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.


If this introduction is too confusing due to technicality, perhaps my beginner’s introduction is more helpful.


Table of Contents:

Dialectics
Speculation
Negativity
Contradiction
Dialectics and Thought
Examples

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. This is not to say there is no method. What I mean to say, however, is that unlike the common understanding of what a method is, such that one merely has to follow the generally right form and steps and apply to content, Hegel’s method is no such thing. The first thing to do before considering this method, however, is to rid ourselves of this common notion of method as a correct general formula as helpful regarding what Hegel writes. There is a form we may give as description of method, but this will unfortunately prove a useless thing when it comes to being capable of thinking as Hegel does.

Concerning what we may properly term dialectical in Hegel at all we may more clearly begin with calling the method of dialectics as such immanent (internal) critique, but this is not the entire method which Hegel employs. 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 and speculation (Hegel’s term for the reasoning which follows after the dialectical contradiction moment) which is commonly reduced to the name dialectics and thus confused to be really only about dialectics (immanent critique). As a description of the process, the former formula 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 Hegel’s method and dialects are these descriptions 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. These multiple perspectives engage each other not simply in an attempt to supplant each other as the definitive truth, but to constructively come together as differences that may reveal themselves to be compatible, for they contain aspects of truth even if one-sided and incomplete. 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—not Hegel’s method as a whole—is properly to be 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. Immanent critique, however, only reveals the success or failure of meeting these demands, but does not and cannot provide for the advance beyond the moment of failure revealed in a dialectic.

Beyond the immanent critique of concepts is the speculative thinking which turns dialectical thinking itself into an object of inquiry. Speculation makes the turn beyond a dialectic, enables the sublation (the cancelling/suspending/preserving of the contradiction) of it, and is the advance towards a new dialectic. Hegel’s method thus advances through immanent critique and speculation as necessary moments.

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. Now, regarding ‘the dialectic’, what is often meant by this is actually not incorrect if we mean it in the Platonic dialectic sense, however, this is almost universally confused with dialectics in the very specific sense of contradiction which they have as a moment in Hegel. This equivocating confusion of the term expands 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. Because of this confusion, dialectics from here on is specifically concerning the second technical meaning of contradictory opposition. It is indeed partly 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 nor are they the entirety of it. The method discovers dialectics 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. This aspect of dialectics regarding thinking must be emphasized, for as mentioned earlier in the comparison to Platonic dialectic, there is a kind of moving discourse going on between the concepts caught in their immanent relation. A Hegelian dialectic is not a dialectic in merely being seen in their immanent contradiction, but is a dialectic also in the Platonic sense in that it is also a moving developing inner discourse of concepts such that they cannot help but become their opposite and their opposite become them and back again. This active and moving dialectic is best seen rather than described, and that shall be done in the examples later in this article. For now, 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, for insofar as anything is intelligible it is conceptual and it is its concept alone which we can elaborate in universal structure.

I here offer a static definition of the moment of internal contradiction in Hegel’s method that can be termed dialectical. Here I must emphasize this is only a moment, for as mentioned already dialectics include the movement of these contradictory ideas, but here I first want to deal with the static appearance of a dialectic prior to exposing its movements.

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, necessarily develop into each other in the thinking of their concept, 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, for 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 which necessitates pointing out the difference? 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 important as moments to it. While from the standpoint of dialectics alone we do not get anywhere other than contradiction insofar as we remain within the dialectic’s content, whenever we are engaging in Hegel’s method as a whole and make the speculative step 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 merely our subjective movement in thought such as one imagines in a mere arbitrary given definition, but is the movement of an objective concept structure itself, something that will become apparent in the examples. Why does thought move from dialectic to dialectic, contradiction to contradiction? The basic reason is simple: because insofar as we are thinking them we cannot stop thinking until they are fully rationalized, that is, until there is nothing left to think.

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.

