof. Fetishism is a form of Reification.



Over-emphasis on Form as against the Content or meaning of something, especially in politics or in the theory of Art, Mathematics and Ethics. In Mathematics, Formalism is associated with David Hilbert and reduces mathematics solely to rules for the construction of valid sequences of symbols.


§Freedom & Necessity

Philosophers have wrestled with the problem of ‘Free Will’ since ancient times. If the world is governed by objective laws, how is it possible for people to determine thier own fate? The dialectical understanding of this quandry is summed up in the adage “Freedom is the understanding of Necessity” — we are free to choose between possible states of affairs only the extent that we are aware of them, and to desire a state of affairs which is impossible is a nonsense. The objective world is equally a means to our ends as it is a limitation upon them.

See Possibility & Reality, Determinism and Chance & Necessity and Engels' essay in Anti-Dühring on Freedom and Necessity.

See Hegel on Real Possibility and Blind Necessity in the section on Actuality in the Shorter Logic.


§Historical Materialism

Historical Materialism is another name for Marxism, along with Dialectical Materialism, used by Engels in his 1892 Preface to Socialism: Utopian & Scientific, and by Kautsky and Plekhanov, emphasising Marx's historical approach to the understanding of cultural and social problems and the priority he gave to labour as opposed to political and cultural factors in understanding social problems. See also Political Economy.

As theoretical leader of the German Social-Democratic Party, Kautsky sought to establish a basis in Marx's ideas for his conception of ‘laws of history’ which would eventually bring the working class to power, and promoted the conception of a ‘scientific method’ for understanding these ‘laws of history’.

See The German Ideology and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.



Having its origins in the Renaissance and reaching its zenith in the Enlightenment, Humanism is the system of views which makes the human being its central value, as opposed to abstract notions such as God or Nature, or religious or political principles. In the theory of knowledge, Humanism holds that concepts are human products (rather than inhering in nature for example) and regards social relations as more fundamental than concepts like ‘Subject’, or ‘Matter’ which ought to be explained in terms of human relations, rather than the other way around.

In his Private Property & Communism, Marx says: “ ... communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man — the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution”..

See also Naturalism.



Individual means the immediately given object, but not in the sense of the succession of quantities and qualities of abstract Being, but rather the concrete object which manifests and includes within it the whole wealth of the Universal and Particular.



Trend in the foundations of Mathematics associated with Luitzen Bruuwer which seeks to construct mathematics on the basis of rational intuition, and rejects the validity of the Law of the Excluded Middle. (c.f. Formalism and Logicism)

Intuitionalism refers to philosophical currents which counterpose Intuition to both Reason and Experience as a mode of perception; associated with Henri Bergson.



The study of the validity of thought-forms and categories and their possible associations and combinations. Formal Logic is Logic confined to the consideration of Form, especially where the validity of axioms and categories is excluded from consideration. Dialectics is logic when the domain of Logic is expanded to deal with objective thought-forms, i.e. human practice, as well as subjective thought-forms such as propositions.



Trend in the foundations of Mathematics associated with the names of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, which asserts that mathematics is a branch of Logic and can be constructed without recourse to material outside of formal logic. c.f. Formalism and Intuitionism.



Synonymous with Consciousness, but often used with a connotation of being a substance or extra-human entity. ‘Mind’ (or ‘Spirit’) as a translation of the German Geist such as in the Philosophy of Right: “Mind is the nature of human beings en masse and their nature is therefore twofold: (i) at one extreme, explicit individuality of consciousness and will, and (ii) at the other extreme, universality which knows and wills what is substantive. § 264 ... The history of Mind is its own act. Mind is only what it does, and its act is to make itself the object of its own consciousness. In history its act is to gain consciousness of itself as Mind, to apprehend itself in its interpretation of itself to itself. § 343.”



In philosophy, Naturalism refers to those systems of views which see consciousness and all the phenomena of human life as the products of Nature and particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, which sought to explain the development of society on the basis of the effects of the natural environment.

Naturalism contrasts with Humanism in that it negates the significance of the active role of human beings in producing themselves through labour and ignores the fact that the world in which modern human societies live are an overwhelmingly ‘humanised’ environment.

