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.  Continue reading “The Second Step: The Power of Negation”


The First Step – Rationality and Dialectics

Let’s try again. Let’s try to figure out what makes Hegel’s method both so enticing and so difficult at times.

We need to understand that Hegel differentiates between three components of his method. First we have rational thought or Verstandesdenken. The second is dialectics, and the third is the speculative moment. Let’s consider the first, rational thought. It is the capacity of the mind to abstract and separate, to distinguish one thought from the other, to order thoughts into propositions and arguments and to construct fixed determinations. Whatever was in the mind in a state of confusion and without determinacy, is analyzed and becomes clear and distinct. It has to be, because in the Cartesian tradition only what is “clare et distincte percipitur”, that is: what is clear and distinct in the mind, can be true.

The mind is primarily the power of  abstraction, because the mind takes a series of determinations out of their concrete context and posits them as independent. That process of abstraction is governed only by the principle of abstract or formal identity. This is how we get the categories, thoughts that are taken from the concrete context in which they have a concrete meaning, and now are posited independently, as something that has identity with itself, without thinking about these concrete contexts any longer. I can abstract “substance” from my concrete experience of perceived objects. I can abstract “being”, thing, object, quantity, property, etc. Mathematics is the result of this abstracting rationality, but so is metaphysics. Culture as in art and even religion are impossible without this fundamental activity of abstraction, that is the basic function of our mind.

Hegel does not simply ignore human rationality to jump into some kind of metaphysical intuition, as Schelling tried to do. The importance of human rationality is nowhere described with more reverence than in Hegel’s philosophy. The human mind is the principle behind both nature and culture. Everything that is, is governed by this principle: it has to be distinguished from everything else and it has to have an identity with itself, some independence in its being – at least to some degree. Nature is a rational order, culture and religion are rational orders.  Rationality is also the principle behind human society. It has an order in which a multiplicity of functions have become distinguished in professions and classes that are connected in such a way that society can function as a whole. Nationalist fervor, subjective political persuasions or group sentiments and allegions do not ground a society, only a social rationality does that.

Art too, is the product van human rationality. The beauty of a work of art depnds on the expression of its shapes and inner structures in a articulate fashion. Art without explanation is meaningless. Again the identity of a work of art can be articulated only when we distinguish it from other works of art, pinpoint its position within art history and abstract it as an object out of the context in which it is found. Yet, in principle, both in art and religion, we also see the possibility of moving beyond human rationality. As Hegel will demonstrate, the distinctions and oppositions that are so characteristic of human rational thought, are overcome in these two spheres of the Absolute Spirit. 


Of course, in the history of philosophy it has been said many times, that human rationality is finite and prone to error. Kant had argued that human reason had the possibility to move beyond the limits of experience. Whenever it did, it ran into contradictions. The doctrine of these contradictions or antinomies was called ” dialectics”! In it the illusions were unmasked that human reason would hold, if it did not put itself under the discipline of experience. 

To Hegel this meant that dialectics, i.e. running into contradictions, was just part of the nature of rationality. Every determination of thought, is a contradiction. Not just those thoughts that we judge to be beyond experience, like “god”. Every determination is a negation,as Spinoza said.  Basically this is the discovery of scepticism. Every thought or opinion or statement can be contradicted.  The sceptic then draws the conclusion that truth is impossible. A more mature scepticism however tries to understand the nature of reality with the aid of the contradictory, conflicted way our rationality has to operate. Everything that is, is determined by an inner contradiction. Nothing has a quiet, unmovable identity with itself. The finite reality is shaped by negativity from the inside out. Human beings e.g. are living creatures and they are mortal. Our mortality is not something that is added unto our essence during our life. Mortality is essential to all living beings. We are therefore negatively determined, from the inside out, by our mortality. The mortality that is the contradiction of our being alive is at the same time essential to the whole idea of living. 

