The Meaning of 'Being' in Hegel's Logic

by Andy Blunden

A fruitful approach to Hegel's Logic is as a theory of cognition, a description of how people arrive at knowledge of the world. The Logic is also a theory of the development of thinking on the historical scale. So long as it is not used (as it was by Hegel) as a straitjacket into which the real history of thought must be squeezed, then 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 §86n2]

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! 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. Thus, as Hegel says "Being is Nothing", 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. But every act of reflection or recognition, every determination, pre-supposes a Notion. These Notions are social products acquired over millennia and passed on to individuals through social relation with Nature. 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. However, as a summing up of millennia of human practice, in comparison to the way Being comes before us as "one damn thing after another", it 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.

In its development the Notion becomes more and more concrete. If we compare the movement from Being to the Notion (which is called Essence) with the development of the Notions characterising the separate branches of science, the development of the Notion is the process of the growing together of the sciences in a single body of knowledge, in which each of the Notions of the separate sciences are not overcome by the others, as they are in the history of the separate sciences, but absorb and merge with one another in deeper more comprehensive and concrete Notions. Of this movement of the Notion, towards the Absolute Idea, Hegel observes: "The absolute idea may... be compared to the old man who utters the same creed as the child, but for whom it is pregnant with the significance of a lifetime".

In this process, the Notion is continually enriched through the "in-flow" of Being and more and more closely approximates the concreteness of immediate representation with the concreteness of conceptual representation. Thus the movement of the Notion to the Absolute Idea is a return to Being, the movement towards the identity of Being and Notion:

... the science exhibits itself as a circle returning upon itself, the end being wound back into the beginning, the simple ground, by the mediation; this circle is moreover a circle of circles, for each individual member as ensouled by the method is reflected into itself, so that in returning into the beginning it is at the same time the beginning of a new member. Links of this chain are the individual sciences ...

The Idea, namely, in positing itself as absolute unity of the pure Notion and its reality and thus contracting itself into the immediacy of being, is the totality in this form - nature. [The Science of Logic, The Absolute Idea]

Thus the movement of the logic may be likened to the movement of humanity from the animal condition of oneness with Nature through rupture from Nature and the development of science and civilisation to conscious harmony with Nature based on the transcendence of social contradictions and comprehension of Nature's laws and conscious adaptation of humanity and Nature.

Quantity - Quality - Measure

The Subdivisions of Being

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.

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.

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

With What must Science Begin?

The essay, With What must Science Begin?, with which Hegel introduces Book I of the Science of Logic (the same material is contained in the Shorter Logic in the Doctrine of Being) 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.

Being is the immediate, that is, un-mediated, given in itself and not by means of something else. 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 moment or stage of the Absolute Idea.

.... 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, ...

Against the method of (supposedly) beginning a science with a definition, a set of axioms or even definition of the its scope, Hegel asserts the truth 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 from unproven axioms that have been plucked from who knows where. The subject must be allowed to speak for itself.

Instead Hegel identifies the real beginning of a 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.

Here Hegel demonstrates this method in relation to the subject itself Logic. The 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.

Thus, he shows how 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.

Here is the archetypal disclosure of the identity of opposites: Being is Nothing! Right at the beginning of the Logic.

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.

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