From A Notebook on Dialectics
Hegel, in his Logic, analyses formal logical thinking as a necessary but limited form of thinking for specific purposes whilst revealing these limitations as constituting a form of thinking which makes ‘abstract identity its principle’ (Logic, Part 1, Encyclopaedia, p 58, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1975).
The method of reasoning of formal logic operates with fixed categories which, in the process of cognition, are demarcated off and isolated from each other in their ‘abstract identity’ and ‘externality’ to each other. Implicit in this conception of the cosmos is the denial its immanent and eternal contradictoriness. Opposed categories are conceptualised as being isolated and walled off from each other so that in their difference from each other (distinction) their relation and unity is denied or in their unity their distinction is denied. Contradiction is conceptualised as an aberrant foible or defect of thinking rather than being immanent itself in all forms of being and thinking.
Hegel shows how formal logic considers all things through its law of ‘abstract understanding’ (Verstand) so that the ever-changing cosmos becomes conceptually fossilised into fixed abstract notions which deny the vitality and movement of this cosmos as a living, developing manifestation of contradiction within it. For formal logic, ‘A’ must always be absolutely identical with itself (A=A). ‘A’ cannot simultaneously be equal to itself (A=A) and not equal to itself (A ≠ A), for this would undeniably imply movement and contradiction.
Thus, formal logic mechanistically denies contradiction in the external world of nature and society. It fails to grasp opposites and distinctions in their integral relation and unity with each other; to recognise the necessary and inseparable connection between the parts of the whole; to see the transitional character of all forms; to understand the dialectical nature of all determinations through their inseparable relation to their negative; and to understand the movement of the world as a totality and its diverse and ever-changing forms as being animated by inner opposition, contradiction and the organic relationship and conflicts of opposing forces, tendencies, etc.
Formal thinking conceptualises opposites as being mutually exclusive, standing in isolation from each other and never posited simultaneously in their mutual relation and connection. Such ‘metaphysical’ thinking conceptualises the world “as a complex of ready made things” in opposition to dialectics which understands it as a “complex of processes” (Engels). Thus metaphysics adopts ‘one-sided forms of thought, rigidly fixed …and making these the basis of our theoretical as well as our practical work’ (Hegel, Logic, Part 1, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, p 144). The essential principle of metaphysical thought is the “law of abstract identity”.
Each moment of change, each instance of movement, is an identity of emerging and vanishing determinations. These determinations are only distinct from each other and move in opposition to each other because they exist in a relationship of identity or unity with each other. Conflict arises out of the identity or unity of opposites. Any conflict in a given formation constitutes a source of development of the whole formation.
Taken in its movement, any object is a unity of arising and vanishing moments: a movement that identifies a passage from existence to non-existence with a passage from non-existence to existence. Thus ‘in-itself every point of time is the relation of past and future’ (Hegel)
Every something, in its movement, is a synthesis of that which is coming into being and that which is passing away. The appearance of new determinations in the life of the ‘something’ is inextricably connected to the disappearance of other determinations. In their relation with each other, these determinations exist in conflict with each other. It is this conflict which animates the movement of the ‘something’ as a whole.
The movement from existence to non-existence is a passing away. The movement from non-existence to existence is an arising. Any moment of change is a unity of these opposed movements i.e. each moment of change in anything unites within itself these opposed movements. That which is coming into being is identified with that which is passing away and vice versa. However, at the same time, these movements are mutually distinct from, and opposed to, each other.
This relation is exhibited in the course of any transition. Transition itself mediates its own disappearance, containing and expressing its own negation. Therefore, in any transition, the identification of what is appearing (arising) and what is disappearing (vanishing) asserts itself in determinate form. Internal division and conflict gives the form its vitality whilst, at the same time, sending it towards its death.
This identity of arising and vanishing moments in which each is and simultaneously is not the other presents itself phenomenologically as a movement in which what is passing away is what is coming into being but coming to be in a different form so that every advance is a return to the old but at a higher level of existence. This arising of the other is simultaneously a return into what is being negated .i.e. the so-called negation of negation. All process is therefore a transition in which the point of departure is not only negated but also re-affirmed but in its rejuvenation so that the whole of development presents itself as an advance which is simultaneously a return to a rejuvenated old.
