The philosophical basis of Butler's work lies in her dissertation Subjects of Desire, a treatise covering the French reception of Hegel. What is special about the manner in which Hegel's work is read in France, according to Butler, is its emphasis on the theme of desire. This theme she brings to the surface in Hegel by reading him in a 'Nietzschean fashion' (1999a: 23). Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit can then be seen as an ironic Bildungsroman with as its main character 'the subject': the author, the reader, or whoever tries to exist with an identity of one's own. To be able to exist independently the subject is driven by a desire for 'the Absolute', where all differences with something other than oneself are removed. But time after time the subject turns out not to coincide with this Absolute. Repeatedly something escapes which is different from the subject, and on which the subject depends if it is to define itself. Indefatigably it starts anew time and again to strive for unity with this 'other', just to discover repeatedly – once the external relationship has been internalized – that yet another residual has been excluded. The subject therefore remains in a state of becoming, and it keeps on stubornly desiring. So much then for Butler's Hegel.
In France Hegel did not start to attract interest until over one hundred years after his death, in the thirties and fourties of the last century. Butler discusses Alexandre Kojčve's and Jean Hyppolite's interpretations of Hegel, and goes into depth on Sartre. All three show a return to a Hegelian desire, coupled to the question of how this desire can be satisfied. The optimism with which Hegel pursued the Absolute without ever reaching it is not satisfactory to them anymore. They note that desires continuously evoke new desires, without eventual satisfaction. A complete unification with the other becomes unimaginable. For Sartre the breach between subject and world is total; from now on, a union is only possible in the imagination, which suspends the factual estrangement. With retrospective effect Butler derives from this an argument to see Hegel's search in the Phenomenology of Spirit as an imagination (or a series of imaginings) as well – the 'Nietzschean' way of reading mentioned above.
Nietzsche himself rejected Hegel due to the latter's closure of history, and the generation after Sartre largely concurred with him in this. Butler's dissertation appeared in 1987 with an additional chapter in which she also reflects this post-structuralist settlement with Hegel. The desiring subject, which up to now had become ever more split, is called into question fundamentally. Derrida radicalises the irony with which Hegel repeatedly let his subject fall into the trap of trying to reach an impossible unity, by denying that the subject can exist in an independent manner. Something is what it is thanks to relationships to what is beyond itself. Difference is no longer neutralised by absorption into some form of identity. Foucault supports this stand by denying that the multiformity of experience could be dissolved ultimately into an encompassing unity. As a historical construction the subject suppresses the many-sidedness of desire. To Lacan desire is what remains of the full pleasure which was possible before the repressions occurred which are necessary to be able to act consciously as an independent individual. The persistent presence of this primal pleasure (jouissance) indicates the unachievability of an existence as a coherent subject. In summary we can now posit that the subject of desire as an ideal has come to its end. Butler sees this post-structural pronouncement of the death of the subject as an ongoing reaction to Hegel, be it perhaps 'in a Nietzschean fashion'.