Marx says in his 1844 Critique of Hegel's Philosophy: “... consistent naturalism or humanism is distinct from both idealism and materialism, and constitutes at the same time the unifying truth of both. We see also how only naturalism is capable of comprehending the action of world history.”.



Objectification and De-objectification denote complementary aspects of human activity. In Objectification, human activity passes into a materially existing form, such as when a person makes something, and the product of their labour thereby expresses their personality and the social relations in which the labour was carried out. In De-objectification, objectively existing, material things are incorporated into social relations and ‘humanised’ through the significance they take on for human beings.

Both these processes are characteristic of human labour in all its historically developed forms and the concepts are central to Marx’s understanding of the relation between humanity and Nature and the individual to society. Objectification needs to be contrasted with Alienation, which refers to objectification under conditions when the product of a person's labour not only becomes objective to them, but foreign, and Reification, which refers to the transformation of relations between people to relation between things which appear to exist independently of humanity, and is exhibited in Fetishism.

Objectification is also used nowadays in the sense of social relations which transform people into objects rather than subjects.



Objectivism is the philosophical standpoint which minimises the subjective aspect in history and cognition, preferring to describe a process as something objective, belittling the possibility of changing the object and failing to recognise the extent to which the subject is able to view the object only through its material and practical interconnection with the object.



In ancient times, Ontology referred to study of Being and fell into disrepute in modern times, but Edmund Husserl revived the idea of the study of different forms of Being and Phenomenology and Existentialism have given rise to a new concern with Ontology, the central problem of which is the age-old problem of Mind and Body. (See Rene Descartes.)



Pantheism is the philosophical outlook which identifies God with Nature, rather than seeing Nature as having been created or controlled by God. (See Deism and Theism). For Spinoza for example, Free Will was possible even in a world in which each and every events was an act of God because the human will was itself also an expression of God's Will.



Particular in the category which mediates between Universal and Individual, referring to the collective of individuals which manifest a universal in contradistinction to those which manifest its negation. Particular is the ‘some’ for which the Universal is ‘all’ and the Inidividual is ‘this’. The Particular is a group (or Genus) to which an individual belongs and by virtue of which it is part of the Universal (or Absolute). The Universal can exert itself only through Individual and Individual relations and the Particular is these Individual relations through which the Universal exerts itself.



Phenomenology means the study of the forms of consciousness, but is also a trend in philosophy beginning with Edmund Husserl which sought to found a scientific basis for philosophy by examination of the forms of subjective thought independently of any object. See Phenomenon and Heidegger.


§Political Economy

‘Political Economy’ is the term used prior to the 20th century, (when the term ‘Economics’ came into use) to refer to a branch of science concerned with the production of commodities and the accumulation of wealth. For its earliest exponents such as William Petty and Adam Smith, Political Economy was a branch of Ethics, but with the growth of positivism in the 19th century, Political Economy, like Sociology, came to be seen as a branch of science.

The British pioneers of Political Economy contributed much to the development of Hegel's views in that they showed the relation between human thinking and social relations and how these social relations developed through specific historical stages related to the progress of techniques of production.

After the completion of his earliest investigations, Marx concentrated the majority of his theoretical work on the critique of political economy because Marx saw that the work of the political economists most clearly exhibited the ideological forms which dominated bourgeois society. Many Marxists from Karl Kautsky to Louis Althusser, drew the conclusion from this critique that Marx himself sought to develop a socialist political economy.

Marx explained the relation between political economy and ethics, for example, as follows:

“It stems from the very nature of estrangement that each sphere applies to me a different and opposite yardstick - ethics one and political economy another; for each is a specific estrangement of man and focuses attention on a particular field of estranged essential activity, and each stands in an estranged relation to the other. ... the opposition between political economy and ethics is only an apparent opposition and just as much no opposition as it is an opposition. All that happens is that political economy expresses moral laws in its own way”. [Human Labour & Human Needs]


§Positive & Negative

Positive and Negative may be used simply in the sense of polarity, in which case neither has any meaning other than in relation to the other, and each have essentially interchangeable meanings. However, Positive and Negative are used in philosophy with quite distinct meanings: Positive knowledge is knowledge which affirms something, rather than denying (or negating) something or disproving something. In this sense we talk of something being “posited”, and the "positive sciences" which accumulate "positive knowledge" about the objective world. Negation on the other hand means rejecting what is immediately given as true in favour of what is possible or the ‘meaning’ of something. Dialectics is sometimes said to be negative in that its action destroys the immediately given certain of facts and ‘turns things into their opposites’.