In this relation of the one and its other is posited the contradiction which is the moving principle of the whole, is the ‘engine’ of the development. But also it is this very principle which gives rise to the contradictory relation between the one and the other so that contradiction is the source of its own positing in its ever changing forms. Contradiction is the source of all development and simultaneously itself arises out of development just as development therefore is the source of contradiction and therefore ‘self-kindling’. Development is contradiction manifest and contradiction is development manifest.
What is arising is different from what is passing away; and yet each, in its movement, is the other. And it is in this contradictory relation that development itself consists and manifests just as all development is the living manifestation of real contradiction in Nature and Society.
The ‘metaphysical’ outlook is characteristic of empiricism and mechanical materialism – schools which have traditionally dominated Natural Science in England since Bacon in its heuristic* approach – where matter is understood to possess mechanical properties and where changes in the attributes of the forms of matter (qualitative changes) are merely reduced to quantitative changes without recourse to an understanding of the reciprocity of quantitative and qualitative changes.
*[Heuristics is the branch of logic concerned with those functions of method which enable the latter to be utilised in the process of making new scientific discoveries. For example, the heuristic functions of dialectical thinking in research in particle physics, quantum mechanics, bioevolutionary theory, etc. In this heuristic function, dialectics serves as an epistemological and methodological basis for pioneering new pathways and directions of investigation in scientific research. If we recognise dialectics as having a heuristic function then this is an implicit acknowledgement of the dialectical character of Nature. If we are using dialectics as a means of – or rather guide to – investigation and discovery then it would be absurd to use it if the world itself were not dialectical in its actual relations.]
The history of natural science has furnished (and continues to present) ample ‘evidence’ that the mechanistic conception of nature is one-sided and wooden. The world is conceived as a ‘machine’ wherein everything operates according to necessity and chance is merely the outcome of the interaction of opposed necessities. This is a necessitarian doctrine which is probably best illustrated by Spinoza in his Ethics.
When we consider a general and necessary relation (connection) in Nature or socio-historical development, we immediately posit the conception of law. Law expresses the movement of causally and structurally related elements within a particular sphere. It is a general and necessary relation which arises from, and mediates, the relationship between the elements in a given sphere. The relations which determine the essential character of phenomena are expressed in law.
The essential behaviour of a given system is governed by the sum totality of its laws. Law (as ‘the form of universality in nature’ – Engels) is not a relation which operates independently and in abstraction from the actuality of a particular individual system. On the contrary, it expresses what a particular individual system has in common with other ‘individuals’ and reveals the universal material connection of the different individual systems.
All mathematical equations are formalised statements of dialectical relations.
Consider, for example, Newton’s Law, F = ma
This equation expresses an identity between distinct variables or a distinction between variables in their identity as represented by the ‘=’ sign. Force is identified as the product of mass and acceleration. But mass and/or acceleration are not force. It is only in their relation that they constitute force. The fact that different variables (representing real entities) appear on opposite sides of the equal sign itself implies identification of distinct variables. The very existence of the equation itself denotes the distinctions within the identity and articulates dialectics in a formalised mathematical expression. If there were no distinction and opposition in the identity, there would be no need for the equation itself. Force is the product of mass and acceleration and yet it is more than simply this product. To assert that Force is absolutely identical with mass times acceleration is akin to asserting that the whole is absolutely identical to the sum and product of its component parts without the distinction in which the whole is also greater than the summation and product of its parts. The ‘formal logician’ sees all identity and no distinction or all distinction and no identity. He always misses the distinction within the identity and vice versa. In other words, the positivist, empiricist, pragmatist, etc, would deny this latter principle (call it “illogical” or “contradictory of logic”, etc) but the dialectician would acknowledge its existence in thought as an intrinsic part and expression of all forms of development and would recognise it expressed in the workings and equations of mathematics. Christopher Zeeman’s and Rene Thom’s work on Catastrophe Theory, for example, is a demonstration of dialectics in higher mathematics as Darwin’s work was in Biology.
