The Meaning of Hegel's Logic

I: The Structure of The Logic

The Logic has a uniquely Hegelian structure in which the whole is built up from triads: triads each component of which itself is a triad and so on ad infinitum. Consequently, although Hegel wrote The Science of Logic and The Shorter Logic in a kind of narrative which begins with Pure Being and proceeds step-by-step, page after page to The Absolute Idea as the apex of the lot, it is very difficult to read like this. You need to know where you are.

For a start, you need to first understand the overall triad, which I will call (taking a slight liberty with Hegel's structure) Being - Notion - Absolute Idea.

(Actually towards the end of the Logic, the third parts start falling off so that the Logic does not spill over into a new book, but comes to a stop with the Absolute Idea. As presented in The Science of Logic, the Absolute Idea is the culmination of the Doctrine of the Notion. The Science of Logic is presented as Being - Essence - Notion).

Being - Notion - Absolute Idea

The world first appears in thought as "one damn thing after another", immediate perception. Laws and tendencies, form and content, cause and effect, etc., are all present in this world which presents itself to us, but these moments are not yet disclosed, they lie "behind" Being.

Some say that these "mediated" aspects are part of the subject and are imposed upon the object. But this is not true; they are part of the object which has yet to show itself; otherwise, how could they ever come into subjective consciousness (innate ideas, faith?). And even if they did, how could they be "true" unless we accept that apart from existing in consciousness they also exist in the objective world, and our subjective concepts correspond to the object.

This immediate perception, or the world "in-itself", we call Being.

Human practice and individual consciousness may be said to "reconstruct" the world in the form of the mental images we have of it. These "mental images" are not just "snap-shots" of the various objects and processes, but the laws and concepts such as form, likeness, causality, means and end, genus and species, etc., etc., by which we both recognise and understand reality and reproduce it in our practice.

This "reconstruction" of the world has the form of concepts, concepts which are not immediately given in perception, but are the product of a long period of historical development. This conceptual image of the world is an "Other" of the world, a copy or negative of the world, which is not identical with the world, but approximates it in an opposite or negative form. It is not immediate, but mediated. That is, it is a world built up not from bits and pieces coming one after another, but from general concepts. We could call it a theoretical version of reality.

This conceptual form of the world "for itself", we call the Notion.

When we act in the world as humans (rather than simply as lumps of hydrocarbon) we act both as part of the world, immediate actors and agents, driven by unconscious urges and the ordinary forces of Nature, and, as an Other, as conscious, social individuals expressing our theoretical Notion of the world by consciously negating it, translating an idea of the world as it ought to be and could be, and putting it into the world, changing the world to bring it into line with our more or less well-founded Notion of it.

Practice is action of a material subject in the world, according to its Notion. It is the return of the Notion to Being, the unity of Being and its opposite, the Notion.

There is always a "gap" between what we set out to do and what we actually do, between our theoretical idea and our practical idea. To the extent that our Notion of the world, is an adequate reconstruction of the world of Being, then the negation of Being by the Notion approximates what Hegel calls the Absolute Idea - the world fully conscious of itself and acting with absolute self-consciousness.

This ultimate of absolute self-conscious practice we call the Absolute Idea.

The Absolute Idea is nothing but everything that leads up to it. Consequently, there is nothing for Hegel to say when he gets to this chapter of the Science of Logic, but give a kind of general summary of what has gone before.

The Absolute Idea is the Subject which has become identical with the Object, and is in this sense just a return to the beginning - but at a higher level.

Being - Essence - Notion

Between Being (Book I) - immediate perception, and the Notion (Book III) - the conception of immediate perception in terms of notions, lies Essence (Book II). Essence is to do with how something of which we do not yet have a Notion enters consciousness - how we first form a notion of something. Being is about Notion-less perception; Essence is about the genesis or Becoming of the Notion; the Notion is about the development or concretisation of a concept.

We can only begin to grasp something new in terms of the concepts we already have. These past notions have their source in Being, but they are "out of step" with the new. New Being meets with itself in past Being. The result is a contradictory development of perception in which the inadequacy of past notions is brought out in the form of internal contradictions which arise as we penetrate deeper into immediate perception.

As Hegel puts it in The Science of Logic:

It may be said that cognition begins in general with ignorance, for one does not learn to know something with which one is already acquainted. Conversely, it also begins with the known; this is a tautological proposition; that with which it begins, which therefore it actually cognises, is ipso facto something known; what is not as yet known and is to be known only later is still an unknown. So far, then, it must be said that cognition, once it has begun, always proceeds from the known to the unknown. [Science of Logic, Analytic Cognition]

The Notion represents an Other to the world of immediate perception, which approximates to the object but in an opposite or negative form. The thing is "posited" in Being, but confronts a "negative" in the form of past Being contained in theoretical form (prejudice) in the Notion. The interpenetration of Being and Notion is called Essence - a contradictory process which leads to the identification of Being and the Notion, the modification of the Notion brought about by the successive resolution of internal contradictions, the struggle to understand what we are doing.