Speculation/Recollection

Mentioned earlier, after dialectics comes speculation. Dialectics corresponds to a mode of thinking which in German Idealism has a specific technical name: understandingIt is with this mode of thinking which immanent critique is carried out to its final limit in dialectical self-contradiction merely by what originally seems a simple analysis determining the specificity of a concept. This is self-contradiction because the concepts investigated undermine themselves and fall into their opposite in content and form in being thought through, but in reflection this opposite appears as nothing but what we began with and thus is a self-opposition as well. Against the analytic thinking of understanding, speculation is a turn upon the process and product of the understanding—the dialectic as a whole—which takes as its object the thinking of the dialectic itself. For example: in the paradox of Being and Nothing’s assumed difference yet content/form identity, we find that the impasse of this would-be dialectic is overcome by turning to the movement occurring in the relation of these thoughts to each other, turning it into a thought as Becoming, and returning to understanding in order to differentiate it through analysis.

One can consider these as two ‘modes’ or moments in which the thinking of Hegel’s method may be said to function: immersive (understanding) and recollective (speculative). 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 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 reflects on what has been thought before, one looks upon its entire process structure as a whole—it is from this mode of thought that sublation is realized. Stepping back from Being and Nothing, we see in their total system of movement the moment of vanishing which is called Becoming, and understanding analyses it into its parts as Coming and Ceasing to be.

The Source of Dialectics: Negativity

Since I assume the reader here to be curious, let it be revealed that one of the mysteries regarding the why of dialectics is the power of negativity in thought. Thought, in order to be thought, is a movement we call thinking—thought is thinking, a substance and an activity. Thinking is the self-negating power of thought. It has such an absolute negative power that it can even negate the seemingly unnegatable: itself (thinking of thinking turns thinking into frozen thought). It appears uniquely at the level of a Concept as a negation of negation, absolute-negativity, that determines itself in opposition to itself and negates all external determination.

It is negativity which is the moving and determining power which generates all movement, logical and empirical. Negativity, however, is more than the mere moment of negation, for negativity both generates positive affirmations as much as negative ones (determinate negation)—what thoughts and things are as much as what they are not; their unity and their diremption. The very having of a determinate thought or object whatsoever is an immediate instance of immanent negation as well as affirmation: things are themselves through not being others, yet they themselves are but mere others to others in their immanence, and thus other to themselves. One gets strange situations in which seeming nonsense is concluded in pure contradictions if we merely stop at the immediacy of a stated contradiction without the thinking that moves it.

Negativity is, one may say in not too bad an analogy, activity. This activity, however, is, and it is immanently linked to its substance while itself raising itself as another substance by difference to its first. Such absolute negativity, the moment it turns its activity onto itself, petrifies the activity it has already carried out into inert Being, e.g. thinking necessarily turns itself into thought the moment it reflects upon itself just like Becoming turning on itself petrifies into Existence; absolute movement against itself does not move. In the Science of Logic, for example, we begin with Being without any determination to define it. Being then is an object of thinking which as thinking provides Nothing  as the thought of its empty thinking.

Negativity is so absolute that it can negate itself, and thus we have the negation of negation (the dialectic of the understanding, which Hegel terms negative cognition) and positively affirms it in the speculative sublation. Because negativity is internal and constitutive of thought itself, in the movement of thinking it appears as a reflexivity of thoughts which in being themselves already have gone beyond themselves (negation), and in going beyond themselves only return to themselves in this free movement of thinking (negation of negation). This reflexivity in activity is seen in Being. Being is Nothing, it is not just substance, but a substantive negativity, for Nothing is not being like Being, but the active being of Being—in order to be itself Being Nothings itself in its thinking. This Nothing, however, itself is as this very activity. Not only is this reflexivity seen in the immediate immanent negation of thought such as with Being and Nothing’s self-undermining, but also as the transcendental jump reflexive upon the whole thought process itself such as what is seen in the move to Becoming when one looks upon the thinking of Being and Nothing as a whole.

This shall be expanded in another blog post in the future, but for now it hopefully suffices superficial curiosity on why dialectics come to be at all in pure thinking, and why thought moves.