All mathematicals equations present – in different forms – an identification of different variables in a specific relationship with each other which reflects the real, objective character of the relationship of real entities in Nature. Accordingly, even in the mathematical formulae of Physics, etc, the humble dialectic rears its ubiquitous head and haunts the the enunciations of formal logic, regardless of its current forms or lineage. They cannot escape its universality. Hence, formal logic as a limiting case of dialectical logic. Repeat : every mathematical equation is a formalised statement of dialectics, however well disguised those relations may be within the formula itself.
A given law operates, and is expressed, within a given ‘individual’ according to the particular conditions and contingencies of the ‘individual’ embracing within itself the infinite wealth and complexity of chance (accidental) occurrences. Law does not operate in a fixed, deterministic mode, regardless of chance, contingency and the particular conditions of an individual system but only in and through the movement of the whole system as a totality which necessarily embraces the accidental.
Law, therefore, is always expressed in the infinite diversity of momentary and vanishing alterations and modifications of evolving forms of Nature, in its contingency and accidentality. Development is, therefore, not simply law-governed without chance but rather law is expressed in and through the accidentality of phenomena. Chance is the negation of law and vice versa but each, in their intrinsic unity with each other, reveals law to be the more essential relation governing the life and development of phenomena but not, of course, without the essential contingencies of chance which constitute a necessary and essential mode of expression of law.
Law – as essential and necessary relation – expresses itself in chance. Chance is not merely passive expression but is an active, necessary and essential mode of expression of law. In the course of the unfolding of conditions, chance determinations can become transformed into necessary relations and vice versa.
Dialectical thinking grasps necessary relations and their accidental mode of expression in their reciprocality and interrelationship. In this relationship, chance becomes ‘the concrete form in which this necessity manifests itself in phenomena – in the tendency toward a given behaviour as expressed in fluctuations about the law’ (Horz, H. et al., Philosophical Problems in Physical Science, p. 28.). Chance itself, in its relation to law, has an objective character and is not – as in necessitarian doctrines – merely an irrational foible of the thinking subject. In Spinoza, however, chance occurs at the ‘intersection of the chains of necessity’ so it also bears this objective character.
The operation of a given law always presupposes the existence of definite conditions which are subject to development. Accordingly, specific laws themselves arise and develop with and under specific conditions and are subject to negation with the passing away of those conditions which engender, determine and define them.
3. Marx’s Indebtedness to Philosophical Idealism
Nature is always more complex than our conceptions of it. If Nature is ‘infinitely complex’ and ‘inexhaustible in content’ then this confers an inevitable limitedness in our conception of it but a limit which must always expand and deepen asymptotically. The conception is ‘limited in its actuality but unlimited in its disposition’ (Engels).
These characteristics of Nature also mean that it is not reducible to one fundamental substance or law (reductionism). Human knowledge of Nature is potentially neverending because that is precisely what Nature itself dictates. Herein lies the epistemological primacy of Nature over consciousness; the primacy of the object of scientific investigation over the theory of the object i.e. that the object is infinitely richer and more complex than our conceptions of it which are always approximate, relative and historically conditioned.
Engels writes that…
‘the world clearly constitutes a single system i.e. a coherent whole, but the knowledge of this system presupposes a knowledge of all nature and history, which man will never attain. Hence, he who makes systems must fill in the countless gaps with figments of his own imagination i.e. engage in irrational fancies, ideologies’ (Anti-Duhring, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 386).
This epistemological primacy of Nature over consciousness is a materialist approach. But Marx was not simply the latest product in the evolution of philosophical materialism. He was also indebted to the great achievements of classical German idealism, some of which now appear to be ‘lost’ in the burial ground of this pre-Marx outlook.