The basic idea of Hegel’s dialectics is now this: it is the process in which finite rational thoughts become their own contradictions, their opposites. That is different from a philosophy that remains grounded in finite rationality. In such a philosophy we find only positive declarations  concerning the outward connections between positive statements. Our finite reason makes such connections from the outside and after these thoughts themselves have been fully formed. Dialectic thought however goes into the process in which a category of the mind, a Verstandesbestimmung, moves to its opposite from within, driven by its inner negativity. When we understand fully what was implicitly part of the meaning of a thought, e.g. Being, we become aware of the fact that the transition into its opposite has already taken place. No subjective intervention on our part is necessary to move from being into nothing. If you refrain from external reasoning – that is drawing from other principles, statements or categories that are now used as assumptions -if you just make explicit what is contained in a thought, you become aware of the fact that any content will necessarily, because of its finite nature, bring forth its opposite, its other, and that its contradiction actually expresses its own implicit conditions and limitations. 

(To be continued. Next time we will talk about the different meanings of negation in Hegel.)

The Preface: Introduction to Method

We have skipped the preface to the Philosophy of Right to get to the good stuff as soon as possible. I have assumed that readers of the PhR already have at least some idea of Hegel’s methods – dialectic, speculative thought, the difference between reasonable and rational thought etc. But of course many will be tempted to have a go at the interesting analyses of the PhR without this understanding. You might be totally bewildered by the way his analysis moves forward. Continue reading “The Preface: Introduction to Method”

Transition from Freedom to Right

At the bottom you will find two Youtube video’s about the Transition to Objective Spirit in the Philosophy of Right – par. 29-33.

  • In our inner, subjective life, with its desires and impulses, we are fully determined.
  • By an act of the ego our freedom appears on the scene in the awareness that the “I” is the formal identity of every human act : such a freedom of the ego remains, formal, implicit or “in itself.”
  • In the arbitrary will and the pursuit of happiness, we become fully aware of our freedom – now the will is “for itself.” We discover that the goal of freedom is freedom itself.

As soon as the free will takes itself explicitly as the contents of its freedom, freedom has become a unity of in itself and for itself. Now we have a unity between the concepts of freedom and its reality.

In principle, we now have made the transition between the subjective and the objective spirit. That is why we can say that “right” is the realization of freedom. It is the fact that something that exists externally, is at the same time an object of freedom. However, this transition is just “in principle.” We know that freedom must have itself as its essential contents. We have deduced that fact in the brief analysis of the will in the Introduction. But we still do not know, what this contents is. In what we want to have, in whatever we want to do, the ultimate goal must be our own liberty. But what does this in detail? How can a freedom, understood like that, be established within objective reality?

It is necessary for freedom to make itself objective, to realize itself. But in order to do so, freedom has to lose its subjective shape. The notion of freedom goes through a decisive transformation. In this transition our freedom enters into a different mode of existence. “Objective spirit” means a spirit that achieves existence within the external world. The analysis no longer rests on my awareness of what I want, choose, do not want etc. I can only be truly free, when my freedom exists before me as an objective reality. I have to be able to recognize my liberty in something external.

The subjectivity of freedom is not completely lost. Nor is the inner life of impulses and desires. We have to try to execute our freedom not beyond but within this life of desires, needs, impulses, instincts etc. my true freedom is totally engaged in the attempts to recognize itself in the world around it. My free will operates within the dimension of externality, of objective relationships. And in that objective dimension, the ultimate goal of my freedom is to realize my self-being, my spiritual nature. How can it be otherwise? Human beings are not pure spirits, they have a corporal reality, have a life of needs, desires and impulses. Human beings exist in constant interaction with other human beings. Human beings need the objective world in order to exercise their own subjectivity. Only when the world that I live in makes it possible for me to behave as a spiritual being, to be a “self”, can I achieve this. If the world I live in would be only determined by natural law, I would be unable to recognize my own freedom. (And I wouldn’t be able to recognize these natural laws themselves, but that is a different discussion.)

