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Hegel's Dialect
From Daniel Berthold-Bond, Hegel's Grand Synthesis: A Study of Being, Thought, and History. New York: Harper, 1993, pp. 81-91.

 

3. The Nature of Dialectic

Probably more has been written about Hegel's theory of dialectic than any other aspect of his philosophy. It has been ridiculed as a "primitive schematization system," [49] and praised as that which allows Hegel to "describe as few others have done the paradoxes, the problems, and the glories of spiritual life." [50] I am not going to attempt a systematic or thorough analysis of Hegel's theory of dialectic, but wish only to show how the principle of negativity serves to illuminate its structure, and to say a few words about the role of dialectic in Hegel's philosophy as a whole. [51]

Dialectic is both a method of demonstration and an ontological principle for Hegel. As method, it is meant to show the necessity of development, or transition, from one stage of consciousness or of history, or from one abstract category of logic, to a higher stage or category. [52] "Once the dialectic has been separated from proof," Hegel says, "the notion of [genuinely] philosophical demonstration has been lost" (PhS 40).

"Thus understood," Hegel writes, "the dialectical principle constitutes the life and soul of scientific progress, . . . the soul of all knowledge which is truly scientific" [SL -81 Anmerkung & Zusatz). I will say more about the nature of dialectic as a principle of philosophic method in Chapter Five, but here I wish to look at the sense in which dialectic is also an ontological principle, expressing the immanent teleological development of things from their potentialities to actuality. In this sense, dialectic is "the indwelling tendency outwards" (immanente Hinausgehen) of things (SL -81 Anmerkung), the impulse to externalization and concretion.

Hegel compares the "simple essence" of substance to a state of unreflective "satisfaction" {Befriedung), which is, however, a "selfconsuming" state (die unendliche Bewegung won welsher jenes ruhige Medium [simple substance] auggezeht wird) (PhS 107-9). Substance, or being, defined as self-repose is not yet for is only potentially) spirit, but only a "motionless tautology" of simple self-identity, A=A. And yet, Hegel says, "this self-identity of substance is no less negativity: its apparently fixed existence passes over into its dissolution" (PhS 34). Satisfaction is ephemeral, carrying within it a yearning desire, a dialectical impulse to self-expression and self-realization.

As such, "dialectic gives expression to a law which is felt in all consciousness . . . and experience," the law of the internal drive to reach out beyond a thing's isolation and fixedness to a fuller self-determination: dialectic is the dynamic of the self-transcendence of things (SL -81 Zusatz). In history, dialectic "exhibits the . . . successive gradations in the development of . . . the consciousness of freedom" (PhH 56). Hegel views freedom as the telos of history, and the actual course of history as a dialectical "development of [the human] capacity or potentiality [for freedom] striving to realize itself" (PhH 54). In logic, dialectic expresses the "dialectical nature of the idea in general, [53] namely, that it is self-determined -- that it assumes successive forms which it successively transcends: dialectic in logic is thus the exposition of "the necessary series of pure abstract forms which the idea successively assumes" (PhH 63). And in phenomenology, dialectic describes the "path of the natural consciousness which presses forward to true knowledge; or the way of the soul which journeys through the series of its own configurations as though they were stations appointed for it by its own nature, so that it may purify itself for the life of spirit and achieve finally, through a completed experience of itself, the awareness of what it really is in itself (PhS 49). The phenomenological dialectic is a sort of via dolorosa which common sense consciousness must undergo in order to attain authentic spirituality; or it may be likened to the painful path which Plato describes in his Republic by which the person chained to the world of appearance becomes liberated and gradually, painfully, ascends through intermediate forms of opinion and belief to genuine knowledge.

There are two basic aspects of Hegel's anatomy of dialectic that I wish to look at here: (a) the idea that dialectic is advance or development through negativity; and (b) the sense in which dialectic is a mode of thought -- a way of thinking about things -- that is not necessarily employed in a speculative (i.e., truly philosophic) way, but may be misapplied. Both of these dimensions of the Hegelian dialectic will further illuminate the structure of his grand synthesis, since (a) the principle of negativity will expose the important qualification that harmony (of thought and being) can occur only through discord; and (b) the anatomy of dialectic as applying in different ways to different forms of thought will expose Hegel's belief that only with the working-through to a certain "shape" or Gestalt of thought -- the standpoint of speculative philosophy or Wissenschaft -- can a reconciliation of thought and being be achieved in its fullest sense.



a. Dialectic and Negativity

Dialectic is defined by Hegel as the power (or energy or force) of negativity. Negativity involves, in general, the opposing of something to its "other." When applied to epistemology, this is the "pathway of doubt" and "loss of immediate certainty" involved in the disparity between subject and object in the course of consciousness' experience of the world. And when applied to ontology, negativity is the EntauBerung of substance by which it "becomes other" to itself.

