“Hegelian Dialectics” Are Not “Discussion Dialectics”
On the different uses of the term and consequences for missing Hegel.
The term “dialectic” is used throughout philosophy but not always in the same way. Some philosophers by “dialectic” mean merely a “back and forth,” like a democratic debate. People will talk about the “dialectic” between Liberals and Conservatives, Republicans and Conservatives, and so on. In this first sense, a “dialectic” and a “debate” are extremely similar, and the key point is that this kind of “Discussion Dialectic” seeks to end the dialectic. The goal is resolution, for the involved parties to come to an agreement that stabilizes the situation.
But this is not the only kind of dialectic, and frankly I often wish the term “dialectic” was never used as a simile for “discussion, debate, etc.,” for that has contributed to confusion. The second kind of dialectic is something akin to what Hegel wrote on, though ultimately we’ll have to understand that Hegel’s dialectic is not merely epistemological but also ontological, a description of how things “are” in themselves. Yes, this ontology can generate a corresponding epistemology, but we should understand straightaway that Hegel is in the business of ontoepistemology (not just ontology, and not just epistemology). Though in this work our points might have an epistemological emphasis, my intent is never to suggest Hegel’s dialectic is just a model for thinking. Arguably, Hegel’s dialectic isn’t primarily a method at all, even if it does lend itself into generating a mental model.
Anyway, unfortunately, the second understanding of “dialectics” more so found in Hegel has been almost completely lost to us because of the phrase “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,” which is well-known as not being readily found in Hegel as a prime triad. Hegel’s dialectic doesn’t end, let alone end in a “synthesis” (by which I mean a “Total Unity”): it’s an eternal tension (or “contradiction,” but by this Hegel doesn’t mean “effacement,” but instead something more like “paradox,” “tension,” etc.). For me, there isn’t “synthesis” in Hegel, if by that one means “a final and stable unity.” For Hegel, nothing ends, because every end contains a beginning as every beginning contains an end.
A final opening note of clarification: Hegel’s dialectic is not simply an epistemological tool he brings to his philosophy and topics of investigation, but a movement he finds in things and/or concepts themselves when he tries to understand them without presupposition, without assuming prior categories, etc. As will have to be elaborated on throughout The Absolute Choice, this occurs because entities entail contradiction in themselves, and “a dialectical movement” is simply what results due to the tension of that contradiction. Yes, I do believe this entails epistemological consequences, and indeed if we accept Hegel’s conclusions this will change how we think about things in the world, but it’s still important to realize the dialectic arises from things versus be an intellectual model which Hegel generated in a vacuum and then decided to interpret the world through. No, Hegel’s epistemology is phenomenologically derived, and it is best observed in concepts by following the logic that unfolds in and out of the very tension which constitutes things, say when we try to define a car without reducing it to its parts, a dilemma brought out in “The Ship of Theseus” paradox (for example), or when we try to define freedom as a moral good and yet at the same time not end up in anarchism. Think about something long enough, and suddenly we end up in problems—that’s the reality which Hegel describes in his dialectic. Hegel’s dialectic is a description more than a tool, even if there is something about descriptions which can be models, hence why Hegel’s work is the work of ontoepistemology.
As this work will focus on, an alternative meaning of “dialectic” is an encounter of differences that doesn’t resolve (but that can nevertheless change). Perhaps we could say it’s a “thesis encountering a(n) (anti)thesis,” but the moment we add “synthesis,” we have made a mistake. This might seem like a simple and silly point, but it’s critical: due to our misunderstanding of Hegel, we tend to understand all uses of the word “dialectic” as “a process toward synthesis.” And basically that means we end up with a single sense of the word, which means we lose the category of “dialectic” which Hegel proposes. And this is a problem, because there are in fact unresolvable tensions in the world (like you and me).
Having only one sense of the word “dialectic” may not seem like a big deal, but if Wittgenstein is right that ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,’ then the loss of the second understanding of the term means my world becomes a place where “eternal tension” doesn’t occur (or at least not in a way that I can “readily” understand). In fact, I’m arguably led to believe that all tensions (can) lead to resolutions and/or unities, that there is no condition or situation which I cannot eventually solve. If I don’t solve it, it must be because one party in the dialectic was unwilling to “come together” (and that person will probably happen not to be me…). Realizing this could make me upset, causing the dialectical relationship to explode into anger, resentment, and worse. However, if I was at least aware of the second type of dialectic, I could adjust my expectations to reality, and that could save me from disillusionment and error. If I know that there are “Hegelian Dialectics” out there that cannot be solved, only managed, then I’ll know what’s instore for me. I’ll adjust my expectations and even thrive.
