What exactly does Marx mean when he inverted Hegel's dialectic?

From: lau kam to
To: Mustafa Cemal

Dear Mustafa,

Thanks for your reply to my questions and also draws my attention to Hegel's remarks on idealism in his History of Philosophy.

While I'm trying to make sense of Hegel's idealism, his position is still puzzling to me (I'm a slow learner and lacked formal training in philosophy). Granted idealism is defined in terms of the priority of concept over matter, and vice versa for materialism, then priority in what sense seems complicated in Hegel. His Idea is prior in time/causality or logical order or transcendental in Kantian sense, or teleology or by other criteria?

It is clear that Hegel's idealism is not subjective idealism, as seen in his comment on Plato:

"However the idealism of Plato must not be thought of as being subjective idealism, and as that false idealism which has made its appearance in modern times, and which maintains that we do not learn anything, are not influenced from without, but that all conceptions are derived from out of the subject. It is often said that idealism means that the individual produces from himself all his ideas, even the most immediate. But this is an unhistoric, and quite false conception..." (Hist. of Phil 2, p 43).
To Hegel, philosophy starts from experience :
"Its point of departure is experience; including under that name both our immediate consciousness and the inductions from it." (Shorter Logic, §12).
"Everything is experienced, not merely what is sensuous, but also what excites and stimulates my mind. Consciousness thus undoubtedly obtains all conceptions and Notions from experience and in experience; the only question is what we understand by experience" (Hist. of Phil 3, p 303).
Experience may take the form of feelings, perception, fancies, ideas (mental representation) etc., philosophy is to put "thoughts, categories, or, in more precise language, adequate notions, in the place of the generalised images we ordinarily call ideas" (Shorter Logic, §3), or just as Marx has quoted "translated into the form of thought" (Shorter Logic, §5). It is by concepts that experience which is confusing/contradictory could be comprehended in a rational way and in totality.

I agree with your distinction between thinking and Thought on the section you've quoted concerning Plato that thinking means conscious thought that is thinking of individual mind and Thought could mean "man's inner spiritual nature" or "man's true nature" in the sense of Christian Religion. But this Thought that "is all that philosophy claims as the form proper to her business..." (Shorter Logic, §5) as well as "an expression which attributes the determination contained therein [the determination of objects in judgement, syllogism, definition, etc.] primarily to consciousness" (S of Logic, p 51), is an abstraction from individual minds, it belongs to the realm of pure thought.

On consciousness level, we have a subject-object relation in experience, as your examples - using grammar without knowing the rules of grammar, using concepts without knowing their exact definitions. The aim of knowledge is to attain self-consciousness, it is the subject knowing itself through it's relation with the object, to make what is implicit into explicit, in Hegel's expression, to put "adequate notions, in the place of the generalised images we ordinarily call ideas".

"As science, truth is pure self-consciousness in its self-development and has the shape of the self, so that the absolute truth of being is the known Notion and the Notion as such is the absolute truth of being. This objective thinking, is the content of pure science. Consequently, far from it being formal, far from it standing in need of a matter to constitute an actual and true cognition, it is its content alone which has absolute truth, or, if one still wanted to employ the word matter, it is the veritable matter - but a matter which is not external to the form, since this matter is rather pure thought and hence the absolute form itself. Accordingly, logic is to be understood as the system of pure reason, as the realm of pure thought" (S of Logic p 49-50).

Self-consciousness is thinking thinking itself and Thought/Idea is thinking as such, an ideal/model re-construction of the thinking process. In this case the categories/concepts in Logic are the categories/concepts that are adequate/necessary for Thought to have complete knowledge of an object, to understand the rationality of anything at all and culminates in the Absolute Idea. Since in the realm of pure thought, the concepts generated out of the dialectic is then prior in the sense of pure reason, analogous to Aristotle's logic that the premiss precedes the conclusion or analogous to the Kantian sense of transcendental as logical conditions necessary to have scientific knowledge of objects, a conceptual framework.

On the other hand, in his criticism against empiricism, Hegel says:

"We add a remark upon the account of the origin and formation of notions which is usually given in the Logic of Understanding. It is not we who frame the notions. The notion is not something which is originated..... It is a mistake to imagine that the objects which form the content of our mental ideas come first and that our subjective agency then supervenes, and by the aforesaid operation of abstraction, and by colligating the points possessed in common by the objects, frames notion of them. Rather the notion is the genuine first; and things are what they are through the action of the notion, immanent in them, and revealing itself in them......Thus religion recognises thought and (more exactly) the notion to be the infinite form, or the free creative activity, which can realise itself without the help of a matter that exists outside it" (Shorter Logic, §163).

Here concept is: 1) 'genuine first', which seems 'first' in a temporal sense or as ultimate cause, 2) things are what they are through action of the notion and 'immanent' in things as if Hegel is talking about potentiality/actuality of Aristotle (not sure what he means, just a conjecture), 3) 'can realise itself without the help of a matter that exists outside it' and yet Hegel is also telling us, "we must also reject even more vigorously that estimate of the Idea according to which it is not anything actual, and true thoughts are said to be only ideas" (S of Logic p 755-756).

On another occasion, Hegel said:

"The proposition that the finite is ideal constitutes idealism. The idealism of philosophy consists in nothing else than in recognising that the finite has no veritable being. Every philosophy is essentially an idealism or at least has idealism for its principle, and the question then is only how far this principle is actually carried out" (S of Logic p 154-155).

The finite is ideal in that it is dependent, it "not only alters, like something in general, but it ceases to be..... the being as such of finite things is to have the germ of decease as their being-within-self: the hour of their birth is the hour of their death" (S of Logic, p 129). From Understanding's point of view, the finite is in antithesis with the infinite but to have an antithesis, the finite also becomes an 'absolute' along with the infinite. On the other hand, the notion suspends the antithesis, it is "a systematic whole, in which each of its constituent functions is the very total which the notion is, and is put as indissolubly one with it" (Shorter Logic, §160). In explaining this, Hegel says: "The position taken up by the notion is that of absolute idealism. Philosophy is a knowledge through notions because it sees that what on other grades of consciousness is taken to have Being, and to be naturally or immediately independent, is but a constituent stage in the Idea......The notion is.. the principle of all life, and thus possesses at the same time a character of thorough concretness" (Shorter Logic, §160).

If the finite is limited/transitory while the infinite/notion is the principle of all life in which the finite is a constituent stage, and philosophy is knowledge through notions, then Hegel seems to be talking about priority of notion in teleology or organic functions. The purpose/notion of a seed is to grow into a plant, it develops leaves, roots etc. that have different functions in order to fulfil that purpose.

Therefore, I found Hegel's idealistic position uncertain. Perhaps, Hegel, who regards his philosophy as the culminating point of all previous philosophies and he himself as the person who has attained the Absolute Idea wants all major principles in philosophy combined in his own. It may be that his idealism is multi-dimensional operating at different levels and with different expressions but I'm not sure.

Any opinion?


Alex Lau