Logic of Being and Nothing: A False Start

This is a reworking of my exposition from September 2016. In a recent rereading (2017), I had a significant enough interpretation that I have decided to rewrite most of the exposition.

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 intelligible prior to Being and Nothing, and it is the latter concepts that sublate Becoming as a unity in Existence (Determinate Being).

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

Whence does the misunderstanding of the very first dialectic of the Science of Logic come? Mostly from not actually reading it, but secondly from the fact that the beginning we make in it is necessarily a false beginning whose explanation arises in the logic of Essence (Hegel says as much in Remark 3, p.74-75 Cambridge trn.). Since a true exposition of the dialectic of Being and Nothing is impossible at the beginning if we are not to presuppose the contents of Being and Nothing, Hegel must find the way to get us into a proper immanent dialectic by way of a mix of an immanent moment and then an external dialectic of reflection to supplement an unexplained intended distinction. We make the distinction of Being and Nothing in the act of thinking the thoughts, but conceptually this is itself something we cannot articulate in immanent conceptual terms, for the immediacy of the concepts cannot articulate a difference of the immediacy of each. To articulate the difference at this logical point is the work of reflection which here concerns the subjective thinking that notices and picks particular features of concepts as an external thought to them instead of an immanent content they reveal of their own account. External reflections are not necessarily false judgments, but they are logically unwarranted.

This causes confusion since we are expected to lose ourselves in the investigation without resistanceto buy into it wholesaleyet we are at odd moments poked by Hegel to awaken to the fact that what we’re doing is falling for a trick. This trick, however, is a necessity for positioning us for the dialectic which Hegel really wants to show, but which he cannot insofar as we are the reader he expects to think in common manners of understanding. The structure of genuine science demands beginning in immediacy, and Being/Nothing are indeed the only candidate concepts fit for this beginning. There is a legitimate movement from the pure immediacy of Being and Nothing, and it is not that different from what Hegel explains, but it is different from how it first appears. The issue with Hegel’s beginning is its treatment of the problem from the standpoint of common understanding, and thus the use of speculative propositions instead of a pure exposition of the thought and thinking necessary for the real movement.

Skip to the legitimate movement of Being/Nothing

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

Being and Nothing: A False Beginning

In the Science of Logic, for reasons ultimately only fully explained by the path of the Phenomenology, we begin in a pure immediacy of thought such that it appears to us as an absolute abstraction and indeterminateBeing is the most immediate of all concepts for it lacks all mediation to it: all thoughts as concepts are and thus appear to be in fact mediated by Being which is itself absolutely simple and non-analyzable. This Being is not to be thought in contradistinction to anything at all, for that would bring in mediation into its concept. It is not Being in contradistinction to Nothing nor to beings, and it is not even to be determined as indeterminate at all from its own standpoint for such would be a determinacy making the concept non-absolute and mediated. It is in this absoluteness of Being that the terms pure and indeterminate are used. It is not to say anything positive about it, but rather to disabuse us of the desire to think anything about it which assumes there is anything already beyond it to make any distinctions. Being is indeterminate to the degree that indeterminacy is not even a positive determination that can be made about it; it is meant to empty any determination whatsoever from consideration. This concept is all that we have access to as content to think through.

[Comment:] Following the structure of Hegelian science as an immanent development of concepts from abstraction to concreteness, we begin with the concept of Being as the first step of the the investigation of logic. At the beginning, however, this method of science is unjustified and unexplained and indeed cannot be justified or explained, for such would be to presuppose a method before the method is justified. Instead, Hegel tells us that the best he can do to persuade us of our starting point is that we should endeavor to start with something which we can only build up and thus not fall trap to having problematic presuppositions and unjustified concepts underlying our investigation such as what would be the case if we simply decided to begin somewhere more complex or advanced such as in syllogisms, concepts, essences, or what have you.

