The Meaning of Hegel's Logic

II: The Meaning of “Being”

Being, the First Division of Hegel's Logic, in terms of the theory of cognition, is the first stage in the process by which people arrive at knowledge of the world.

In the study of philosophy, Being always denotes the "historical context" - the whole social, technical, cultural, political context in which the philosophy arises, and its position within that context.

When we say that the Logic is also a theory of the development of science and culture on the historical scale, we should make the proviso that it should not be used (as it tended to be by Hegel) as a straitjacket into which the real history of thought must be squeezed. Nevertheless, this aspect of the Logic brings out in especially clear form that each stage of the Logic is a self-sufficient and valid world-outlook ["a systematic whole of thought-terms", Shorter Logic §86n]. The Logic works out the basis of each outlook, its inner contradiction and where it leads to. Thus, the Logic also provides an approach to understanding different personalities, different viewpoints and political or social tendencies and methods which co-exist within a given situation.

In the history of philosophy the different stages of the logical idea assume the shape of successive systems, each based on a particular definition of the Absolute. As the logical Idea is seen to unfold itself in a process from the abstract to the concrete, so in the history of philosophy the earliest systems are the most abstract, and thus at the same time the poorest. The relation too of the earlier to the later systems of philosophy is much like the relation of the corresponding stages of the logical Idea: in other words, the earlier are preserved in the later: but subordinated and submerged. Shorter Logic §86n].

Being - Notion - Idea

The philosophy of Being is first of all "awareness". In this century it is the point of view expressed by, for example, Krishnamurti, and is strongly present in the martial arts; among the popular applied psychologists "active listening" closely expresses the standpoint of Being. It is also called seriality - "one damn thing after another".

Pure Being is the world an instant before you see it, it is the world through the eyes of a new born baby. Like the Zen teaching that demands of the devotee absolute awareness, absolute "thoughtlessness", it is, for consciousness, an unattainable moment - even though it is equally the beginning of all consciousness!

In the words of Jean Piaget:

"at first the universe consists in mobile and plastic perceptual images centred about personal activity. But it itself-evident that to the extent that this activity is undifferentiated from the things it constantly assimilates to itself, it remains unaware of its own subjectivity; the external world therefore begins by being confused with the sensations of a self unaware of itself, before the two factors become detached from one another and are organised correlatively" [The Construction of Reality in the Child, Conclusion]

As Hegel says, there is absolutely nothing you can say about being without in doing so "further determining" it, without putting in place of pure Being some particular, some finite, an example. Being is absolutely featureless, or rather does not yet show any feature. Thus, as Hegel says "Being is Nothing" [§86n], , a discovery which impels us forward, to the necessity of further determination, to recognise things, to discover what lies behind Being.

Such reflection is only possible because we are natural human beings, with material brains, sense organs and material needs founded in Nature, in other words because we are part of Being, products of Nature. Further, every act of reflection or recognition, every determination, pre-supposes that we already have in our heads some concept, or Notion. These concepts (Notions) are social products acquired over millennia and passed on to individuals through society. In other words, Being becomes only because we are also not of the world, because we have separated ourselves from the world and are its Other.

The Notion is the concept we have of the world - the Other of the world. It is abstract in the sense that each Notion corresponds to but one aspect of the world, just as each moment of Being, each event, passing impression or statistic, is abstract, meaningless and disconnected.

However, the Notion, as a summing up of millennia of human practice, in comparison to the way Being comes before us as "one damn thing after another", is rich and concrete.

Abstraction, therefore, is a sundering of the concrete and an isolating of its determinations; through it only single properties and moments are seized; for its product must contain what it is itself. But the difference between this individuality of its products and the Notion's individuality is that, in the former, the individual as content and the universal as form are distinct from one another - just because the former is not present as absolute form, as the Notion itself, or the latter is not present as the totality of form. However this more detailed consideration shows that the abstract product itself is a unity of the individual content and abstract universality, and is, therefore, a concrete - and the opposite of what it aims to be. [The Science of Logic, The Notion In General]

In its development the Notion becomes more and more concrete, like the theory of chemistry which, once having established the Notion of a molecule as the smallest unit of chemical substance, builds up a more and more concrete picture of the molecule, with its atomic composition, its asymmetrical structure, is weak and strong bonds, associations, hydrogen radicals, carbon rings, ability to dissociate, etc., etc..

