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Sunday, 2 January 2011

Hegelian dialectic


Hegelian dialectic

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Hegel’s primary object in his dialectic is to establish the existence of a logical connection between the various categories which are involved in the constitution of experience. He teaches that this connection is of such a kind that any category, if scrutinised with sufficient care and attention, is found to lead on to another, and to involve it, in such a manner that an attempt to use the first of any subject while we refuse to use the second of the same subject results in a contradiction. The category thus reached leads on in a similar way to a third, and the process continues until at last we reach the goal of the dialectic in a category which betrays no instability (McTaggart and McTaggart, 1999) – the ultimate synthesis.

Hegel-Kant debate:

Hegel’s absolute idealism, his organicism, his concept of spirit and notion of God, are metaphysics[1] on the grandest scale. Through pure thinking alone Hegel attempts to give us knowledge of reality in itself, the absolute or the universe as a whole. It was in just this sense, however, that Kant had attacked the possibility of metaphysics in the Critique of Pure Reason. Hegel had no choice, therefore, but to face the Kantian challenge. Hegel affirms what Kant denies: that it is possible to have knowledge through pure reason of the absolute or the unconditioned. He agreed entirely with Kant that one of the chief failures of past metaphysics was its dogmatism[2], i.e. its failure to investigate the powers and limits of reason. Hence Hegel fully endorsed the demands of Kantian criticism, insisting that ‘any future metaphysics that comes forward as a science alone’ would first have to pass the test of criticism. The old metaphysics was naive, because it simply assumed that we could know truth through thinking alone without having first investigated this possibility. There were two respects, Hegel further explained, in which the old metaphysics was uncritical: first, it did not examine the meaning of the concepts that it applied to the unconditioned; and, second, it did not investigate the limitations of the traditional forms of judgment in knowing the truth. He insisted that Kant had not gone far enough. In the Encyclopaedia he argued that Kant’s critique of metaphysics had been deficient on several counts. First, Kant did not investigate the inherent logic of concepts themselves, determining their precise meaning and powers. Rather, he just classified concepts as either subjective or objective according to his presupposed epistemological principles. Second, Kant insisted that we should have a criterion of knowledge before we make claims to knowledge; but this demand created an infinite regress, for the criterion of knowledge too amounts to a claim to knowledge, so that we need another higher criterion to test it. Third, Kant failed to see that we cannot criticize the forms of thinking without first using them. Hegel likened his attempt to know the logic of our concepts before using them to the efforts of the wise Scholasticus to learn to swim before jumping in the water. All these points came together in Hegel’s complaint that the method of Kantian criticism is external, presupposing the truth of some standard of criticism that does not derive from the concepts themselves. Against Kant, Hegel insisted that the criticism of knowledge must be internal, so that the subject matter is evaluated according to its own inherent standards and goals. It is for this reason that the method of the Phenomenology would be the self-examination or self-criticism of consciousness. The principle of self-thought of the critical philosophy – a principle that Hegel explicitly reaffirmed – demands that we accept only those beliefs that agree with the critical exercise of our own reason.

Dialectics: what is not? What is?

The very term ‘dialectic’ is redolent. No aspect of Hegel’s philosophy has been more interpreted, more misunderstood, and more controversial. Before we examine its precise structure, it is necessary to correct some misunderstandings and to sort through a few controversies.

Not a method:

It is important first to remove the most common misconception that considers dialectic a method. In the usual sense of the word, a ‘method’ consists in certain rules, standards and guidelines that one justifies a priori and that one applies to investigate a subject matter (Wood, 1990). But, in this sense, Hegel utterly opposed having a methodology, and he was critical of philosophers who claimed to have one. Hence he objected to Kant’s epistemology because it applied an a priori standard of knowledge to evaluate all claims to knowledge; and he attacked Schelling’s Naturphilosophie because it mechanically applied a priori schemata to phenomena. Against all such a priori methods, Hegel insisted that the philosopher should bracket his standards, rules and guidelines and simply examine the subject matter for its own sake. The standards, rules and guidelines appropriate to a subject matter should be the result, not the starting point, of the investigation. So, if Hegel has any methodology at all, it appears to be an anti-methodology, a method to suspend all methods. Hegel argues, and it is for this reason that he demands suspending all preconceptions. If the philosopher simply applies his a priori ideas to the subject matter, he has no guarantee that he grasps its inner form or the object as it is in itself; for all he knows, he sees the object only as it is for him.

Not simple thesis-antithesis-synthesis:

Although it is possible to talk about a dialectic, it is advisable to avoid the most popular way of explaining it: in terms of the schema ‘thesis–antithesis–synthesis’. Hegel himself never used this terminology, and he criticized the use of all schemata (Muller, 1958).

Then What?

In its most general form in the Science of Logic the dialectic is a metaphysics whose main task is to determine the general structure of being. In his conception of metaphysics, he criticises traditional logic. Hegel rejects the claim that that we can completely determine substance, reality in itself, through one predicate alone because he thinks that reality in itself is the universe as a whole, which has to be described as both F and -F. Since, however, he holds that F and -F are true of distinct parts of the whole, there is no violation of the law of contradiction. Indeed, the point of the dialectic will be to remove contradictions by showing how contradictory predicates that seem true of the same thing are really only true of different parts or aspects of the same thing. What Hegel is criticizing, then, is not the law of identity as such but the confusion of this law with the metaphysical claim that reality in itself must have one property and not another. We naturally but fallaciously move from ‘No single thing is both F and -F at the same time’ to ‘Reality as a whole cannot be both F and -F at the same time’. Because it is true of each single thing that it cannot be both F and -F, we conclude that reality as a whole cannot be both F and -F. The problem is that we treat reality as a whole as if it were just another entity, another part of the whole.