Idealism, of course, denies the primacy of Nature. It denies that Nature existed prior to Man and ‘God’. Idealism, sooner or later, must always retreat into Theology implying that God preceded Nature and all subsequent development (as with Hegel) is divinely appointed and the ‘Absolute Idea’ manifest in evolving forms. Idealism naturally denies that thought itself is merely the highest active product and expression of the origination and development of Man in Nature. Accordingly, in its denial of the primacy of Nature, the idealist conception as a whole inevitably tends towards the supernatural, the religious or mystical explanations. But this idealist epistemology contains a revolutionary element in the emergence and development of German idealism.
We all know how Hegel influenced Marx. But do we know how Fichte, for example, influenced Hegel in his conception of the triad : thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The triad is the recurring structure in the exposition of the categories in Hegel’s Logic. What was the immediate origin of this for Hegel? It is to be found in Fichte’s Science of Knowledge published in 1794. The same year in which Robespierre was deposed by the reaction of Thermidor to be replaced by the Directory.
A study of Trotsky’s writings on philosophy (Trotsky’s Notebooks, 1933-35. Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism, Columbia Univ Press, 1986, pp.99-101) will also reveal an interesting echo of Fichte’s work in Trotsky’s thoughts on the evolution of “concepts”.
4. Fichte’s ‘Lost’ Contribution to the Development of Dialectical Thinking
When I was a member of Healy’s misnamed Workers Revolutionary Party, Fichte was disrespectfully labelled and summarily dismissed as a “subjective idealist”. Don’t waste your time studying him, was the unequivocal message. This attitude was part and parcel of the philistine approach that prevailed in that dreadful sectarian outfit which paid no respect or regard whatsoever to the historical lineage of dialectics. But Fichte’s work was important for the development of Hegel’s thinking. Fichte himself was born into a very poor family and yet became one of the leading thinkers of the day. I dare say that most “Marxists” have never acquainted themselves with his work which is their loss.
I will focus on Fichte’s conception of the triadic structure of thinking which is echoed by Trotsky in his notebooks.
Fichte starts with the ‘I’ in his conception. The ego is both the subject and the object in the differentiation of the positing ‘I’ and the posited ‘I’. Self as both a positing activity (tathandlung) and the posited product of its own activity. The first basic principle of his three principles (Die Drei Gründsatze) is that self posits its own existence. I am. (Descartes : I think therefore Iam). I am identical to I. (A=A)
This thesis is the activity of the self which reaches outwards in experience in which the ‘Not I’ – as antithesis – now becomes posited against the ‘I’. (second basic principle). (A≠A).
This arising of the antithesis implies negation of the thesis and positing of contradiction. We now have a differentiation of the ego into the ‘I’ and its opposite, ‘Not-I’. Each only exists in its relation to the other and is and can only be reconciled (synthesis) within the original ‘I’ itself, within the ego.
The ‘Not-I’ is a negation of the ‘I’ and the reconciliation is a return to a higher, more enriched form of the ‘I’ (ego) in the synthesis of the original ‘I’ and its negation. For Fichte, the opposition between the ‘I’ and ‘Not-I’ only exists idealistically within the ego itself and hence the ego is the ground within which the opposition is transcended resulting in a new higher synthesis of the self or ego.
The ‘I’ and ‘Not-I’ mutually determine, limit and intermediate each other resulting in the higher synthesis.
This triadic conception in Fichte’s thought served to influence Hegel in the elaboration of his conception of ‘self-consciousness’ in the Phenomenology of Mind and in the exposition of the categories in the Logic. But what is crucial here for later developments is that it was German idealism itself – in contradistinction to ‘all hitherto existing materialism’ – which was the philosophical and theoretical source of the ‘active’ side of materialist dialectics. In his first thesis on Feuerbach, Marx writes that in relation to ‘all hitherto existing materialism’ which was ‘contemplative’…..
the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism – but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such
The active side was rooted in and developed by philosophical idealism without which Marx’s materialism would not have been ‘dialectical’. And the roots of this ‘active side’ predate Hegel. For idealism, this activity (tathandlung) can only be within the realm of thought and knows nothing of ‘sensuous practice’.
