Why You Should Read the Science of Logic Before the Phenomenology

The Science of Logic (simply the Logic from here on) is G.W.F. Hegel’s most important work, at least according to him. After Hegel’s death and the reaction against Hegelianism there was a cold period after which the Phenomenology of Spirit made a sudden surge from obscurity and it has been a mainstay of Hegelianism since. The Phenomenology has in the last century dominated the reception of Hegel in the continental and analytic philosophy circles and is considered Hegel’s greatest masterpiece, a strange thing considering that Hegel seemed to consider it less and less the more he taught the system based on his Logic.

Hegel is, in my experience, a philosopher that is monumentally difficult and yet offers incredibly accessible and clear points that require no background or skill other than the capacity to think. There is a surface to Hegel’s system which is, because of its logical nature, very accessible to any thinker who is open to tread the path of a thought alongside Hegel, but at the same time there is the depth beneath the surface which reveals a set of interconnections beyond what is apparent in the path of the straight logical steps on the surface. This depth is a result of ‘recollection’, of reflective thought about the reflexivity of thought which went on in its logical mode. The more life experience, and the more intellectual breadth and depth, the richer the recollection’s insights. First, however, one must have a grasp of how to think along with Hegel, and the Phenomenology does not actually make clear just what Hegel’s famous core method (dialectics) is supposed to be, but worse, it has the phenomenological method in play alongside the dialectical method and the confusion increases. Though logically and historically the Phenomenology is prior to the Logic, I strongly suggest one to read part of the Logic before engaging the Phenomenology.

The Phenomenology was originally intended to be the “introduction” to Hegel’s system, particularly his Logic, by way of a negative dialectical argument. It aimed to eliminate all possible avenues for foundational philosophy to provide a ground for knowledge, and was to decisively leave Hegel’s own take on the problem of knowledge as the only remaining possibility for moving on and doing Philosophy at all once he negated the opposition of consciousness to an absolute external object in all its forms. The final result was a moment of Absolute Knowing where Spirit would gain the knowing of knowing by way of the reader’s own realization of it—this knowing would merely give the starting point of science as its abstract indeterminate beginning. The book is written in such an abstract way that one should not need any background for it, and while one can certainly go at it this way, it doesn’t help that Hegel wrote it as if the intent was to force you to reread the book multiple times in order to reach its intellectual depths. He mentions terms which he never defines: the Concept (translated as Notion by Miller), the Idea, and Spirit very early on and maintains their use as if the reader just knows what he means despite his meaning being utterly unknown at such points beyond contextual hints. Due to the difficulty and seemingly winding arguments of the book very few ever make it through this initiation, and fewer still seem to remember what it is that Hegel intended to teach them at the end. The book is certainly worthy of praise and with many insights as well as fascinating literary, cultural, and conceptual analyses and interpretations, but it is written in such a manner that no novice to philosophy could ever understand much of its significance without expertise to guide them in the intricate backgrounds of references of arguments, the dense and sometimes obscure phrasing, and the sometimes obscure transitional arguments which move the story of Spirit’s experience along.

As an introduction the Phenomenology is as difficult an introduction as could have ever been designed, an obstacle that a reader must willingly put themselves through wholeheartedly and lose themselves to in order to reap the benefit of its conclusion: the full realization that the opposition of consciousness presupposed by almost all of philosophy prior to and after Hegel cannot lead anywhere fruitful in the end. The Phenomenology ends in Absolute Knowing, a form of consciousness which has gone beyond the opposition of consciousness to its object. It sees that all along it had merely faced itself in its object; it is an indeterminate end where nothing but the identity of consciousness and its object is known—thought faces itself as all it knows (make of that what you will for now). As a popular introduction to Hegel’s system the Phenomenology is a failure as historical experience shows most simply do not understand its language, argumentation style, and what it is meant to conclude. The Phenomenology may be said to be the most immediately interesting and readable of Hegel’s works, yet one of the least immediately comprehensible since Hegel seems to be all too happy to use terms he never defines—at least not straightforwardly—and an argumentation method that has popularly come to be unfortunately known as the ‘dialectic’, which seems to resist any clear definition if the popular understanding of it is anything to go by. In contrast, the Logic is Hegel’s most immediately comprehensible yet least immediately interesting or readable work. This is a very strange affair for people are constantly told of the necessity of the Phenomenology to understand the (supposedly) even less understandable Logic. If the Phenomenology is this difficult, it’s no surprise the vast majority avoid the Logic since it is considered even more so.

The Logic is the “sequel” to the Phenomenology, the first part of the system it is meant to introduce. For a few years in Jena Hegel taught material similar to what later would be in the Phenomenology, but once he had settled his account of the matters he ceased to teach it in favor of expanding his positive system. He hardly mentions the book ever again in lecture or writing. Despite the seeming abandonment of it to history, the work, in its function, is ever a necessary part for understanding Hegel and his thought. The Phenomenology, or something akin to it in scope and function, is necessary to fully break the spell of wandering natural consciousness that presupposes that it is a knower that faces an object different from itself, and which must answer the dual problem of ontology and epistemology which elude unification in a coherent account of their relation to each other and to consciousness as a knowing. While some may easily accept Hegel’s claims against the opposition of consciousness to an object of knowing, the real argument and proof against it is in the completed path of the Phenomenology of Spirit. While we do not submit ourselves to its path of despair we are always left to the nagging doubt and temptation that perhaps there may be a way to work epistemology/ ontology/ ethics/ aesthetics/ etc. as first foundational philosophy despite Hegel’s claims against such a possibility.

