The Meaning of Hegel's Logic

IV The Meaning of “Reflection”

To a great extent the whole of the Objective Logic of Hegel comes down to an understanding of Reflection (the first subdivision of the Doctrine of Essence).

In inorganic nature, reflection is the process of things reproducing, under the influence of other things, traces or imprints of the things exercising that influence; in organic nature, reflection is an active process, such as in the adaptation of animals to their environment or the irritability of plants and other organisms. Here, properties in the organism which are the outcome of a long process of adaptation by the species are manifested actively by the individual in the immediate influence of other bodies in the environment the like of which have been present during this period of development. The concept of reflection, as the correspondence of mental images with the material world which is the source of those images, is the basis of the materialist approach to cognition.

Hegel's analysis of reflection in terms of the correspondence between phenomena and their essence is founded on his critique of formal logic. It is the most difficult section of the Logic, and in it Hegel explains his concept of contradiction.

It is often the case in reading The Logic, the key to understanding a section is found in the last paragraph of the preceding section:

Measure is implicitly Essence; and its process consists in realising what it is implicitly. The ordinary consciousness conceives things as being, and studies them in quality, quantity, and measure. These immediate characteristics, however, soon show themselves to be not fixed but transient; and Essence is the result of their dialectic. [Shorter Logic § 111n, last section of Doctrine of Being]

Being comes to us as a series of qualities passing one after another, and quantitative change in qualities. Relative stability emerges in the form of Measure (the dialectic of quantity and quality). When we "have the measure of something", we have effectively recognised it, we have "fixed" it in our consciousness and differentiated it from others, but this recognition is only "implicit". When we make this recognition explicit, we "recognise" something, and this is the moment of reflection, the beginning of the stage of Essence.

I find it useful to visualise this "recognition", or "reflection" as the unity of the ascending dialectic of Measure (as something emerges with relative stability from the morass of immediate perception) with hypothetical images (Notions, or mediated knowledge) which have their origin in past Being, which descend to immediacy.

Hegel introduces this idea of hypothesis in the opening section of the Doctrine of Essence in The Shorter Logic as follows:

The terms in Essence are always mere pairs of correlatives, and yet not absolutely reflected in themselves: hence in essence the actual unity of the notion is not yet realised, but only postulated by reflection. Essence - which is Being coming into mediation with itself through the negativity of itself - is self-relatedness, only in so far as it is relation to an Other - this Other however coming to view at first not as something which is, but as postulated and hypothesised.

Being has not vanished: but, firstly, Essence, as simple self-relation, is Being, and secondly as regards its one-sided characteristic of immediacy, Being is deposed to a mere negative, to a seeming or reflected light - Essence accordingly is Being thus reflecting light into itself. [Shorter Logic § 112]

Being has not vanished in reflection, but is negated. In reflection we have the meeting of two different things (Being and Notion), but Being meets not a stranger, but itself, as an Other, which is mediated, past Being.

This is the "controversial" point in the theory of knowledge, the point at which Kant, for example, falls into scepticism (essence lies beyond perception and is inaccessible to it). Subjective idealism, on the other hand, rejects the objectivity of Being and thus avoids the problem altogether.

Most previous attempts to solve the problem of the correspondence between thought and matter, between subject and object proceeded from a dualist conception, i.e. a separation of subject and object, and formal logic. In order to solve this problem, Hegel rejected this dualist separation of subject and object, and had to make an absolutely thorough-going critique of formal logic.

We cannot go beyond this point, without grasping Hegel's conception of the unity of opposites as the essence of a concept.

The Essential and Unessential

This identity [reflection-into-self], as it descended from Being, appears in the first place only charged with the characteristics of Being, and referred to Being as to something external. This external Being, if taken in separation from the true Being (of Essence), is called the Unessential. But that turns out to be a mistake. Because Essence is Being-in-self, it is essential only to the extent that it has in itself its negative, i.e. reference to another, or mediation. Consequently, it has the unessential as its own proper seeming (reflection) in itself. But in seeming or mediation there is distinction involved: and since what is distinguished (as distinguished from identity out of which it arises, and in which it is not, or lies as seeming) receives itself the form of identity, the semblance [or Illusory Being] is still not in the mode of Being, or of self-related immediacy. [Shorter Logic, § 114]

When we at first recognise something, the semblance of the thing shows itself out of the infinite richness of immediate perception. With this "hypothesis", we abstract that image from everything else, which is assumed to be "unessential". It is a "mistake", because the inherent movement and contradiction implicit in Being is the "truth of Being", i.e. Essence, and will show itself. Thus thought cannot "draw a boundary around" this thing, and deal with it as something whose contradiction lies only "externally", in the relativity of perception. On the contrary, Being itself is inherently and implicitly contradictory. The unessential is essence's own unessential, and proves to be equally essential as unessential.