As we mentioned in section 2, this EntauBerung is one of two basic features of becoming, the other being the feature of concretion. We may say now that both of these features of becoming are due to the principle of negativity. Negativity is externalizing, because, according to Hegel, "what is undifferentiated is lifeless" (HPh 2:67), and it is precisely the immanent impulse of negativity which accounts for differentiation. Self-identity without negativity spells the death of being for Hegel, whether this being is the being of an individual existent or the historical being of world culture. Hence, Hegel writes in his Philosophy of History that

the nation lives the same kind of life as the individual: . . . in the enjoyment of itself, the satisfaction of being exactly what it desired to be, . . . [and the consequent] abandonment of aspirations, . . . [the nation slips into a] merely customary life (like the watch wound up and going on of itself), into an activity without opposition. And this is what brings on its natural death. . . . Thus perish individuals, and thus perish nations, by a natural death (HPh 74f}. [54]

And negativity is also a making-concrete, a self-determination, in that self-development is brought about by "the dialectical force which deposes [the thing's] immediacy" and gives it a "specific character" (SL -239). Specificity is thus linked by Hegel to negativity: Omnis determinatio est negatio, as Spinoza says -- every determination is a negation. Hegel frequently cites this dictum of Spinoza's (e.g., HPh 3:267, 286; SL -91 Zusatz; and cf. HPh 2:140), and he likes it so much because it suggests the positive aspect of negativity. While negativity is externalizing, it is also positive, for it makes the thing determinate, or individuates it. [55] Determinate negation (bestimmte Negation) gives the thing a content, which is to say that in actualizing a potentiality through its externalization, a thing is determinately negating various other potentialities, transforming the initially merely hypothetical nature of the thing into a concrete content.

Dialectic is thus the transition of things, and of knowledge, from potentiality or abstraction to actuality and content, but in such a way that the arising of a fuller determination points beyond itself to a further determination. Every determination is both a result and a new beginning, concrete and abstract, for it occurs within a process of the becoming of a thing (or of knowledge), and hence is concrete relative to the origin of the process but abstract relative to the telos of the whole process. A thing becomes more and more fully developed through this successive dialectic of self-reconstruction. And so too does knowledge. Negativity is the principle by which thought disrupts its instinctive or immediate certainty, or by which thought becomes "split up" (PhM -408 Zusatz) or "divided" (Diff 87) into an opposition of consciousness to a specific object. Dialectic is thus the very process of thinking, where thought "loses itself in" and becomes "entangled in the contradiction" of its nonidentity with its object, [56] and yet where this very negativity urges thought to "persevere," to "work out in itself the solution to its own contradiction" (SL -11). It is in this sense that Kojeve calls dialectic "a series of successive 'conversions' " whereby the relation of consciousness to the world is progressively transformed. [57] Kant, too, is close to Hegel's insight, in that he feels that the dialectic of reason involves thought in a search which it cannot avoid since it is driven to the search by an inner impulse to satisfy itself. [58] But while for Kant this search precipitates thought into illusion, for Hegel it leads to the insight that reality is in truth dialectical.

Kierkegaard constantly argues that Hegel's dialectic involves an illicit forcing of movement and transition into his logic. Movement is a "chimera" and "mirage" which is "produced only on paper" in Hegel's dialectic. [59] Hegel's "introduction of movement into logic," Kierkegaard asserts, "is a sheer confusion," [60] for "the category of transition [or becoming, or movement] is itself a breach of immanence, a leap," [61] as opposed to the immanent necessity Hegel associates with it. [62]

Many other commentators believe the same thing. George Stack, for example, writes that "Hegelian logic could not account for the process of becoming or genesis, and was especially unable to account for the transition from possibility to actuality in an individual being's development." [63] And Calvin Schrag says flatly that "everything that Hegel has to say about becoming and movement in his logic is illusory." [64]