The triad

The above demonstrates the "triad" of Hegel which runs through almost every sentence of the Science of Logic. Most people who are about to study Hegel, will have heard of "thesis - antithesis - synthesis". Actually, Hegel never used this expression. This may be because the expression tends to imply a reference to what I call "propositional algebra". Also, "thesis" and "antithesis", like "positive" and "negative" imply a specific kind of opposition, namely polarity, in which the "thesis" and "anti-thesis" can have no separate existence and a kind of symmetry which limits the concept unduly. Nevertheless, I think "thesis - antithesis - synthesis" fairly well sums up the form of Hegel's triad and we should not be ashamed to use it.

It would be quite contrary to the spirit of Hegel to attempt here to give a "definition" of the triad. You will learn as you study the triad in its multifarious forms and development in Hegel's Logic. But the purpose of this article is to aid your reading, so you will forgive a brief and inadequate description.

At first something is put forward, is posited, presents itself. It presents itself also by way of negating something else, its negation, that which it is not. That which it is not may be what it was, it's form as opposed to its content, a pre-conception of it, or merely its negative pole - the "anti-thesis". This "other side" is essentially connected with the thesis, the thesis already contains implicitly the antithesis, as an inner contradiction within itself. A new and higher concept arises on the basis of conceiving both the thesis and antithesis in this way as identical with each other. Thus a new thesis is posited, .... and so on.

Examples are superfluous. The whole of the Logic, and hopefully the explanations to follow here, demonstrate this dynamic. In reading the Logic, you should look back and forward as you begin each new chapter and section, and try to keep a bearing on where you are in terms of triads. You should feel free to skip back and forth so as to ensure that you grasp a particular triad before going too far "into it". But at the same time, don't expect to fully understand a concept until you have read through it, and followed exactly how its own internal contradictions build up and pass over into the next concept.

System and Method

According to Engels, the progressive content in Hegel is his "method" as opposed to his "system" which constitutes an idealistically perfected structure. If we develop a habit of trying to adhere to Hegel's system or structure (and the same applies to Marxism) in our theoretical work, we run the danger of pushing reality into a straitjacket, of justifying what exists, of adapting to and rationalising reality, rather than criticising and revolutionising reality.

"Whoever placed the chief emphasis on the Hegelian system could be fairly conservative in both spheres [politics and religion]; whoever regarded the dialectical method as the main thing could belong to the most extreme opposition, both in politics and religion." [Ludwig Feuerbach, etc. Part I]

Systematicity is a property of the objective world. The adequacy of countless concepts of systematicity in Nature has been proved by practice. However, with Marx, the concept of system in philosophy was transformed from an absolute to a relative. As marvelous a creation as is Hegel's system of the Absolute Idea, it is absurd to suppose that we can build up a systematic Notion of the world by perfecting such a system, or at least that a single writer can do so within the scope of a single book.

"The proof must be derived from history itself ... This conception [historical materialism], however, puts an end to philosophy in the realm of history, just as the dialectical conception of nature makes all [systems of] natural philosophy both unnecessary and impossible. It is no longer a question anywhere of inventing interconnections from out of our brains, but of discovering them in the facts. For philosophy, which has been expelled from nature and history, there remains only the realm of pure thought, so far as it is left: the theory of the laws of the thought process itself, logic and dialectics". [Ludwig Feuerbach, etc. Part IV]

Method and System are concepts indicating aspects of a theory, roughly analogous to tool and result: For instance, Marx used a specific method in his critique of political economy, the dialectical materialist method; the product was a system of concepts - commodity, value, surplus value, abstract labour, alienation, etc., etc. - the system of Marxist political economy.

How are we to learn from the practice of the great thinkers of the past? How can we copy their way of working in different circumstances and in confronting different aspects of the world?

All systems of concepts reflecting the general laws of motion of different aspects or "levels" of movement are inter-related and inter-connected, but distinct and different. At the most general level of abstraction we may share the same method, but in considering different aspects of the world, we shall find different systems of concepts applicable. Thus in a sense the method is that aspect of a theory which is absolute, less specific and more "transferable"; while system denotes that aspect of a practice which is relative, more specific, less "transportable". The method is the inner structure, the system the outer form; the method is manifested in the system, but the method must be true to the system. The method is the "germ" of the system.

I do not believe it is any more possible to grasp Hegel's method without labouring through his system, than it is to grasp the method of natural science without studying a science. Hegel's Logic is hard reading and the reader will find a road map useful if she/he is going to appreciate the countryside. Consequently, in what follows I shall unashamedly give emphasis to Hegel's system and only point out in passing and at the end aspects of his method, which is after all, most adequately demonstrated in his result, the system.

It is the job of you, the reader, to study Hegel's Logic and learn to understand his method.