[Essence] is also the sphere in which the contradiction, still implicit in the sphere of Being, is made explicit. [Shorter Logic, § 114]

Identity, Difference, Opposition and Contradiction - Ground

In the Shorter Logic (1830), Hegel heads the first Section of Essence "Essence as Ground of Existence", and the first Chapter of that section: "The pure principle or categories of Reflection". It is in this chapter that Hegel develops the concept of contradiction as the essence of a concept, its Ground, by a dialectical unfolding of the concept of Identity through a series of stages in which Identity is successively transformed to reveal the concepts of Difference, Opposition, Contradiction and finally Ground. In the course of this development, Hegel makes a critique of formal logic. I think that this critique of formal logic has led to some misunderstandings and I will deal with formal logic separately in the next chapter, in the form of a reassertion of the relative truth of formal logic and its proper relation to and place in dialectics. For now, let us follow Hegel's critique.


Identity is the affirmative connection between two different moments of perception which asserts that they are one and the same and specifically denies that they are in fact "two different moments of perception" at all. It is also the assertion that in a proposition being true, the denial of that proposition is specifically excluded

The maxim of Identity, reads: Everything is identical with itself, A = A: and negatively, A cannot at the same time be A and Not-A. [Shorter Logic, § 115]

A moment's reflection will show both that consciousness could not take a single step forward without the conviction of identity but equally that the "maxim of Identity" is wrong, that is, that it is a limited, finite truth that will fall over at the first hurdle.

If we recognise something, and say, for example: "Ah! It's a demonstration coming down the road", i.e. not a riot, for example, then we continue to perceive the event, make judgements, etc., on the basis of the same, past perception. We cannot time after time, instant after instant re-look at the approaching crowd as if we had never seen it before. (We can and must of course - that is the philosophy of Being, and it has its relative truth, too, but we have to move forward, we need to know what it is in truth and must move beyond mere immediacy). Thus we again and again assert the maxim of identity, in order to go beyond it.

Water is water whether it be hot or cold, and whatever the amount of solubles it contains. Things continually change, and like the frog who gets boiled because it does not notice the increasing temperature of the water, we "lay aside" the quantitative changes in Being, and say "A= A". Water is good for drinking, making concrete or irrigating our crops whatever its temperature and colour. But A = A only up to a point; water eventually becomes steam or ice, water becomes poison if contain too many salts and metal solutes. What is A one moment, is not-A the next.

"Ah!", the formal logical pedant would say, "A = A refers only to what is was at one particular moment, not a moment later". True, but as Hegel replies, in that interpretation A = A is the merest tautology which tells us nothing about thought or perception, and illustrates this with the contrast between the A's to the left or right of the =-sign. Thus, the law and concept of Identity which Hegel is dealing with here is indeed the same concept as "A = A" in formal logic, but he is dealing with it differently. He has disclosed both its truth and its essential, inherent contradiction, and operates with it, not by rigidly sticking to it, but by unfolding out of it its negation.

The dialectic of Measure implicitly contains the limits of "tolerance" for our concepts; like the tools made by a toolmaker, they are useful only if they correspond within a given "tolerance". And this law of identity reflects an objective character of the world - it's relative stability. It is true and valid to perceive and think in this way, on the basis of the maxim of identity, but ...

It is a universal law of the objective world and thus the world of thought, that "Identity comes to Difference" ...

Diversity (Essential Identity)

"A = A" only makes sense even in the strictest and valid application of formal logic if the first A is indeed not the second A. It is impossible to utter the law other than by making such a distinction!

To ask 'How Identity comes to Difference' assumes that Identity as mere abstract Identity is something of itself, and Difference also something else equally independent ... Diversity has, like Identity, been transformed into a maxim: 'Everything is various or different': or 'There are no two things completely like each other. [Shorter Logic, § 116n]

This "Maxim of Variety", which Hegel attributes to Leibnitz, is indeed a universal, objective law of nature and thought, and I am not aware of any discovery in micro-physics that excludes it either. Hegel shows not just this, but that the Law of Variety (or Diversity) is implicit in the Law of Identity!