That is why the attempt to deny the possibility of freedom, has to presuppose that every action in the world is fully determined by the natural laws that govern its empirical reality. It has to deny the meaningfulness of spiritual acts or reduce them to the effects of unconscious impulses. Such a principle would lead to a kind of Korean autocracy, in which a total surrender of all subjectivity is demanded. On the other hand, only a society that adopts freedom as its principle of organization, can make freedom into something real. A society that understands itself as a pseudo-nature, that is not organized on the basic idea that human beings have to realize there self being, i.e. their spiritual identity, must necessarily suppress human liberty. Modern Western societies according to Hegel, are in this sense truly free societies. Whenever a society suppresses freedom, freedom necessarily takes on a purely subjective shape and can only be exercised in opposition to what ultimately organizes the society, i.e. the state.

The realization of freedom is in itself the result of a the development of the human will. But this realization also is a process. In the Philosophy of Right Hegel analyzes a series of forms or shapes of Right. These shapes are not accidental or arbitrary. There is a logic to their development.

There does exist something like an abstract realization of freedom, that remains underdeveloped and implicit. In what Hegel calls the Abstract Right, we find the first and immediate expressions of the reality of freedom: property, divided into Position, Use and Sale. In this sphere of the objective spirit, humans act like persons – bearers of rights and duties. And then we find the idea of a Contracts, the unity of two freedoms with regards to a property. And ultimately the possibility of injustice, like fraud and crime. The restoration of right is dealt with in paragraphs about retaliation, revenge and punishment.

Secondly we find the notion of morality, or the Right of Subjective Freedom. Here humans are truly subjects. Every freedom is expressive of an individual existence. In the subjectivity of our freedom, the reality of freedom is to be found. So we find different shapes of Right that show this subjectivity: Intention and Guilt; Purpose and Well-Being. Ultimately we find the full expression of morality in the notions of the Good and the Conscience.

In Abstract Right and Morality the unity of the subjectivity and the objectivity of freedom is not fully developed. We will find later on, that Hegel’s idea of social morality (Sittlichkeit) , i.e. freedom realized as a society including all its institutions, inner distinctions and forms of relations, expresses the true unity of freedom and its reality. Only as citizens of a society, can we be truly free. Ultimately the State is the realization of (our common) freedom that guarantees also the freedom of individuals as citizens.

Why does Hegel not begin then, with the State that according to him is the highest form of Right? The reason for that lies within Hegel’s methodology. In a philosophy of Right the aim is to demonstrate the developed and concrete truth of the concept of Right. Here Hegel’s peculiar (speculative dialectical) method comes into play. Truth cannot be expressed at the beginning of a systematic exposition, because then it would be merely an expression of opinion. At its best, such introductory definitions and propositions would result in an inventory of axioms, that are presuppositions of whatever follows. We might be tempted to give an historic account of the development over time of the institutions of freedom. We might also be tempted to try and define freedom and its shapes simply by some kind of direct intuitive insight. Furthermore, in our present day and age, we may be sorely tempted to think about Right only in terms of the social linguistics involved, i.e simply by the underlying grammar within the semantic field surrounding freedom. Or we might find it easier to relegate all questions of social morality to social psychology, reducing ourselves to determinism, and substituting the laws of society with the laws of social evolution.. The order of the various shapes of Right however cannot be chronological, nor can it be merely metaphysical, nor can it be merely linguistic, nor cannot merely be descriptive of some empirical reality. In any case, within Hegel’s methodology we are not allowed to start with a definition of the modern State, or of individual freedom and existing rights for that matter.

According to Hegel, truth can only be demonstrated as a result, as the completion of a series of necessary steps in the development of a concept. So we start with the least developed, most abstract, to a certain degree most unlikely definition of Right. Obviously, to reduce freedom to the power of property – and in doing so reduce all other forms of Right to a form of property – would make us lose the concreteness of the various forms of freedom. We have to start with what is more abstract, to deduce dialectically what is more concrete. Whatever is more concrete in itself, is the truth of what is less determined and concrete. In that sense Abstract Right presupposes Morality as its more concrete shape; and in the same way Morality presupposes Social Morality, and the State, as its more concrete accomplishments that are at the same time the real presuppositions of the former. The order of the logic is the inverse of the order of reality.

