Thought and Reality In Hegel’s System. Gustavus Watts Cunningham 1910
In criticism of Hegel’s position that the science of Philosophy can adequately express the nature of the ultimately real, Mr. McTaggart says: “Philosophy itself is knowledge, it is neither action nor feeling. And there seems nothing in Hegel’s account of it to induce us to change the meaning of the word in this respect.” I quote this criticism because it contains an assumption which I wish to challenge, and thus sets the problem for the present chapter. The assumption is that philosophical thought, as Hegel defines it, is bare cognition to which the other aspects of the mental life bear only an external relation, that it is simply one among other elements coordinate with it, and that, consequently, it can at most be only a mediating activity among these other elements of experience which forever lie beyond and external to it. It is the justice of this assumption which the following pages will call in question. We have already seen, in the preceding chapter, that such a position is foreign to Hegel’s system, and that philosophy for him is action and feeling as well as cognition. But it may be well to emphasize the fact from another point of view. So we now address ourselves to the task of establishing the thesis that Hegel’s account of philosophy does force us to give to the word a meaning essentially different from that which the above criticism attaches to it. We shall support this thesis with an exposition of the process of philosophical knowledge as it is presented in Hegel’s doctrine of mediation and negation.
In the preface to the Phenomenology of Sprit, Hegel has been at pains to point out that, if we are to appreciate what he means by philosophy and the standpoint which it assumes, we must make an effort to understand what he means by absolute knowledge and by mediation. In the preceding chapter we investigated the nature and significance of absolute knowledge. And that investigation showed us that absolute knowledge is simply Hegel’s definition of the essential nature of thought as he uses the term, and that thought as thus defined is more than abstract cognition since it is both genuinely objective and truly universal.
In the present chapter it is our aim to investigate the nature of mediation, to learn if we can what Hegel has to say about the activity of thought and about its function as a mediating process. The discussion here will, presumably, elaborate further and strengthen the conclusions which we have already reached, by showing how philosophical knowledge, in the Hegelian system, is more than a mere mediating activity among phenomena external to it.
It may be helpful at the beginning to state in a general way the order of the discussion before us. No detailed account of the dialectical process, nor any defense of the dialectical method with reference to the development of the categories in the Logic will be attempted here. Our present purpose is a less ambitious one. We shall simply state, as best we may, what Hegel means by thought as a process of mediation, and what is his real contention when he says that negation is the vital and potent element in this process. In accordance with this purpose, therefore, we shall begin our study with a consideration of immediacy and mediation; and this will lead us on to a discussion of negation, which we shall be forced to defend against certain misconceptions that have given rise to some unjustifiable criticisms of Hegel. Our general conclusion will be that thought, as the Hegelian system defines it from this point of view, is a process of mediation which, because of the negative element involved in it, makes it possible for us to say that reality is comprehended in thought; for its universals assume the form, not of abstract indeterminate immediacy, but of concrete determinate immediacy, that is, individuality.
Before passing directly to a consideration of Hegel’s conception of mediation and immediacy, steps should be taken to avoid a possible error of interpretation. And this precaution will also serve us as a point of departure in our discussion. Absolutely pure immediacy, immediacy exclusive of mediation, is meaningless for Hegel. This, of course, follows at once from what was said in the preceding chapter concerning the objectivity of thought: these is no indeterminate given. A few quotations, however’ will settle the matter. “We must reject the opposition between an independent immediacy in the contents or facts of consciousness and an equally independent mediation, supposed incompatible with the former. The incompatibility is a mere assumption, an arbitrary assertion.”  Again, we read: “There is nothing, nothing in heaven, in nature, in spirit, or anywhere else which does not contain both immediacy and mediation.” The whole of the second part of the Logic, we are told, is “a discussion of the intrinsic and self-affirming unity of immediacy and mediation.” Only the abstract understanding separates the two, and then it finds itself utterly helpless to reconcile them. It is the business of philosophy, however, to disclose the fallacy involved in such arbitrary procedure, and to bring to consciousness the fact of the essential inseparability of that which is immediate and that which is mediated. “Even if we take up an empirical, an external attitude, it will be found that there is nothing at all that is immediate, that there is nothing to which only the quality of immediacy belongs to the exclusion of that of mediation, but that what is immediate is likewise mediated, and that immediacy itself is essentially mediated.” From these explicit statements it is unmistakably clear that, whatever Hegel may mean by immediacy and mediation, they are indissolubly associated with each other.