Despite what most say about the difficulty of the Logic and its status as the result of the Phenomenology, you should actually read a very small part of it before reading the Phenomenology. Reading the Logic in its entirety is a big commitment if what you really are interested in is the Phenomenology, but reading the first few chapters will help greatly in following Hegel’s argument style in its predecessor. The Logic is where Hegel’s method is in its most clear and obvious form, even if you only read the first chapter it is sufficient to see what the so-called method is. If one reads the chapters on Being and Existence/Determinate Being carefully, then the reading of the Phenomenology isn’t as mysterious or difficult due to his method being clarified. Not only is the method clear, but it shall be made clear what some otherwise seemingly unclear terms have to do with the developments that Hegel takes us through in the Phenomenology, e.g. if one has read the chapter on Existence it shall be clear as day what one of the major formal problems  dominating the three chapters of Consciousness is. Now, it’s not that it’s impossible to discern the logical train in the Phenomenology, but it takes an incredible memory and constant hindsight to maintain logical chains in mind and remember that that one seemingly random sentence about Being and thought 40 pages ago is a key to understanding why a Being with immediacy is mediated and therefore is determinate and implies a plurality—this disconnection of underlying logical forms, unfortunately, is a product of the phenomenal presentation.

The Logic is a bit more merciful on the reader concerning its developments, and maintains its concept developments directly connected in the chain you follow.  The beginning of the Phenomenology is rather simple and the arguments in it quite easy to follow, but even in the second chapter the argument begins hinging on logical moves which already depend on a supremely careful eye to the terms used, how they’re used, and what is being related—I actually consider the second chapter’s beginning to be one of the hardest parts in the first three chapters. There is chapter 3, “Force and the Understanding”, which is a bit of a maze of many dialectical moves ending in the dissolution of Consciousness, the mode of cognition which takes knowing as merely the confronting of an external object and the correspondence of thought to such object.

Besides being able to notice the logical moves underlying the phenomenal aspects of the Phenomenology, you’ll also be able to take notice of what is going on in the phenomenal aspects themselves—you’ll be able to comprehend and appreciate just why every form of consciousness comes up in the order that it does. While every form of consciousness faces destruction with its own immanent negative dialectic, each dialectic unfurls a positive logical concept immanent in the structure of a form of consciousness. These positive results, which are the end of every form of consciousness, are key to grasping why the work flows the way it does.

Now, there are two prefaces and two introductions to the Logic since it was clear many would simply not read the Phenomenology or understand it. These essays in a way attempt to give some justification of the project of the Logic, and all amount to repeating two central points: 1) formal logic isn’t logic since logic is the thinking of thinking which establishes the validity of valid thinking and as such has itself as the content and form of its inquiry, and 2) we must start with indeterminacy, without givens of any kind, so forget everything you think you know. In this regard the Logic is certainly very readable in that it is very intelligible, in fact it is surprising how readable it is for a book by the supposedly obscure Hegel. Because of the presuppositionless aspect of the work one can jump in and merely focus on what is built up in the work itself in order to comprehend it. Though it is very intelligible (usually), its subject matter is very dry and abstract, and because it only deals with thought itself there is no escape for any kind of picture/metaphorical thinking with examples we are accustomed to. Very few will find much to excite them in the book if they are not interested in metaphysics and categories of thought as such.

To say something brief on the value of the Logic itselfit is the systematic development of valid thinking which can prove itself to be valid thinking. The only rule on the ground at the beginning of it is that we think, and that we think only what is thinkable in and through the content with which we begin. This demand for thinking only with what is available and its relations, if it have any, is merely the first demand of all valid thinking: necessity. If we are to discover anything else about valid thinking we must at least discover these new insights necessarily following from our concepts inner contents. The Logic goes on to develop and move as thought shows itself to be at once both analytic and synthetic, for by analytic definition it points beyond itself and determines itself further through what is not immediately itself.

highly suggest you to read the Logic‘s first two chapters to get a sense of Hegel’s actual method in its purest practice as well as to know two of the fundamental structures which appears throughout the Phenomenology over and over again—the something/other relation, and more importantly the concept of  Infinity. This alone will help immensely with increasing your comprehension in a reading of the Phenomenology of Spirit and every other of Hegel’s works.

On the ‘scientific’ character of Hegel’s dialectical method.

Hegel uses the term ‘science’ not only to qualify his philosophy; he claims that his philosophy is the very concept of valid science. Science had not yet been reduced to the current restriction to empirical science at the time, it roughly meant systematic knowledge well into the 1800s, thus it isn’t too strange that something like philosophy could be considered a science.

An interesting thing I have noticed reading the Science of Logic directly is that there is one thing in common with Hegel’s conception of science and the current popular understanding of it: that science directly accesses its object without subjective aspects entering into the matter investigated and discovered. Because Hegel’s method is to investigate the necessary universal character of objects, their concepts, as they self-determine and generate themselves of their own accord, the method is ‘objective’. This objectivity is the same objectivity which the common understanding knows: that which is objective is that which is what it is in its own right, and not because of anything else. This, of course, destroys most of the objectivity we presume to exist in the world. Most things are not what they are in their own right, they are what they are through relation to myriad of external factors, some of them being our own subjective determinations upon the objects.

