What did Hegel Mean by “Dialectics?”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is likely the most difficult of all the great philosophers in the west. He’s also one of the greatest nationalist and conservative writers of Europe. Much of my graduate research was done on Hegel and Hegelianism. Hegel has no mercy on the amateur. His writing is impenetrable to the point of comedy. In studying him, the student has to rely on a master in the field and secondary sources first, before even beginning to read the primary texts. He’s simply too difficult and uses too many technical terms to just begin reading like any other book.
“Dialectics,” while its a term used by the ancient Athenians, was for Hegel a highly technical term dealing with the grounding of science without presuppositions. Where Descartes failed, Hegel would succeed. This paper will try to make sense out of it for the non-specialist, but there is little optimism it will be successful since nothing in Hegel is ever simple or even appealing to the non-specialist.
Practically, “dialectical logic” concerns the constant interplay of form and content, in that the form of something is always changing the content and vice versa. These too, are technical terms. The term “dialectics” is used often in politics, on the Right specifically, though usually with no understanding as to its meaning and origin. For example, I recently came across a blog post that stated the following:
Hegel’s dialectic is the tool which manipulates us into a frenzied circular pattern of thought and action. Every time we fight for or defend against an ideology we are playing a necessary role in Marx and Engels’ grand design to advance humanity into a dictatorship of the proletariat. The synthetic Hegelian solution to all these conflicts can’t be introduced unless we all take a side that will advance the agenda.
This is too insipid to really provoke a response. In his mind, dialectics is a psychological trick invented by Hegel to bring humanity to destruction. This struggling patriot hasn’t the foggiest idea what “dialectics” could be, but dropping names and using esoteric terms make him sound ethereal. He seems to think that, since Marx used a version of the dialectical method, it must be an ominous trick of the mind. Worse, he’s claiming intellectual superiority to others in using this ignorance to “teach” others, those of us benighted fools that have an “ideology.” His motives are transparent. Actual knowledge permits this kind of critique, but manifest, comic ignorance does not.
Even Marx saw the world as developing in accordance with a linear, not a circular, pattern. Marx, of course, was a bitter enemy of Hegel as he was a materialist, to put it simply, while Hegel was a conservative idealist. This epistemological mastermind is arguing that any ideological side in debate is part of a “dialectic” that “advances” a Marxist “agenda.” Except his, of course.
This one is my personal favorite, since it mixes total ignorance with the explicit desire to be seen as a “philosopher.”
For the benefit of those who have not yet heard of the Hegelian Dialectic, let me briefly run through it as taught by Authority Research Center president, Dean Gotcher. The Hegelian Dialectic or “Consensus Process” is a 200 year-old, three-step process of “thesis, antithesis and synthesis,” developed in the late 1700’s by a German named Georg William Friedreich Hegel that results in what we now know as “group-think.”
It takes great skill to cram this many errors into a few words. Hegel was, of course, a 19th century figure. Let’s be clear, however, that I don’t seek to be arrogant. Perish the thought. There can be no question that I must tread lightly here, since, after all, the President of the Authority Research Center has spoken. The chief executive of this philosophical research institute has defined “dialectics” for us, and his enthusiastic student, like a Jedi Padawan, has no option but spread the word to others.
I treat these men with utter disdain because they make a mockery of otherwise intelligent arguments. It destroys the credibility of their message, regardless of how true it might be. It presents to the world a movement filled with fakes, quacks and the gullible. That the author above cites an “authority” that’s as ignorant as he shows how dangerous this kind of ineptitude can be. They poison the debate thorough posing as authorities. They are the intellectual equivalent of Jean-Claude Romand, but instead of killing the body, they kill the mind.
Therefore, there can be no question this paper is sorely needed. The examples above are not extreme, and, in fact, are quite common in the “patriot movement.” These Prozac Platos remind me of the “stolen valor” guys dressing in Marine uniforms to get praised as “heroes.” Usually, only an actual Marine can see all the errors in the uniform’s presentation. All these fakes need to be exposed, but in this case, it also unveils a very profound concept that deserves to be known in its own right.
Dialectics is a profound understanding of reality that does way with the simplistic positivism of Occam, Locke and his successors. The purpose of the dialectical method is to discover the ground for science, but more specifically, propositions about objects and relations science deals with. Our pragmatic mind begins with the object, but our speculative – or scientific mind – does not. It begins with Being. A “fact” never exists by itself and is nonsensical in isolation.
A “simple fact” implies logic, our arsenal of concepts under which we understand and communicate it, and the assumption that our logical thinking is actually “out there” in the world, among other things. The allegedly empirical positivist uses so many assumptions in his “pragmatic” thought that empirical perception is destroyed entirely. Hence, dialectics became the Hegelian battle cry against the British empiricists and their students, among other people.
