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The Nature of Language: On the Homogeneity of Language and Spirit in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit


There are two dominant contradictory approaches towards understanding the nature of language: one, the epistemological approach; two, the ontological approach. The epistemological approach understands language as a mere tool and denies the close relationship between a word and the actual thing for which that word stands. The ontological approach, on the other hand, understands language as the disclosure of world experience and professes a close relationship between a word and the thing it signifies. However, this approach opposes the epistemological approach towards the understanding of language. In this article, we propose that Hegel, in his Phenomenology of Spirit, depicts an interesting relationship between language and spirit which points towards the consistency between the two contradictory approaches towards the nature of language. For Hegel, language not only plays a role in spirit’s pursuit of self-knowledge which signifies the epistemological approach, but also in spirit’s existence which signifies the ontological approach. Thus, in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the epistemological approach and the ontological approach towards the nature of language coexist. In this article, by turning to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and through an analysis of the relationship between language and spirit, we not only attempt to seek some resolution to the epistemology-ontology contradiction, but we also reveal the homogeneity of language and spirit, which we take as the true nature of language in Hegel’s philosophy.

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  1. 1.

    John McCumber regards Hegel as a philosopher of language, in the sense of “what Richard Rorty has called the ‘linguistic turn’”. McCumber holds that to Hegel, all problems are problems of language. Philosophy is “the rational improvement of words” and “linguistic reform” (1993: 20). Charles Taylor also claims that “In a sense, Hegel can be placed in the line of the development which leads up to the contemporary ways of understanding language” (1977: 567).

  2. 2.

    In Surber’s research, he also analyzed the role that language plays in the development of subjective spirit. Discussions of “Psychology”, especially “Representation” of Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit manifest the multi-layered role of language to spirit. The difference between Surber’s and Granados’ researches lies in that for the latter, the transition from “Representation” to “Thinking” is especially embodied in name and the organic memory. That is to say, apart from mechanical memory, Granados believes the organic aspect of memory to be a significant link between “Representation” and “Thinking” (See Surber 2011:256–257; Granados 2018: 15–18).

  3. 3.

    In the analytic tradition, philosophy of language is generally focused on the relationship between the meaning of language and knowing. For example, Frege’s famous theory on sense and reference distinguishes between sign, sense, reference, thought and idea. Also, the question of truth value in judgment is given special consideration (Frege 1960: 56–78). Besides, Analytic philosophy stresses the relationship between language and mind. For example, Grice develops the notion of intention. At last, the skeptical attitude towards sense in Quine, Kripke and the later Wittgenstein is also from the epistemological perspective (See Miller 2018: xi-xii).

  4. 4.

    Surber’s Hegel and Language (2006) is mainly focused on Science of Logic and the linguistic thought in Hegel’s mature system. Although some scholars have discussed the “speculative sentence” in Phenomenology of Spirit, we think the linguistic thought in Phenomenology of Spirit should be given more attention.

  5. 5.

    When analyzing Hegel’s linguistic thought in Phenomenology of Spirit, Surber stresses the universality of language, the performative role of language, language as the existence of spirit and language as the revelation of truth (2011: 249–251). We agree with Surber in these aspects, but the reasons we give are different. In addition, our focus is on the relationship between spirit and language in order to dig into the nature of language. We think this is something that is neglected in Surber’s study.

  6. 6.

    Above, we take the language analysis and discussion of the analytic tradition in an epistemological sense. However, we don’t intend to deny its ontological aspects. For example, in Frege’s distinction of sense and reference, “reference” has a more ontological meaning. Also, in Peirce’s semiotic theory, when he emphasizes the pragmatic aspect of language, it is also more or less ontological. In the following, we take Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s ontological approach towards language as the focus of discussion in order to illustrate the contradiction between the epistemological approach and the ontological approach, which is mainly to set a “problem” background for the further discussion of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in Sects. 3 and 4. The relevance and difference of the ontological aspects between Heidegger, Gadamer and that of Frege or other analytic philosophers are also worthy of careful study. This may also involve a broader discussion between epistemology and ontology, and between language and thought. We thank the anonymous reviewer for this reminding.

