Issues with the translation of paragraph 483 of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences by William Wallace.

I am using the translation of the Encyclopedia by William Wallace. English for me is a second language and I’m not fluent enough with it, to be able to translate German – also a second language for me – into English. I’m having a hard time as it is translating Hegel’s German into Dutch, my native tongue.

I think on the whole it is a very clever translation by someone who has a good grasp of Hegel’s way of thinking. But as with all translations, if you put them under a microscope you will find mistakes, arbitrary decisions, and sometimes misunderstandings of the original. Here are some comments on Wallace’s translation of a paragraph from the Encyclopedia. Just to remind you that we are discussing a philosopher that thought and wrote in German, and that the German text is the ultimate arbiter. A complete understanding of Hegel – if at all possible – can only be achieved by reading him in German.

Here is the German text:

Der objektive Geist [1] ist die absolute Idee, aber nur an sich seiend [2]; indem er damit auf dem Boden der Endlichkeit ist, behält seine wirkliche Vernünftigkeit [3] die Seite äußerlichen Erscheinens [4] an ihr. Der freie Wille hat [5] unmittelbar zunächst die Unterschiede an ihm, daß die Freiheit seine innere Bestimmung [6] und Zweck ist und sich auf eine äußerliche vorgefundene [7] Objektivität bezieht, welche sich spaltet [8] in das Anthropologische der partikulären Bedürfnisse, in die äußeren Naturdinge, die für das Bewußtsein sind, und in das Verhältnis von einzelnen zu einzelnen Willen, welche ein Selbstbewußtsein ihrer als verschiedener und partikulärer sind; diese Seite macht das äußerliche Material für das Dasein [9] des Willens aus.

Wallace translates § 483 as follows:

The objective Mind [1] is the absolute Idea, but only existing in posse: [2]and as it is thus on the territory of finitude, its actual rationality [3] retains the aspect of external apparency [4]. The free will finds itself immediately confronted [5] by differences which arise from the circumstance that freedom is its inward function [6] and aim, and is in relation to an external and already subsisting [7] objectivity, which splits up into different heads [8]: viz. anthropological data (i.e. private and personal needs), external things of nature which exist for consciousness, and the ties of relation between individual wills which are conscious of their own diversity and particularity. These aspects constitute the external material for the embodiment [9] of the will.


[1] I don’t like the translation “Mind” for the German word “Geist”. Mind seems to express the sum of human mental capacities, something like soul in Hegel’s anthropology. It is connected to finite reason, Verstand in Hegel’s terminology. But I can’t think of any elements of the meaning of the word mind that express Geist. The rational nature of reality as such, the origin and meaning of reality, shouldn’t we translate that as Spirit? And it doesn’t help to capitalize Mind to make it into a technical term, because we can do that also with Spirit.

[2] I understand but I am not familiar with the expression “in posse” used here in the translation but it seems to obscure the function of Hegel’s frequently used technical term “an sich.” Wallace  means something like “potential” which is in other contexts perhaps possible, but that introduces a metaphysical terminology, where Hegel obviously stresses the logical function. The absolute idea is here at the level of its substantiality, that is in its being unto itself, simply “out there”, still without the important element of self-consciousness, hence it is just “objective” Spirit. To be “unto itself” basically signals a lack of relating actuality, that is essential for self-consciousness, that relates to itself in its other. The opposite of “in itself”, or “unto itself” is the “for itself”, that describes the movement towards itself, coming from its other. Whatever is fully developed in Hegel’s philosophy can therefore be called “in and for itself.”

[3] I would argue that rationality is the better translation for the German term Verstand. The word Reason could then be used to translate the German Vernunft. Finite reason is rationality, discursive thought, moving from one position to another by way of logical argument. Reason however is the rationality of the Spirit, and therefore also the inner rationality of Reality. We should make an effort to distinguish the two.

[4] Why use the word “apparency” for the German “Erscheinen”? Hegel is saying that the finite nature of the objective Spirit implies a distinction between its inner reason or essence, and it’s external appearance. So he is saying that the logical relationship between essence and appearance applies here. Why then “apparency”? Hegel stresses the appearance of freedom in the threefold externality of needs, natural objects, and particular persons with free will. That I can choose how to satisfy my needs, and can choose natural objects to do so, within the limits that arise from the fact that there are other persons around doing about the same, does not give us a full understanding of freedom, obviously. In these three areas in which my free will appears, it is not fully realized, i.e. not shown to be what it truly is.

[5] This is a mistake. The free will is not confronted with differences, but is immediately connected to specific differences, is determined by them, divides itself into them, e.g. that it’s freedom is an inner determinacy that is connected to an external objective world; in this external world it is itself threefold because it comprises particular needs, external things and the relation to other free wills.

[6] Hegel says that freedom is the inner determination and goal of the free will. Why is this inner or inward determination, “innere Bestimmung”, now translated as “function”?

[7] The German word “vorgefunden” just means that the object of the free will is simply taken as something that is out there. It is both external and passively accepted as being there. So I can see why it was necessary to use the Aristotelian word subsisting for that.

[8] Hegel is arguing that this external objectivity is threefold. Not because we can distinguish between anthropological, natural and social data, which seems to be the suggestion of the translation, but because this objectivity truly unfolds itself in three distinct manners. My free will aims at the satisfaction of my needs, ultimately wants to achieve happiness, by using natural objects only to find itself restrained by the free will of others. That is the phenomenal basis of theories of natural law that get stuck at this stage of the analysis and can’t move beyond it.

[9] Why use the word “embodiment” when Hegel uses the word “Dasein” which simply means “being there”, having some sort of determined existence?

You can see how difficult it is to translate Hegel, notoriously difficult. But still, when you look at Wallace’s result, you can see that it is still transparent to the original. The only problem I have with it, is the somewhat undisciplined rendering of the technical terminology of Hegel’s philosophy. Like the “in itself” that becomes “in posse”, or introduction of words beyond the original like “function”. More problematic is the way sometimes a translation stresses what is really in the background. Two examples in this translation are putting “private and personal needs” between brackets where in the text it is actually the main thing. The other is the use of the word “different heads” which suggests an external division instead of a truly in their movement of the objectivity that Hegel talks about; the original says “sich spaltet”, “divides itself into”, which for Hegel never mean something merely formal and external.

So this translation must be applauded for its level of philosophical understanding, yet, as do all translations, it loses much of the very precise and particular terminology that is in the original.

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