In thinking Being, we find that the content, or definition, of pure Being is an absence of content, for there is nothing to distinguish Being with and thus nothing to think in its thought. One must take this train of thought literally. In thinking Being we have nothing to think. Nothing is the very thinking we carry out in the indeterminacy of Being. In attempting to think Being, we have in this thinking thought nothing, and in turning towards our thinking in a recollective noticing, we here turn this empty thinking into a thought itself. Hence, we now have the concept of Nothing. The difference from the thought of Being is made upon the thinking of Being, the unfolding of its content, and the result of the thinking of this thought as something different from this initial thought. This can be taken as the difference between a form and content which in designating content as different from form takes content itself as another form. This is a jump Hegel can make through his method of speculation, for in speculation, we can think about thinking and thus make it into a thought. Hence, the thinking of nothing at all is transformed into Nothing. We have thus generated out of Being the concept of Nothing as the concept which notes the absence of any content in Being—contentlessness, an empty thinking, has itself been transformed by thinking into a content.

Nothing, like Being, is equally devoid of any determinacy, and has no content to distinguish from anything else, and as such must not be thought as Nothing in contradistinction to Being—it is pure Nothing alone. Hegel points out that:

In so far as mention can be made here of intuiting and thinking, it makes a difference whether something or nothing is being intuited or thought. To intuit or to think nothing has therefore a meaning; the two are distinguished and so nothing is (concretely exists) in our intuiting or thinking. (Science of Logic)

Drawing from the common notion of nothing as a determinate opposition to something, Hegel points out that 1) Nothing has a specific meaning different from Being in its common conception, and 2) that in the determinate difference Nothing is is (exists) and therefore itself partakes in Being. While if we think Nothing we find we go nowhere else and do not return to Being as many who retell this movement think, the form of Being can be reflected onto Nothing and be used as a trick to get us back to Being. If, for example, in thinking Being we do so in the phrase “Being is..,” in thinking Nothing we likewise use the phrase “Nothing is…,” and in reflection can realize we make a performative contradiction by doing so; thus, we get flung back to Being via the ‘is’.

This reflection of “Nothing is,” however, is an external return to Being rather than an immanent one of the content. If we remain in the immanence of content the movement looks like:

Being is Nothing. Nothing is Nothing.

From where do we get ‘Nothing is’? By reflecting on the form of Nothing, which as a thought is. There is no logical rule which stops us from noticing the application of a concept to another, and Being/Nothing do apply to each other in our common meaning. This is an illegitimate movement, however, for here Hegel calls upon Existence, a unity of Being and Nothing, to make this judgement of Nothing, and we have no logical access to Existence at this point.  In that Nothing partakes in Being through its existence, Nothing can be said to be.

A further illegitimacy in this whole movement is the using of a subjective intention which is external to logic in order to split Being and Nothing as different. What Being and Nothing mean is not differentiated by concept, but by intention which sets them as opposite, so we do not have any logical basis for the distinction. We intend something different from Being by Nothing, but what this difference is cannot yet be articulated with our conceptual tools, for neither Being nor Nothing admit to any content that could differentiate them since that would bring determinacy to them.

When we attempt to think Nothing, we think the same thought as Being in the same lack of content. Nothing is Being in this equivalence of indeterminacy. While we may externally reflect upon them with categories such as form and content to speak of their dialectical movement such that Being’s content is Nothing and Nothing’s form is Being, we cannot yet do so immanently for that would be to make determinations of them when they admit to no such determinacy within themselves. Neither Being nor Nothing admit to having the determination of content or form, but rather attempt to present themselves as absolute.

Here the peculiarity of pure Being and Nothing arises before us as an indistinguishable content: Being and Nothing are both indeterminate in content, they have the same lack of meaning, and it is only in this absence of determinacy that they are here one and the same. Being = indeterminateness = Nothing. A distinction has arisen which is as of yet no conceptual distinction other than an intended difference, an intention with which so far we cannot even properly determine a difference in form with the content denied to us. We cannot say in what Being and Nothing are to be related as similar or different, only that we treat them as distinct in our intention pointing them out as separate concepts.

[Comment:] Hegel gives an example concerning this lack of intelligible content in a pictorial form of light, darkness, and sight. Just as we cannot see anything in pure light any more than in pure darkness, the same goes for our inability to think anything in pure Being and Nothing. As far as the relation of penetrating into content goes (seeing and light/dark, thinking and concept) both are empty. The distinction with Being/Nothing, however, is more radical than even light and darkness, for light and darkness at least have an experiential sensuous difference in relation to each other, but Being and Nothing have not even that, their difference is only intended.

