Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel


GWF Hegel
(August 27, 1770 – November 14, 1831)



In Logic of Marxism, George Novack describes how formal logic was the crowning glory of the ancient Greeks. It was developed by Aristotle, who collected, classified and systematised the products of the early Greek thinkers; it subsequently dominated the development of Western thought. There are three fundamental laws of this formal logic. First and most important is the law of identity: a thing is always equal to or identical to itself. In algebraic terms, A = A. The essential thought contained in this law, is that to say that a thing is always equal to itself is equivalent to asserting that under all conditions it remains the same . A given thing exists absolutely, at any given moment. As physicists used to state: "Matter cannot be created or destroyed." This law of identity thus excludes difference from the essence of things and of thought. If A always equals A , it can never equal non- A .

This conclusion is made explicit in the second law of formal logic, the law of contradiction: A is not non- A . This is simply the negative version of the first law. For example, a man cannot be inhuman; a democracy cannot be undemocratic. This law again signifies the exclusion of difference from the essence of things and of thought. A is always identified with itself, cannot be different from itself. Difference and identity are mutually exclusive characteristics of things and thoughts.

This mutually exclusive quality is expressed in the third law of formal logic, the law of the excluded middle. Everything is and must be one of two mutually exclusive things. If A equals A , it cannot equal non- A ; it cannot be part of two opposing classes at the same time. When two opposing statements or states of affairs confront each other, both cannot be true or false. A is either B or it is not B . The correctness of our judgment implies the incorrectness of its contrary, and vice versa.

These laws are reasonable generalisations on the nature of the objective world. We would all agree with Aristotelian classification, inclusion or exclusion on the basis of sameness and difference, as the first stage of scientific investigation. Darwin's theory of evolution depends on the initial recognition of the essential identity of all the diverse creatures on this earth. Indeed, Marx's system of social classification - thus, social classes - is essentially derived from Aristotle. The law of identity directs us to recognise likeness amidst diversity, permanence within change, to single out similarities between apparently different instances and entities, to uncover the real bonds of unity between them, to trace the connection between different and consecutive phases of the same phenomenon.

Upon the basis of the above three laws, the complex science of formal logic is constructed: its various categories; forms of proposition (a form of statement in which something is confirmed or denied of a subject); syllogism (a logical argument in three propositions, two premises and a conclusion that follows necessarily from them) and so forth; but these are not relevant to our present purpose. Conservative thinkers believe that formal thinking is the ultimate form of logic, fixed and final, just as they may believe that capitalist society and values are eternal. Indeed, it might be said that the ideas of the ruling class are the ideas of formal logic lowered to the level of ‘common sense': ‘common sense' may be defined as the unsystematised or semi-conscious version of the science of formal logic, which over centuries has become so interwoven with our thought processes, as to seem to be the exclusive, natural mode of thought - especially in Anglo-Saxon cultures, where for example Hegel has long been a dead issue.


Dialectical thought does not deny the truth of formal logic; but it defines this truth as relative and limited. In ancient Greece, despite its legacy of formal logic, dialectical thought was at least recognised. Heraclitus articulated a dialectical system based on perpetual change, eternal 'Becoming'. All static Being was based on deception; his universal principle was fire, symbolic of the flow and change of all things. All changes arise from the dynamic and cyclic interplay of opposites, and any pair of opposites forms a unity. This unity, which contains and transcends all opposing forces, is called Logos.

This idea of opposites has an obvious connection with the concepts of yin and yang, fundamental to Chinese thought. Such ' paradoxical ' logic, which in Aristotelean terms assumes that ' A ' and 'non- A ' do not exclude each other as predicates of 'X', was expressed by Lao-tse, "Words that are strictly true seem to be paradoxical", and by Chuang-tzu, "That which is one is one. That which is not one, is also one." This does not make sense in Aristotelian formal logic.

The great changes that began with the Renaissance and continued into the social revolution of the rise of capitalism, with challenges to traditional religious thought such as the advances of science and Hume's radical empiricism, made philosophers, especially Kant and Hegel of the German school, aware of the need in modern knowledge for a proper method of thought. Kant's table of categories consisted of four groups of three, the third in each group arrived at by the synthesis of the first and second. Thus, in the first group, the synthesis of plurality and unity is a totality - a multiplicity-in-unity, or a unified multiplicity. This concept of synthesis is at least germinally dialectical in the Hegel-Marx-Sartre sense.

As Daniel Berthold-Bond points out in ‘ Hegel's Grand Synthesis ', for Hegel, in contrast to traditional formal logic, the ‘simple essence' of a substance is comparable to unreflective ‘satisfaction', which is however a ‘self-consuming' state. Substance, or being as self-repose, gives rise to the ‘motionless tautology' of formal logic, the simple self-identity of ‘A = A'. Yet, ‘this self-identity of substance is no less negativity : its apparent fixed existence passes over into its dissolution. ( Phenomenology of Spirit , 34) Things are thrown into opposition by ‘becoming-other'. Dialectical logic is the formal expression of principles already concretely exhibited in the world: ‘contradiction is the very moving principle of the world' ( Science of Logic 119). Contradiction involves the undermining of a thing's self-identity by the ‘other' to which it is related and by which it becomes defined. When employed by reason, dialectic unifies opposing determinations in a ‘completer notion' which reflects their immanent connectedness ( Science of Logic 81). In contrast, the analytic method leads to contradictions which the understanding can neither avoid or resolve. This can lead to scepticism, based on equally competing opposites. The ‘true infinite' of dialectical reason on the other hand, involves the ‘connective reference' and reciprocal dependence of the opposites, in a concrete unity of opposing terms.