Likeness is an identity only of those things which are not the same, not identical with each other: and Unlikeness is a relation of things alike. The two therefore do not fall on different aspects or points of view in the thing, without any mutual affinity, but one throws light into the other. Variety thus comes to be reflexive difference or difference (distinction) implicit and essential, determinate or specific difference. [Shorter Logic § 118]

... and further discovers within the "Maxim of Diversity", or the concepts of likeness and unlikeness, the deeper truth of essential difference or "Opposition":

Opposition (or Essential Difference)

When we hold to that moment of "unlikeness", we seek to define it or say just what it is. For example, what makes this demonstration not just a demonstration but a "feeder march"? We are able to "make a point of" this unlikeness, we find that this unlikeness is not just accidental or passing, but essential:

Difference implicit is essential difference, the Positive and the negative: and that is this way. The Positive is the identical self-relation in such a way as not to be the Negative, and the Negative is the different by itself so as not to be the Positive. Thus either has an existence of its own in proportion as it is not the other. The one is made visible in the other, and is only in so far as that other is. Essential difference is therefore Opposition; according to which the different is not confronted by any other but by its other. That is, either of these two (Positive and Negative) is stamped with a characteristic of its own only in its relation to the other: the one is only reflected into itself as it is reflected into the other. And so with the other. Either in this way is the other's own other.

Difference implicit or essential gives the maxim, Everything is essentially distinct; or, as it has also been expressed, Of two opposite predicates the one only can be assigned to anything, and there is no third possible. This maxim of Contrast or Opposition most expressly controverts the maxim of identity... [Shorter Logic § 119]

Having shown that the maxim (or judgement) of Opposition expressly controverts the maxim (or judgement) of identity, Hegel brings the two together: water over 100°C is not water but steam; but both are the same chemical substance, H2O; "water" and "steam" are but two states of a single chemical substance, whose physical properties can only be defined relative to temperature and pressure; this H2O is neither liquid nor vapour nor solid, and all of them at once.

Contradiction (or Essential Opposition)

We can begin to see how dialectics is the logic of reality, of the world of concrete things, really connected, abstracted by thought yes, but thought which is perceiving reality cannot rest, but is driven deeper and deeper, and comes to contradiction: it not only both is and is not, but is and is not essentially:

Instead of speaking by the maxim of Excluded Middle (which is the maxim of abstract understanding) we should rather say: Everything is opposite. Neither in heaven nor in Earth, neither in the world of mind nor of nature, is there anywhere such an abstract 'either-or' as the understanding maintains. Whatever exists is concrete, with difference and opposition in itself. The finitude of things will then lie in the want of correspondence between their immediate being, and what they essentially are. ... its only being consists in its relation to its other. .... Contradiction is the very moving principle of the world: and it is ridiculous to say that contradiction is unthinkable. The only thing correct in that statement is that contradiction is not the end of the matter, but cancels itself. But contradiction, when canceled, does not leave abstract identity; for that is itself only one side of the contrariety. The proximate result of opposition (when realised as contradiction) is the Ground. [Shorter Logic § 119n]

When we have grasped the specific contradiction which makes the thing what it really is, then we have perceived it, we have recognised what it is. Not before then. This whole development of the Logic is required to prove this, but in this development of Reflection from Identity to Ground, Hegel has focused on the identity of Being and the Notion and found contradiction at the heart and kernel of the matter. Being can find its Other only in Notions which have their Ground in this dialectical unfolding which leads to inherent, essential contradiction.

Ground (or Essential Contradiction)

The maxim of Ground runs thus: Everything has its Sufficient Ground: that is, the true essentiality of any thing is not the predication of it as identical with itself, or as different (various), or merely positive, or merely negative, but as having its Being in an other, which, being the self-same, is its essence. [Shorter Logic § 121]

This is the conception which leads to Appearance, the dialectic or Form and Content and Actuality, the dialectic of Cause and Effect.