When we investigate objects of the material kind we often find no rational explanation for them but the whole of the universe of matter and forces, and thus the object we begin trying to know finds itself disappearing into a system of dependencies which compose it. At such points of inquiry we find that what we thought were objects were not objects, but merely arrangements of the true objects which constitute them. Not only do we lose the original object being explained, but as far as empirical sciences can go we also lose the criterion of objectivity itself: we posit forces and concepts which are unintelligible to us and which have no necessity we can see other than that they are useful for our relative manipulation of the material world. Why are there only so many laws of nature? We don’t know. Why are the laws of nature what they are? We don’t know. What is gravity? We don’t know. What is positive or negative charge? We don’t know. Why is it that atoms have specific electron shell arrangements and bond with other atoms according to these electron arrangements? We don’t know. Our theories are subjectively posited and the world arranged into them, but we have no clue why these arrangements and objects should have any unity at all, and even if we somehow do know a necessary unity we do not know why it is as it is at all.

Take for example a piece of chalk. What are its objective features? Certainly not its shape, color, etc. for these are subjective determinations not intrinsic to its substance as chalk. Even the measure of material of the chalk is not objective to its being as chalk, for chalk as chalk is merely its chemical composition as calcium carbonate. Does calcium carbonate as such exist? It is a synthetic compound of elements, calcium and carbon, each which in turn is a compound of protons, neutrons, electrons, etc. Some of these particles, protons and neutrons, are themselves further compounds of what are now called quarks. The real substance, many would say, the real objects of the world, are these fundamental particles and their interaction with forces. In certain theories a further reduction is attempted and matter/space itself is dissolved as an objective being in its own right and pure forces are posited as the real objective being of the world, but what are these forces? We find no answer for empirical science which rests upon given assumptions cannot offer it. It cannot give an account of forces as such, it cannot give an account as to what they are in themselves nor why they are as they are. Empirical physics can only posit these fundamental forces and their mathematical character as given, it cannot explain what they are, how they are, why there are as many as there are, and why they should relate in the way that they do. As far as we are able to know with this method, the laws are what they are and relate as they do because we judge them to be so. Such science relies on subjectively determined dogmatic presuppositions of objects of knowledge and how knowing meets the object.

Hegel’s methodology does lead to the necessary knowledge of how and why an object is what it is in its own right for it holds itself to following the development of a concept of its own power of self-generating determinations. If objectivity is that which is what it is in its own right and not because of anything else, whatever object we encounter must be the full source of itself from start to finish. If we are to hold the object as it is in itself in the mind we must likewise meet this freely self-developed and determined object with an equally self-developed and determined concept. The encounter of both as corresponding to each other is what Hegel calls the Idea of an object: an actualized concept. Just as empirical science shows that most things we think are real objects are actually not, so does Hegel’s science. The difference is that Hegel’s objectivity is not a reductive objectivity to that which appears to be what it is in its own right because it is has no further inner constitution. Objectivity for Hegel is not that which has no further inner constitution, is unintelligible, and as such no longer explainable according to anything else, but objectivity is rather that which is most fully intelligible and explainable according to its inner constitution from its simple parts to the whole. For Hegel it is not the laws and matter of physics or of chemistry which are most objective and knowable, but organic life, and above that thinking life, which are the most substantial and objective existences. We can be certain of our objective knowledge with Hegel’s method because it is simply the free development of the concept of the object itself.

That empirical science cannot meet the task of objectivity is not to deny its pragmatic usefulness. There is unquestionable functional truth to the products of empirical scientific inquiry, and because we value practical technology we should hopefully never abandon empirical science. That said, currently science oversteps its bounds in many areas and attempts to do the work of metaphysics in ignorance of its own presuppositions and the problems of its conception of objectivity which causes it to so invert the world as to lose sight of the most obvious existences: that of organic self-organized life and of mind.

Dialectics: An Introduction

Hegel is a philosopher known for his difficulty and speculative depth, but finding a mere entry point from which to learn the system is itself a difficult endeavor when the most fundamental aspect of his system, his method, is obscure. I hope that this article accomplishes the aim of clarifying dialectics in a way that very few articles do. What I write here is in no way an original conception or secret knowledge. A few authors have written on this topic with clarity. However, these authors are not known in popular discourse, nor are their works the first to come up in a search engine inquiry. As such, I set my task here merely as a condensed exposition of dialectics for others in hopes of sparing them from what should not be a long arduous road just to reach the door. Credit, first and foremost, goes to Hegel himself, who despite all claims made to the contrary is not mysterious or secretive about his ‘method’ at all.

The So-Called ‘Method’

There truly is no such thing as dialectic as a method in the usual sense that people think of a method. Immanent (internal) critique is immanent critique, and insofar as Marx and Hegel engage in such an activity there is no difference, there is no ‘idealist’ or ‘materialist’ dialectical method. This is not to say there is no fundamental difference between Marxists and Hegelians, but that difference is certainly not dialectics themselves; not if Marx is using such a method as that which Hegel himself uses. I shall expand on this later on, but for now the focus shall be on dialectics as such.

What is often called ‘dialectical method,’ I must repeat, is a method that exists neither in Marx nor in Hegel like the likewise mythical scientific method of hypothesis-experiment-conclusion does not exist for science in general. There is no formula to this ‘logic’no set of rules to apply over and over. There is no {thesis-antithesis}-synthesis, nor {abstract-negative}-concrete. What is wrong with these formulas is not so much that they are just plain wrong, but that they serve to confuse the matter for someone who does not already know the logic of immanent critique. As a description of the process, the former is understandable to some degree, and the latter is even correct to a high degree in that it describes a pattern relation between the results produced. The issue, however, is that people generally don’t understand that these are mere descriptions and not the process itself. They conflate a processed result for the process that creates those results, and in thinking that dialectics is this description, they are led to misunderstand that the form that results is the method itself.