The conclusion to which we are thus led is that immediacy is the result of at least partial mediation, or, as Hegel prefers to say, that “immediacy itself is essentially mediated.” The degree of truth to which the various stages of immediacy can lay claim depends upon the amount, or rather the exhaustiveness, of the mediation involved. That is to say, imperfect mediation results in an immediacy which is only partially true; immediacy becomes entirely true only when it is exhaustively mediated.
This fact might be illustrated by any category of the Logic. Being, for example, is really viewed in its truth only when it is seen in the light of the Absolute Idea; and the same is true of all other lower forms of immediacy.
The Absolute Idea itself is the ultimately true immediate solely because it is the perfectly mediated. The nature of true immediacy will thus appear as we determine the essential nature of the process of mediation of which it is the result.
A point which will be of great importance to us when we come to inquire concerning Hegel’s doctrine of the ultimately real emerges here.
We have just said that the completely mediated is for Hegel the ultimately true. Now when we remember that he identifies the ultimately true and the ultimately real, we are led at once to the important conclusion that the real is the result of this process of mediation. As Hegel views the matter, the various stages of immediacy are more or less concrete according as the mediation involved in each is more nor less exhaustive; the completely mediated immediacy is nothing more nor less than the concreteness of reality itself. The Absolute Idea is an immediacy which is completely mediated; it is therefore the ultimately real category, the very expression of reality itself. Reality thus is a matter of mediation. This point will serve as the basis of our discussion of Hegel’s doctrine of the nature of reality. But for the present we are interested to work out the nature of this process of mediation itself.
If we turn to the preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, we find there Hegel’s formal definition of the process of mediation. Mediation, he there tells us, is “nothing other than self-uniformity (Sichselbstgleichheit) developing itself; or it is reflection into itself, the moment of the Ego which exists for itself (des fürsichseienden Ich), pure negativity, or, degraded from its pure abstraction, simple becoming.”  A page or two preceding this passage he asserts that, according to his view, the whole matter reduces to this: “Truth is to be conceived of and expressed, not as Substance, but as Subject. At the same time it is to be noted that substantiality includes in itself both that which is the immediacy of knowledge itself, namely, the universal, and that which is the immediacy for knowledge, namely, Being....” The first of these passages gives us Hegel’s conception of the nature and characteristics of the process of mediation; the second emphasizes the nature of the result of the process. Taken together, the meaning of the two seems to be this. If we define truth as substance, our definition is so far right; both thought and being, both the particular and the universal, are included in the definition. But the inadequacy of this definition lies in the fact that It fails to explain satisfactorily the relation of these two aspects of experiences. Thought and being are left existing side by side, as it were, in a blank identity devoid of differences, which identity, like Schelling’s, “is absolutely presupposed without any attempt being made to show that this is the truth.” The attempt to show that this is the truth inevitably leads us, Hegel thinks, to the standpoint of subject, to the conception of identity in difference which is the central fact of consciousness. Now the process of exhibiting this necessity is the process of mediation, which, when the goal is once reached, appears in its true light as the expression of the interrelation of the parts of an organic whole which itself exists for itself. When viewed from the standpoint of the lower stages of immediacy, mediation seems merely the expression of an external relation among phenomena more or less independent of each other; but when it is looked at in its real nature, when it is viewed sub specie aeternitatis, it is seen to be the expression of the necessary and vital interconnection of phenomena which themselves have significance only as parts of a comprehensive unity. Summarizing, then, we may say that the process of mediation is a development towards greater determinateness and the progressive substitution of necessary and vital, for seemingly accidental and arbitrary, connections among phenomena; and such a development is from the abstract to the concrete, its final goal being the concreteness of reality itself. As Hegel himself elsewhere expresses it: “The progress of development is equivalent to further determination, and this means further immersion in and a fuller grasp of the Idea itself.” A glance at Hegel’s criticisms of Jacobi’s doctrine of immediacy will give us an insight into his own doctrine of mediation It will accordingly be well for us to notice this criticism before passing on. But first let us remind ourselves of what in general are the nature and significance of Jacobi’s doctrine.