The development of Being however, is just the passing of one aspect after another, one fact or statistic or mental picture after another without mutual contact or effect; Being is like a diary as compared to a real autobiography, like things appear when you have no idea about what's going on. Each moment passes away and is replaced by another. But in its development, Being accumulates the "factual material" which is to form the basis of reflection and the formation of conceptual knowledge.

As one thing passes after another, certain qualities demonstrate some stability and fix themselves in our attention, we are able to measure things and perceive the ebb and flow of quantities and how one quality passes over into another at a certain point.

Between the development of Being and the development of the Notion lies the development of Essence, which begins when we think we recognise something, with an hypothesis, and goes through a contradictory development in which one thesis is contradicted by another and overcome by it, until an adequate notion of the thing is arrived at.

But in Being, we still have just "one damn thing after another".

The Subdivisions of Being
Quality - Quantity - Measure

The Subdivisions of Being are Quality, Quantity and Measure. Hegel says:

Quality is, in the first place, the character identical with being: so identical that a thing ceases to be what it is, if it loses its quality. Quantity, on the contrary, is the character external to being, and does not affect the being at all. Thus, e.g. a house remains what it is, whether it be greater or smaller; and red remains red, whether it be brighter or darker. Measure, the third grade of being, which is the unity of the first two, is a qualitative quantity. [Shorter Logic, §85n]

The first determination of Pure Being comes we when notice some property of the thing which is relatively persistent or stable, a quality; we also notice other qualities, and Being comes to us as a series of properties passing one after another. Further determination shows that a certain quality is in greater or lesser quantity; our representation is deepened by quality differentiated quantitatively within itself. Further determination brings us to notice the point at which quantitative change becomes qualitative change, when further quantitative change in a quality constitutes a qualitative change. Thus qualitative relation is reflected in quantitative relation. Measure is this unity of quality and quantity; qualitative change which is identical with quantitative change.

The movement of Being is this dialectic of quantity and quality. It is this passage of a quantity beyond its limits which throws forward the new quality and provides the motive force of contradictions which arise in the process of reflection.

Engels popularised this dialectic as the "second law of dialectics" in his article Dialectics published with Dialectics of Nature, the first being the Law of the Unity (Interpenetration) of Opposites, and third being the Law of the Negation of the Negation. Subsequently, it has frequently been used to introduce the idea of dialectics for novices.

With What must Science Begin?

The essay, With What must Science Begin?, with which Hegel introduces Book I of the Science of Logic is a stunning demonstration of the dialectical method:

... there is nothing, nothing in heaven, or in nature or in mind or anywhere else which does not equally contain both immediacy and mediation, so that these two determinations reveal themselves to be unseparated and inseparable and the opposition between them to be a nullity. [With What must Science Begin?, continued ...]

Being is the immediate, that is, un-mediated, given in itself and not by means of something else, in a round about way. But right from the outset, Hegel makes it clear that "neither in Heaven nor on Earth" is there anything that is not equally mediated as immediate. "Being is immediate" is not an absolute, but a relative truth. To elevate it into an absolute (like the ancients and like the gurus of "awareness") is one relative moment or stage of the Absolute Idea.

So, with what to begin? ...

.... to want the nature of cognition clarified prior to the science is to demand that it be considered outside the science; outside the science this cannot be accomplished, ... [Science of Logic, With what Must Science Begin?]

Against the method of (supposedly) beginning a science with arbitrary, unproven definitions and axioms, Hegel asserts that it is in the elaboration of the science itself that its nature is clarified, and can only be so. The demand of the pedant: "Define your terms!" is shown to be as empty as the supposed elaboration of a science (like geometry) from unproven axioms that have been plucked from who knows where. The subject must be allowed to speak for itself.

For example, the very first words of Spinoza's Ethics are:

I. By CAUSE OF ITSELF (causa sui) I understand that whose essence involves existence; or, that whose nature cannot be conceived except as existing.