In one sense, one can look to Socratic/Platonic dialectic and its process of attempting to arrive at truth through a thorough and multifaceted inquiry into a concept by mutual interrogation between interlocutors demanding justification of claims by grounding in universal reason as a form of dialectical method akin to Hegel’s. In such dialectic, a knowledge claim is put through a gauntlet of merciless interrogation by reason from all available points of views in order that clarification by clarification those in conversation may come to agreement of the universal truth contained in the nebulous shadows of regular thought. In Plato’s dialogues, the most interesting of these concepts are those like truth itself, justice, the good, beauty, et cetera. Like these dialectical dialogues, Hegel’s dialectics involve multiple perspectives, a demand for coherence, and a demand for definitively final reasons.

Dialectics as a method is more properly understood as immanent critique, i.e. critical analysis of concepts/objects from within. This kind of analysis does not use any conceptual resources outside of its concept/object to critique it; it does not presuppose a form it must  conform to. By this, it is meant that one basically follows the train of thought set by the concept, the relations already within it, and those that it brings up of its own content and their relations. The content being investigated leads the investigation itself, and the immanent critic is more like a detective observing carefully for their suspect to justify or incriminate themselves, yet never once stepping in so that it remain clear to all that it was indeed all the suspect’s doing. In simplified terms, what is aimed at by such an analysis can be considered three things: testing coherency, testing stability, and testing for a claim to logical/material independence, in other words testing for a claim of being a coherent absolute.

Dialectics

That there is no dialectical method as a formula is not to deny that there are such things as dialectics. Dialectics is the plural of dialectic. This may seem like a strange or pedantic point, but it seems many do not understand this; most people speak of the dialectic or dialectics as the name and form of the method. These two uses of the term expand dialectics too far, and it is this expansion to the level of Hegel’s entire method and system which makes it become so general as to be meaningless. It is indeed true that dialectics drive the method and as such can be understood as the method in a way, but the method of Hegel does not presuppose dialectics as its motor, it discovers them in the content it investigates; dialectics are a result themselves. It is, therefore, best to be introduced to the method through the abstraction of the dialectical moment. By a dialectic it is to be understood that this must always mean a relation of inner contradiction, and only inner contradiction; dialectics are not about contradictions in general, but only these necessary inner contradictions.  For clarification’s sake, let us say that a dialectic is shorthand for a dialectical relationship. To think dialectically is to think in and through internal contradictions of concepts. I shall continue using the term concept exclusively as the object of dialectics because even material objects and activities are only intelligible as concepts which we think through to comprehend the world. I here offer a static definition of the moment of internal contradiction in Hegel’s method that can be termed dialectical.

Dialectical relationships: Such relations are of the kind of contradictory  concepts that in their meaning, or existence, necessarily presuppose and require their opposite. To have one is to have the other. To think through one leads to thinking of the other. To change one is to change the other. This is the famous unity of opposites dialectics is described as by many Marxists. Such ‘materialist’ relations are: {Worker—capitalist}; {[use-value]—[exchange-value]}; {material—ideal} etc. One may want to add here the so-called dialectic of {base—superstructure} of the young Marx, but this is in fact a false dialectic since no such immanent contradiction exists between these terms.

The worker and the boss have no meaning or existence without each other, and if you have one you know you have the other. The distinction of use-value and exchange-value requires that each presuppose the other in order to mean anything, i.e. what would it mean to consider products of labor to be use-values in an ahistorical categorial sense without the opposition to another value immanently contradictory to it? In material relations of this kind this means that a change in one is a change in its other, e.g. a change of one term may change an entire dynamic of relations by supplanting it with new terms, or that a change in relations may supplant terms with new ones—form and content are inseparable.

Now—if you’re a Marxist—you may wonder how this fits in with something like a commodity being dialectical. By this all that can be meant is that the thing/concept contains a dialectic as its content. This is much like a version of Hegel’s sublation term, a concept that cancels yet preserves a contradiction by suspending and mediating it to avoid the mortal problem of immediacy (according to most popular accounts of sublation anyway, not quite according to Hegel’s own use of the term), of unavoidable contradiction, what some take as a metaphor of a struggle to the death. This movement towards mediation, of avoiding contradictions, is one of the key elements in which Marx turns away from Hegel (I will deal with this specific difference in another blog post one day). Generally, ‘idealist’ dialectics are thought to be far more abstract ones such as {Being-Nothing}, but in truth Hegel gets very concrete and ‘materialist’ in certain dialectical chains.

This relation of inner contradiction, in a strict sense, is all that a dialectic can be as merely a moment of Hegel’s method. Hegel’s method is more than just the dialectics that arise, though they are central as moments to it. Whenever we are engaging in dialectics we know that we are dealing with the study of a plurality or series of dialectical relationships. The logical movement from one dialectic to another occurs, to our conscious perspective, by an inner analysis of these contradictory relationships, the inner development of one from the other and back again, and this very movement between concepts as a concept itself, is what pushes thought onward insofar as the analysis generates more concepts to continue. This movement of concepts, however, is not our subjective movement in thought, it is the movement of the concept itself, something that will become apparent in the examples. Why does thought move from dialectic to dialectic, contradiction to contradiction? The reason is simple: because they are contradictions.

