Any ontology has to navigate the Charybdis of conceiving entities as atoms completely unrelated to anything else and the Scylla of reducing entities entirely to relations. If entities are thought as atoms that are completely unrelated, then many of the properties of an entity become entirely mysterious. In part, the properties of an entity arise only in and through the relations the entity shares with other entities. Thus, for example, a seed only begins to germinate in relation to other entities such as particular temperatures, moisture, sunlight, etc. When the seed is divorced from its relation to these other entities, we are at a loss to account for the ground or reason for these properties are why they are thus and so and not otherwise. We can say that an entity has these properties, but are unable to explain why or how the entity came to have these properties.
Hegel articulates this point well in The Encyclopaedia Logic (EL):
Existence is the immediate unity of inward reflection and reflection-into-another. Therefore, it is the indeterminate multitude of existents as inwardly reflected, which are at the same time, and just as much, shining-into-another, or relational; and they form a world of interdependence and of an infinite connectedness of grounds with what is grounded. The grounds are themselves existences, and the existents are also in many ways grounds as well grounded. (§ 123)
If we were to retranslate Hegel’s terminology in a more agreeable way, we could translate “inward reflection” as the property of entity characterized by “self-relation” or “being-a-one” and “reflection-into-another” as “relation-to-another-one”. Thus, Hegel’s self-relation or being-a-one would refer to actual occasions or objectiles, and his relation-to-another-one would refer to prehensions of other entities. Hegel clarifies just what he has in mind with this conception of existence in an illuminating note to this paragraph:
The term “existence” (derived from existere) points to a state of emergence (my emphasis), and existence is being that has emerged from the ground and become reesetablished through the sublimation and mediation. As sublated being, essence has proved in the first place to be shining within itself, and the determinations of this shining are identity, distinction, and ground. Ground is the unity of identity and distinction, and as such it is at the same time the distinguishing of itself from itself. But what is distinct from the ground is not mere distinction any more than the ground itself is abstract identity. The ground is self-sublating and what it sublates itself toward, the result of its negation, is existence. Existence, therefore, which is what has emerged from the ground, contains the latter within itself, and the ground does not remain behind existence; instead, it is precisely this process of self-sublation and translation into existence.
Hegel has a highly complicated and elaborate conception of essence. Moreover, part of the difficulty in reading Hegel lies in the fact that epistemological issues are always imbricated with ontological issues. When Hegel refers to essence as “shining within itself” he is speaking in the epistemological register rather than the ontological register. That is, Hegel is referring to a new cognitive relation that has emerged with respect to entities. Rather than encounter an entity in its immediacy, we now encounter being as mediated. Thus, when I approach a being in its brute immediacy, I simply focus on its qualities or characteristics and treat it as a brute fact. An apple falls. This could be treated as an encounter with the apple in its immediacy. The falling apple begins to “shine within itself” when I am no longer focused on the brute immediacy of this event, but rather when I seek a ground for this event. Here the falling apple no longer “speaks for itself”, but rather there must be a reason or a ground for this falling that exceeds what is presented in the event of falling. Hegel’s point, then, has to do with how we shift from relating to objects in their immediacy, to looking for reasons that objects are thus and so and not otherwise. The objects come to “shine” in the sense that they no longer appear self-sufficient in their immediacy, but rather indicate some deeper ground beyond the immediacy of what’s encountered. This is an epistemological shift. Ontologically, objects will have grounds regardless of whether or not anyone thinks to inquire after them.
What we have here is therefore also to be found in the ordinary consciousness: when we consider the ground of something, this ground is not something abstractly inward, but is instead itself an existent again. So, for instance, we consider the ground of a conflagration to be a lightning flash that set a building on fire, and, similarly, the ground of the constitution of a people is their customs and circumstances of life. This is the general shape in which the existing world is presented initially to reflection, namely, as an indeterminate multitude of existents which, being reflected simultaneously into themselves and into something else, are in the mutual relationship of ground and grounded with regard to each other. In this motly play of the world, taken as the sum total of all existents, a stable footing cannot be found anywhere at first, and everything appears at this stage to be merely relative, to be conditioned by something else, and similarly as conditioning something else.