In the history of freedom, there are many shapes. That history produced many claims to truth, witnessed great upheavals and major changes in social life that have determined the nature of freedom within European societies. Hegel is not concerned however with this actual history. His question is, what we can recognize of the actual existence of freedom, within the history of freedom up to and including modern, Post-Revolution society. The speculative science of Right, is looking back from the position that European culture has historically acquired; but it is not reconstructing that history as such. It is reconstructing its inner dynamics, its conceptual shape, because only then can we find what is normative within that history. The history of freedom can never be the inventory of the events that produced European free societies. It has to be the understanding of what was truly normative within the difference shapes of freedom. For that reason only, can a Philosophy of Right also be a tool of critique and discernment with regard to the actual institutions, whose function should have been the enhancement of freedom. When we know and understand the normative concept of freedom, we can try to ascertain whether our social institutions actually support human liberty.

Beyond the Pursuit of Happiness

We were not supposed to act on our impulses, so everybody knows. We have been taught not to do so. Impulses and inclinations, needs and passions belong to the sphere of what Hegel calls the natural will. The natural will is identical to its determinacy.

life liberty pursuitIn the course of the satisfaction of these natural impulses etc. we move from the subjectivity of the contents, i.e. the fact that we experience these impulses as a part of our inner life, into the domain of objectivity. We posit the contents of our impulses as a purpose, as something we need to do in order to achieve gratification. Now we have a distinction between the contents of our impulses (that drove us forward) and the contents of the purpose (the goal of our actions and the means to do it), that we seek to achieve. We discussed this before: thirst drives me to posit as the purpose my drinking a cup of coffee – a free choice.

Because we consider and select means to achieve our goals and choose which impulse to act upon among many, and because we make a distinction between the impulse as such and our purposes, we are no longer simply determined by them. The natural will has now become the reflective will. I am aware of the fact that my impulses are truly mine. I am aware of the fact that I am selecting means and positing purposes and that I am doing so without being simply determined. So I find that my will is arbitrary, it is the ability to choose.

However, at this stage, the arbitrary will only has a subjective freedom. The content of my purposes is still derived from my impulses and inclinations. The reality of the arbitrary will, therefore, is subjective and accidental. It is subjective because the whole of my activity is spent on the gratification of my desires. Accidental, because there is no rational necessity to these internal desires and impulses etc.

The life of the arbitrary will is no more than an infinite series of impulses, desires, inclinations, passions, purposes, selections of given objects, experiences of satisfaction, selections of means etc. For itself, this arbitrary will is certainly free, because it knows itself to be the source of all of this, and it posits itself as willing. I know that I desire this or that, I know that I select this or that means, I know that ultimately I am the subject behind all of these activities.2018-05-03_0851

That leads to the attempt to express the fullness and totality of what the free (natural and reflective) will actually is and does. The ultimate and final category of the free will in its natural or psychological (in Hegel sense of the word) stage is expressed in the notion of happiness. Ultimately what I want is to be happy. Happiness is the universal satisfaction that is my main and universal purpose for all the particular purposes in which I translate the desires etc. that I have. With the category of happiness, I begin to understand that my free will is ultimately a self-determination, my free will basically wants myself to be free, and to be really free, i.e. to express my freedom in reality. (By actively changing the world.)

That last element is of the utmost importance. The free will does not merely strive to realize something in particular in order to be happy, it wants to realize itself as such. Happiness, even though it has this characteristic of universality, and is the summary purpose of all purposes, is still something outside of myself. I aspire to be happy because I am not. I need something outside myself to remedy this lack inside myself. That is why happiness does not fully express the meaning of freedom. That is why the liberty to pursue happiness is not a complete definition of freedom. How can the free will give itself a reality that expresses nothing but the free will?

The question now becomes: why is it not enough to understand happiness as the ultimate goal of our freedom?

