Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was born in Stuttgart, Germany, and educated there and in Tubingen. Along with Schelling and Fichte, he was one of the prime exponents of German Idealism. Over the course of a distin­guished academic career, Hegel held positions at several universities including Jena, Heidelberg, and Berlin, and through his teaching and his pub­lished works became one of the most influential thinkers in the history of Western philosophy.

Hegel’s Analysis of Time

Nature and Spirit

In his first essays, written in his youth, Hegel defines time in an essentially negative way, as a destiny hostile to human beings, or as a finite real­ity intended to be transcended by reason in the eternal knowledge of Ideas. Directly following the Platonic tradition, time is deprecated in order to give greater importance to eternity. It was only later, during the years 1803-1806, that Hegel developed a positive conception of time in the suc­cessive preliminary sketches of his philosophy of nature, which are marked by the major discovery of the dialectic of time. Hegel considered that time as such, in its original springing forth, has to be understood as an immemorial element of Nature, which is not yet transformed, neither by language nor by memory, into the time proper to the Spirit, history. Nature is the opposite of Spirit, Absolute Spirit as the other of itself, or the hidden Spirit. As being-other than the Spirit, Nature maintains a double relationship with the latter. It is opposed

to it as it is its negative, the being-other than the Spirit. But at the same time, it has a hidden rela­tionship of identity with Spirit, since as being- other than the Spirit, it is already itself the life of the Spirit that can, by studying Nature, precisely know itself. Philosophy of nature is this knowl­edge of Nature through Spirit, understood as pro­gressive recognition of Spirit in the being-other.

In the courses given by Hegel at the University of Jena in 1804 and 1805 (the manuscripts of which have been preserved), time is the first moment of the philosophy of Nature, the first form of the exteriorization of Spirit in nature. Time is defined by two concepts, the infinite and the negative. Negativity characterizes the destruc­tive aspect of time, which he later described in detail in his 1817 work, the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. As for infinity, it leaves open the possibility for a positive determination of time, which is likely to give itself to Spirit. From this double characterization of time flows the dia­lectic of the three temporal dimensions: present, future, and past. The first moment of time is the present, the Now. The Now manifests itself but does not last; it is immediately suppressed by the future, which comes to take its place. The Now has for its very being no longer being. Once sup­pressed, the Now becomes the past. The past, in turn, suppresses itself in the sense that it leaves a place for a new Now to come forth. In other words, the future is the negation of the Now, and the past is the negation of the future, and there­fore the negation of the negation of the Now. Since double negation is affirmation, the past is the affirmation of a (new) Now. At this point, Hegel distinguishes two forms of time with the help of his logical theory of the two infinites. Either the new Now is a Now without a past, a pure Now without a relationship to the preceding Nows, or time is nothing other than the indefinite repetition of a Now always identical with itself, the bad infinity proper to Nature. In this unending linear movement, there is neither newness nor progress. As Hegel was to say later in Berlin, in nature there is nothing new under the sun. Or, the new Now is a Now of the past, a present that returns to the past, to include it in itself and to enrich itself even more. The image of the circle replaces that of the line. This “real” time is true infinity, which, in a circular movement, goes from the present to the present, through the future and the past. From this real time flows the principle of historicity: the living conservation of the past in the present.

In his 1805-1806 course on the philosophy of nature, Hegel explains the consequences of the primordial role of the past in the dialectic of real time. The past is not only one of the dimensions of time, it is the truth, the goal of time. According to Hegel, the privileged meaning of time is the past, understood not as a moment isolated from time, but as the culmination of “real” time, the concrete present. Against philosophers such as Schelling, who wanted to denigrate if not abolish time, Hegel affirms both the temporality of all Being, in that time is the supreme power imposing itself on all Being, and the rationality of this temporality, in the sense that the true knowledge of beings must consider the latter in light of their historicity. Philosophical knowledge is not the eternal con­templation of the eternal; it is knowledge of being “in its time,” according to the temporality that is proper to it. Hegel reverses the traditional rela­tionship of the subordination of time to eternity. The truth of time is not an absolute eternity, since, on the contrary, it is time itself, elevated to its real form, that is the truth of eternity.