In Part I of his Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, from which this paper cites from, among many other places, Hegel lays out his conception of dialectics. Some claim that there is a thesis, its negation, and then a synthesis that comes from the clashing of the two. The “antithesis” and “synthesis” are common terms when dealing with this field.
Hegel never, ever uses this language. There are three “moments” and it is a process. There, the correspondence stops. The very fact that it’s a process means that knowledge itself is complex and continually develops over time, though not in its essence. Keep in mind that any brief analysis such as this will be very simplistic and woefully incomplete.
The basic structure is relatively simple. The first moment is “Understanding.” This is simplistic thinking or the brute “fact.” It is the primitive, empirical notion that the brain is a stage where our sense perceptions present themselves as they really are. It is the foundation of the correspondence theory of truth. It is x=x (80-81). However, x is never just x. To the chagrin of the positivist and nominalist, the idea of a stable “thing” rapidly falls apart due to its own instability.
The second moment Hegel calls “Dialectical.” The term itself, in Hegel, refers to the “negation.” This is when the assumptions and simplicity of the “fact” or “thing” begin to break down and render it useless. The term Hegel most often uses is aufheben, a verb tough to translate into our English. Its normally translated as “to nullify,” but this is too simple. Most use it to mean “to sublimate,” but it can also be used as “to nullify, or cancel, in order to preserve” (95 and 79ff). There is no corresponding word in English. That it can be used to express the “elevation” of something as well as its cancellation is precisely why Hegel uses it.
Dialectics begins because we cannot know if what we perceive or understand really exists. Do our mental states correspond to what’s “out there?” After all, we cannot prove an outside world, we only have access to our mental representations. Do our logical categories exist outside our minds? How much of what we see is our own projection? How much of our mind can be found in perception and how much is external to us? How do we even know an object is a “single thing?” It doesn’t take long for the “brute fact” to collapse.
The third is where the unity between the two, what most call a “synthesis,” exists in the third entity. All thought is based on three: the x, the knower and the context in which its known. Dialectics keeps us from falling into bad faith, or even pure relativism. This is an error.
The knower exists in a specific period of time and is perceiving with a set of concepts with which he was born and educated. The “x” cannot be seen in its entirety, since anything is a complex set of qualities and the result of historical development, whether natural or not. We focus on specific aspects of the thing, often on how we can use it. All of this together, then, form the context, both intellectual and historical, that are brought to bear on what we think we know.
The dialectical moment is not a contradiction or a negation. It is a real thing. It is the criticism of the brute fact and the simplistic, empirical and nominalist view of the world dominant in the modern west. Nothing is forced on the object. No one is searching for its negation. It is inherent to the object itself and proves that it is not what it appears to be. Its an image, not a thing. The brute fact’s very existence reveals its falsity. Its only partially real.
The simplest way to put it is that to focus attention on any object automatically is to take it from its surroundings. In affirming x, the viewer is abstracting it from everything else. The x did not create itself and is not complete in itself, thus, its false just for that reason alone. It can never be just an x. Since the x does not exist of its own accord, we can never know the x in itself, since it is related to everything else in existence in important ways.
The empiricist sees many of the same objects, like a group of oranges, and this leads to a concept of “orange.” If I see two oranges, I can know quickly that they are oranges, but knowing this introduced a third entity: the concept of orange that unifies all versions of the fruit.
When I analyze the oranges, I realize there are two things: the individual orange, and the concepts that permit me to use the term “orange” to describe more than one hunk of fruit. Slowly, science can build up increasingly comprehensive concepts that contain them all and this is expanding the comprehension of objects. Oranges cannot be separated from the ecosystem, human consumption, our need of vitamin C and all the rest.
Hegel’s way of describing this is in his Science of Logic (contained in the Encyclopedia) goes to the heart of the matter: Being itself. Trying to get to that which no one can deny (like St. Augustine or Descartes), he reaches Being. “Something is.” No one can deny that. What is it? Can we describe it? It is an object without determinations, without qualities. It just is. One cannot describe an x without qualities. Therefore, it is identical to it being nothing. Being as such is the same as nothing. Neither can be described since, to describe something, we must describe its qualities.
No one can deny Being is. Therefore, one can create a science without any presuppositions or assumptions. The minute this is uttered, one realizes that even this simple, uncontroversial conception is complex. “Being” both is and is not. Logic, prior to dialectics, could not deal with this fact. In fact, the concept of “Zero” was imported from India and was never a part of the Greco-Roman world. How could “nothing” be anything?