After all, happiness goes beyond the mere gratification of our desires of impulses. We are no longer satisfied with momentaneous satisfaction. We aim at long-term goals. Would it not be terribly moralistic, to think that freedom has any other purpose than to achieve individual happiness? The pursuit of happiness, which requires liberty, surely is one of the foundational traits of a free and democratic society.

Hegel argues, however, that the idea of happiness has two separate elements. First of all, there is some kind of universality to the concept. Happiness goes above and beyond all particular purposes. What is, second of all, its contents? The only thing we can say is, that it is about enjoyment or satisfaction in some sense. Each and every one of us has a different concept of this satisfaction. And ultimately all of these differences arise because of differences in impulses and inclinations etc. The notion of happiness, therefore, turns out to be finite and particular. It is only formally universal, and the infinite series of particular contents contradicts this universality. For the individual it consists of an infinite series of gratifications; for society, it results in an endless chaos of individual pursuits that might be in opposition to one another. (We would be back to square one: the notion of liberty as explained by Hobbes and Kant.)

The contents of happiness lie therefore in the subjectivity of each individual. Even though we speak about the universality of the pursuit for happiness, the real content of that pursuit is something in particular. How can we find the foundation for a truly free society in the idea that each and every one must aspire to a particular form of happiness? Which implies the idea that there is no common happiness and therefore no common goal? Logically speaking, there is no true unity of content and form in this notion – the form might be universal, but the contents remain determined by particular and accidental needs and inclinations.

We can find the true concept of freedom only, when we consider the possibility that the human will is not only in itself free as we exercise it as natural will, and not only for it-self free, as we exercise it in the selection of purposes and means e.g., but must be in-and-for-itself free. It’s being-in-itself and it’s being-for-itself must be identical. The free will that determines itself as free will, the free will in which my being myself as such (my “zelf-zijn”, my “self-being”) is expressed, must be the true idea of freedom. It is the hidden ground of all the previous stages of the free will.

Instead of being determined by the object, this free will produces the object of its will.
Instead of being determined by the natural life of impulses and inclinations, this free will determines itself rationally, it determines itself by positing itself above and beyond the natural life – even in contradiction to its impulses and needs.

Instead of ultimately having just a particular content, it is truly universal – not only formally by including everyone, but also in terms of its contents: it expresses our common rationality. A free society is a society in which freedom is the common goal of everyone – not subjectively, but as objectively expressed in the institutions of that society – i.e. its laws, judicial procedures, its economic rules, the political processes and the rationality of its cultural discourse.

Only when we look at the free will in this sense, do we have a category that truly conforms to its reality. Hegel gives a simple example of this logical requirement. Let us say that the body is the reality, and the soul is the concept. Truth within philosophy implies that a concept is in conformity with its reality. The unity of body and soul, therefore, is a true existence. A dead person is a corpse, and no longer a true person. In the same manner, the true will is the conformity of its concept and its reality, its form and its contents. The truly free will wants its content to be identical to itself. A freedom determined from the outside is dead, i.e. is an unfree freedom, a self-contradictory liberty that destroys itself in determinism or Terror. So what is freedom? What is the decisive characteristic of freedom? It is not happiness, nor the liberty that allows me to pursue that happiness. It is the freedom that wants nothing else but itself as freedom and is able to express that as such.

In this notion of freedom, there is no longer any dependence on external subjectivity or objectivity. It is therefore no longer a subject of freedom in opposition to what is external, i.e. what is objective for it. But it is the inclination to make itself into an object for itself – so that it recognizes itself in the object. (Which, in so far as it is an object, is at the same time distinct from it. Being-itself-in-its-other.) That is the absolute inclination of the free spirit. Now, all of this is still on an abstract level. By arguing that the free will finds its truth in the fact that it wants nothing other than itself as such, we have merely discussed its form. But it allows us to define what we mean by “right.” That is the important step that Hegel takes in paragraph 29.

“29. An existent of any sort embodying the free will, this is what right is. Right therefore is by definition freedom as Idea.”