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You are here: Platypus /Hegel’s dialectics: non-Identity, contradiction, and freedom

Hegel’s dialectics: non-Identity, contradiction, and freedom

Omair Hussain

Platypus Review 135 | April 2021

Perhaps the first question that may come to mind for anyone making the daunting attempt to understand Hegel is, what is Hegelian dialectics? I could provide a one-line definition, such as “the interpenetration of opposites,” but such a definition might not elucidate much. Adorno astutely asserts that dialectics eludes definition by its very nature, that it is better demonstrated than defined. Perhaps a more fruitful but less straightforward way of getting at the matter is by way of a different question: not what, but why dialectics for Hegel?  If we can agree that Hegel was doing more than intentionally trying to be edgy or mystifying, we must ask ourselves why Hegel thought dialectics was necessary. My central claim is that Hegel finds his dialectics necessary because he is attempting to more adequately comprehend an object in a process of change and transformation. The character of this change — how the object is changing — is of deep significance and something I will address later.

To paint a very broad picture, if philosophy has always been concerned with grasping the Truth of reality, then prior to Kant and Hegel — but more importantly, prior to the development of modern, bourgeois society — this Truth was understood to be eternal, essentially static and unchanging. Plato grants that the world of the senses is in a state of constant flux, but True reality for Plato lies in the unchanging world of Forms, grasped by unchanging Reason. The True is True for Plato precisely because both it and our ability to comprehend it through Reason doesn’t change. I would argue that this is the essential characteristic of traditional, pre-critical philosophy: an assertion of a static, unchanging, eternal Truth. The Hegel scholar Robert Pippin defines traditional metaphysics as “a priori knowledge of substance.”[1] Why is substance, or Truth, able to be known a priori? Because neither Truth, nor our ability to know it, transforms in traditional philosophy.

What would it mean for Truth, and Reason’s capacity for grasping it, to be transformable, to undergo change? It is an important question, because as I hope to demonstrate, it is at the heart of why Hegel finds dialectics necessary. To begin to address the question, permit me to use a crude and perhaps misleading parable to make a point that I will further specify later. Here I am riffing off of an example Hegel provides at the beginning of The Phenomenology of Spirit. Let us pretend that we had never experienced a seed before, and one day we stumbled upon one lying in the dirt. What would it mean to philosophically grasp the Truth of the seed? We would immediately make theoretical, practical, and aesthetic judgments about the object before us. We would speculate about questions like what the thing was and where it came from. We would think about what uses and purposes it could be put to. We would find its size, color, and shape pleasing or unpleasing to the eye. Lets say that, after some deliberation, we came to conclusive answers about these questions, answers that satisfied us. We then decided to leave the seed alone for a while, and only returned to it months later for further study. To our shock, the seed had transformed into a flower bud. We would not only have to make new judgments about a new object, but we would be compelled to find a way to explain to ourselves how the seed we had comprehended a certain way related to this new mysterious flower bud that seemed to demand an entirely new set of judgments.  We would have to deal with fact that the transformation of the seed into a flower bud was not merely a quantitative change, not merely an increase or decrease in “seedness,” but a radically qualitative change, demanding not only a new set of judgments, but a whole new set of criteria for making judgments about the object. The object had changed in such a way that the flower bud fundamentally challenged the basic conditions of intelligibility that allowed us to make sense of the seed. In becoming a flower bud, the object had negated its condition as a seed and. simultaneously, negated the criteria of the judgments we had applied to the seed. For the seed to become what it was destined to become, it had to negate itself. We walk away scratching our heads, daunted by the fact that in order to grasp the new Truth revealed about the seed, we are forced to negate and transform everything we had previously held to be True. Because we are dedicated to the search for Truth, we eventually do this, and arrive at a new system for comprehending the flower bud, confident in its adequacy for grasping the new object. We return to the flower bud weeks later to test out our new philosophical apparatus. We are met by another shock. The flower bud is now a blooming rose. We are forced to undergo the same painful process of transforming our conception of Truth to meet the demands of another transformation of the object. But this time, something is also revealed about our former positions and the former conditions of the object. Their meaning has changed. What once seemed to us to be an irreconcilable antagonism, the Truth of the seed against the Truth of the bud that had negated it, is now recognized as distinct moments unified by the fact that they were instances of a process whose result is now before us. It turns out that, despite the way the situation appeared to us formerly, two things that seemed opposed to each other (the seed versus the bud) have resolved their opposition so that we can now grasp them as interrelated moments in a process of change. For the seed to become what it truly was, it had to first negate itself, and then — to use Hegelian terminology — sublate this negation as a moment in a process leading to its true destiny, a higher form: the blooming rose.