II. That thing is said to be FINITE IN ITS KIND (in suo genere finita) which can be limited by another thing of the same kind. etc., etc. [Ethics]

Instead Hegel identifies the real beginning of the science: in Being, in Being in which subject and object are indissolubly immersed together, from which reflection emerges from the realisation that Being is Nothing, from absolute awareness which is also absolute unconsciousness.

Thus the beginning must be an absolute, or what is synonymous here, an abstract beginning; and so it may not suppose anything, must not be mediated by anything nor have a ground; rather it is to be itself the ground of the entire science. Consequently, it must be purely and simply an immediacy, or rather merely immediacy itself. Just as it cannot possess any determination relatively to anything else, so too it cannot contain within itself any determination, any content; for any such would be a distinguishing and an inter-relationship of distinct moments, and consequently a mediation. The beginning therefore is pure being. [Science of Logic, With what Must Science Begin?]

We should compare this beginning with Marx's beginning of political economy, as explained in the German Ideology [1845]:

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can be made only in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.

The first premise of human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go into either the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself geological, orohydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history always sets out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of people. [First Premises of Materialist Method, Marx]

Here Hegel demonstrates this method in relation to his subject, Logic. The logical category of Being cannot be further determined or it is no longer "Being", but something else, some determination of Being.

But because it is the result which appears as the absolute ground, this progress in knowing is not something provisional, or problematical and hypothetical; it must be determined by the nature of the subject matter itself and its content. [Science of Logic, With what Must Science Begin?]

That is, the method of Logic is to be determined by the movement of the categories of logic itself.

As yet there is nothing and there is to become something the beginning is not pure nothing, but a nothing from which something is to proceed; therefore being, too, is already contained in the beginning. The beginning therefore contains both, being and nothing, is the unity of being and nothing; or is non-being which is at the same time being, and being which is at the same time non-being. [Science of Logic, With what Must Science Begin?]

Here is the archetypal disclosure of the identity of opposites: Being is Nothing! Being, not any particular type or stage of existence, just pure Being, precisely because it is simply Being, undifferentiated, undetermined, undeveloped Being, has no feature, no quality, you cannot be aware of it; in other words it is nothing.

That which begins, as yet is not, it is only on the way to being. The being contained in the beginning is, therefore, a being which removed itself from non-being or sublates it as something opposed to it. [Science of Logic, With what Must Science Begin?]

And Hegel here shows how this internal contradiction which is discovered in a concept (in this case the concept of "Being") is its "motive force", which drives the concept towards its own negation, i.e. Being is Nothing, is therefore Becoming.

Being in Natural and Social Movements

A social movement exists (in Hegelian language) "in-itself" before it finds any kind of voice, let alone becomes conscious of itself and organised under its own banner and program. Before there is a working class, there are many thousands of wage workers. Using the methods of bourgeois sociologists we can identify wage workers or any other category that is subject to measurement as a "category", but this utterly abstract procedure in no way demonstrates the existence of a "thing". Sociologists can dream up any category they like and count its numbers and measure the attitudes and behaviour of its members but such quantitative and qualitative measurement means very little. Only when a social group begins to speak and organise does it come into existence in any meaningful way.

In the beginning, any concept, social movement, etc., is indistinguishable from its whole social and historical context. The germ of a movement lies in the very conditions of its birth.

This stage of a social entity when it exists only in the most abstract sense of being a category of individuals is called "Being". It's first act will be precisely the recognition that it exists but it is Nothing.

Only then does it Become something. During the stage of Being, there may be momentary "showings" which however lead to nothing, and each coming together happens in isolation out of the conditions which exists at a particular place and time. They just come and go, without exerting any influence of what follows or what happens elsewhere.