In the sphere of thought the clash of contradiction forces thought to move of its own accord by the power of reason, the drive of thought to find ultimate reasons to ground itself, and insofar as a concept points itself to reasons within and beyond it it moves on. In the sphere of materiality contradiction manifests as clashing forces which in their relation and contact inherently destabilize by their very concept and nature. Dialectics may end in a constructive sublation or dissolution, the first the path of the dialectics of the Science of Logic, the latter the path of the dialectics of the Phenomenology of Spirit.

About Contradiction

The contradiction which dialectics deals with is often treated by many philosophers as if it is the contradiction which formal logic terms as the law of non-contradiction: A cannot be A and not-A at the same time, or A cannot be true and false at the same time, or, in the case of what Paul Redding calls the Aristotelian concept of contradiction in term logic,  A cannot instantiate a property/attribute and its opposite at the same time. Hegel does not deny any of these laws, but rather considers contradictions as multiple points of views on the same thing. Being and Nothing are indeed separate and different, yet they are each aspects (moments) of understanding the Absolute of which they form and are a part of, and thus they are also the same and united. Contradiction exists insofar as there are multiple and opposing positions from which things can be looked at and comprehended, and things can materially be only insofar as there really are different things in unity. When we think of A, yes, we really do think of A, it just so happens that the whole truth of A is also what A is not, its non-being, its opposite, and this too must be looked at and comprehended as part of A’s totality and ultimate truth. In order to think at all thought must develop through one sided determinations which define each side of A momentarily. A and not-A indeed cannot be thought at one single moment from one single perspective, but we can see that A and not-A are both aspects of A from different perspectives at different moments.

Dialectics and Thought

Dialectics are a result, yet though they are a result the structure of dialectical opposition is inherent to thought itself. In pure concepts Hegel believes he shows the immanent character of thought itself as dialectical. In thinking anything at all, even the abstraction of thought itself, we cannot help but think by and through reflexive difference which in pure form is direct opposition. The first dialectic of thought, pure abstract Being, cannot help but immediately move and grasp towards its opposition to attain determinate content. Pure Being and Nothing are there to show it is impossible to think without oppositional difference—all thought is already oppositional and determinate even in the most extreme indeterminacy, for indeterminacy is itself determinate as indeterminate. One may want to say it is the experience of our mind that cannot hold fast to a thought and that it is silly to say thought itself must move to opposition, but Hegel intends to show us that it is indeed a thought which necessarily moves and demands oppositional content, for a thought is only a thought in the opposition which makes it differentiated, determined, and therefore minimally defined. If a thought as concept is to be at all it must be determinate, already in any still moment calling forth from within itself the minimal requirement of its other which defines it as a thought at all. A thought is always already this specific thought and not another thought, never an empty universal abstraction. As thought is shown to be unable to hold fast to itself in one sided moments, it shows itself to be a thinking.

Immersive and Recollective Thinking

A slight note to make about the thinking which takes place in dialectics: there are two ‘modes’ or moments in which the thinking may be said to function, immersive and recollective. In the immersive mode of thinking one is engaged directly with the immediate content and form of what is being thought. For example, in thinking Being one is led to think of Nothing, and in thinking Nothing one is led to thinking Being. In this immersed mode, however, one is stuck forever bouncing from one thought to the other and back again endlessly. In the recollective mode of thinking one takes a step back from the immersed mode and looks upon its entire process structure as a whole—it is from this mode of thought that sublation often occurs. Stepping back from Being and Nothing, we see in their total system of movement the moment of vanishing which is called Becoming.

It is said by some that dialectical thinking is best learned by observing it in action, so here are three examples of a very basic level.

Example 1: Being And Nothing

A classical Hegelian dialectical development is the famous {Being-Nothing}-Becoming dialectic. Now, this dialectic is actually very different to what most will encounter regarding it; it is not as simple as this formula makes it seem. The full development of it is actually this:

1-logic-diagram-on-being-final
**Sublation: equally means “to keep,” “to ‘preserve’,” and “to cause to cease,” “to put an end to.” Something is sublated only insofar as it has entered into unity with its opposite; in this closer determination as something reflected, it may fittingly be called a moment. – Hegel, Science of Logic

Now to break it down, if such a thing as simplifying what Hegel calls the already absolute simple is possible.

In the Science of Logic, for reasons ultimately only fully explained by the path of the Phenomenology, we begin in pure abstraction and indeterminacy. The most bare and abstract indeterminacy we can think is the general form of pure Being for the indeterminacy we begin with is indeterminacy. The content, or definition, of pure Being is nothing. There is no definition one can give for pure Being which is universal and indeterminate. That which means everything can only mean nothing. If all things, say, are known and understood as “Apple,” there is nothing specific Apple means; as such, it is indeterminate, it has no definition, and it means Nothing. Nothing is the very thought we think in the indeterminacy of Being.

Pure Nothing, like pure Being, is indeterminate and has no definition to be given. Nothing, however, is this indeterminacy, and thus it is Being. Here the peculiarity of pure Being and Nothing arises before us as an indistinguishable content: pure Being and pure Nothing are both indeterminate in content, they have the same meaning. Being = indeterminateness = Nothing. But in the relation of Being, Nothing, and their indeterminate content, there is a further peculiarity: that of the strange contradiction of their form and content. Being has shown itself to have Nothing as its content. Its form, that of Being, is in contradiction to its content, that of indeterminateness, Nothing. Nothing, however, faces an inverse contradiction. Nothing is in harmony with its indeterminate content, but is in contradiction with its form, the form of Being, for if Nothing is the case, the truth of Being, then Nothing is Being. The contradiction of form and content cannot be escaped, there cannot be form without content or the inverse; Being and Nothing are immediately moving from one to the other as their form and content forces the movement in their very thought. We think Being, yet immediately it is supplanted by its indeterminateness as Nothing and vice versa.