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 of 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 as a result of what it is in thinking. 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. As mentioned in the section on negativity above, thinking engages thoughts to be what it truly is: the expansion of content which is merely static on the surface. Thought is a seed which is watered by thinking and which grows into its full content development.

The first dialectic of thought, pure abstract Being, cannot help but immediately move and grasp towards its opposition to attain determinate content when its being is engaged by thinking. That is to say: Being is what it is—it is the concept that it is—only in being thought through. Pure Being and Nothing are there to show it is impossible to think without oppositional difference—all thought is already oppositional in the very difference of thought and thinking. 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 generates opposition. To believe that thoughts do not do this is likely from misunderstanding that Hegel implies that thoughts are not only in the thinking of minds, and it certainly seems like a weird claim if we consider thoughts as if they were disembodied other-beings to our minds.

Within the Logic it is we who think the thoughts within it, but why would we want to say that it is not we who think these thoughts rather than that thoughts think themselves? Since the logic regards absolute thinking of absolute thoughts, the standpoint of thinking we take cannot be an external one to what we are thinking, i.e. as concepts of the absolute these thoughts necessarily subsume us as thinkers into their structure and movement. We cannot be opposing ourselves to these thoughts as if they were external to us or we external to them, we must instead enter them and ourselves become the thinking of these thoughts—that is precisely what work of the logic is about. Since we give up our external reflective standpoint on thoughts, no longer thinking in the manner of ‘Being means this or that for me‘,  but instead engage thinking as the structure and movement it actually is (Being is immediacy, Nothing is absence, Becoming is their movement, etc.), then it makes perfect sense to say that this is the thought’s doing as much as it is mine, there is no difference. There is another sense in which thoughts think themselves in that the forms of thought in the world are ‘concepts’ independent of us, structures of unity which exist are as they do, but are not recognized as concepts without our cognition of them.

Thought is also oppositional in that it is determinate even in the most extreme indeterminacy, for indeterminacy is itself determinate against determinacy itself. 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 abstraction. As thought is shown to be unable to hold fast to itself in one-sided moments if it is to be intelligible, it shows itself to be a thinking.

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. Here, hopefully, the activity of dialectic shall become apparent in the movements.

Example 1: Becoming, Being and Nothing

The dialectic of Being is very visible when it comes to being given an example of dialectics online, many cite this rather short and dense dialectic to give a typical thesis-antithesis-synthesis example, but nothing could be further from the truth. The true order of the dialectic is not {Being-Nothing}-Becoming, but rather it is the inverse order. Becoming is intelligibly prior to Being and Nothing in their abstract forms, and it is the latter concepts that sublate Becoming as a unity of Existence (Determinate Being). In order to make intelligible how it is possible that Being and Nothing can become each other, we must consider them as they arise from Becoming rather than consider Becoming’s arising from them.

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. – Hegel, Science of Logic

[Comment:] 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.

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 (hence it is truly Ceasing to be), it includes its opposite explicitly and negates itself into it from within itself. [Ceasing to be] in itself becomes [Coming to be] and vice versa immediately, thus we have Ceasing to be (Being) and Coming to be (Nothing) transitioning in themselves simultaneously and immediately.

They have already been each other, and thus paralyze each other in their restlessness; this paralysis is the paralysis of Becoming as a whole being both of its moments at once. The moment they become the other they immediately are themselves again. This is to say: Being, in becoming Nothing, is merely itself again. In Becoming [Ceasing to be] and [Coming to be] do not happen such that we have one first, then the second and back again, but instead we have both together at the same moment as distinct moments which are also indistinct as both moments are Becoming itself in themselves. This is to say: Each moment of Becoming is already the totality of Becoming itself.

Being and Nothing are now differentiated by this simple definition as being inverse moments in Becoming. There is a problem, now clear, in that their difference has been collapsed by their definition. Being and Nothing, defined now as Ceasing/Coming to be which comprise Becoming, show another 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, content and form forces the incessant vanishing of Coming/Ceasing to be into each other and erases their distinction in regard to each other. 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 vanishing must vanish into the components that vanish.