Hegel explains the stage of "in-itself" in personal and political development as follows:

Thus the man, in himself, is the child. And what the child has to do is to rise out of this abstract and undeveloped 'in-himself' and become 'for himself' what he is at first only 'in-himself' - a free and reasonable being. Similarly, the state-in-itself is the yet immature and patriarchal state, where the various political functions, latent in the notion of the state, have not received the full logical constitution which the logic of political principles demands. [Shorter Logic §124n]

Or more generally:

Being, as Being, is nothing fixed or ultimate: it yields to dialectic and sinks into its opposite, which, also taken immediately, is Nothing. After all, the point is that Being is the pure Thought; whatever else you may begin with (the I = I, the absolute indifference, or God himself), you begin with a figure of materialised conception, not a product of thought; and that, so far as its thought-content is concerned, such beginning is merely Being. [ Shorter Logic §86n, my bold]

The Immediate and Development

I referred above to Being as a "motive force" which "drives" development. This is a way of visualising the understanding that, like any other phase of development of the Logic, Being does not just "terminate" and pass over into another, but continues within the more developed process, as one of its aspects.

For example, I remember reading Standford & Roak's book on group development, which identified seven stages of group development (Beginning, Norm Development, Conflict, Transition, Production, Affection and Actualisation). The writers took care to point out that every time a new member joined the group, and even to an extent every time you sit down to begin a new meeting, all these stages had to be recapitulated, even if in telescoped form!

The "materialised conception" which is the beginning of thinking, does not stop when you first reflect upon it. On the contrary, it continues unabated. Consequently, all the moments and stages of the Logic which flow from it continue, and constitute an inner content of the development from beginning to end.

Piaget, Historical and Psychological Development

As was pointed out earlier, care must be taken not to slip into the temptation to impose Hegel's schema of development onto the material processes under consideration. For example, Piaget points out in his Genetic Epistemology that the genesis of concepts in the individual may not only differ from the historical development, but may in some respects follow an opposite path:

"In the history of the development of geometry, the first formal type was the Euclidean metric geometry of the early Greeks. Next in the development was projective geometry, which was suggested by the Greeks but not fully developed until the seventeenth century. Much later still, came topological geometry, developed in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, when we look at the theoretical relationships between these three types of geometry, we find that the most primitive type is topology and that both Euclidean and projective geometry can be derived from topological geometry. In other words, topology is the common source for the other two types of geometry. It is an interesting question then, whether in the development of thinking in children geometry follows the historic order or the theoretical order. More precisely, will we find that Euclidean intuitions and operations develop first, and topological intuitions and operations later? or will we find that the relationship is the other way around? What we do find, in fact, is that the first intuitions are topological. The first operations, too, are those of dividing space, of ordering in space, which are much more similar to topological operations than to Euclidean or metric ones." [Genetic Epistemology, s. 2]

This emphasises the care that must be taken not to apply these categories, but only to recognise, or abstract them from the real development.

In the passage above, Piaget refers to the deduction of the Euclidean, Cartesian and topological geometry from Burbakian structures; but these structures represent a very developed Notion of mathematical form. The most general, abstract mathematical forms always arise out of the synthesis of "special" or limiting cases which are always historically prior. I think this is a general law of development, and reflects the features of Hegel's Being - Essence - Notion.

On the other hand, Euclidean geometry did not arise from "Euclidean intuitions" but from the very practical requirement of the conditions of ancient society to measure land and volume and incidentally time, and season. This development arose not from the simplicity of the conceptions involved, but from "Being", "the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity" [German Ideology, Marx]. The requirement for geometrical measure originates in productive forces which characterised a particular stage of development of the relationship with Nature, which is in turn reflected across the whole spectrum of social and cultural activity. Undoubtedly, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians who founded metric geometry already had "topological intuitions and operations" in hand, as is more than demonstrated in their written language.

Likewise, it is hardly surprising that Cartesian Geometry arose in the period after Galileo's mechanics and cosmology and the circumnavigation of the globe, during the Thirty Years War. Meanwhile, topological geometry could only arise on the basis of problems posed within mathematics itself at the stage at which the whole body of natural science and industry had arrived at in the nineteenth century.

It must be kept in mind that Hegel's Logic achieves its marvelous universality only because of its concrete abstractness. The history of science and genetic psychology are both huge subjects in themselves, with or without a consideration of their relation to Hegel's Logic, and must be the subject of separate study.