The chief significance of Jacobi’s doctrine, for our purposes at any rate, is its insistence that after all there is an ultimate reality with which we must somehow come in contact. “Reason,” he. tells us, “plainly presupposes the true, as the outer sense space and inner sense time, and exists only as the faculty of this presupposition. So that where this presupposition is wanting there is no reason The true must therefore be possessed by man just as certainly as he possesses reason.” Reason “affords us a knowledge of supersensible objects, that is, affords us assurance of their reality and truth.” This insistence upon the ultimate intelligibility of reality is an important point in Jacobi’s philosophy, and Hegel does not fail to call attention to it. But, notwithstanding Hegel’s recognition of this point, he yet criticizes Jacobi, as he does Kant, for denying in fact that reality can be known. And we are compelled to admit the justice of the criticism. For Jacobi’s only medium through which reality can be known, though at times he calls it reason as above, is in point of fact different from reason; it is something which lies beyond reason, a kind of intuition, a form of immediate knowledge from which all mediation is excluded. From this form of knowing the categories of thought are, to some extent at least, banished as useless. Of course, this is no place to enter into the disputed question whether, in his conception of immediacy, Jacobi attempted to get rid entirely of the categories of thought; to solve this problem is not necessary for our present purpose. However the problem may be solved, there can be no doubt that Jacobi contemned mediation in his grasp of that immediacy which is the ultimately real, and that he arrived at his goal only by means of a salto mortale, baldly asserting that “sometime or other every philosophy must have recourse to a miracle.” Now, from Hegel’s point of view, this Jacobian position, if true, would be the death-knell of all philosophy and would reduce us to absolute relativity. It corroborates the ‘comfortable view’ that study, painsThought taking effort and diligent application are not in the least essential to the search after truth: truth is given, is thrust upon us in immediate, intuitive perception. But this is a dangerous attitude, Hegel urges. It may be that God gives to His beloved in sleep; but, so far as we can see, that which is given in sleep is usually discovered to be simply the wares of sleep. In less figurative language, if truth is a matter of feeling, however high above reason the feeling may be supposed to stand, then it is relative and the search for it is useless: individual perception, immediate intuition, or what not, is too prone to cater to individual prejudices and prepossessions. “What has its root only in my feelings, is only for me; it is mine, but not its own; it has no independent existence in and for itself.” Hence, if ultimate reality is and can be only an object of feeling, whether that feeling be called intuition, faith, immediate certainty, or ultra-rational perception, then there is absolutely no reason why the real should not be denied objectivity; on the contrary, there seems to be every reason to urge that it is reduced to purely subjective terms. Hegel makes merry over this predicament of the Jacobian philosophy, and sarcastically exclaims: “Truth is in a bad way, when all metaphysics is done away with, and the only philosophy acknowledged is not a philosophy at all!” But fortunately for truth it is not in this sad predicament. In supporting this position Jacobi overlooks the fact that short-cuts in philosophy are as useless and hurtful as they are in any other field where assiduous and patient toil is an absolute requisite. Philosophy, the discovery of truth, does not depend upon a miracle, as Jacobi asserts, but upon hard work. Jacobi was led to his false position by his misconception of the nature of thought as a mediating activity. This Hegel sees clearly and criticizes sharply and decisively. As Jacobi conceives the matter, the mediation of thought is merely a progression from finite to finite, from conditioned to conditioning which is in turn conditioned. It is a process of mediation among phenomena quasi-mechanically related to each other; thus it can be nothing but a regresses ad infinitum. The end of this infinite regress cannot be anything more than a blank abstraction, the empty absolute, a barren identity of thought and being. The ultimately real must lie beyond such knowledge, since to know it would be to limit it and a limited absolute is a contradiction in terms. Thus there is an impassable gulf set between the finite and conditioned and the infinite and unconditioned, between the realm of that which seems and that which really is. And the process of mediation is arbitrarily confined to the former sphere. True immediacy, therefore, that immediacy which can be predicated of reality, must exclude all mediation. So the real task of philosophy is to leap the gulf which cannot be bridged; and it accomplishes this miracle in order to find outside of the ken of human knowledge that which makes human knowledge possible, namely, the ultimately true. But, Hegel argues, this ridiculous contention is based upon a false view of the mediating activity of thought. True mediation is not external mediation. Instead of leading only from the conditioned to the conditioning in an infinite regress, it transforms the conditioned into the self-conditioning and so discloses the infinite and unconditioned just within the realm of the finite and conditioned. Likewise, true immediacy does not consist in transcending mediation; on the contrary, it is the subsumption of mediation, the unity in a higher synthesis of mediated factors. We may put the whole matter in Hegel’s own words: “Immediate knowledge, like mediated knowledge, is entirely one-sided. What is true is their unity, an immediate knowledge which is likewise mediated, something mediated which is likewise simple in itself, which is immediate reference to itself... Here is union, in which the difference of those characteristics is done away with, while at the same time, being preserved ideally, they have the