Now, concerning the reflection of the dialectic of Being and Nothing as that of form and content: Being has shown itself to have Nothing as its content. Its form, that of Being, is in contradiction to its content, a contentless Nothing. Nothing, however, faces an inverse contradiction. Nothing is in harmony with its contentlessness, but is in contradiction with its form, the form of Being, for if Nothing is, then Nothing is Being. Further, Nothing is not simply the content result of thinking Being, but is itself a form intended to be distinguished and opposed to Being. Being and Nothing can be seen as immediately moving from one to the other as their form and content forces the movement in their very thought. This seems to make sense of the dialectic, but this is not actually what Hegel has for us here at the beginning as what is to be thought in the content itself (this is more the case for Nothing), hence it is an external reflection to turn Nothing back to Being at this point.

We find here something strange: Being and Nothing appear to be one and the same concept in separate moments that merely appear separate in our intention. 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. We know we at least intend a real difference between Being and Nothing, they cannot be the same concept, and 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 and it also denies the distinction we intend to make. Nonetheless, though we intend the difference we have so far no way to even conceptualize the distinction and keep it from collapsing. Is there something more that can be used to determine the difference of Being/Nothing in this immediate movement?

Against the common understanding of Hegel, let this be clear: Being and Nothing are not a genuine dialectic, for they are not real concepts in this beginning, at least not as Hegel has carried it out. Being and Nothing are one and the same only because they have the same indeterminate content in an intended difference that has two concepts that lack any determination in relation to themselves and to each other. Being and Nothing, in being thought, immediately (this is not temporal transition, but logical) transition to their opposite through an immanent thinking and then an external reflection, but are one and the same only in their lack of content being compared in the proposition “Being and Nothing are one and the same.”

This is actually not secret. Hegel tells us this in the paragraph right before he finally dives into the logical investigation. We derived Nothing from the thinking of Being,  the thinking of nothing at all, turned this thinking into another concept, and take this as something else rather than falling back into Being. Having made a distinction with logical warrant (Nothing is a legitimate speculative result from Being), we find ourselves trying to think two thoughts which both contain nothing to think about, and which in relation to each other merely are a succession of supplanting term names for we yet know not what. Nonetheless, we still have a way to move from this seemingly inescapable empty beginning.

In thinking Being, it immediately is supplanted—Hegel calls this vanishing—by Nothing; likewise, Nothing vanishes into Being. This incessant immediate movement of Being and Nothing as a whole movement of immediately being their opposite is what Hegel calls Becoming. Becoming is the sublation of Being and Nothing for it is their immediate unseparation and distinction as vanishing.

There is a problem, however, in making Becoming intelligible as a genuine concept. We do not know why Being and Nothing are different such that we may be warranted in considering Becoming from them. If pure Being and Nothing are both indeterminate and lack definition, just how is it that we know and can articulate that 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, however, provides no content to define their relation nor difference.

Hegel does reveal to us that this beginning which we made had been a false beginning and laboriously spends twenty pages to convince us that there can truly be no such concept as pure Being or pure Nothing. In each, we cannot maintain purity except for a dead silence which is testament to our having no genuine thought of them. It is based on these remarks on 1) the impossibility of pure Being and Nothing, 2) the unintelligibility of Becoming if Being and Nothing cannot transition into each other, and 3) the necessity of their identity as unseparated and of their distinction as united.

Even in the immediacy of Being, we notice Becoming…that thinking Being as a thought immediately transforms it into Nothing. To make Nothing return to Being is, then,  a necessary formality for making explicit the complementary necessity of Becoming’s logical implications. Being/Nothing cannot explain their difference from each other; they cannot explain Becoming from themselves in their false abstract form without being forced to externally speak the truth they deny. Becoming, however, does provide for an explanation for their difference and unity, and it is from Becoming that the true positive logical beginning shall be made. This ‘false’, or negative, beginning has nonetheless been a necessity which we had to undergo in order to bring us to the door of Becoming.