A picture may help with understanding this movement. Attempt to picture a singularity, a dimensionless point which is all there is. What is within such point? Nothing, there is no being within or outside the singularity, the singularity is dimensionless, it is only itself immediately and without separation. Since pure Being peculiarly contains (means) Nothing, it points us to an interesting thought: Nothing is what makes Being what it is. Nothing, hence, has now been positioned by Being itself as that which is more fundamental than it. Being is not absolute, but it points to Nothing as a new candidate for absolute truth and it must be investigated. Continuing the analogy of a singularity, since Nothing is the content of Being, makes Being what it is, Nothing itself is in the form of Being. Pay close attention to that, Nothing is and it is in the form of Being. Nothing is in Being for it is its content, yet Being is nothing but the form of Nothing itself. Neither Being nor Nothing are absolute, they are utterly dependent on the other, yet they are not separate as others for they are a  unity of form and content that is indistinguishable. In fact, we find here something strange: Being and Nothing are one and the same concept in separate moments that merely appear separate. We may in a way want to see them as the form and content of one concept: the Being of Nothing. We know, however, that this is ridiculous and nonsensical. There is a real difference between Being and Nothing, they cannot be the same concept, we cannot accept the Being of Nothing as a valid concept since it is no concept at all, it is the mere empty tautology of indeterminacy. Being and Nothing immediately move to each other due to the contradiction of form and content which is immediate and forces an immediate logical move to the opposite concept. Is there something more that can be used to determine the difference of Being/Nothing in this immediate movement?

We see in this simple beginning of the Logic already arise the strange and irreducible dialectic of just these two simple concepts. Being is Nothing is Being is Nothing is… ad infinitum. Being and Nothing, in being thought, immediately (this is not temporal transition, but logical) transition into their opposite by either content or form. In transitioning Being disappears—Hegel calls this vanishing—into Nothing, and likewise Nothing vanishes into Being. This incessant immediate movement between Being and Nothing as a whole movement of vanishing is what Hegel calls Becoming. Becoming is the sublation of Being and Nothing for it is their immediate unity as vanishing. This, however, is not enough to make Becoming intelligible as a genuine concept. In fact, we must realize there is a problem with our beginning. If pure Being and Nothing are both indeterminate and lack definition, just how is it that we know they are different?  We have up to now merely assumed they are different because we intend to mean something different by each, yet in this pure indeterminate beginning we find no conceptual resource to make this intelligible in concept.

Being and Nothing vanish ceaselessly into each other, and this vanishing is Becoming. Two indeterminacies vanishing into each other, however, provides no content to define their relation. Hegel here reveals to us that this beginning which we made had been a false beginning, and laboriously spends 20 pages to convince us that there can truly be no such concept as pure Being or pure Nothing. The true beginning of the investigation is Becoming, for in Becoming we now have the first proper concept in which the difference of Being and Nothing can be made in conceptual definition. Because Being and Nothing have already shown themselves to comprise Becoming, even if  we don’t know what their difference really is, Becoming can shed light on our indeterminate Being/Nothing. Just as Being and Nothing were related as a contradiction of form and content which forces a movement into each other, now that we have Becoming a retroactive definition of Being and Nothing by considering this movement as moments of Becoming can be carried out. The movement of Being and Nothing into each other itself sheds light on the form and content of Being and Nothing themselves. In other words this is to say this: from pure indeterminacy we can and will literally lift indeterminate thought with its own bootstraps up into determinacy.

In Becoming we immediately can discern two parts, Hegel calls them moments, that comprise the definition of the concept of Becoming: Being vanishes to Nothing, it is Ceasing to Be (Being); Nothing vanishes to Being, it is Coming to be (Nothing). Both Ceasing/Coming to be are sublations, immediate unities of Being and Nothing on their own, hence they self-sublate and are in internal unity with their opposite, e.g. Being is its vanishing from Being to Nothing, it includes its opposite explicitly.

[Now, where did this new concept, sublation, come from? The answer is simple: from the content we have developed. Sublation is a concept describing the relation which the structure of Becoming has towards Being and nothing; it unites, cancels, and preserves them all at once.]

Being and Nothing are now differentiated by this simple definition as being inverse moments in Becoming. The problem of definition, of a content/form that is one and the same seems to be solved; we finally have Being, Nothing, and Becoming as definite concepts, or so it seems until we think further. Being and Nothing, defined now as Ceasing/Coming to be which comprise Becoming, show a new problem: they presuppose a further determinate difference of Being and Nothing. If Being and Nothing are merely Coming/Ceasing to be, then we see that we in fact have not made a true separation of Being and Nothing yet. Being is defined as its mere vanishing to Nothing, and Nothing the mere vanishing to Being. We have lost Being and Nothing as distinct concepts yet again, content and form forces the incessant vanishing of Coming/Ceasing to be into each other again. The immediate unity and indifference which made the indeterminate Being and Nothing a problem reappears only in a duplicated unity of vanishings of inverse order. What is the Nothing that Being vanishes into, and what is the Being that Nothing vanishes into? So far we have merely defined one vanishing in the process of vanishing into yet another vanishing, however, this cannot do, for this would make vanishing endure substantively and thus cease to be a vanishing. Through Becoming we determined (defined) Being and Nothing as moments, but now Becoming’s own moments are pointing us to Being and Nothing which lie outside Becoming as that which Becoming’s moments vanish into, yet as moments of Becoming Being and Nothing as Ceasing/Coming to be vanish. Being and Nothing vanish into what? Each other! Ceasing/Coming to be vanish into Nothing/Being. Becoming, because it is vanishing, vanishes itself into the background of Being and Nothing and leaves them in immediate unity once again.