higher destiny of serving as the pulse of vitality, the impulse, movement, unrest of the spiritual as of the natural life.” A brief statement of the contrast between Jacobi and Hegel on this point will serve to put in relief Hegel’s view of the matter. Jacobi would fully agree with Hegel that “the only content which can be held to be the truth is one not mediated with something else, not limited by other things.” And from this both would agree in drawing the conclusion that the ultimately true must be immediate But here they would part company; of the nature of this immediate they would have exactly antithetical conceptions. By immediate Jacobi would mean that which is given independently of all mediation whatsoever; while Hegel would mean by it a completely mediated content, a content “mediated by itself, where mediation and immediate reference-to-self coincide.” Whereas Jacobi conceives of ultimate reality as the postulate of immediate intuition, Hegel defines it as the result of mediating thought: to the one, true immediacy is void of any trace of mediation; while to the other, it is nothing but perfect mediation. This difference between the two thinkers concerning immediacy, is, of course, due to the fact that their views of the mediating activity of thought are different. Jacobi conceives of the process as one of simple negation, which passes from content to content without being any the richer for its wanderings; it forever pursues a goal which eternally lies beyond its grasp. Hegel, on the contrary, views the process, not as one of mere negation, but as one of determinate negation; one which “holds fast the positive in the negative,” includes its content within itself, and passes by means of the negative into a higher synthesis in which is preserved the truth of the mediated factors. And this brings us to a consideration of negation, that aspect of thought which gives it its possibility as a mediating activity. I think it may be justly said that an understanding of this Hegelian conception is absolutely essential to a correct appreciation of the system. As the author himself says more than once, it is the very soul and vitality of the dialectic; it is that by virtue of which the dialectic leads us to the concrete fullness of the Absolute Idea itself. Let us first try to grasp its significance, and we shall then be in a position to see how it has been misunderstood. It has been said that in order to understand Hegel properly one must read him backwards. This is nowhere more imperative than in an attempt to see what he means by the negative in thought. He tells us in the Logic, “To mediate is to take something as a beginning and to go onward to a second thing: so that the existence of this second thing depends on our having reached it from something else contradistinguished from it.” But this is by no means all there is to the process as Hegel defines it. He maintains further that this “development of one thing out of another means that what appears as sequel and derivative is rather the absolute prius of what it appears to be mediated by.” In this statement we find set forth, it would seem, the fundamental aspect of the dialectical method: at any rate, here we find given us the right point of view for regarding the process. That which comes first finds its explanation in what follows; what seems to be product is really ground; truth is a last result and not a first principle. Mediation is thus a passage from one object to another which takes place by simply making explicit the inner connection and the essential oneness of the objects.
This point we have already dwelt upon above.
Assuming now this point of view, we are in a position to see what Hegel means by the significance and power of the negative in thought.
Simple relation to another is, for Hegel, negation: in so far as an object refers beyond itself it involves negation. From this it follows that everything involves negation, that is, every finite object; for by its very nature every finite object refers beyond itself. Hence the potency of negation in the dialectic. The particular points beyond itself for its explanation and completion, it finds its ‘truth’ in the other. Taken as it is given, it is isolated, indeterminate, abstract; but by the power of the negative inherent in it, that is, because of its abstract indeterminateness, it leads on to and passes into its context, and so becomes less indeterminate. Its other, however, in terms of which the object finds its explanation, is in its turn abstract and leads on to its other for its determination; and so the process goes on. Reference beyond self, negation, is thus the power that keeps in motion the machinery of the dialectic. This reference beyond itself, however, is not externally imposed upon the object; it is not the expression of a relation between itself and another essentially different from it. Rather is this reference beyond self the very expression of the deepest nature of the object; the other is not an indifferent other, but the other in which the object finds its true self. The reference beyond self, the negation inherent in the object, is just the indication of the fact that the true self of the object lies elsewhere than in its own factual existence.
Thus the negative leads us ever to concrete universality; for the form proves to be the “indigenous becoming of the concrete content,” and so the process is one of self-determination in which the particular finds its universal and the universal its particular. But, in order to see that negation does actually lead us to such a result, it is essential that the exact function of the negative in thought be kept clearly in view. Hegel criticizes Jacobi very severely for neglecting the negative in his doctrine of immediate knowledge; and the chief fault he has to find with Condillac’s development of the categories is that in the development the negative aspect of thought is entirely overlooked.
So it will be well for us to state explicitly and discuss the two points upon which Hegel lays stress in his doctrine of negation. The first of these points is that negation is negative. The second is that negation is positive. We begin with the first of these two points.