Unfortunately, all of these views are based on a profound misunderstanding -- the misunderstanding that becoming is regarded by Hegel as the movement of abstract categories of logic disembodied from any concrete historical situation and from any existing individual who thinks those categories. But Hegel is quite clear on this point. He says that "the principle of development, . . . [the principle of] a capacity or potentiality striving to realize itself, [is a] formal conception [which] finds actual existence in spirit, which has the history of the world for its theater and sphere of realization" (PhH 54). The formal conception of dialectic, Hegel's logic, is but the description of the lawlike patterns of development which are concretely exemplified and realized in the world. [65]

Hence, the suggestion that Hegel's dialectic of becoming is a "mirage" which "takes place only on paper," or that Hegel "could not account for becoming" or "the transition from possibility to actuality," is completely unwarranted. This sort of criticism reflects, I suppose, a distaste for Hegel's idealism in general, where the truth of the being of objects is ultimately the "thing thought'' the object for-consciousness. This leads Kierkegaard and others to the conclusion that becoming and dialectic only occur for Hegel "in the head" and not in concrete existents in the world. But this is simply not Hegel's view, for, as we have seen, the fact is that the exemplification and manifestation of that truth takes place in concretely situated beings in the world. Hegel makes this point, which is the very crux of his grand synthesis, endlessly. The man of " 'sound common sense' . . . holds the opinion that philosophy is concerned only with Gedankendingen ['thought-things or mental entities]." But, Hegel continues, while philosophy "does have to do with these pure essences too," its task is to recognize how they are "concretely embodied in existing things" (PhS 78f).



b. Dialectic as a Mode of Thought

Dialectic, as we have seen, is transition (in both thought and being) brought about by negativity. We have also noted that an aspect of this negativity is the opposition and contradiction into which things are thrown by their "becoming-other." "Antinomy" as Hegel says, "is the dialectical influence in logic" {SL -48 Anmerkung). And since logic is but the formal expression of principles which are concretely exhibited in the world, antinomy is the "dialectical influence" in all actual things: "contradiction is the very moving principle of the world" (SL -119 Zusatz). Contradiction, for Hegel, involves the undermining of a thing's self-identity by the "other" to which it is related and by which it becomes defined. In the alienating aspect of its EntauBerung, a thing exemplifies the Sartrean paradox that it "is what it is not" (its 'other') and "is not what it is" {the simple, immediate coinciding or identity with self). [66]

This brings us to an important point: Hegel says that it is just this insight into dialectic, that negativity involves contradiction, which characterizes scepticism. [67] In this sense, then, dialectic is a mode of thought or way of seeing things which can lead to the ruin of knowledge. This is a fascinating aspect of Hegel's philosophy, that it is one and the same insight and way of thinking about things -- the insight into the dialectical force of negativity inherent in things -- which characterizes both scepticism {the ruin of knowledge) and the speculative philosophy which is the way to what Hegel calls "absolute knowledge."

Hegel regards scepticism as having a profound grasp of reality and he says that his own "speculative logic" itself takes over "the dialectic of scepticism, for this negativity which is characteristic of scepticism likewise belongs to true knowledge" (HPh 2:330, and cf. 357; SL -81 Zusatz). In this sense, Hegel states that "we must undoubtedly grant the invincibility of scepticism" (HPh 2:329). But finally, Hegel views scepticism as a sort of "paralysis" which people "give themselves over to," an "abyss" in which all certainty is swallowed up, and a deep despair which leads to the "decay of the world" because of the inability to affirm and give stability to any positive value (HPh 2:329, 371, 372). [68]

Put very generally, the great merit of scepticism is that it sees the contradictory character of things, that is, that any determination is conditioned by its opposite, or that any proposition is dialectically in conflict with equally compelling, opposing propositions. Scepticism is "the art of dissolving all that is determinate" (HPh 2:329), and as such it demonstrates the inherent flux and discord of reality which is so important in Hegel's philosophy. This is for Hegel a deep insight into the unity of opposites and the insufficiency of viewing things as simple self-identities. Hence, scepticism is "the far-seeing power [of thought] which is requisite in order to recognize the determinations of negation and opposition everywhere present in everything concrete and in all that is thought" (HPh 2:365). But this "art of dissolving all that is determinate" is also the root of nihilism, and this is the great defect and danger of scepticism, that "it remains content with this purely negative result of dialectic," just as Kant did with his antinomies and the dialectic of reason, and thus "mistakes the true value of its result" (SL -82 Zusatz). The question now arises as to how Hegel rises above this "purely negative result" -- which, however negative, he calls necessary and true -- and in what sense dialectic can achieve this transcendence without the simple abolishment of its insight and truth.