The structure of dialectics:

Kant and Jacobi put metaphysics in three principles. First, understanding proceeds according to the principles of sufficient reason that is an attempt to find causes for all reasons. Second, understanding is an analytical power that takes a whole and divides it into several parts. Hence in the process of understanding, one has to divide the indivisible. Third, all concepts are finite or limited because they have their determinate meaning only through negation. Hegel finds a fundamental contradiction between the understanding and the subject matter of metaphysics, a contradiction made apparent to him through Kant’s and Jacobi’s critique of reason. The subject matter of metaphysics is the absolute, which is infinite, unconditioned and indivisible; but, since its concepts are finite, conditioned and divisive, the understanding destroys such an object in the very act of conceiving it.

The dialectic was Hegel’s response to these arguments. The basic strategy and idea behind the dialectic is simple, even if its application in specific cases is often very complex. The dialectic arises from an inevitable contradiction in the procedures of the understanding. The understanding contradicts itself because it both separates things, as if they were completely independent of one another, and connects them, as if neither could exist apart from the other. It separates things when it analyzes them into their parts, each of which is given a self-sufficient status; and it connects them according to the principle of sufficient reason, showing how each event has a cause, or how each part inheres in a still smaller part, and so on ad infinitum. Hence the understanding ascribes both independence and dependence to things. The only way to resolve the contradiction, it turns out, is to reinterpret the independent or self-sufficient term as the whole of which all connected or dependent terms are only parts. The chief result of the dialectic is that reason is not only a form of mechanical explanation, which shows how one finite thing depends upon another, but also a form of holistic explanation, which shows how all finite things are parts of a wider whole.

Explaining dialectics:

Hegel finds entire experience of the being form necessary parts of a single indivisible whole. It is necessary to show the noumenal[3] is within the phenomenal, the unconditioned within the conditioned. In his Encyclopaedia Hegel states that there are three stages to the dialectic: the moment of abstraction or the understanding, the dialectical or negatively rational moment and speculative or positively rational moment.

The moment of abstraction

The understanding postulates something unconditioned or something absolute, which it attempts to conceive in itself, as if it were independent and self-sufficient. This is the moment of the understanding whose specific virtue is to make sharp and fast distinctions between things, each of which it regards as self-sufficient and independent. But, in insisting upon its hard and fast distinctions, the understanding is in fact making a metaphysical claim: it holds that something exists in itself, that it can exist on its own without other things.

The dialectical or negatively rational movement

This moment is the correlate of the Kantian antithesis. When the understanding examines one of its terms it finds that it is not self-sufficient after all, but that it is only comprehensible through its relations to other things. It finds that it has to seek the reason for its apparently self-sufficient terms, because it is artificial to stop at any given point.

This stage is dialectical because the understanding is caught in a contradiction: it asserts that the unit is self-sufficient or comprehensible only in itself, because it is the final term of analysis; and that the unit is comprehensible only through its relations or connections to other things, because we can always find some further reason outside itself. The contradiction is that we must affirm both thesis and antithesis: the unit of analysis is both unconditioned and conditioned, both independent and dependent.

The speculative or positively rational movement

This final stage is characteristically Hegelian, whereas the former stages had analogues in Kant. The understanding now finds that the only way to resolve the contradiction is to say that what is absolute or independent is not one thing alone, but the whole of that thing and all others upon which it depends. If we make this move then we can still save the central claim of the thesis – that there is something self-sufficient or unconditioned – and we can also admit the basic thrust of the antithesis – that any particular thing is dependent or conditioned We avoid the contradiction if we ascend a higher level, to the standpoint of the whole, of which the unit and that on which it depends are only parts. While any part of this whole is conditioned and dependent, the whole itself is unconditioned or independent with respect to them.

Of course, the dialectic must continue. The same contradiction arises for the whole, of which the unconditioned and conditioned are only parts. It claims to be unconditioned; but there is something else, on the same level, upon which it depends, so that it too is conditioned. The same thesis and antithesis work on the new level. The dialectic will go on until we reach the absolute whole, that which includes everything within itself, and so cannot possibly depend upon anything outside itself. When this happens the system will be complete, and we will have achieved knowledge of the absolute.

Further reading:

Baiser, F. (2005). Hegel. New York: Routledge.

Houlgate, S. (Ed.).(1998). Hegel Reader. Malden, USA: Blackwell.

Longueness, B. (2007). Hegel’s critique of metaphysics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McTaggart, J and McTaggart, E. (1999). Studies in the Hegelian dialectics. Canada: Batoche.

Muler, G. (1958). The Hegel Legend of “Thesis-antithesis-synthesis”, Journal of History of Ideas, XIX: 411 – 414.

Wood, A. (1990). Hegel’s ethical thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms: "What is there?" and "What is it like?" The metaphysician attempts to clarify the fundamental notions by which people understand the world, including existence, the definition of Object (philosophy), Property (philosophy), space, time, causality, and possibility.

[2] Dogmatism: The tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.

[3] The noumenon (from Greek νοούμενoν, present participle of νοέω "I think, I mean"; plural: νοούμενα - noumena) is a posited object or event as it is in itself, independent of the senses. It classically refers to an object of human inquiry, understanding or cognition. Pertaining to the noumenon or the realm of things as they are in themselves

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