To find the ground of something is thus to refer to another thing that evokes or draws forth a particular way of being. When, for example, we are filled with terror at the sight of a solar eclipse, this is because we encounter the eclipse in its brute immediacy without knowing the ground of this phenomenon. Our dread disappears when we come to know that this phenomenon is grounded in the astronomical movements of the earth and the moon relative to the sun and is a perfectly regular occurrence. Without a knowledge of the relationships that entities share between one another in relations of ground and grounded, the properties and qualities of objects appear entirely mysterious. However, more fundamentally, objects are what they are precisely because they share relationships to other objects. Without these ontological relationships to other objects or entities, the object would not possess the properties it possesses. These relations are thus a condition for the being of the object. An atomistic conception of entities that treated entities as entirely independent of one another, as purely relationless, would either 1) end up ignoring all these relations of ground and grounded in the production of properties or qualities, or 2) would have to adopt a subject-predicate logic that posited the existence of pure substances independent of qualities or affections. Yet this latter view inevitably leads to incoherence as we cannot see what a substance without affections could possibly be. It is for this reason that the conceptualization of objects atomistically is a Charybdis to be avoided.
Nonetheless, the purely relational view of objects runs afoul of problems as well. We catch a wiff of this problem in Hegel later on when he writes,
Essence must appear Its inward shining is the sublating of itself into immediacy, which as inward reflection is subsistence (matter) as well as form, reflection-into-another, substance sublating itself. Shining is the determination, in virtue of which essence is not being, but essence, and the developed shining is [shining-forth or] appearance. Essence therefore is not behind or beyond appearance, but since it is the essence that exists, existence is appearance. (§ 131)
In a note to this paragraph, Hegel will write, “The essence does not remain behind or beyond appearance, but manifests itself as essence precisely by reducing the world to mere appearance.” Finally, Hegel will write towards the end of the dialectic of essence, that “[a]ctuality is the unity, become immediate, of essence and existence, or of what is inner and what is outer. The utterance of the actual is the actual itself, so that the actual remains still something-essential in this [utterance] and, is only something-essential so far as it is in immediate external existence” (§ 142).
My aim here is not to argue with Hegel– I am drawing on the EL to articulate issues pertaining to atomism and relationism –but to underline problems that arise from relationism. Hegel begins with the sensible point that entities find their ground, their reason for being thus and so and not otherwise, in the relations they entertain with other entities. Yet from here Hegel makes a leap to the claim that entities are nothing but what is disclosed in their relations to other objects. That is, Hegel falls into what might be called “actualism” or the thesis that the being of entities is exhausted by their manifestation in actuality. There are a couple of problems with this thesis. First, where the object is reduced to its relations to other objects in this way, the only logical conclusion seems to be that the universe is nothing but a formless lump without any objects at all. If this is the case, then it is because the entities conditioning one another have no autonomy or independence of their own, so it’s difficult to see how we can have objects at all when objects are nothing but bundles of relations. In short, there must be positive terms independent of relations that can’t simply be reduced to relations. If this is not the case, I am unable to see how there can be any things to do the conditioning required for relations between ground and grounded. Absent this, everything just gets swallowed up in relations. Second, where beings are reduced to their actuality it becomes impossible to see how the world can change (and the world clearly does change). That is, if actuality is the result of interaction with another entity, and all entities are reduced to their actuality, how is it possible for there to be any change? Why doesn’t the world or universe simply get frozen at a particular point of actuality? No, there must be something that either strictly belongs to the “relation-to-itself” of an entity or some potentiality that is heterogeneous to actuality.
Again, Hegel’s move here seems to arise from the manner in which he imbricates the epistemological and the ontological. Hegel might very well be right in claiming that we discover the essence of entities (their ensemble of conditions) only insofar as properties of these entities become actual under determinate conditions. I would have never known that iron rusts or corrodes in response to sea air had not this property manifest itself or become actual. However, the claim that actuality is a condition for discovery or knowledge of an object’s essence and powers– that we cannot discover the powers of entities without “poking” those entities and seeing how they respond –is very different than the claim that ontologically the entity is its actuality. An entity will have the powers it has regardless of whether or not we know it and regardless of whether or not the relevant conditions are fulfilled for these powers to actualize themselves. The question of how we discover the powers of an entity is thus distinct from the question of what an entity is in its own being.