Why can’t it have qualities? No one can deny that “something” is, but that something cannot have qualities or else it would be a mental construct. It may well be in our heads. The point is that we cannot prove anything that might be merely a mental representation. However, we can say that “something” is without a problem. Now, at least, there is a foundation to proceed. Being leads to nothing.
What is the third thing? Well, what both is and is not? What could the result be other than becoming? Becoming must have something to start from, but it is heading to something. What is it? If it existed, then it would already be. If it does not, how could it ever become so on its own? This is why becoming is the synthesis of being and nothingness (Logic, 60). Something in the process of becoming both is and is not.
Descartes famed cogito went too far. He did not say “Being is,” but rather “I” as a person, am. Where did this ego come from? That has many qualities Descartes had no right to import. He wanted to get to the utter ground of existence, and in doing so, he spoke of himself. This cannot be the case. He reached only that “something is.” His error was deadly for the west.
“Essence” and “energy” are two concepts vaguely familiar to Orthodox readers, and, while of immense profundity, they are nothing specific to the church. They exist precisely in a dialectical relation and thus, dialectics is introduced into theology. One is the existence of a thing, the other is its presence, its striving to becoming what it was meant to be (or in God’s case, what His creation was meant to be), like Aristotle’s “potency.” All created things are in the act of becoming. To be completely actualized is to be perfect, in need of nothing.
All things have an essential nature, but not all things have reached it. This means that all things both are and are not. The world is an arena of struggle where men strive to become the rational, free actors they were meant to be. It is rare that such a state is reached, since excuses and bad faith are so easily found.
Never does Hegel anywhere state the famed “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” triad. It is only from Being-Nothing-Becoming does the more famous triad derive. In the Logic, Hegel seems to suggest that this is not a process at all, not in time anyway, but a description of the same thing from three points of view (79). Further, each element in the process has its own process.
The dialectic is, in itself, apolitical. Hegel’s main argument is that dialectics is not something he created. Reason, as the ancients believed, exists in the world as much as in our minds. The Enlightenment, following Luciferian thinking, saw the (elite) mind as radically separate from the order of the world. The truth is that mind is yet another created thing, and so bears the same structure as everything else. This is how we know our thought, if it begins correctly, can accurately describe the world.
The Enlightenment mind says that the mind imposes form on the flux, but also that this mental imposition is all that exists. John Locke argued that the created world is meaningless until man creates “value” through his labor. If reason exists only in our minds, then it has no option but to force the world to bend to its will. This is the Tikkun olam of the Kabbalah. Nietzsche alone finally forced the western mind to see this, through anti-modern writers had been saying this for centuries.
Therefore, perceiving an x automatically brings us to understand that the x didn’t bring itself into being. It’s part of a larger whole, just like our own minds are. Hegel’s purpose is to provide the ultimate foundation for all knowledge, but the x, the thing to be known, cannot be the starting point. Logic “lines up” with the external world because existence, being, is a single object.
Hegel views the simplistic, empirical view of the world with disdain. The practical, naturalistic view of the Anglosphere is propaganda. Objects are delusions. Our minds pick and choose what aspects of the x it wants or needs to see, usually following the cultural and epistemological biases of the age.
The problem western science had to contend with in the modern era was how can we ground perceptions? Bishop Berkeley proved that all we know is our mental states about things, not things themselves. This Hegel calls the “uncritical” or “dogmatic” approach to the world. “Facts” are not mere facts, and x is never equal to x. Facts must have a ground that is both found in the fact itself and is separate from it.
No matter how much we try, we have to realize that the “fact” remains a concept, not an object. We only know that our mind is telling us that an x is present, not that the x really is. The dialectical “antithesis” is called “determinate negation.” Once you observe an x, you immediately realize its part of something greater. You also realize it might not be there, or at least you cannot prove otherwise.
An object is both and at the same time a single thing and a bundle of other properties. There must be an essence, so to speak, around which properties cohere or else knowledge cannot exist. So at a minimum, when you look at an x, you see many things: properties you think are out there, its context and, most importantly, your own mental state. You don’t see a thing as it seems to be presented.
My using the term “object” is problematic, since it is a sort of dogmatic “brute fact.” Hegel rejects even beginning with any specific x. The object, taken in a dogmatic way, is an “Abstraction,” capitalized because its a technical term in Hegel. “Abstract” means a thing taken out of its environment and observed just in itself. The truth is that knowledge is impossible this way.
Hegelian dialectics shows a man observing what he thinks is an x. He assumes that his senses truly pick up what exists and that his logic is congruent with all he observes, but at any given point in time, the observer is seeing very little. At a minimum, he cannot prove any of this.