It is necessary for us to remember, says Hegel, that thought really is a process of negation. This is just the point which he has in mind in the above mentioned criticism of Condillac. He grants that Condillac posits the right point of departure, namely, immediate experience: the cardinal error of Condillac’s procedure, he urges, is that the negative involved in the development of the categories is completely forgotten. Perhaps it will be well to quote the passage here: “In Condillac’s method there is an unmistakable intention to show how the several modes of mental activity could be made intelligible without losing sight of mental unity, and to exhibit their necessary interconnection. But the categories employed in doing so are of a wretched sort. Their ruling principle is that the sensible is taken (and with justice) as the prius or the initial basis, but that the later phases that follow this starting-point present themselves as emerging in a solely affirmative manner, and the negative aspect of mental activity, by which this material is transmuted into mind and destroyed as a sensible, is misconceived and overlooked. As the theory of Condillac states it, the sensible is not merely the empirical first, but is left as if it were the true and essential foundation.” Now what does this criticism mean? Of course we are not concerned to inquire here whether it is a just criticism of Condillac’s theory.
Apart from this theory, and expressed in general terms, the criticism means, it would seem, simply that, in the nature of the case, to think the world is virtually to deny that its first immediate aspect is the ultimately true. Thought is not exclusively affirmative; it is negative as well, and its negative function is to transform the immediately given. Expressed in Hegel’s own words: “To think the phenomenal world rather means to recast its form and transmute it into a universal. And thus the action of thought has also a negative effect upon its basis: and the matter of sensation, when it receives the stamp of universality, at once loses its first and phenomenal shape.” That is, all thinking experience is a process of interpretation in which there is and can be no bare immediacy; for thinking ipso facto involves the transcending of the particular and the transformation of it into the form of the universal. Such, then, is the negative function of thought: and all thought is negative. To think the world is to deny its reality in the form of abstract particularity; its purely immediate aspect is by thought negated.
But, be it noted, the particular is not merely denied; in a very important sense it is also affirmed. And this brings us to the second point, that thought is positive as well as negative. As an abstract particular, qua abstract to think it is to negate it; as a universalized particular, qua universalized, to think it is to affirm it. Reason, in short, is positive as well as negative; and, what is more important still, is positive by virtue of the very fact of its negativity. “To hold fast the positive in the negative is the most important aspect of rational knowledge.” Hegel cannot be accused of having neglected to state very definitely what he means by this positive significance of negation. In the introduction to the larger Logic he tells us that what is needed to secure the dialectical movement of thought “is to realize that the negative is just as much positive, or that contradiction does not dissolve into zero, into blank nothingness, but only into the negation of its particular content.” And he goes on to say: “We must realize that such negation is not total negation, but only negation of a determinate content; consequently it is determinate negation. In other words, the result contains essentially that from which it results....
So the result, that is, the negation, being a definite negation has a content: it is a new concept or notion, but a higher, richer notion than the preceding one which has been enriched by its own negation or opposite.
The new notion contains both the old one and its negation, and is thus at the same time the unity of the older with its opposite.” This we find at the beginning of the Logic; at the very end we find the author emphasizing exactly the same point. The negative, he there tells us, is indeed “the negative, but of a positive which it includes. It is the other, not of something to which it is indifferent, else it would be no other.... It is the other in itself, the other of another, and therefore it includes its other within itself.” These passages are so very explicit little need be added by way of interpretation. Their unquestionable meaning is that negation is not to be thought of as abstract contradiction, but as affirmative negation – concrete synthesis. Negation is not merely the tendency of the finite category to negate itself, to pass into its abstract opposite or other; it is not a bare denial of thesis by its antithesis. Rather is it the tendency of the finite category to complete itself, to pass into its other where lies its own true nature; it is a denial of the thesis, which is at the same time a synthesis of the thesis and its formal opposite. Thus it is that the negative has a very positive import.
This is a very vital point upon which Hegel is here insisting. Real negation must be significant negation: the infinite judgment, we must agree with Hegel, is a ‘nonsensical curiosity’ of formal logic. As Mr.
Bradley has well put it: “A something that is only not something else, is a relation that terminates in an impalpable void, a reflection thrown upon empty space. It is a mere non-entity which can not be real.” All significant negation ipso facto has a positive import; it presupposes a system within which the negative is to fall, a unity of differences, and within the system negation affirms, more or less explicitly, some really significant conclusion about the unity. Bare negation simply denies identity of contents that have nothing in common, and is consequently a mere tautology; significant negation, on the other hand, denies identity of contents which are in some respects one, and so asserts real difference.