5. Determination > Negation > Mediation > Reflection Determination > Synthesis > Sublation
The affirmation of the characteristic of a thing, phenomenon, relation, etc, simultaneously involves reference to its implicit negation and to itself as the negation of something posited. For dialectical thinking, all negation is simultaneously the positing of a newness in the negation and thus the affirmation of a distinct, positive content in, and as the outcome of, the negation itself.
Negation both destroys and creates at the same time. It is the identity of moments of creation and destruction. Both are contained inseparably in the negation whilst, at the same time, the distinction between what is destroyed and what is created is revealed in their mutual relation and identity. What is created in the process of destruction is the positive outcome of negation. This newly posited content reveals itself in the arising of new determinations (characteristics, features, qualities, properties, relations, attributes, etc) in their distinction from the old vanishing determinations. The dialectical conception of determination therefore involves its opposite (negation) and vice versa. The negation of some characteristic simultaneously and necessarily involves the positing of some other characteristic wherein each characteristic reveals its distinction only in its relation to the other.
“The portentous power of the negative” (Hegel) is therefore the very power which engenders what is determinate as revealed in its posited characteristics. In dialectics, to ‘determine’ something means to progressively deepen our understanding of it (i.e. for it to become increasingly more concrete for us) by grasping how it has originated, what is its essential nature and what are its inherent tendencies of development from a study of its characteristics, attributes, relations, contradictions, etc.
Hegel, in his Logic, examines the relationship between what is posited and its negative which issues out of it in its development (negation). He embodies this relationship in the concept of mediation. The concept of mediation therefore refers to the nature of transition in which, in the course of the movement from the positedto its negative, they relate to each other and mutually determine and condition each other’s activity in the development of the whole relation.
When a ‘something’ gives rise to its negative (or opposite) out of itself, it constitutes, in this process of origination, a relationship with this negative which is its negative just as much as this negative is also a positive and the posited ‘something’ its negative. This relationship is, as described, one of mediation. Opposites therefore determine each other and, in this mediative relationship, each is simultaneously self-determining through its reflexive relationship to the other. In affecting each other, each is simultaneously self-affecting so that its relation-to other is simultaneously relation-to-self and vice versa.
Hegel writes that ‘the sensible as somewhat becomes other: the reflection in itself of this somewhat, the thing, has many properties….The muchness of the sense-singular thus becomes a breadth – a variety of relations, reflectional attributes and universalities’ (Philosophy of Mind, § 419).
Each unity is a oneness of inner distinctions, variety and conflicts (opposition).This infinite and inexhaustible manifoldness of unfolding properties and inner relations within the changing ‘somewhat’ constitutes the totality of its mediative character. In reading Hegel, this is why Lenin remarks that ‘everything is mediated, bound into One, connected by transitions’ which implies the ‘law-governed connection of the whole (process) of the world’ (Philosophical Notebooks, Volume 38, Collected Works, p 103).
The categories of relation are found in the Doctrine of Essence – the second part of Hegel’s Science of Logic and of the smaller Logic of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences. Reflection-Determination is the term which describes the reciprocality of the relationship between the different categories of opposites found in the Doctrine of Essence. The fundamental principles in the Doctrine of Essence are that of the interdependence, mutual interaction and unity of opposites.
For example, in Hegel’s concept of causality, cause and effect are only determined as such through their relationship to each other. The identification of one necessarily and simultaneously implies the other. Each, in determining the other, is simultaneously self-determining and, in being so, simultaneously determining the other. Each mediates the activity of the other in their inseparable relation and, in so doing, is self-mediating. Each determination only exists in and through relation to the other which determines and defines it. It is only in their nexus, reciprocal connection and relationship to other things and determinations that objects are determinate objects per se and therein their nature is expressed.