Hegel's solution here is to distinguish between two ways of viewing the negativity of dialectic, one which sees oppositions only in a state of "equilibrium" or of "offsetting polarity," so that no mediation or resolution of them is possible, and the other which sees the true value of opposition as pointing to a higher unity. The first sees only discord in the multiplicity and particularity of reality; the second finds the Miltonian "hidden soul of harmony through mazes running," the One in the Many, discord resolving itself into unity. In this way, dialectic is in one sense the characteristic of an incomplete form of thought -- what Hegel, following Kant, calls the understanding (Verstand) -- and in another sense points beyond itself to a higher form of thought, reason (Vernunft). [69]

The understanding employs dialectic to rigidly exclude the mediation of opposites. In this sense, dialectic sets up an "equilibrium" of opposite determinations, so that every opposing determination has equal value. This is just what leads to scepticism, the epoche or suspension of judgment (which Hegel calls ''paralysis") in the face of equally competing opposites. In this way, "dialectic is just a subjective see-sawing" from one determination to its opposite (SL -81 Anmerkung). Hegel refers to this as the "bad infinite" (die schlechte Unendlichkeit) of the understanding (e.g., HPh 2:268- SL -45 Zusatz, 94 & Zusatz, 95 & Zusatz, 104 Zusatz, 194 & Zusatz) -- the opposing of one finite determination to another finite determination where the opposition effects an equal "neutralization" of its terms. The "true infinite" of reason, on the other hand, involves the "connective reference" and "reciprocal dependence" of the opposites, so that their opposition or mutual negation does not result in a neutralization, but in a "completer notion," that is, in a concrete unity of the opposing terms (v. SL -95 Anmerkung).

An example may help. Hegel views it as a mistake to regard freedom and necessity as polar opposites and as equally legitimate but exclusionary alternatives. If they were equal in this way -- as the Kantian antinomy has it, and as the sceptic has it -- the only options for viewing human action would be the result of completely cancelling one term {by arbitrary fiat)[70] and thus seeing oneself either as free in Hegel's sense of negative freedom (= nihilism), [71] or doomed to necessity in Hegel's sense of "merely external necessity" (= tychism, fatalism, "the irrational void of necessity" [PhS 443]). For these are the only senses of freedom and necessity which are left when we disallow any "reciprocal dependence" of the one on the other. On the other hand, by seeing that the opposition of freedom and necessity is not a polar equilibrium of exclusionary terms, but involves the two terms negating each other in a positive way -- so that (positive) freedom negates external necessity (fate), and (rational) necessity negates negative freedom {nihilism) -- we arrive at the completer notion of freedom which is self-limited by the "real, inward necessity" (SL -35 Zusatz) of duty, and of necessity which is the autonomous expression of self-determination.

An ethical man is aware that the tenor of his conduct is essentially obligatory and necessary. But this is so far from making any abatement from his freedom, that without it real and rational freedom could not be distinguished from arbitrary choice -- a freedom which is merely potential (SL -I58 Zusatz).

We are now in a position to understand the ambiguous significance of dialectic in Hegel's philosophy. Hegel is concerned to affirm "the merit and rights of the understanding" in his philosophy (SL -80 Zusatz), for while the understanding does not rise to the recognition of the synthesis of opposites, its analytic dissection of things is necessary for true knowledge. This is so because it "apprehends existing objects in their specific differences" (SL -80 Zusatz), which is an absolutely essential component of our definition of objects. The understanding gives us an insight into the determinateness of objects, and as such Hegel says that it is "indispensable" and that "no object in the world can ever be wholly [known] if it does not give full satisfaction to the canons of the understanding" {SL -80 Zusatz). But when the understanding employs dialectic, this leads to scepticism (SL -81 Anmerkung). For the understanding apprehends things in the fixity of their determinateness, and dialectic, which opposes one thing to another, can only lead to exclusionary difference when its objects are apprehended in this way. This is the heart of skepticism which Hegel also sees as having a large element of sophistry in it (v. PhS 124; cf. 77f). Plato also described this use of dialectic as sophistry:

