A Hegel Primer



All of what follows is the author\’s, inevitably only part-informed, opinion. It is written two years into a process of reading, in the hope that I might help someone who, like me two years ago, is just embarking on that process. While it does not contain every insight that might be gleaned from Hegel, I am convinced it is the essay that, two years ago, I would like to have read.

Why study Hegel?

You ought to study Hegel because, having given his method to Marxism, he is ethnologically important for the most powerful historical movements of the twentieth century, because he claims to secularise the most important historical claim ever made (that of Religion!), because the peach covered word soup in front of you was Godfather Part II to Kant’s Godfather Part I in 19th Century Germany. We now teach Kant to high schoolers, and use it as the basis of our human rights rhetoric.

Perhaps the reader is of the opinion that he or she is smarter than every sincere marxist that has ever lived. That is doubtless a claim yet to receive widespread public agreement among professional philosophers. Many people died for this stuff, and many of them have probably thought harder about dialectics than you ever have. Don’t you want to know why?

A good deal of people have also died for religion. Perhaps the reader is, again, of the opinion that she or he is smarter than any sincere religious person. How very 2010. I nonetheless laud them for their tenacity: the open contradiction between public ideas of religion and science has not moved a muscle since. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit represents an attempt to bridge that distinction that achieved widespread acclaim in a country that really knew its onions, philosophically.

Germany, at the turn of the Nineteenth Century, was coming to the end of a decade of philosophers competing to see who could follow Kant. These were not trivial philosophers in their own right. But Hegel took the cake. Why?

Although the popularity of a philosophy often depends more on the desirability of its conclusions than the strength of its arguments, I can tell you Hegel holds water.

In this essay I will argue that Hegel’s system of dialectical thinking represents the only way to construct a coherent worldview containing a contradiction or tension. (*Edit2: Here \’coherent construction\’ means adding the consequences of propositions as we add propositions to our system)

All lives contain tensions or contradictions of one sort or another. Love and hate, desire and morality, justice and reality. There would be nothing whatever of culture if they did not. From the above it follows that any coherent model of how we experience our lives, if constructible conceptually, must be constructible using Hegel’s system. This is a big claim, so we’ll go slow.

Drafting a dialectical principle

Let’s start with a draft of the dialectical principle- the goal of this and ensuing drafts being to work out exactly what the problem is with contradictions, in the hope that it might be resolved:

(D1): One can never act on contradictory premises insofar as they are contradictory.

If you believe X is A, and that X is not A, how are you to respond to X in respect of property A? If Guardians of The Galaxy 2 is enjoyable and it is simultaneously totally impossible to enjoy- do you want to go see it?

One might simultaneously hold these two premises as fact, right up until the moment, you decide. Whether you choose to go or not, you are failing to act on a premise.

As such we have

(D2): An explicit contradiction cannot be part of our plans as they will be lived, even if it can be part of our experience, or even plans as they are imagined.

The seat of the Hegelian self is here in ‘plans-as-they-will-be-lived’. Why this is a good place for attributions of selfhood, I’ll leave to Hegel to argue. But it makes sense. For now, take it as a definition, think on it later, if you have time.

The point being that, by definition:

(D3): Whatever is causing the contradiction is outside of your (Hegelian) self.

How can something outside of you cause the contradiction, if this contradiction is only between two of your (transcendental) beliefs, and not part of the world of actual stuff?

The answer is that this is just a necessary law of experience. Quite often, we attribute the cause of our contradiction in a scene immaturely. But we must attribute it. It is like a product that the studio demands be placed in the background for advertising purposes. There is, at any moment an object cause of contradictions: this is something like what Lacan calls the “Object Petit a”.

Let us have some examples, in ascending order of obscurity:

  • The big bloke standing next to the attractive woman, who causes the contradiction to you between going home with her and going home with all your teeth
  • The principles of algebra, which cause contradiction between adjacent lines of working, when a mistake is made
  • The scientific community, which does the same between lines of reasoning.
  • The Unchangeable nature of circumstance, which causes a contradiction between my love of the universal, and my love of particular things.
  • The presently existing Justice System, which causes a contradiction between my love of freedom and itself

(The penultimate two, by the way, are roughly Hegel’s conception of what’s going on in Ideal Science and Stoicism, respectively, as worldviews) (It is also worth noting that, as in the last example, that contradictions can exist within a single term- we’ll assume a two term contradiction in this essay, because it is easier to see, but for Hegel most contradictions are of the single term type)

What each has in common is a seemingly immovable object, which acts as a conductor between the two poles of the contradiction. It is the medium within which the contradiction would play out.

We will now reframe again, using an important Hegel word:

(D4): Every contradiction is mediated

Which is a long way from where we started, so let’s catch breath.

Our goal was to see how we could build a worldview with contradictions in it. We have discovered, in the premise (D4), a powerful principle in determining what a constructible worldview would look like. If we were to have a worldview with a contradiction in it, it must also contain a mediating term for that contradiction. What do we do next?

The progression of propositions under the dialectical principle (D4)

Now suppose we’re constructing a worldview, adding propositions one at a time, followed by all the logical consequences of the system so far (something like the Henkin Construction in mathematics). At some stage we add a contradiction, and we don’t know the mediating term. We’re first compelled to deduce everything we can from the existence of the object as an “abstract universal” “in itself” (three more important Hegel words)- ‘it is whatever does the mediating’. But this gets us more than we might have bargained for.