  7. 7.

    Daniel J. Cook’s research about Hegel’s language is concentrated mainly on Hegel’s early real philosophies. He emphasizes the signification of language to the cultivation of consciousness. Language is important for consciousness to conduct productive activities and language is also the first attempt for consciousness to prove itself in the world (1972: 197–98). We agree with Cook in that by designating signs, names to objects, we make the world our own, thus eliminating the strangeness of the world. What’s more, the process of signification, of grasping the world around us is also the process of knowing ourselves or finding our position in the world. This is the epistemological significance of language that we want to stress.

  8. 8.

    Here particularly, and also in Hegel’s philosophy generally, “nothing” does not mean absolute nothingness or emptiness, but “the determinate negative” (Hegel 1977: 36) (das bestimmte Negative) (Hegel 1970: 57).

  9. 9.

    “Die Sprache aber ist, wie wir sehen, das Wahrhaftere” (Hegel 1970: 85).

  10. 10.

    It should be admitted that language as Dasein of spirit is not limited in the chapter of “Spirit” in Phenomenology of Spirit. These aspects that are discussed in this section can be taken as “examples” for an illustration of the idea presented here. Besides, Hegel has especially pointed out the importance of the language of ethical spirit, moral consciousness, and conscience, which is also the basis for the discussion here (See Hegel 1977: 396).

  11. 11.

    However, the truth gained here is not the ultimate truth. It is knowledge that spirit gains for itself at this stage. In further development, there is more reflection upon the truth gained here and upon the nature of this raptured language. See for example, Hegel’s analysis of the Enlightenment, where this raptured language is further discussed (1977: 328–329).

  12. 12.

    Panova (2015) holds a similar view. However, our main arguments are different. Besides, our discussion of the nature of language is derived from the epistemological and ontological significances of language to spirit. The spiritual nature of language which will be demonstrated in this section has its ground in the analysis of Sects. 2 and 3.

  13. 13.

    However, the relationship between language and spirit may not be limited to Phenomenology of Spirit.

  14. 14.

    Whether language is public or private is still a dispute nowadays. Here, we emphasize the universal aspect of language. For Hegel, language represents the universal spirit. The universality of language is the basis for further communication. However, the universality of language does not deny that each individual can use the same term to express different meanings or intentions. This “difference” is also what keeps language in a constant changing process. Although language is universal, it is not fixed. Apart from the universal aspect, language is also mediation, which is the process from individuality to universality.

  15. 15.

    Surber calls Hegel’s work the “phenomenology of language”, “it is both a work about the appearance of language in consciousness and a work accomplished by language’s own interventions” (2000: 330).

  16. 16.

    In Science of Logic, Hegel declares, language, here in the form of logic, is human’s “natural element, indeed his own peculiar nature” (1969: 31).

  17. 17.

    “Identity-within-difference” is an important principle in Hegel’s philosophy. When we here emphasize the “identity” (or homogeneity) between language and spirit, we also acknowledge their difference. Besides, we don’t take language and spirit as fixed. Just as spirit is subjective (not simply substantial) and active, language also develops. Language is the product of spirit. But as is stressed in Sect. 3, language also accompanies the development of spirit. Therefore, just like spirit, language is also in a dialectically changing and deepening process.


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This work is supported by “The Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities” [DUT21RC(3)092]. It is also supported by Chinese National Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science under Grant (19ZDA268).

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Correspondence to Chunge Liu.

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Liu, C., Qin, M. & Ali, I. The Nature of Language: On the Homogeneity of Language and Spirit in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Axiomathes (2021).

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  • Hegel
  • Phenomenology of Spirit
  • Language
  • Spirit
  • Epistemology-ontology contradiction
  • Nature of language