Of course, if disjunction within the unity is exhaustive, negation may to all intents and purposes be affirmation, if only two alternatives are possible, for example, the denial of the one is the affirmation of the other. It is indeed true that negation may carry with it very little positive significance: the judgment, ‘This is not black,’ tells us practically nothing so far as the actual color of the object under consideration is concerned. But if the judgment is really a significant one, if it has any meaning at all, it partially at least introduces a determination into the universe of discourse by telling us, for example, that the subject of the judgment is a colored object, and in so far it gives us positive knowledge of the object of interest. And this negation approximates to direct affirmation as the differences within the system in which it falls are more sharply defined – it is to be noted that this very definition may be the result of negation; negative instances are always more than negative.
Ultimately, from the denial of blackness there might arise positive knowledge concerning the actual color of the object of judgment.
Now in view of the above considerations we can more clearly see what Hegel means by the constant assertion that the negative is the very soul and vitality of thought. Thought is at once analytic and synthetic; it does not first negate and then synthesize, but it synthesizes in its negation.
It denies abstract unrelatedness, and affirms and defines complex interrelatedness among phenomena. It rejects the unrelated particular and the blank universal as alike indefinable and meaningless; it asserts the necessity of identity in difference, of unity within multiplicity. Thought as a process of mediation is thus of a two-fold nature: it is the denial of a world of unrelated elements, and the affirmation of the world as concrete totality. Such is the double function of negation: it denies the abstract and affirms the concrete. Because thought is negative, it drives us from the standpoint of immediate sense experience and forces us to seek the eternal and true elsewhere; because thought is positive in its negation, it perforce “produces the universal and seizes the particular in it.” Thus, by its very nature, thought is a process of mediation which gives as a result, not mere abstract generalization, but real determination – the concrete individual.
I know of no better summary of Hegel’s view concerning the negative in thought than the one which he himself has given in the preface to the first edition of the larger Logic: “Reason is negative and dialectical, in that it dissolves the determinations of the understanding into nothing; it is positive in that it produces the universal and preserves (begreift) the particular in it. As the understanding used to be taken as something separated from reason in general, so dialectical reason used to be taken as something separated from positive reason. But in its true nature reason is mind (Geist), which is higher than both cognitive (verständige) reason and rational understanding. Mind is the negative, that which constitutes the quality of dialectical reason as well as of the understanding.
It negates simplicity and so, like the understanding, posits determinate difference; but it also destroys this difference and so is dialectical. Its result, however, is not mere emptiness, but is just as much positive; thus it returns to and establishes the first simplicity, which now is a universal concrete in itself.” Our conclusion, then, concerning Hegel’s doctrine of the process of thought as dialectical is that thought is a process of negative mediation.
As a mediating activity, thought is not limited to the finite and conditioned as those who appeal to the necessity of immediate knowledge would have us believe. On the contrary, its very mediation is the definition of reality; by relating it defines, and by negating it affirms. In other words, the process of thought is the progressive explication of the implicit, the disclosure of the essential nature of the objects of knowledge Negation is not construed in terms of formal contradiction; it is that function of the dialectic by virtue of which it leads ultimately to the essence of reality. However faultily Hegel may be thought to have worked out this conception in the Logic, its illuminating suggestiveness for any theory of knowledge cannot be denied and should not be overlooked. Perhaps enough has been said about this Hegelian doctrine of negation.
But, like most of Hegel’s teachings, it has not escaped misconstruction at the hands of the critics. So it may not be amiss, at the conclusion of our exposition, to add a few words in reply to some of the most characteristic criticisms; not, indeed, for controversial purposes, but in the hope that the attempt to set Hegel right in the eyes of his critics will at least serve to call attention to the fact that another interpretation of him is possible.
The criticisms of Haym and James seem unquestionably to rest upon an entirely false notion of what Hegel means by negation. Haym seems to think that Hegel absurdly contended that the essence of things consists in their being contradictory; and he contrasts this supposed position of Hegel’s with the Herbartian principle that the way to truth lies through the elimination of contradiction. Such an interpretation evidently takes it for granted that Hegel can mean by contradiction, negation, nothing more than what formal logic means by it, namely, sheer incompatibility and absolute opposition; to all appearances, the critic is innocent of the fact that negation or contradiction, as Hegel is at great pains to define it, is just the doing away with bare negation, abstract opposition, and that the term embodies Hegel’s unwearied insistence that formal contradiction has no significance when applied to reality.