In the course of the exposition of the Doctrine of Essence, Hegel develops the relationship between cause and effect, substance and accident, ground and grounded, the thing and its properties, etc. The common conceptual thread running through these polarities is that of reflection. The word reflection comes from the Latin meaning to bend back or bending back. Hence the term is employed by Hegel in order to describe these categories which involve the reciprocity and mutual interpenetration and determination of opposed sides of a polarity – the intrinsic unity of the sides in opposition and intrinsic opposition in their unity. Each determination is reflected into its other and, at the same time, back into itself. This is why each side is simultaneously determining-of-other and self-determining. Hence the term reflection determination. Metaphysical thinking endeavours to understand (Hegel calls this type of understanding Verstand) each determination in its forced abstraction from its opposite. This gives formal logical thinking its limited and one-sided character.
The influence of Fichte can be seen in Hegel’s Logic where the conflict between two opposing categories is overcome in the synthesis of the third category. The thesis (the posited) gives rise to its antithetical opposite out of itself (the negation of the posited). The thesis contains its antithesis implicit within itself and, in its development, actualises this negative (the antithesis) thereby standing in unity and opposition to it. Their opposition moves the relation forward to a point at which the opposition is resolved into a higher state of unity; synthesis (negation of negation).
The higher unity of the synthesis therefore contains the opposition of the thesis and antithesis transcended within itself. This higher unity then becomes the thesis of a new triad. Hegel also used the thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure in his analysis of Kantianism.
Every negation is always a positing of new relations and qualities which involves, simultaneously, the abolition of the contradictions of a lower stage of development and the preservation of certain aspects of the relations of the lower stage in the higher. The higher stage of development stands as a resolution (synthesis) of the contradictions of the lower whilst absorbing these contradictions into itself in transcended form under new conditions and relations. The formal logical concept of negation is one in which that which is negated is reduced to nothing i.e. is absolutely annihilated without leaving any trace of its former existence.
But all change simultaneously involves the preservation – in the new – of aspects of that which is abolished. Elements of what is negated enter – in subsumed form – into the formation and relationships of the newly posited which results from the negation: ‘what is sublated is at the same time preserved, it has lost its immediacy only but it is not on that account annihilated’ (Hegel).
Hegel uses the term Aufhebung (verb : aufheben) to refer to the dialectical character of negation in which all change simultaneously involves both abolition and preservation of aspects of the old in the emergence of the new. It corresponds to the English term sublation or sometimes translated as supersedence. Negation of the old necessarily involves the positing of the new which contains aspects of the old subsumed within itself. The German word Aufheben has a two-fold meaning. It corresponds to the English phrase ‘to put aside’ which may mean to store away for future use (preserve) or to have done with, to finish with (abolish).
The positive outcome of any sublation is always a transcendence of contradiction in which aspects of the latter survive as subsumed moments in the posited. They are abolished yet preserved in subsumed form under new conditions in the resulting higher totality.
In the exposition in Hegel’s Logic, all the lower categories and determinations become sublated into the higher ones so that at any given stage in the exposition each category is the totality which contains all the previously elaborated categories sublated within itself. For example, in social development, feudalism becomes sublated into capitalism. The social relations of feudalism are, in all essentials, abolished and yet vestiges (remnants, leftovers) remain e.g. in legal relations, etc. In particle physics, the disintegration of the neutron involves the production of a proton, electron and neutrino. The neutron is in the category of particles referred to as nucleons. It has no net electric charge. The disintegration of the neutron simultaneously involves the reproduction of a nucleon (the proton) and the resulting system of decay products is still without a net electric charge. Thus, in its abolition, aspects of the neutron’s nature are simultaneously preserved.
A contradiction is superseded into a higher unity so that the latter contains the former absorbed and subsumed into itself. The contradiction is not simply and absolutely abolished (annihilated) nor is the contradiction merely perpetuated in identical form in the higher unity. The contradiction is, as such, absorbed but not absolutely annihilated. All development, therefore, is a continuous movement towards a higher, richer, more complex unity which necessarily involves transcendence but not absolute loss in the formal sense.
Each stage of development – as a finite, determinate stage – gathers up into itself the infinitude of all those stages which preceded it and transmits this superseded infinitude, as it evolves, into a higher stage of development. Therefore, the higher forms of development contain the lower superseded within them and thus a progression to a richer, more complex stage is always continuously unfolding.