[Comment:] As an external reflection, it is also a curious contradiction if vanishing is ceaseless and thus enduring. It would be like a restlessness which is at rest in restlessness. Becoming, in being what it is, would itself be, thus unending vanishing is the opposite of itself. The paralysis of Becoming is itself a tell of what Becoming in truth is.

Through Becoming we determined (defined) Being and Nothing as moments, but now Becoming’s own moments are pointing us to Being and Nothing which are beyond Becoming as that which Becoming’s moments vanish into. As moments of Becoming, Ceasing/Coming to be vanish. Into what? Being and Nothing. Becoming, because it is vanishing, vanishes itself into the background of Being and Nothing and leaves them in immediate unity once again, but just because Becoming has vanished into the background does not mean it no longer plays a role, far from it. But, you may wonder, how does this release us from falling back into Becoming when Being and Nothing were just Ceasing/Coming to be?

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. There are a few ways that Hegel gives us to comprehend this.

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, and thus seems to just cancel everything by contradiction, return us to Nothing, and lead us back to Becoming again. If there is an advance, the result cannot be Nothing, but how do we make sense of Becoming’s vanishing in this seeming contradiction? One must not be surprised that Hegel’s contradiction is not here intended to function as formal contradiction and abstract negation. It’s actually functioning like mathematical negative multiplication.

The answer from the text is, if I may say, cheeky. It’s a literal consideration relying on key terms and phrases. Ceasing to be and Coming to be vanish, and in their vanishing Becoming vanishes. That is to say, their function is to vanish vanishing, to negate the negative, and thus they are the positive. Ceasing/Coming to be are Being and Nothing, for it is Being/Nothing which vanish Becoming. This is the immanent tell of the transition. If we wanted to make a reflective comprehension of the transition we would need nothing more than to note the function of vanishing, i.e. vanishings role is to vanish into stable elements, not to endure, thus Becoming must play out is function and becomes Being and Nothing. Notice that the becoming of Becoming, of vanishing vanishing, is stable resting elements of thought.

[Comment:]Notice too that this self-relating of Becoming in order to advance beyond itself is precisely following Hegel’s logic: we must exhaust all possible relations of thought from analysis, reflexive self-operation, and of implicit functionWhenever we run into a conceptual wall we must exhaust all the possibilities of thinking a thought by using all possible relations and operations thinking is capable of making with said thoughts. If it is possible and intelligible, then we must do it.

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. The vanishing of Being and Nothing has vanished, they are now a stable unity of distinct yet immediately united concepts. Being and Nothing are not fully separate distinctions, but instead keep the truth of Becoming: they are unseparated and thus one and the same in this unseparation, yet both are and thus are distinct in their unity. The result of Becoming is a unity of Being/Nothing, and thus this unity is. We now have a higher level of Being—Existence.

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, its negation. Thus, Existence sublates Being, Nothing, and Becoming.

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, and the resultant vanishedness makes way to the first real concept of Being as Existence.

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 Becoming 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 only the negative dialectical analysis of the understanding is an blog I once 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.

The limits of free speech may make it seem weak, and its contradictions may make it seem like a useless practice and concept in all, but it is the reality of it. There is more to be said about it, but that shall suffice here.

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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.

We may easily say of Hegel’s method correct formulations of its general movements and result structures. {Abstract-negative}-concrete is correct. We can easily describe the movement also as one of {positing-understanding}-speculating, and we may describe it as {thought-thinking}-thinking of thinking thought. No matter how correct our description, however, it is for the intents of reading Hegel almost useless. I say almost because I do realize there is a value in at least providing the formulation as a springboard to then lead a direct dive into the actual thinking.

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.

 

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8 thoughts on “Dialectics: An Introduction

  1. Excellent! Very succinct and dead-on presentation here, that I think can be quite useful for others. Thanks for producing it.

    Will share this a bit later on with my own Hegel-focused students and patrons!

    Like

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