The Second Step: The Power of Negation

Dialectics is the observation how any concept turns into its opposite when we simply allow it to explain itself, when we make explicit all that is already contained in it implicitly. Determinations of the mind, ideas, concepts, thoughts, move beyond themselves, become negated and elevated – sublated – into “higher” concepts in the sense that the result of this movement is a concept that contains both the former and its negation. The resulting concept in a dialectical movement is said to be more concrete, richer in contents. The initial concept can then be said to be more implicit and abstract. The initial concept of Abstract  Being, e.g., implicitly contains “nothing” which is expressing the complete lack of determinacy, and the resulting concept of  becoming expresses the continuous transition of being into nothing and vice versa. (The dialectics of being and nothing actually shows the power of the mind in its capacity to negate and abstract. That capacity also shows the complete openness of the human intellect for the whole of reality.) So there is a process going on. A needs non-A, B equals A and non-A, which needs non-B etc. 

Dialectics in Metaphysics and Logic

There are two justifications for this view of dialectics. One is metaphysical, the other might be called logical. Hegel claims that dialectics is both the way of the world and the method of our thought. Reality is finite. It does not rest in itself, it changes, decays, transpires. Every real thing in this world is only a part, or a “moment” within the whole of reality. What goes for reality goes for human thought as well. Everything is subject to the power of negation, both in reality and in our thought. Every real thing, just as every concrete thought is after all determined, and if it is, it is distinguished from others and even, as we saw, dependent upon its opposite. In sum, it is what it is by negation.

Abstract or absolute negation

Now what is the character of this negativity? It cannot be the kind of negation we sometimes use, that simply ignores a certain concept totally. There is a negativity that leads to zero, to absolute nothingness. When we totally negate something determinate, we get the totally indeterminate, i.e. we get no determinate content at all. This absolute or abstract negation is not what Hegel means, when he explains dialectics. Dialectics revolves around the possibility of “determinate negation”(bestimmte Negation). This negation does not negate the concept as such, but a specific element of it. The negation of a child is not its annihilation – God forbid – but its “elevation” into maturity. The negation has a positive result. The negativity negated the child-ness of a human being, not the human being as a whole.

The Universal and its Particulars

Let’s consider this some more. The concept of a human being we can call an universal.  It expresses a content that belongs to a whole class of beings. Now both a child and an adult are human beings. Yet, you cannot be both a child and a grown up at the same time. A man and a woman are human beings, and again, you cannot  be both at the same time. It’s either the one or the other. The determinate negations of the universal “human” lead to these particularities of child and adult, man and woman. Negating maleness leads to femininity, negating child-ness leads to maturity and so on. This however also means that no human being  is human! The universal humanity that contains all of these determinations, is nowhere to be found. But surely humanity refers to something real? How do the universal concept and the particular categories of humans actually relate to each other? The universal and the particular negate each other, that is the first thing to notice here. But not as an abstract negation.  The particular negates part of the determinations of the universal; the universal negates the negation that is implicit in the particular. The universal is not the particular and the particular is not the universal. But they do not stand side by side as if they were both exclusive particulars.

The Unity of Contradictions

In Hegel’s method, we should now understand that both the universal and the particular are true. They are separate and contradictory and yet they are connected. The universal concept of humanity without these particulars would be meaningless, but at the same time, if we’d had only the particulars they would seem to be a bunch of separate species! The universal only exists because of its opposite, the particular. The universal only exists because of this contradiction with its particulars. If we try to understand the universal without any reference to the particular, it becomes something particular itself. What is negated in the universal by the particular is precisely its abstract nature. The u iversal humanity is the result of the negation of all particularities. And yet, the particular is a determined negation of an element of universal humanity.

By understanding this negativity we are able to see that the universal has become concrete within its other is, i.e. by its particularities. Humanity exists as children and adults, male and female etc. The universal is now no longer the abstract opposite of the particular and the particular is no longer the negation of the universal. This universal humanity is realized in its particulars. This is the result of the dialectics: we have now understood the unity of contradictions. Speculative thought is based upon the recognition that dialectics has a positive result. Every real thing is both in its reality and as a thought to be understood as the identity of opposites.

This leads to the third element of Hegel’s method, the speculative moment, and that will be our topic next time.

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