Naturally the criticism is no more significant than the assumption upon which it leans for support. The same oversight is at the basis of Professor James’s criticism of this Hegelian conception, in a characteristic discussion “On Some Hegelisms,” in his volume of popular lectures on philosophy entitled The Will to Believe. At a very dramatic point in this essay Hegel is presented to us, standing amidst a jarring, jolting world of incoherent facts, frantically lifting ‘vain hands of imprecation’ at the wild and tumultuous scene before him. “But hark! What wondrous strain is this that steals upon his ear? Muddle! is it anything but a peculiar sort of transparency? Is not jolt passage? Is friction other than a kind of lubrication? Is not a chasm a filling? – a queer kind of filling, but a filling still. Why seek for a glue to hold things together when their very falling apart is the only glue you need? Let all that negation which seemed to disintegrate the universe be the mortar that combines it, and the problem stands solved.” These strictures are apparently supposed to be a real criticism of Hegel, but the absurdity against which they are directed first saw the light when they themselves were penned. It is certain that such an absurd position as the one here criticized cannot justly be attributed to Hegel; it is a caricature of Hegel’s real position. The ‘glue’ that binds the world together is, in Hegel’s view of the matter, not the eternal falling apart of objects, but simply their necessary interconnectedness; if you attempt to separate them, they will not stay put. Nor is it that negation which disintegrates the universe that Hegel uses as the ‘mortar’ to combine it; it is that negation which, because it is as much positive as negative, does actually combine it. After all, it would appear that one is forced to admit that Hegel is more than a superficial thinker trying to palm off on a long-suffering public palpable absurdities.
Trendelenburg’s criticism of Hegel on this point is more serious and, one is inclined to say, more significant than the preceding criticisms, but it seems no less fallacious. This critic triumphantly forces Hegel into the following dilemma: “Either the negation, through which the dialectic development to the second and third moments is mediated, is logical negation (A, not-A) – in which case nothing determinate is produced in the second moment and no synthesis is given in the third; or else the opposition is a real one – in which case it cannot be attained by logical means, and consequently the dialectic is not the dialectic of pure thought.” Here it is evident that the critic is at least aware that two kinds of opposition or negation are possible, namely, logical and real; and in this respect his criticism differs from the preceding ones But, like these others, Trendelenburg’s criticism rests upon an assumption the validity of which he does not attempt to establish. The assumption in this case is that Hegel has no right to claim that the dialectic of pure thought can involve material opposition. This assumption is based upon a further assumption that pure thought and formal thought (abstract cognition) are one. If we are willing to grant this second assumption, then the above dilemma exhausts the possibilities and so accomplishes its purpose; in the nature of the case formal opposition or negation is not material opposition. But if we maintain with Hegel that form and matter are one and inseparable, and that real thought, so far from being merely formal thought confined to the magic circle of the impotent universal, actually does express the nature of its object, then the critic’s dilemma is not exhaustive and so loses its significance; in this event, formal opposition becomes a mere abstraction, and dialectical negation, the negation of what Hegel calls pure thought, becomes ipso facto real opposition.
So it would seem that before the critic undertook to annihilate the dialectic with an ‘either-or’ proposition, he should have come to an understanding with the author concerning the nature of that thought of which the dialectic is the expression. The whole problem is whether pure thought, as Hegel uses the term, does involve real opposition; and this must be argued, not assumed at the beginning.