Example: suppose I hold that I’m going to be wealthy and a philosopher. I know these two are contradictory, and that there must be a thing out there that stops them both being true, but I don’t know what it is. And since this is true in the abstract- i.e. by definition, the mediator of the contradiction can be none other than the natures of wealth and philosophy themselves.

If the contradiction stands, then this mediating term is more fundamental than any of your own plans or worldview. It must in fact be a necessary precondition of your worldview. And, as such, the mediating term has an autonomy which stands over and above your own. We must now deduce all consequences of the object as it exists “for-itself”- above and outside our worldview.

As the grounds for the contradiction, the mediating object must now be our starting assumption: it must be fleshed out, given a reality and so on. Where things get interesting is that, if the original worldview is sound, that same original worldview is going to mediate a contradiction between the new object and itself.

Example continued: we’re now compelled to assume the nature of philosophy and the nature of wealth from the get-go. This is the very opposite of our starting point. Philosophy and wealth operate independently of us as ‘ways of the world’ that make a mockery of my plan to be a wealthy philosopher.

But if my plan is sound- really is part of my Hegelian self- then being a wealthy philosopher is possible and this ’nature of wealth and philosophy’ is wrong. I will be the object cause of a contradiction for the worldview that begins in the natures of wealth and philosophy. I am thus more fundamental than this worldview, a necessary precondition for it. I negate it, where before, it negated me.

We now have a sort of ‘circle’ which describes this process of construction:


a) Begin with a contradictory worldview (self)

b) Define the (in-itself) abstract cause of the contradiction

c) Deduce that this must be the ground of the self and so must be true

d) Deduce (for-itself) that this is contradicted by the self

e) Deduce that the self is more fundamental than the for-itself

f) Observe the fully developed (in itself and for itself) contradiction between the self and its grounds

g) Repeat.

The most subtle part is e) in which the original contradiction then re-emerges as a counter-example to the mediating grounds of its possibility. (There is no way to write that sentence so that it doesn’t need reading a couple of times, sorry). The original contradiction has now retroactively gained a status of opposition to these grounds.

What is more, we now have a totally different contradiction. In our example, we began assuming a contradiction in our conception of the good life, philosophy vs. wealth, this is now a contradiction between the good life and the nature of wealth and philosophy. This, too, has a mediator.

In fact, (D) is less a circle than a sort of spiral, which continually builds new mediating terms. Like the Lewis Carroll story ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles’, it gives us an infinite spiralling regress to grounds upon grounds upon grounds. Our spiral differs from Carroll’s story however in that each mediating ground has a separate reality: if it didn’t, the contradiction would be untenable, and the system would collapse. Hegel’s construction builds upon one contradiction, Sublating it under a new one that makes it more comprehensible. This process is called Aufhebung.

And does it ever stop? Nope. It just takes its sweet time. Any really existing person, if their worldview is coherent and logically constructible, must lie somewhere on the spiral out of their original contradictions. We note that these can remain internally consistent so long as the mediating object remains a mysterious, impossible source of fascination in themselves.


For Zizek and Lacan, mysterious mediating objects that close the circuit of the contradictions in one’s life are everywhere. At once a burden and release: these objects promise to disclose the truth of the tension endemic to our lives. They exist as a problematic which, if overcome, would allow our wildest, most contradictory fantasies to bear fruit: even the greatest among these fantasies- self knowledge.

Hegel seems to claim that this process reaches a limit when these stages of Aufhebung are shared among a population. Eventually, like the process of ‘lion hunting’ in mathematics- in which the ‘lion’ is localised to the top or bottom half of the domain by a fence, then a fence is built cutting that piece in half, and so on, until the lion is trapped in a very small box- the mediating term at the nth level is a constitutional monarch- effectively trapped into powerlessness by the cultural system that expresses all the tensions below.

In the so-called post-modern era, in which consensus of the sort that Hegel imagines seems impossible, Hegel’s termination of the chain of sublations into the good infinity seems somewhat pie in the sky. Although, given Hegel’s extreme cleverness in getting us this far, it seems we should at least be humble enough to acknowledge the possibility that if the chain were ever to terminate, it would do so in Hegel’s way.

For now though, the lessons of the system are the Lacanian lessons. Where do you put your object cause of contradictions? I have a feeling most people I know put them in the telly, sometimes in their lovers, sometimes in their jobs. Do you allow yours to become for-themselves? Or do you revel in the mysterious problematic and all of its promises to fantasy?

I also think, personally, that there is something tantalising in knowing that the dialectical method is the unique way to build coherent contradictory worldviews. For one, it explains the enduring appeal of Marxism without fully accepting it. If we take it that life is full of contradictions, and that most people aren’t very good at building coherent worldviews out of them (see previous paragraph), then a dialectically crafted worldview is a pretty alluring thing. It allows us to survey the whole of reality, without ignoring the contradictions of our own experience. It may even be right!

Finally, the post-modern era also demands one create one’s own meaning. And if the claim of this essay has been proven, it follows that one must use dialectics to do the job. So ask yourself, what are the contradictions in your life, and what makes them contradictory. Keep going, and maybe, just maybe, we might wind up recognising one another in the progression of Spirit.

Edit: added disclaimer

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