The Third Step in Hegel’s Method: the Speculative Moment

What have we found so far of Hegel’s method? Human finite rationality gives us an almost infinite series of specific thoughts, which we express in language and combine into sentences and propositions. Propositions may have truth claims connected to them. Dialectics, the second element in philosophical method, brings out the inner negation that makes these thoughts determined and distinct from each other. If dialectics can be the inner or immanent transition of a thought into its opposite and not an arbitrary and merely subjective application of the power of negation, the multiplicity of our thoughts gets a true connectedness. Our thoughts turn out to be elements within a whole; philosophy is a system, and method is the way this system is built up, the way in which concepts and propositions are being connected. According to Hegel this dialectic of our thoughts corresponds to a real dialectic in reality. Logic and metaphysics are two sides of the same coin.

The real is rational; the rational is real.

However, dialectic alone will not give us a full understanding of reality as it is. Rationality and dialectic alone can only lead to some kind of universal skepticism. We have both a thesis and an antithesis. The first rational thought is destroyed by its own contradiction. Being is destroyed by nothing; justice is destroyed by injustice – and we know that from experience because we say that the highest form of (abstract, formal) justice can be the highest form of (real) injustice. Summa jus, summa iniuria. This would be an infinite series of positive statements and skeptic negations, since all thought can be denied. Ultimately we would be led into the (self-contradictory) statement that there is no truth.

That is why we need something beyond rationality and dialectic, which Hegel calls the speculative, or the reasonable. Speculative thought is grounded in the understanding, that the result of a dialectic movement is not merely the opposite by negation or contradiction, but something positive. We are not denying absolutely the validity of the first thought, we are negating it in a determinate, specific way. To put it simply, the speculative moment is to grasp the unity within the contradictions.

There are many ways to express the nature of this speculative thought. I like to say that the antithesis – or the determined negation, or the inner contradiction – is an elevation and not simply a contradiction. (Aufhebung, mostly translated as sublation.)

The first rational concept is enriched by its negation, when we allow both contradictory elements to be expressed again as one unified concept. In that unified concept, we have a negation of the negation. Remember the example we used before. The concept of being by itself produces the thought of its negation, nothing. Nothing and being contradict each other. Each of them receives its determinacy from what it negates. If we look for a concept that expresses just this, it is easy to see that that concept is called “becoming.” Becoming expresses the fact that being is made explicit in the concept of nothing, and that being and nothing contradict each other, and are dependent upon each other. Becoming after all, means that being moves toward nothing, and that nothing moves toward being. Their mutual exclusion points to their inner unity. To have being and nothing as separate concepts in opposition to each other, points to a “something” that is their inner grond and unity that has broken up into these contradictory elements.
The higher concept of becoming, can be called the elevated state of the former two-sided contradiction. It expresses the fundamental identity of what seemed to be the two excluding sides of a contradiction. There is “something” that at first expressed itself in the form of a contradiction, and now, in the speculative moment, expresses itself again as something unified and positive. A thought, that expresses the identity of contradictory thoughts as the necessary result of the inner movement of that thought, can truly be called a “concept.”

“Concept” is the technical term that Hegel uses to speak about the speculative. Logically, the concept implies a relationship to itself and on that basis it is subjective. It is a form of the reasonable, because it is reflected into itself, and not referring to something other than itself. The task of philosophy is to express a language watch the concept is already doing in determining itself. In that sense speculative thought is the highest form of empiricism, if we define empiricism as the ultimate openness for whatever shows itself in our experience. I find it difficult to translate the wonderful Dutch expression for this philosophical activity: “mee voltrekken.” It is somehow a submission to a movement within our thought, a becoming involved in the dialectic process itself, to “execute (Dutch: voltrekken) this movement in thought along with (Dutch: mee) this same movement in the concept itself, without interfering with it.”

Beyond the concept however, is the true goal of speculative thought. And that is the concept in its full development, as both concept and its reality, which Hegel refers to with the word “Idea.” Now the concept is not only self-relating, but it relates to itself in its other. The concept is only fully realized, if it does not remain subjective, because then the existence or the reality that it expresses remains outside of it as an external reality. Concepts however do not refer to reality, but they are themselves expressions of that reality. As if reality produces its own concept! If that can be demonstrated, the concept becomes more than subjective and merely logical, but in a way the creative power that gives rise to reality.

This is a good moment to remind ourselves, that any description of Hegel’s method falls short of his demonstration of the necessity of that method in his greater Logic. We must understand that we are providing a road-map in these Notes on Hegel’s thought, that cannot replace the voyage itself that any one of us has to undertake, in order to understand Hegel’s System – and if Hegel is right, we must say in order to understand reality itself.

That is why the second great theme of the introduction to the Philosophy of Right is the Idea as the true unity of concept and reality. No one can see or touch the Idea; yet nothing is real except as the Idea. Thinking is not just something subjective. Surely, the Idea must be thought and cannot be experienced. The objective thought becomes apparent through the subjective form of our thought, and that demonstrates the rationality of reality itself. Objective thought, that is reality and its inherent rationality, becomes thinkable, is given, is demonstrated in subjective thought.

We have to understand that our common notion, that our thoughts are random and arbitrary, is infinitely removed from what Hegel calls concept. Our power of imagination allows us to have any “thought” we like, any kind of representation (Vorstellung), any kind of connection between words or word-pictures. Our imagination can dream up square circles and Bigfoot. But that is not what thinking is truly about. Thinking is to grasp the essence of the thing (the “res” in Latin is meant), that is to conceive it. The attempt to understand what is real, implies the subjective endeavor to submit to reality itself; to express in the form of concepts whatever is real and essential in the world. Thinking is not a subjective re-presentation of a reality that remains simply in itself an outside ourselves. Our consciousness is not closed upon itself, that has to break out of its inner shell to reach reality beyond itself. The true is not an echo, a mental picture of what actually is.

That is why we find in the introduction one of the most famous statements by Hegel, which is also one of the most misunderstood.

“Whatever is reasonable, is real; and what is real, that is reasonable.”

A major misunderstanding of this statement is, that Hegel here legitimizes the political reality of his day. Hegel does not mean to say that the status quo must be maintained and that there are no grounds for criticism. Conservatism nor liberalism have any foundation in Hegel’s social philosophy; at the same time Hegel condemns any form of Romanticism, that totally condemns the current political reality and dreams its Utopian dream instead.
(to be continued)

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Author: Robbert Veen

Minister for the Protestantse Kerk in Nederland in IJmuiden - Noord-Holland. Born in 1956 and educated in Amsterdam. University of Amsterdam (philosophy and theology and Semitic Languages). Doctorate in theology - ethics in 2001. Married to Henneke Veerman

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