Hegel’s Dialectic

According to Hegel, logic is divided threefold between (a) the Abstract, (b) the Dialectical, and (c) the Speculative. His doctrine for these three sides is also termed (a) understanding, (b) negative reason, and (c) positive reason. These three stages or “moments”, as Hegel puts it, are internal to logic itself.

To begin with, (a) Understanding is the abstract universal, opposed to the particular of sensation and perception that are too narrow. It provides the fixity and accuracy of theory and practice that can be reproduced in any given circumstance. Moreover, these universal identities are discoverable by comparing and isolating figures in order to pin them down in their specificity. This applies, in extension, to the character or integrity of persons. For instance, to gain understanding requires a limitation to one’s pursuits and interests. This form of devotion and narrowness is, for example, requisite as part of any training. We might think of this in terms of purity of commitment. In this sense, understanding is finite and narrow. “A state, for example, is imperfect, so long as it has not reached a clear differentiation of orders and callings, and so long as those functions of politics and government, which are different in principle, have not evolved for themselves special organs…” (Hegel’s Logic, 115). Philosophy’s aim, moreover, is like that of the state. Its requirement is to be precise, allowing nothing to “remain vague and indefinite” (ibid.).

The second stage of Hegel’s logic is (b) the Dialectical which is characterized by unmasking how any given term will always pass into its opposite. Doubtless, this can easily become skepticism if it is mere external opposition that introduces confusion to arguments, but the true and proper nature of the Dialectical stage is to reveal the indwelling negation of understanding itself. In other words, Dialectic discovers the self-limitations to understanding rather than its external oppositions. Moreover, the Dialectical involves unraveling these self-contradictions. It goes without saying that Dialectic’s purpose is to demonstrate the finitude of understanding. As Hegel comments, “it really serves to show that every abstract proposition of understanding, taken precisely as it is given, naturally veers round into its opposite” (p. 117). More concretely, then, the extreme of any form inevitable passes into its opposite. Hegel gives a few examples to illustrate this point: “[I]t is a vital principle in conduct that I should be subjectively free, that is to say, that I should have an insight into what I am doing, and a conviction that it is right. But if my pleading insists on this principle alone I fall into Sophistry, such as would overthrow all the principles of morality” (p. 117). And again, “In political life, as every one knows, extreme anarchy and extreme despotism naturally lead to one another… Every one knows how the extremes of pain and pleasure pass into each other: the heart overflowing with joy seeks relief in tears, and the deepest melancholy will at times betray its presence by a smile” (p. 118). This, of course, is in contradistinction to skepticism—which is purely negative—because the result of the Dialectic is to always absorb the negative and positive into itself as part of its nature. 

Lastly, (c) “The Speculative stage, or stage of Positive Reason, apprehends the unity of terms (propositions) in their opposition—the affirmative, which is involved in their disintegration and in their transition” (p. 119). The Speculative stage, otherwise put, rises above the oppositions revealed between the Understanding and the Dialectical. In Kantian terms—contrary to popular opinion, Hegel does not use such terminology himself unless referring to Kant—we could call it a synthesis of thesis and antithesis. In short, positive reason unifies what was previously separated. In all truth, I have the most difficulty comprehending Hegel’s Speculative stage. Following Žižek, I think of it best in terms of coming to peace with incommensurability itself. Whether or not this shows fidelity to Hegel himself, I’ll leave the reader to decide. I will, however, conclude with a quote of Hegel elucidating the meaning in dispute: “But, as we have seen, the abstract thinking of understanding is so far from being either ultimate or stable, that it shows a perpetual tendency to work its own dissolution and swing round into its opposite. Reasonableness, on the contrary, just consists in embracing within itself these opposites as unsubstantial elements” (p. 121).


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