Space, Time, and Negativity

The courses on the philosophy of Nature dat­ing to Hegel’s Berlin period (1818-1831), which provide commentary on the second part of Hegel’s Encyclopedia appearing in 1817, do not call into question the philosophical rehabilitation of time undertaken in Jena. Hegel, however, leaves in the background the dialectic of time in order to con­centrate on its negativity. According to Hegel, Nature is the Idea in the form of otherness and exteriority. The form of exteriority is divided into the two forms of space and time. The principal difference between space and time is negativity. Space does not allow negativity to deploy itself within it; negativity remains, as it were, paralyzed. The different parts of space coexist next to each other without cancelling each another out. It is not the same for time, the negativity of which incessantly relates to itself and continually sup­presses its own moments. In fact, time is the being that, in being, is not, and in not being, is (Encyclopedia, §258). In the Science of Logic, Hegel distinguishes pure indeterminate nothing­ness, which designates the nothingness that is not at all, from determinate nothingness, the non-Be­ing that contains an essential relationship with Being. Negativity is the negation of negation, which ensures the conversion of determinate noth­ingness into Being. In the light of these logical determinations, it is clear that time is neither pure nothingness nor determinate nothingness, but a type of negativity. Time is the continual passage of Being into nothing—from the present into the past—and from nothing into Being—from the future into the present. It is this double passage that defines the negativity of time. Only the pres­ent is; it enjoys in nature an absolute right. But the present contains within it the negativity of time, such that it does not cease to suppress itself and to disappear. Time is a “going-out-of-itself” (Auflersichkommen), the “negativity going out of itself” (die aufler sich kommende Negativitat). Time projects Being out of itself; it disperses it in a constellation of present, future, and past moments, all exterior to one another. For Hegel, the negativity of time is ecstatic, not so much in Martin Heidegger’s sense, but in the ekstatikon of Aristotle, who, in his Physics, attributes to time the origin of the corruption that is inherent in all natural movement. In Nature, temporal negativity is essentially destructive, the result being pure, indeterminate nothingness, the irreversible disap­pearance into the past. Hegel uses a play on words in comparing time (Chronos) to the Greek god Kronos (Cronus) who engenders everything and devours his own children.


Time not only involves the irreversible disap­pearance of events into the past. The moment of the disappearance supposes the continual birth of the moments that are destined to disappear. Time includes within itself a certain generation, which Hegel conceives through the category of Becoming. Time is, more exactly, the “intuitioned Becoming.” According to its logical definition, Becoming is an alternation of birth and disappearance; it is formed by the unity of these two concepts. But logical Becoming and temporal Becoming could be confused, and the adjective intuitioned is there to distinguish them. Intuition traces the boundary between temporal Becoming and logical Becoming, as pure thought. Being, nothing, and Becoming are thoughts, but time is not of thought, and that is why it is intuitioned Becoming, which is experi­enced in existence. The concept of time is thought, and it is, like all concepts, eternal. Time itself in its existence is intuitioned. That time is a form of Becoming also means that it is not a fixed, perma­nent framework in which things happen. The only permanent thing in time is the absence of all per­manence. Things are not in time, since time itself is in things in the form of an unceasing negativity that devours them from the inside. As Becoming, time is a river that carries everything away with it, including its own banks.

History and Spirit

Hegel clearly distinguishes the domains of Nature and of Spirit. In nature, the past is an inde­terminate nothing; events disappear and for the most part leaving no trace. It is not the same for the domain of the Spirit, which is able to give a new opportunity to the past. Time is the “tomb” of the event, but the Spirit preserves the past. That’s why history lives only in the Spirit. Most of the time, German idealist philosophers distin­guished time from history, but without enquiring into the connection between these two concepts. The originality of Hegel’s philosophy is that it allows one to understand the transformation of time in history. It is in the Phenomenology of Spirit that we find the clearest development of the tran­scending of time, that is, the passage of natural, linear time, the indefinite series of Nows, to his­torical time, which preserves the past within it. The possibility of the passage of time into history rests on the idea that time is the existing concept. This thesis means that time is not opposed to concept, to Spirit, since, on the contrary, it is the Spirit’s mode of existence.