Here, a marvelous conceptual move has occurred: Becoming, the vanishing of Being and Nothing, themselves determined in it only as inverse vanishings into each other, vanishes itself for it is vanishing. There is a possibility to err in this crucial movement, however, and what follows is why. Ceasing/Coming to be assume Being and Nothing to be distinct and separate in order to be vanishing into each other, but Being and Nothing in Becoming are nothing but vanishings into each other ceaselessly, but since Ceasing/Coming to be have vanished the distinction between Being and Nothing which they vanish into, now we see that this vanishes Being and Nothing themselves, and Ceasing/Coming to be vanish along with them. If Being and Nothing, which Ceasing/Coming to Be depend on to be at all, have vanished in general,  then the result of Becoming is a vanishing of the vanishing, but it returns us back to pure Nothing and brings us back to the transition of Becoming again.

Pure Being’s content pointed to pure Nothing, and there it can be seen that there is no escape, no denying of Being or Nothing, for they are a necessary form/content to each other, likewise in Becoming there is no escape from denying Being and Nothing for they are the necessary contents for Becoming. The moments of Becoming point to the solution of their vanished distinctions by presupposing the distinction of Being and Nothing. Ceasing/Coming to be now carry out their full movement as vanishings: in Ceasing to be Being vanishes to Nothing; in Coming to be Nothing vanishes to Being. The vanishings complete and vanish themselves away into what they have Become. It is the truth of Becoming that it become and vanish itself into Being and Nothing that has each become. The vanishing of Being and Nothing has vanished, they are now a stable unity of distinct yet immediately united concepts. Being and Nothing now have distinct content, if only in that they became in inverse of each other, but now recall that Being and Nothing shared one other aspect: their form; both have the form of Being. Being and Nothing both are.

Once more Being and Nothing inherently relate, no longer as vanishing forced by their form/content contradiction, but as that which has become into the two stable concepts. What is their relation now? They are beings in immediate unity, beings which are in virtue of their not being the other. This is a unity that is, and as such the unity of Being/Nothing has the form of Being itself. Now at last we have a Being  whose being is the immediate unity of Being with a non-being (Nothing), i.e. a Being whose being is in virtue of its non-being. This new Being is the vanishedness of Becoming, for the vanishing has vanished itself into the background—this, however, is not a disappearance of Becoming, far from it. Think closely on what Becoming is, the vanishing transition between Being and Nothing, and you shall see an interesting truth: the transitioning differences and identities of all things are Becomings. At the edge of conception where this new Being/Nothing resulting from Becoming are is Becoming itself, the moment where we find that a Being has immanent contact with its Nothing.

Becoming’s inner movement’s vanishing has revealed a strange yet undeniable truth following from the logical movements that have developed thus far: Being and Nothing are one and the same, they are inseparable,  and they truly are different. Both Being and Nothing are ( they are the same);  both have Being. Now we can see Being is a being with a non-being, a Being with negation, and this negation is nothing other than another Being itself in its own right (they are different). Being is an immediate unity of beings which negate each other in virtue of being two beings which are not each other (they are inseparable). The entire development from Being/Nothing to the moments of Becoming have not been falsehoods or misunderstandings at all; on the contrary, they have further revealed the pieces to the baffling puzzle we started with and now allow us to further make sense of just how all of these aspects of Being and Nothing can be true. What vanishes in Becoming is also an incomplete concept of Being and Nothing as radically incommensurable concepts that cannot define themselves without transitioning into the other, and the resultant vanishedness makes way to the first real concept of Being: a Being with a non-Being as part of its being. 

As Hegel explains in the text, the absolute basic form of determination (definition) is negation, of Being which is negated. What negates Being? Nothing. But what is Nothing? A Being itself, but a being that is the non-being of the first Being. This unity of Being and Nothing is basic Determinate Being, or, general Existence. This is the first concept in which we can finally begin to think about  definable Being(s), however, there is at this point no difference between the determinateness of Being, and Being itself. Determinateness is, and Being is determinate. The contradiction of form/content forces thought’s movement onwards.

The form of the path of relations which pure Being has traversed, its dialectical development, is unique to itself. If one attempts to impose the form of relations which pure Being develops on its way to Existence one shall be terribly mistaken for Existence has its own peculiar form of development, one which is not unlike a hall of mirrors reflecting its content and form as multiple determinations of determinateness itself.

As to what this development of abstract concepts becoming more determinate, or concrete, is necessary for… I’ll leave that to your curiosity.