Mr. McTaggart’s contention that negation loses import as the dialectic advances from the more abstract to the more concrete categories implies the same general misconception of the nature of negation. In his opinion negation is very prominent in the earlier categories, while in the later categories it has almost entirely disappeared. And he seeks to establish this interpretation by investigating the movement of the dialectic in the categories of Being, and by contrasting the movement there with the movement in the categories of the Notion. It is not our present purpose to inquire whether this is or is not a correct account of the dialectic as it is actually worked out in the Logic. The point of interest now is the fact that negation, as Mr. McTaggart implicitly conceives it, is not negation as we have seen Hegel define it above. According to the critic thesis and antithesis, in the earlier categories of the Logic, are opposed to each other in a more or less mechanical fashion and are more or less externally joined together by means of the synthesis; but, in the later categories, this abstract opposition is wanting. Now to go from this fact (granting for the sake of the argument that it is a fact) to the conclusion that negation becomes less significant as the dialectic advances is clearly to identify negation with abstract opposition The argument is this: in the categories of Being, antithesis is the logical opposite of thesis, and so here we find negation; in the categories of the Notion, antithesis and thesis are no longer sheer incompatibles, antithesis defines thesis, and therefore the negation formerly existing between them has disappeared. In this argument sheer incompatibility and negation are obviously used synonymously. But, as we have already seen, this sheer incompatibility is not Hegel’s conception of negation. From his point of view negation does not simply negate; its nature is not exhausted in bare opposition. On the contrary, it always presupposes a positive ground and so is in a very important sense positive. All genuinely significant negation carries with it a positive import; bare negation is a meaningless tautology. Hence it follows that, if the antithesis is to be a true negative, a dialectical negative, as Hegel says it is, then it must to a degree at least define the thesis; and the more perfectly it does this, the more significant a negative does it become. Thus, even accepting Mr. McTaggart’s account of the general nature and procedure of the dialectic as true, still we are forced to reject his conclusion. As Hegel conceives the negative, it progressively becomes, not a less and less, but a more and more important factor in the dialectical process; so far from finally disappearing entirely, it ever grows more explicit and more emphatic.
And this, one is inclined to think, is the true description of the matter: negation gains in positive import as the universe of discourse becomes more determinate.
Finally, Mr. Bradley’s implied criticism of Hegel on this point seems open to the same general criticism as the above. “The law of Contradiction,” he says, “has had the misfortune to be flatly denied from a certain theory of the nature of things. So far is that law (it has been contended) from being the truth, that in the nature of things contradiction exists.” Now I submit that this statement, as a criticism of the Hegelian theory, is beside the mark. Hegel does not deny the validity of the law of contradiction taken in its abstract and formal sense, that is, as the statement of the relation which exists between logical contradictories. A unitary whole whose elements are sheer logical disparates is, I think we may safely say, as genuine a non-entity for Hegel as it is for anyone else. What Hegel does deny, however, is that such abstract contradiction finds a place in reality; and he is prepared to argue that when we attribute it to reality we are guilty of attempting the impossible task of making reality square with the principles of our abstract and formal logic. What he insists upon is that we must define contradiction more concretely, if we would apply the category to the real; and this more concrete definition he gives us in his doctrine of negation. But this position does not necessarily touch the validity (formal validity) of the law of contradiction at all as Mr. Bradley himself is willing to admit. “In the object and within the whole,” he tells us, “the truth may be that we never really do have these disparates. We only have moments which would be incompatible if they really were separate, but, conjoined together, have been subdued into something within the character of the whole If we so can understand the identity of opposites – and I am not sure that we may not do so – then the law of Contradiction flourishes untouched. If, in coming into one, the contraries as such no longer exist, then where is the contradiction?”  Although it is questionable whether Mr. Bradley stands consistently by this position in his theory of knowledge, we certainly are justified in attributing it to Hegel. So, granting this, it would seem that, on the critic’s own showing, Hegel is free from the charge of having ‘flatly denied’ the significance of the law of contradiction. He had no quarrel with this principle, as a principle of formal logic; I am persuaded that he, as well as his critic, was fully conscious of the fact that “it has not a tooth with which to bite any one.” He respected its toothless estate and had no reason, and, so far as I have been able to see, no inclination, to rob it of its legitimate claims, ‘absurdly feeble’ though they surely are. What he was anxious to do was to make the formal principle conscious of its absurdly feeble condition, and to rejuvenate it by bringing it into vital touch with concrete reality. As the statement of the blank opposition of disparates the principle is indeed abstract and impotent; as the negative of the Notion it is the very pulse of the life of reality itself. This, as I comprehend it, is the position of Hegel with reference to the law of contradiction; and, if I read Mr. Bradley aright, it differs only in terminology from his own view of the matter.
The main points which this chapter has attempted to establish are the following. Hegel insists that immediacy and mediation are inseparable, that all immediacy implies mediation, and that the immediacy of reality involves complete mediation. But this is not to identify the immeThought diacy of reality with the abstractions of science. For the process of mediation, as Hegel defines it, is a process of determinate negation which reduces experience to an ordered and systematic whole; it affirms as well as denies, and indeed affirms by denying. In short, it is the principle within experience which makes of experience a cosmos and not a chaos.
A completely mediated immediacy, that is, reality, is, therefore, just completely organized experience. This negative within thought is not merely negative; it is a negative which annuls the false immediacy only because it is ever leading us onwards to the true immediacy. The many criticisms which are directed against Hegel on this point overlook this fact, and unwarrantedly assume that he means by negation abstract contradiction.