How does the passage from time to history take place? It is achieved principally through three operations of consciousness. Transcending the eva­nescent Now takes place in language, understood as speech and writing. Speech transforms the nega­tivity of the Now into a stable and universal real­ity, and writing fixes this speech, still in flux, into a permanent sign. Consciousness also preserves the Now through the work of the interiorization of memory (Erinnerung). Interiorization is conceived by Hegel according to the Christological model of the Resurrection. It is what allows the Absolute Spirit to make the present be relived in the past, saving it from oblivion. Through memory, the Spirit converts the indeterminate nothing of the past into a new present, which is the foundation of history. In the ultimate movement of “Absolute Knowledge,” Hegel develops a third form of the transcending of time, that of conceptual thought, which overcomes the negativity of natural time in order to extract from it immanent rationality. It is necessary to make an essential distinction between “effective history,” which corresponds to the tem­poral course of events, and “conceived history,” which is the retrospective understanding of events in thought by philosophy. The task of conceived history is to organize the chaos of events, giving them the form of the concept, to manifest the movement of the Spirit, which progresses secretly, like a mole, through events.

Hegel affirms that Spirit is time. This identity of time and Spirit is dialectic. On the one hand, Spirit is opposed to the bad infinity of natural time; on the other hand, it transcends the latter in order to unite itself with time in the movement of history. This identity ultimately has the meaning of “Aufhebung,” of a transcending by which the Spirit makes itself master of time, by means of language, the interiorization of memory, and conceptual thought. The finite beings that inhabit Nature— inorganic things, plants, and animals—are incapa­ble of transcending the negativity of time that they contain in them, which henceforth manifests itself as a hostile power, a source of destruction and death. For finite beings, time will never be anything other than the destructive negativity of nature—a destiny. On the other hand, human beings possess within themselves the absolute negativity of the concept, which designates thought, and more gen­erally, freedom. The concept is the power of time, in the sense that Spirit transcends its negativity, on the one hand, in the very knowledge of time, and on the other hand, by its capacity to transform natural time into historical time. The distinction, first presented in the Phenomenology of Spirit, between effective history and conceived history is made more explicit in the Philosophy of History, the aim of which is to decipher and translate, in the language of the concept, the palimpsest of repre­sented history, the historia rerum gestarum, in which events and their memories are recorded through writing. The Hegelian conception of time also leads, in its final outcome, to thought of the history and of historicity.


When all is said and done, the Hegelian philoso­phy of Nature brings at least five original answers to the question of time:

  1. The desubjectivation of time. Time as such is not an interior form of our consciousness, an “inter­nal sense,” but a universal determination of Nature present in all its domains.
  2. The mobility of time. Time is not a fixed and per­manent form in which events take place, but the very Becoming of things. From this point of view, things are not in time; it is time itself that is in all things in the form of their intrinsic negativity.
  3. The negativity of time. Time is the destructive negativity of Nature; it plunges each being into the non-Being of the past. This concept of negativity allows us to take into account several aspects of time, such as the fleetingness of the instant and the irreversibility of the past.
  4. The dialectic of time. The negativity of time unfolds according to a dialectic of three moments, from which flow two figures of time: on the one hand the indefinite and repetitive time of Nature, and on the other hand, the progressive and his­torical time of Spirit.
  5. The logicity of time. The purpose of the desub- jectivation of time is to establish the relationship of Spirit and time on a new basis. Time is not, in fact, a power foreign to Spirit, a destiny, but it can be transcended by Spirit in the sense that it can be spoken of, recollected, interiorized, and thought by Spirit. For this reason, the reflection on time begun in the philosophy of Nature is fully realized only in the philosophy of Spirit.

Christophe Bouton

See also Aristotle; Becoming and Being; Dialectics;

Eternity; Hegel and Kant; Heidegger, Martin; Idealism; Intuition; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von; Metaphysics; Now, Eternal; Ontology

Further Readings

Hegel, G. W. F. (1970). Philosophy of nature

(M. J. Petry, Ed. & Trans.). New York: Humanities Press. (Original work published 1817)

Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Hegel: The essential writings.

London: HarperPerennial.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of spirit

(A. V. Miller, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. (Original work published 1807)

Hegel, G. W. F. (1988). Introduction to the philosophy of history. Cambridge, MA: Hackett. (Original work published 1837)

Singer, P. (2001). Hegel: A very short introduction.

New York: Oxford University Press.

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