If anyone . . . imagines he has discovered an embarrassing puzzle [in such propositions as 'the same is different and the different is the same'], and takes delight in reducing argument to a tug of war, he is wasting his pains on a triviality. . . . Taking pleasure in perpetually parading such contradictions in argument -- that is not genuine criticism, but may be recognized as the callow off-spring of a too recent contact with reality. . . . Yes, my friend, the attempt to separate every thing from every other thing not only strikes a discordant note but amounts to a crude defiance of the philosophical Muse. [72]

From the perspective of reason, however, the understanding's employment of dialectic exhibits something very important, the exposure of the one-sidedness and limitation of fixed oppositions, so that this dialectic points beyond itself to a higher perspective. "Dialectic in this higher sense . . . does not conclude with a negative result, for it demonstrates the union of opposites which have annulled themselves" (PhH 2:52). The oppositions of scepticism are seen to annul themselves from the perspective of philosophical reason . Reason sees what Plato calls the "discordant note" struck by "the attempt to separate every thing from every other thing." In this way, "the result of dialectic is positive" (SL -82 Anmerkung), for it exposes the "bad infinite" of the understanding's attempt to fix its distinctions at all costs, and points to the resolution of this sceptical "tug of war" or "seesawing" between opposites to the unifying activity of reason. Dialectic "constitutes the real and true . . . exaltation [Erhebung] above the finite [understanding]" (SL -81 Anmerkung).

Dialectic, then, may be employed in different ways. When employed by the understanding, it results in the polarizing of mutually excluding determinations which leads to the nihilism of scepticism. When employed by reason, dialectic brings these opposing determinations together in a "completer notion" which reflects the "immanenter Zusammenhang," the immanent connectedness {SL -81 Anmerkung), of the opposing determinations. The interesting point is that the employment of dialectic by the understanding dialectically overcomes itself and points beyond itself to the "higher sense of dialectic," dialectic as employed by reason. For the analytic method of the understanding leads to contradictions which the understanding can neither avoid nor resolve, [73] and thus reveals its own limitations. The dialectic of the understanding, then, is a way of thinking which, in seeing only the differentiation and opposition between things, becomes burdened with a sense of discord -- the "dismembered world" -- without any glimmering of harmony. But this is a burden which thought is finally incapable of sustaining, and which internally collapses and transcends itself towards a rational-dialectical way of thought which sees the interconnections and mediations between opposing phenomena, and hence the harmony at the heart of discord. [74]

In this chapter we have accomplished two things. First, we have given a detailed description and analysis of the anatomy of Hegel's concept of becoming, (a) in its "merely logical" significance as well as in its "deeper meaning," and (b) in terms of its reliance on the principle of negativity. Second, we have seen how Hegel employs his concept of becoming to illuminate central aspects of his ontology and epistemology -- specifically, his theory of substance and his notion of the dialectical character of thought and being.

This notion of the dialectical character of things is the locus of Hegel's dispute with Kant's depiction of the nature of thought and being. For while Kant would agree with Hegel that dialectic does actually describe an important characteristic of thought, Kant views this as the "euthanasia of pure reason,'' [75] or as Hegel describes the Kantian view, as the "derangement of mind" (HPh 3:451). Hegel, on the other hand, sees the dialectical character of thought not as pathology or as the darkness of illusion, but as expressing a profound insight into the true structure of the world. This is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the present chapter. It is because the dialectical structure of thought reflects the dialectical structure of the world that Hegel argues that thought and being, consciousness and object, subject and substance, do not contradict each other but mutually illuminate each other.

This is the basic principle of Hegel's grand synthesis, and we have now seen how this synthetic principle lies at the heart of his absolute idealist vision and of his attempt to overcome skepticism. Thought is not fundamentally alienated from being, but this alienation is rather the very act of thought externalizing itself into a world, making itself concrete, giving itself shape, and in this very act creating its world. From the perspective of the dialectic of reason we are able to reconceive this alienation as nourishing a deeper principle of reconciliation, where thought finds itself reflected in the world, and where discord is nothing but the act of thought coming to terms with itself. Scepticism misconstrues the dialectical character of reality by failing to reach beyond its doubt to this vision of reconciliation, and we might say that Hegel's grand synthesis is his project for pointing out the way towards a philosophic reconception where such a vision becomes possible.



These pages were originally written by: Angus Bancroft and Sioned Rogers
Redesigned and updated by: Pierre Stapley - 2010