Example 2: The Commodity

A classical Marxian analysis is the commodity-{(use-value)-(exchange-value)} dialectic. A commodity, as an already empirically given and determinate concept, contains within it a tense contradiction between two concepts of value in the economic sphere: use-value, what we desire a commodity for in use, and exchange-value, what we can trade or exchange it for. How do we know that commodities contain these two concepts? Because they are necessary presuppositions for commodities to serve the actual economic role they do, that is, the meaning of a commodity is to be a use-value with exchange-value. A commodity is something which someone has a use or need for, but which has no use for its holder other than to exchange for what they need. Notice also that a commodity necessarily implies a plurality of commodities, for in order to exchange it requires another commodity to relate to it. Implied in use-value, due to exchange-value, is the plurality of qualitative commodities, for one does not trade a quality for the same quality and quantity. 

These two values cannot be had at the same time. If we want the use-value we must give up the exchange-value and vice versa. The consuming aspect of the market wants use-value, the selling side wants exchange value. Not only do commodities presuppose their own inner relation of value, but they presuppose the social structure of private property and the institution of right, as well as a system of social dependency in which persons are in need of the commodities of others while others are in need of the commodities which they hold, and thus they are driven to the agreement of exchange to satisfy their needs. Quite a lot is presupposed in the mere concept of commodities, and quite a lot follows from its own specific development as the category of economic value.

Let us develop this concept of the commodity further. Commodities are use-values which can exchange for other use-values. In the relation of different qualities and quantities, however, how is this very exchange intelligible? If the direct substances and quantities in the exchange are themselves not directly comparable, a third term must be in operation in the relation which is equal; this third term is the concept of value. However, let us recall the plurality of quality use-values available for exchange and we realize we have not yet exhausted the thinkable relations! We can relate one commodity to many and see one and the same value manifest in different qualities and quantities at once in the relative form of value (1 coat=20 linen; 10 carrots; 1 pound of iron etc.). From that relative form not only do we see one value capable of manifesting as multiple qualities and quantities, but we also grasp that one of the forms can be used to stand in to represent the value of all others in its own quality and quantity, and where do we end? With the appearance of the universal commodity form which directly embodies value in itself, a use-value of exchange-value itself, for all others to measure against as money.

The development goes on from there.

Example 3: Freedom of Speech

An example of a simple yet concrete analysis of this kind is an article I wrote on the concept of free speech. A simple summary of the analysis is that free speech is contradictory in its idea and its reality. Free speech, as a right, upon analysis leads us to ask what kind of speech actually enacts its condition of protection, and we find it is only dissenting speech of those in minorities or outside the status quo power that actually falls under the need of such a protection of speech. Insofar as one speaks things in the acceptable range of popular or power discourse there is no need for protection. The analysis moves forward and questions why speech, mere words, should give ground for censorship at all.

One finds that speech is not mere words, hot air, but is also activity with practical purpose to convey messages, to create responses and actions. This action related aspect of speech is what censorship aims to stop. If speech were mere words nobody should ever fear speech, but speech has actual capacity to be a force that moves people to action, and action in the social sphere means real struggle for changing the dominant power and the structures of power themselves. Free speech as it is known in the west only protects dissenting speech as mere words, but it does not and cannot protect dissenting speech that aims to make action to change the status quo fundamentally.

Free speech in the end does not concern itself with speech as a medium of social activity at all, only mere words spoken to the wind. This is the contradiction: we are free to say what we want insofar as it doesn’t lead to undesired results to the status quo. Free speech, when it is claimed to exist, only exists as empty speech for those who need it most, mere words in the wind with no power, no capacity to make movement happen. This is why being a socialist during most of the last century was grounds for censorship and even imprisonment in the US, because there was a real danger that socialist speech would be a force and spark a revolution if ignored. There is nothing more dangerous than ideas of dissent in a time where critical minds provide fertile soil to push contradictions to breaking points of action. Free speech, as such, is not an absolute right and exists within limitations of social and legal context.

That free speech is contradictory as a concept is, however, not to imply that dissenters cannot leverage it to their advantage, indeed in reality many people successfully do so precisely because the state apparatus, though it is a tool of the ruling class, is not a conscious machine of perfect repression. An important point about this contradiction, however, is that as dissidents against capitalism we will ultimately lose this card to stay the hand of the ruling class and will have to openly fight to regain and reassert this freedom in a new society.

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As can be seen, the moments of abstraction-negation-concretion more or less show up, but this formulation is itself a dead abstraction that can tell us nothing about how to carry out a dialectical investigation and understanding of any subject matter. Dialectics are uniquely determined in form by their content, and their content by their form. No half baked idea the likes of an abstract unity of opposites such as the eternal unity of Yin and Yang, good and evil, light and darkness, being and nothing, etc. can pass itself off as a dialectical comprehension of the united terms. Only the penetrating power of reason focused on conceptual purity and holding steadfast to a development of a concept from its inner structure can properly make intelligible why such terms are inextricably united at all, and what could logically follow from their contradictory unity.

As Becoming shows, it is a myth that Becoming is the resultant sublation of Being and Nothing, it is the real first step as a sublation that transitions into Being and Nothing in unity which then sublate Becoming as a unity. The path from Being and Nothing through Becoming back to Being and Nothing is a conceptual ride that requires focus and patience to think through in order to comprehend how these ontological categories relate to each other, and what they mean in themselves.

For a broader overview of Hegelianism I suggest that one read James Kreines‘ articles, available online, and also to check out Richard Dien Winfield’s various lectures on Hegel’s works. Andy Blunden, a Marxist, provides some very good essays concerning the use of the Logic and dialectics for ‘materialist’ purpose. Hegel’s Philosophical Development by Richard Kroner is a great overview essay covering Hegelianism’s genesis, aims, and structure.