A Reconstructed Movement

The following is what I think the speculative reconstruction really works like if we wish to make an immanent deduction. Hegel begins the Logic with what seems to be taking the side of common understanding, the position that already assumes pure Being and Nothing to be absolutely disconnected. We must logically begin with indeterminate concepts if we are to begin in immediacy with no assumptions, but we need not assume anything about their relation or lack thereof. The development to Nothing and back again, however, is marred by a lack of clarity at the beginning of how this movement truly functions. This deduction is marred by making what seems to be one final pedagogical move after the Phenomenology to show a false assumption of common understanding—that Being and Nothing are absolutely without relation to each other, and that Being is the same as Existence. Without the explicitness of his method and its justification in play, it seems Hegel makes use not of pure speculative thinking alone, but mixes it with the exposition of a speculative proposition in case that it will convince more than pure speculation at the beginning.

Speculative Propositions

Being is Nothing. Hegel devotes Remark 2 in chapter 1 to how this proposition must be speculatively comprehended. That he did so is of interest in that Hegel does and perhaps will keep making recourse to speculative propositions as external aids to grasping the purely speculative movement he really aims to get us to grasp. The proposition’s speculative meaning is the exact same result that we get from the movement of Being and Nothing in pure speculation: vanishing, or what we call Becoming. The reason is that 1) the proposition states a collapsing identity 2) at the same time it cannot state an identity without presupposing a difference and non-identity of the elements unified 3) the identity of non-identity is contradiction, and thus the proposition vanishes itself in cognition.

The Problem of ‘Nothing is’

As was stated above, Hegel seems to use the concept of Existence in order to return back to Being, and if this is the case then it is an illegitimate movement. While for common understanding this is the easy movement as compared from Being to Nothing, logically from the text it seems to me to be even trickier to do so in an immanent manner. Hegel’s appeal to concrete existence is confusing, for he appeals to the existence of Nothing as a thinking or intuition instead of simply appealing to the simple is of pure Being. Why did Hegel not go the easy way and just leave it at the seemingly plain reflection that empty thinking, Nothing, is?

“Nothing, pure nothingness; it is simple equality with itself, complete emptiness, complete absence of determination and content; lack of all distinction within. – In so far as mention can be made here of intuiting and thinking, it makes a difference whether something or nothing is being intuited or thought. To intuit or to think nothing has therefore a meaning; the two are distinguished and so nothing is (concretely exists) in our intuiting or thinking; or rather it is the empty intuiting and thinking itself, like pure being. – Nothing is therefore the same determination or rather absence of determination, and thus altogether the same as what pure being is.

Why does Hegel feel a need to mention the difference of something and nothing as thoughts? Part of it is, I think, as an external justification of what he has already done by moving to Nothing as a new thought. The  transition in Being at first comprehension does not read as a speculative movement of the thinking of Being, but rather is experienced as a propositional claim. Being is Nothing can be easily interpreted—I myself interpreted it this way—as being the simple claim that Being is no thing in particular, hence its indeterminacy. From this there is no discernible reason as to why Nothing would then be considered as a new category different from Being as such, for it merely appears that nothing is merely the description of Being against something. The reminder of the thinking or intuiting of Nothing is Hegel’s explanation of what is not clear in the first transition: That Nothing is the thinking resultant from Being. Right after, however, Hegel makes his appeal to concrete existence and meaning in order to return us to Being. The question here is this: Why did he feel it necessary to say this?

Hegel makes an appeal to meaning and existence, I think, for an obvious pedagogical reason: for the common understanding being is overwhelmingly identified as existence. To be is to exist, but to exist is not comprehended as anything else than the brute intuition of things and non-things alike, their immediate presence to us. The part of meaning is a further appeal to common understanding: nothing is meant as absence, emptiness, lack. These meanings, however, are not normally understood to exist out in the world, but merely as our subjective thinking of the absence of something expected. Nonetheless, the absence then exists as the empty thought. Now, is it possible to return to Being from Nothing without making this kind of appeal at this point in the investigation?

Being is the absolute immediate without mediation. We derive Nothing as the thinking of Being,  the thinking of nothing at all, and this thinking thus is another concept. We take this as something else rather than falling back into Being not by any reflection itself, but because the mere experience of thinking makes the distinction itself: The thinking of an immediate thought produces an immediate thinking which, having no content to think, just as immediately returns to the immediacy from which it departed—a short trip since no distance was covered. Immediacy produces immediacy, a indifferent difference, a difference which occurs because of the very nature of thinking yet is impossible to articulate with the very immediate concepts.