This parable is highly fallacious if taken as a literal example of Hegelian dialectics. (I don’t intend to get into a discussion here on “Dialectics of Nature.”) The main reason this parable might be misleading is because a seed doesn’t transform itself through its own reflection and activity, but simply changes in accord with the laws of nature. A seed is not self-conscious. A seed is not free. The object of Hegel’s philosophy — what he sought to comprehend — was not the mindless and automatic changes that took place in dead nature, but freedom in history, change that was driven by a self-legislating Subject through the use of Reason. Freedom for Hegel was the process in which a mutually constitutive Subject and Object of knowledge reciprocally transformed each other through a dialectical relationship, through a speculative identity that played out in History. The change Hegel attempted to grasp was neither arbitrary nor pre-ordained. It was a movement whose content was a Subject coming to awareness of itself through the recognition that it was transforming the Object it sought to know, the Object that conditioned its own reality. Freedom was the coming-to-realization that we could change the objective circumstances that shaped us, and thus change ourselves. This process is what Hegel’s philosophy sought to raise to consciousness.

The purpose of the clumsy parable was to illustrate the depth of difficulty entailed in the task Hegel set for himself. How does one maintain commitment to the idea of Truth, while simultaneously recognizing Truth as a process of transformation in which what is True must become True by negating and changing its own condition of being True? How does one adhere to the claim that Truth exists, while also comprehending that Truth exists only as a movement of self-transformation in which Truth must realize itself by negating and overcoming its own existence as Truth? What I am perhaps obviously raising is the issue of contradiction. Hegel understands the change he is attempting to raise to consciousness as made both possible and necessary by contradiction. Freedom proceeds through contradiction. What exists is self-contradictory to the extent that its existence expresses possibilities for change that can only be realized through the negation of this existence. This is why Hegel needs dialectics, to grasp a process of change driven by contradiction.

One way Hegel uses dialectics to deal with this difficult problem is in his use of what he calls the “speculative proposition.” Hegel is often misread, undialectically, in the sense that his speculative propositions are read as ordinary propositions. In an ordinary proposition, what is asserted is an identity between the subject and predicate of the proposition. To illustrate this more concretely, lets address one of Hegel’s most misunderstood propositions: “the real is rational.” If this were an ordinary proposition, what would be claimed is an identity between the subject of the proposition, “the real,” and its predicate, “is rational.”  In other words, if this were an ordinary proposition, it would mean what many poor readers of Hegel take it to mean, mainly that whatever exists, “the real,” is always identical with rationality, simply by the fact that it exists. This is how Hegel is misread as a conservative thinker. He is mistakenly read to be saying that whatever happens to exist is eternally reasonable, and thus the charge is made that Hegel merely apologizes and advocates for the way things are. Read as an ordinary proposition, Hegel is understood as making a static and unchanging claim about what is always true. He is read as making a traditional metaphysical claim. I would suggest that an ordinary proposition puts us back in the world of traditional philosophy, because the nature of the proposition seems to assert a timeless truth, an unchanging identity between subject and predicate. I would go further and suggest that, as Chris Cutrone has stated in unpublished remarks, the very nature of ordinary logic and language seems to belong to the world of traditional philosophy and traditional metaphysics, because ordinary language and logic seem to be suited to making claims about and referring to a static, unchanging, eternal reality and Truth. So the task Hegel is faced with is how to use logic and language, tools historically used to make claims about eternal Truth, to talk about Truth as a process of change and transformation. He doesn’t abandon these tools, because there are no others, but he is forced to use them in a radically new and transformed way. This is one of the reasons Hegel seems difficult to read and comprehend.