Berthold-Bond (ibid) states –

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) and thus seeing oneself either as free in Hegel's sense of negative freedom (= nihilism), or doomed to necessity in Hegel's sense of "merely external necessity" (= tychism, fatalism, "the irrational void of necessity" ( Phenomenology of Spirit 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" ( Science of Logic 35) of duty, and of necessity which is the autonomous expression of self-determination.

The Science of Logic outlines 3 kinds of contradiction –

Being : - pairs of concepts seem completely opposed; for example, Being: Nothing; Quantity: Quality – but analyses and deduction shows them to be inter-related.

Essence : opposed pairs imply each other; for example, Inner: Outer

Concepts : for example, the concept of Individuality is built on a pair of apparent opposites: Universality and Particularity.

To return to Berthold-Bond –

‘…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.'

‘…Negativity is the principle by which thought disrupts its instinctive or immediate certainty, or by which thought becomes "split up" ( Phenomenology of Mind 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, and yet where this very negativity urges thought to "persevere," to "work out in itself the solution to its own contradiction" ( Science of Logic 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.'

If negation is the power of the dialectic, its form is triadic structure – thesis, antithesis, synthesis (though Hegel never used these terms). The double negation of formal logic ( A is not non- A ) is transcended in a synthesis which ‘overcomes and preserves' the opposites at a higher rational unity. As Hegel put it in his Logic , everything depends on ‘the identity of identity and non-identity'.

In the preface to his Phenomenology of Mind , Hegel wrote, “The more the ordinary mind takes the opposition between true and false to be fixed, the more it is accustomed to expect either agreement or contradiction with a given philosophical system, and only to see reason for the one or the other in any explanatory statement concerning such a system. It does not conceive the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive evolution of truth; rather, it sees only contradiction in that variety ....... the mind perceiving the contradiction does not commonly know how to relieve it or keep it free from its one sidedness, and to recognise in what seems conflicting and inherently antagonistic the presence of mutually necessary moments."

To return again to Berthold-Bond - ‘In history, dialectic "exhibits the . . . successive gradations in the development of . . . the consciousness of freedom" ( Phenomenology of History 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" ( Phenomenology of History 54)…. 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 ( Phenomenology of Spirit 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.'

In the Phenomenology of Spirit , Hegel describes how Geist (Spirit or Mind – ultimately, the divine Logos; God) comes to know itself, recognising itself in the world it has shaped or created; and can grasp that its Becoming, History, is a conscious self-mediating process – ‘Spirit emptied out into time'. Absolute Knowledge, the self-knowledge of the Absolute Spirit, is arrived at only through ‘the seriousness, the pain, the patience and the labour of the negative.' – in short, God's self-realisation in the world.

‘The eternal life of God is to find himself, become aware of himself, coincide with himself. In this ascent there is an alienation, a disunion, but it is the nature of the spirit, the Idea, to alienate itself in order to find itself again. This movement is just what freedom is…. The circle has as its circumference a great number of circles…'

Only the whole, this Absolute Knowledge, is true – every stage or moment is partial, and partially untrue. A key concept is totality, which preserves the apparently contradictory ideas it has overcome or subsumed. Totalities form a spiral which in turn forms the circle of God's self-realisation and self-knowledge in the world.

The idea of totality pervades quantum theory, postmodern cosmology, chaos theory, computer interfacing and ecology, according to Spencer and Krauze, ( Hegel for Beginners , p81) As R.D. Laing and D.G. Cooper describe in Reason and Violence , Hegel proceeds in the Phenomenology of Mind to show that many facets of reality can be unified in a consistent view of the world, in terms of which particular events, experiences, actions, find their place and can be construed accordingly. However, another synthesis, equally self-consistent, equally systematic, and seemingly all-embracing, can be found, in the light of which the same happenings or the same situation can be construed in ways that completely contradict the former. Each particular perspective, each particular point of view, is the centre of a world, but not a different world. Each point of view is an absolute, and at the same time absolutely relative: collisions between points of view occasion endless instability; collusions are efforts at some measure of stabilisation. In the endless cancellation of one viewpoint by another, each point of view first seems the whole truth. Then from another point of view the first synthesis of the situation turns out to be relative, even appearing completely false, so plausible may the second point of view come to appear. But then one finds there is a third, fourth, fifth ... ( n + 1 ) perspective, each, while we are absorbed in it, more convincing, more systematic in its elaboration of a synthesis, than the others, and no point of view is more plausible to the sceptic, than scepticism of all points of view, including his own. No synthesis can be a totality, embodying final truth. None need, by the same token, be totally false. Each is relative, and, as relative, each can have relative validity. One may pride oneself that one's own synthesis contains the overall truth - until such hubris is humbled before the realisation that this in turn cannot but be devoured in another synthesis, detotalised in another's totalisation, and so on, ad infinitum .

In social terms, Hegel lent his Idealism to political conservatism. Philosophically, Idealism means that ideas form the basis of reality, rather than the material world perceived by our senses. For Hegel, external reality was no more than an imperfect copy of the unfolding of thought as it progressed toward perfection in the Absolute Idea, Hegel's term for God. History - including the historical development of philosophy - is the history of the realisation of the divine Logos itself, from a pre-existing abstract idea, to its concrete fulfillment in society. Thus, when Hegel is concerned with concrete institutions such as monarchy or the bureaucracy of the Prussian state, what emerges is not an historical or scientific understanding, but an apologia for emanations of the divine Spirit: for, being products of Reason, in this sense, they can hardly help but be perfectly rational.

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