Having made a distinction with logical warrant (Nothing is a legitimate analytic result from engaging the thinking of the immediacy of Being), we have Nothing as our immediate concept of the empty thinking of Being, its contentlessness and its true being as what has resulted from investigating Being as concept. Why focus on pure Nothing, however? Why not immediately compare Being and Nothing? The answer is simple: since Nothing is the being of Being, why in the world would we keep considering Being? The truth of Being is Nothing, Being cannot be the absolute, Nothing is what it truly is, and we must consider it in its absoluteness.

Nothing, this empty thinking, or empty intuition, itself is a simple return to Being by nothing else than the simple legitimate reflection of ‘Nothing is’, or the realization that from thinking the immediacy of Being we returned to the immediate surface of thought which we left with Being, for thinking is just as immediate as the immediacy of thought. We need not appeal to Existence to say this, we only need to call upon Being itself as the structure of immediacy of this empty thinking as the thought it results in. We do not have to even consider that we are dealing with thoughts, as Hegel notes, the mere reflected experience/intuition of this emptiness is the return to Being’s immediacy. We can, reflectively, consider this return in a variety of ways which are correct even if illegitimate: the nothinging of Nothing is its self-contradiction and self-negation back to Being; Nothing is content while Being is form and each only are one side of the other, etc. We need not appeal to intent of meaning to differentiate them as two concepts, for the difference is reflexive of thought and thinking, the immediate and its immediately engaged content.

The true difference of Being and Nothing is how they have operated: Being is thought which when engaged as thinking is Nothing; Nothing is this thinking in its immediacy which when turned against itself returns to thought as Being. From Being’s being we realize we left Being and only returned to it, but it is and is not the same as Being which we began with for a thought process now mediates it. Being is first the moment of pure immediacy even if it is revealed to have always necessarily been engaged if it is to be a genuine thought at all, it is a thinking of thinking which is frozen as a thought. Even when recognized as this, however, nothing is truly articulated about the conceptual difference itself. Thought and thinking are both just as immediate as each other, and their unity is no less immediate. Being is the frozen image of empty thinking thinking itself just as Nothing reveals itself to be, but the difference has been made and cannot be ignored: thinking is not the exact same as thought, and yet in their immediacy they offer no conceptual difference. Being is immediacy (thought), Nothing is immediacy (thinking). When we think the immediacy of Being we find the emptiness of immediacy as Nothing, and when we think Nothing (think about immediate thinking) we find only the same immediacy of thought as Being. We have found that Being and Nothing mediate each other immediately, that thinking and thought are immanently united, yet that in conceptual terms immediacy mediates immediacy, emptiness mediates emptiness. But what is this mediation? None. It is simply immediate and empty thinking.

In Being and Nothing we find that the immediacy seems fully immediate, there are no intermediate movements between, and they appear as inseparable and turning on themselves endlessly, and what’s more seem identical—they are, however, not identical, but merely unseparate and undistinguished. Being and Nothing are both empty concepts, thinking turning endlessly on itself as one single double movement of thinking of thinking. In thinking of thinking all we end up producing is the thought of thinking. When pure thinking thinks it can only do so by engaging a thought, but a pure thought cannot be other than a thinking of thinking, self-thinking. When Being is, it engages itself in a completely new way: from static rest it explodes pure movement, Nothing, yet pure movement when moved against itself only produces the static form it exploded from again.

An absolute immediate thought is immediately just as much an empty thinking, and yet the moments are necessarily different, it is not a subjective fiction. Thought is the absolute immediate surface of comprehension, and thinking is its engagement and realization. Being as immediately faced and as immediately engaged is not the same, for the immediacy of thought and the immediacy of thinking is not the same even if inseparably immanent to each other. Being is thought, Nothing is its thinking, and while the explicit conceptual content in it cannot immanently say the difference it nonetheless is the enacted difference. It is on this active difference of thought and thinking, Being and Nothing, that Becoming can further arise from their explicit silence as an implicit self-transcending via itself being the thinking of their thinking; thus, their new thought.

 From here, the movement to Becoming naturally follows.


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