What is a thing? How can we understand it if we cannot take it from its context? What is a “context?” Take something as simple as the wallet. Few really think about it. Yet, the whole of human history is contained in it. The production methods, if it was mass produced, have taken hundreds of years to perfect. They require the full development of physics and mathematics for the machines to run properly. The labor is also rationalized and standardized, the result of human economic history taking efficiency as the single most important determinant of production.
The materials are shipped in from elsewhere or imported, implying a mass transport system to facilitate trade. Then the leather, taken from cows and dried in a fairly complex, yet standardized, fashion, wouldn’t exist unless civilization had discovered it could be so used. Then think of the myriad of all social restrictions on how its used, where its stored and what’s stored in it. This is just a tiny sampling of what goes in to making a wallet.
So then, what’s the “wallet?” It’s nothing less than the summation of the development of human civilization. This is an example of phenomenology at a very simple level. We can’t claim to know the wallet unless we know humanity. We need to know everything. Nothing that exists by the hand of man exists outside of this civilizational matrix. Natural objects like trees and locusts require the same method, except with natural history rather than social and, as is well known, the two are not sealed off from each other. We cannot speak of the wallet merely as that thing that holds are money and cards. This Hegel would call a “one-sided” or “abstract” conception that only gets a tiny piece of the picture.
This is what dialectics seeks to do with everything. For any object, we have conceptions of it, not realities. We have wildly incomplete images of it to suit our own level of understanding. The dialectical method rests on the same foundations: we “know” something only as part of a slow ascent to the All.
One cannot grasp the object with a glance or a simple definition. Any x is not merely x. It is a collection of individual things that, taken together at a specific point in time, create an X. Seeing the wallet as a simple object speaks about the observer, not the wallet. Its utilitarian presentation is just that, an image. The reality is different. Dialectics is meant to unmask the Real hiding behind the images. An image isn’t real, its what we need at the moment. “Alienation” is to live among these images, believing they are the real.
Hegel is arguing that the dialectic is not to see an x, then “search for its opposite to negate it.” No, the opposite is inherent in the x. Being and nothing are identical. Being, having no qualities, is the same as nothing, since all we use when describing a thing is its qualities. So fundamental being is identical with there being nothing. The very conception of “being” automatically raises the conception of nothing.
The typical Anglo-American “scientific” view of the world assumes that any object or relation is perceived as it is. In other words, that we either know things or we don’t. Phrases like this are very common in the west – these are the turns of phrase of the simplistic, pragmatic mind where utility is the only goal and the only mark of truth. When asked how we know that matter exists, the pragmatist will kick something, thereby showing it’s real, never fully grasping that such an answer begs the question. This is the mind that Hegel criticizes.
The utilitarian pragmatist sees an object as a simple, external thing that doesn’t need to be demonstrated. Demonstrations are about things rather than of things. His goal is utility. If it works, its real. Such a mind states that psychology plays no role in knowing. We have a curious disconnect in western thinking. Psychology challenges the idea that our motivations are totally knowable. Psychology demolishes the facile assumptions of the markets and democratic elections. Both the “free market” and liberalism rest on pragmatic views on sensation. Men must know rationally what they want, be fully informed about it and know how to efficiently go about accomplishing it. Psychology demolishes this nonsense too.
Hegel knows that psychology plays a powerful role in what we perceive and what we choose not to perceive. “People see what they want” is a common refrain, but the consequences of this truth are devastating. Perception is soaked in our hangups, drives, instincts, limited knowledge and whatever weak logic we have the time to muster up. We see what we want. Our biases and agendas determine what we are capable of seeing at any given moment. What does admitting that mean?
Dialectics rests on the notion that any object we see is partly our creation. Any object we can perceive is a community of many things both internally and externally to us. Nothing exists by itself. The nominalist says that our conceptions are mere words and thus, universal ideas don’t exist, only particular things. Dialectics answers and says “particular things” are the entities that don’t exist. The “object,” or “singular thing” is never quite so simple. Man sees x in a specific way at a specific time. There are no “straightforward,” or as Hegel would call, “abstract” objects.
The dialectic, then, is far more than a method. Its an entire view of the world that refuses to take anything for granted. While a brief article such as this always oversimplifies, the basic gist of this complex concept is clear. Modern scientific positivism pretends its objective, looking at the world without biases or agendas. Yet the assumptions they bring to even elementary observations are extraordinary. Ideas that were the cutting edge of science and high-technology 70 years ago are laughed at today. Clearly, knowledge using this method is neither accumulative nor objective. Dialectics is, most importantly, correct, since its core argument is that our psychology – our consciousness and subconsciousness – play a huge role in what we perceive and what we think we know.