Before moving to a consideration of the place of formal logic in dialectics, I ask the reader to re-call the following passage from The Doctrine of Being in The Shorter Logic:

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. This is the true meaning of a much misunderstood phenomenon in the history of philosophy - the refutation of one system by another, of an earlier by a later. Most commonly the refutation is taken in a purely negative sense to mean that the system refuted has ceased to count for anything, has been set aside and done for. Were it so, the history of philosophy would be, of all studies, most saddening, displaying, as it does, the refutation of every system which time has brought forth. Now although it may be admitted that every philosophy has been refuted, it must be in an equal degree maintained that no philosophy has been refuted. And that in two ways. For first, every philosophy that deserves the name always embodies the Idea: and secondly, every system represents one particular factor or particular stage in the evolution of the Idea. The refutation of a philosophy, therefore, only means that its barriers are crossed, and its special principle reduced to a factor in the completer principle that follows. [Shorter Logic § 119n]

Reflection in Nature and Society

As noted at the start of this section, reflection is a universal property of matter, the mutual interaction of every particle in the Universe with every, which other could be said to constitute the "materiality" of the world.

However, there is reflection and reflection. Although a particular atom of iron on the surface of Mars interacts gravitationally with a particular atom of nitrogen in the atmosphere of Earth, this interaction is quite trivial in itself, even if the collective of such interactions is detectable with astronomical instruments in the deviation of Mars in its orbit. The more developed the form of movement and interaction, the more symbiosis and interdependence, then the more manifest is the reflection of the properties and changes of one body in that of the other.

The microbiological world of enzymes and viruses is a vast tangle of processes mirroring one another, of reflection. The evolution of species in the biosphere is in a way, the reflection of the inorganic world, the evolution of one species, the reflection of its organic and inorganic environment. In politics and society we often speak of a particular change or event being "reflected" in such and such an event or change.

What is important to understand is that this capacity of one object to "reflect" the properties of another is based in the genetic relationship between the two species. A particular flower has no knowledge of the Sun; but it turns towards the Sun, reflecting its orientation, because of eons of evolution of the organic world under sunlight. In trying to understand that process, we shall find the actual mechanics by means of which the flower finds the Sun and turns itself towards it very complicated, and invisible without very developed science, and actually of very little use in understanding the process of photokinesis; contrariwise, anthropomorphism (the flower "likes" sunlight) or teleology (the flower turns to the sun "to get warmth") come easily. In general, we can recognise and work with the action of "reflection" long before we can mechanistically trace the process through which reflection takes place, if ever.

Reflection of social developments in politics, etc.

Reflection also denotes the process whereby in any complex, i.e. real, system, phenomena at one level reflect processes taking place at a deeper level.

For example, the Being (content) of politics is economic interests; or to put it another way. changes taking place in the relations of production must be reflected in changes and movements in the political sphere. Such a reflection will be qualitatively different and incommensurable with the underlying social change it reflects, and cannot be formally reduced to such underlying change.

For instance, we could say that the upsurge in the women's movement in the 1970s reflected the movement of women into the workforce and the socialisation of women's work (not the other way round!); or that the dominance of mystification in post-modern philosophy and culture reflects the extraordinary level of concentration of capital and accumulation of fictitious capital in this period.

The in-principle impossibility of "mechanical" or formal-logical reduction of the phenomena at one level to those of another is crucial to this concept of reflection.

Reflection and Development

"Existence stated explicitly in its contradiction is Appearance" [Shorter Logic §131], or Appearance is realised contradiction. We have traced how contradiction arises from the sharpening of diversity; this is a continual process; diversity (essential identity) may come and go without such a sharpening into difference, opposition, contradiction and ground; differences may go "unnoticed", or come and go without further development. But it is through this process of reflection that Being manifests itself in development, and that development is driven by contradiction:

If, now, the first determinations of reflection, namely, identity, difference and opposition, have been put in the form of a law, still more should the determination into which they pass as their truth, namely, contradiction, be grasped and enunciated as a law: everything is inherently contradictory, and in the sense that this law in contrast to the others expresses rather the truth and the essential nature of things. The contradiction which makes its appearance in opposition, is only the developed nothing that is contained in identity and that appears in the expression that the law of identity says nothing. This negation further determines itself into difference and opposition, which now is the posited contradiction. But it is one of the fundamental prejudices of logic as hitherto understood and of ordinary thinking that contradiction is not so characteristically essential and immanent a determination as identity; but in fact, ... contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity. [ The Law of Contradiction, Science of Logic]

Thus, reflection is manifested in the development of any process in the form of contradiction.