The speculative proposition is Hegel’s way of dealing with the problem of how to use logic and language to address Truth as a process of transformation. For Hegel, if an ordinary proposition asserts a simple and static identity between subject and predicate, it becomes tautological. Something is true simply by the fact that it is true. How can an ordinary proposition be more than tautological, more than an assertion of an identity that is already presupposed as an identity? What does an ordinary proposition add, when what is being claimed as true is true because it is true? Hegel’s radical move is to reframe the way we think about an ordinary proposition. If an ordinary proposition asserts an identity between subject and predicate, and if this is supposed to be more than a tautology, a restatement of something that we already know and is self-evident, then Hegel’s claim is that the identity asserted in an ordinary proposition is also an expression of non-identity. If we propose that the real is rational, then this must also mean that the real is not rational, otherwise why would we need to assert their equivalence in a proposition?  Hegel develops the speculative proposition out of a contradiction he recognizes in ordinary propositions. In the speculative proposition, the identity asserted between the subject and predicate is also an assertion of their non-identity. “The real is rational” is a speculative proposition. The claim Hegel is making is that the real is rational precisely because the real is also not rational. To ordinary logic, that statement is a nonsensical contradiction. But if we understand Truth as a process of transformation through contradiction, perhaps we can get a better handle on what Hegel is saying. If rationality is not a static state, but a process of becoming, then to say that the real is rational means to say that the real must become rational by recognizing that the real is also not rational as it exists. The contradictory statements, the simultaneous identity and non-identity of subject and predicate, are moments in a process of becoming. The real is rational because both reality and rationality are part of a movement of freedom that is driven by the negation of what is real and rational for the sake of realizing what is real and rational. The real must become rational by negating and transforming both reality and rationality. The speculative proposition is an attempt to grasp a process of change driven by contradiction.

If Hegel’s dialectical philosophy is a radical transformation of a traditional philosophical conception of Truth, how and why did this transformation happen? How did we get from Plato’s eternal realm of Forms to Hegel’s assertion that “philosophy is its own time comprehended in thought”? What are the historical conditions of possibility for Hegel’s conception of Truth as historical? Following Kant, Hegel strives to be critical, critical in the Kantian sense of being aware of one’s own conditions of possibility. Hegel not only conceives of Truth as historical, but also self-reflexively recognizes that his own conception of Truth as historical is itself grounded in and an expression of his own historical moment. Hegel explicitly understands his philosophy and its conception of Truth as historical as itself an expression of the bourgeois revolution, the world-historical transformation from feudal servitude to a society mediated by free wage labor. Hegel’s philosophy, and specifically The Phenomenology of Spirit, is a retrospective account of the emergence of this bourgeois consciousness, the historically evolving consciousness of history as the story of freedom.

Hegel’s account of the emergence of this bourgeois consciousness is encapsulated in a parable contained in The Phenomenology, a parable commonly referred to as the master-slave dialectic. This name is misleading, for reasons that are related to the manner in which this parable is often misunderstood. I would argue, perhaps polemically, that the significance of the master-slave dialectic is not that it is a dialectic between master and slave. It is not an account of an inter-subjective dialectic, but an account of the emergence of the subject-object dialectic. For Hegel, an inter-subjective dialectic would require mutual recognition of self-consciousness by two free, self-conscious subjects. The point is that the slave, as slave, is in no position to recognize the master, because the master does not recognize the slave as a free self-conscious subject. Thus, in this absence of mutual self-conscious recognition of the other’s freedom and self-consciousness, neither the slave nor the master are subjects. The real point of the master-slave dialectic is that it is a dialectic between the slave and himself. The slave, an unfree subjectless being, is forced to work by the master. Through his labor, the slave transforms nature. By transforming nature through work, he comes to recognize himself in the objects he has created. He arrives at an awareness, by objectifying himself through labor, that it is his own activity that is transforming the world, and through this act of self-reflection, he also transforms himself. The master becomes unessential, because he does not work. By objectifying himself through labor and changing nature, the slave comes to a self-consciousness that it is his own activity that counts. Through this activity, through this objectification, he reflects on himself and recognizes his freedom, thus becoming a subject. His freedom is tied to the self-consciousness that he is a free subject able to transform the objectivity that conditions his own self-consciousness. The yoke of the master is discarded. Through unfreedom, he arrives at the recognition of his freedom.

The main significance of this account that I want to emphasize is that it specifies why dialectics is necessary for Hegel, and how the dialectic emerges. My previous parable of the seed was faulty because it may have suggested that we need dialectics as an abstract method to apply to contradiction and change in a foreign, external object. There is a truth to this form of appearance. But Hegel’s real point is that dialectical change is produced by our own activity and reflection. We need dialectics to grasp a dialectical reality that we are continuously producing dialectically. For Hegel, labor is the source of the dialectic. What must be comprehended dialectically is the contradiction produced by our own activity, the splitting of what was once a static whole into a reciprocally constituting and transformative contradiction, or non-identity, between ourselves as both subjects and objects of the historical process whose unfolding Hegel calls the Absolute. |P


[1] Robert B. Pippin, Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 5.

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