See negation and Hegel on Positive knowledge and on Polarity.



A term used in connection with Art and politics, generally meaning having regard to the immediately given state of affairs in the possibilities inherent in it, in contrast to concern with principles or ideas which may not be apparent within the given reality. See Reality.



Reason is the aspect of cognition in which concepts are transformed, analysed and combined. While everyone knows that Reason exists and has objective content, philosophers have disputed over the years as to the source of our Rational (i.e. Reasoning) ability and its objectivity.

Reason is often contrasted with Experience (as in the dispute between Rationalism and Empiricism) and with Intellect, which in this context refers to the aspect of cognition in which concepts remain stable and provide the basis for interpretation of experience.

In Hegel's system, Reason is the unity of Consciousness-as-such and Self-Conciousness, and negates itself as the Theoretical Spirit and the Practical Spirit and thus becomes Objective Spirit — all the phenomena of history, politics, culture and so on.



Reification refers to the transformation of social relations, or concepts or relations which express human relations, into objectively existing entities or relations. Specifically, reification is often used derogatively referring to imagining that logical or abstract relations exist in Nature in themselves, rather than being human products reflecting the objective basis of human labour in Nature. See Objectification and Objectivism.



Term used to characterise philosophical trends which exaggerate the relativity of knowledge, to the point of rejecting any objective basis for knowledge or any sense in which one statement could be ‘more true’ than another. See Absolute & Relative.



Subjectivism refers to over-emphasis on the significance of the individual subject in cognition (as for example in the Second Positivism) or alternatively, in the pergorative sense, uncritical susceptibility to subjective factors in cognition.



Sublation, a translation of the German word aufheben, is a key concept of dialectics. In his Philosophical Notebooks, Lenin defines sublation as “terminate but simultaneously preserve”.

See Hegel in the Shorter Logic.



Belief in God as a super-natural being who intervenes in and controls the affairs of the world. See Deism and Pantheism


§Theory & Practice

Theory and Practice can only be understood in connection with one another because theory is only meaningful insofar as it has practical significance, even if mediated through language and social-historical relations or as part of a whole body of theory; human actions do not constitute practice except to the extent that the actions are connected with concepts and knowledge.

Marx's Theses on Feuerbach assert that the criterion of truth is practice, and criticise Feuerbach for conceiving reality“only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively”.

Philosophical current differ as to the critierion of truth: for Rationalism it is Reason; for Empiricism it is Observation and Experiment. Pragmatism makes practice the criterion of truth, but like Empiricism, pragmatism knows only immediate, individual action, not practive as such.

Although Hegel introduced the concept of practice into philosophy, he “does not know real, sensuous activity as such”. [Marx] See Theses on Feuerbach.



In getting to know the world, we learn that there are properties that are common to all things in the world and laws or principles that true always and everywhere. The category which refers to this aspect of our knowledge, which reflects the unity of the material world, we call ‘Universality’. In the former sense, of properties common to all objects, it is called the ‘abstract universal’, in that we are here abstracting from the multiplicity a single aspect of property of all the individuals. In the latter sense, of a principle or law which unites all the objects perceived, combining them in a single conception, it is called the ‘concrete universal’.

Universals can have no existence other than through the practical activity of human beings and the cognitive activity resting upon that. Practice demonstrates whether a Universal has an objective basis.

Further, a Universal can exist only in and through Individuals — the objects to which properties adhere and which are identified in immediate perception. Further, such properties cannot be existant nor perceived in an Individual object other than through the fact that individuals differ and are like and unlike, are combined in groups and separated by oppositions, and so forth. The process of cognising the Universal either in the form of abstract universals which separate objects into like and unlike, or in the form of concrete notions, entails the process of mediation of Individual and Universal through Particulars.

See Individual and Particular and Syllogism.

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