Please do not mistake me as saying that “Discussion Dialectics” can never resolve, that agreement is never possible, that every type of unity is an illusion—that would be a ridiculous claim. If resolution was never possible, democratic societies would have never even gotten off the ground. Rather, my claim is that we need to understand the category of “dialectic” which we find in Hegel (and also note that, in my own work, that is usually what I mean when I use the term). Yes, I would like it if we only used the term “dialectic” to mean it this way, but I understand that’s probably impractical—I’m ready to settle on a compromise. Furthermore, what we find in the work of Alex Ebert is the idea that what we call “resolutions” are actually more so “states of equilibrium” which eventually destabilize themselves, but the point is that there are periods of relative stability (and “being”). To claim otherwise would be to deny a part of Hegel’s vision.
Why is it critical to understand that “Hegelian Dialectics” exist in the world? Well, countless reasons can be found in the work of Cadell Last (such as his paper with Pauline Ezan, “Self Development with Dialectics—Nature of One and the Other”), and hopefully the series on “The Philosophy of Lack” also sheds light on the necessity of expecting “Hegelian Dialectics.” To put the point simply: if we only have a category of “problems” that suggests “all problems are solvable,” then when we encounter “unsolvable problems,” we will try solving them versus try to manage them, and that will likely make “the unsolvable problems” worse (both in that it could complexify the problem and that it could emotionally devastate us, leading to effacement).
As Dr. Last teaches, psychoanalysis is a field that often suggests “Hegelian Dialectics” to describe the human condition. Freud, Lacan, Žižek—all of these employ terms and ideas that cannot be properly understood through an understanding of “dialectics as difference into unity” (“disagreement into resolution,” “theses into synthesis,” etc.). Rather, to grasp their thinking, we must understand “Hegelian Dialectics,” which are differences that never resolve from out of tension. For example, Lacan teaches that we are constituted by a “lack” that we cannot fill that we nevertheless try to fill, a “lack” which didn’t result from any real or original loss. There is “lack without loss,” and since there was no “loss,” we cannot “fill” that “lack”; instead, we must learn to live with it. But this doesn’t mean we can’t grow and improve. To say there is no ultimate resolution doesn’t mean there is no progress—it seems to be an obsession of the (“technocratic”) Western Mind to make this mistake. “Unity or nothing” ends us in nothing (and for no reason).
Hegel wants us to live with tension, and (bringing to mind the work of Harold Bloom on “misreading” and “Freudian influence”) the fact we often misinterpret Hegel as seeking “synthesis” might just suggest how strongly we dislike this doctrine (our “frenemy brains” want stability, after all). But failing to accept the doctrine has caused us incredible trouble (Freud, Lacan, Žižek, and Last all describe neurosis that result from this error), which is to say that we need to accept what we don’t want to accept. We may not want to go to the gym, but that “want” alone won’t stop our muscles from breaking down.
One reason of note why we cannot resolve “Hegelian Dialectics” is because we cannot achieve certainty. When for example I discuss in (Re)constructing “A Is A” “the dialectic between thinking and perceiving,” I can never be certain that my “idea of a cat” is actually the same as “that cat there”; when I discuss “Dialectical Ethics,” I can never be certain that I am rightly applying “The Absolute Category of Murder” to x circumstance; and so on. And even if I did “happen to get it right” this time, there’s no guarantee I’ll get it right next time: “Hegelian Dialectics” are never a “one and done” affair (they must be re-practiced and re-practiced again). “Hegelian Dialects” are lifelong, being derived from the things of life themselves, whereas “Discussion Dialectics” can end anytime. And perhaps “ought” to end, suggesting that we might think that “there’s something wrong” when a dialectic doesn’t resolve, suggesting that there could be major problems if we encounter a “Hegelian Dialectic” without the ability to identify it.
I must always live in tension and be actively thinking, both because I can never be certain that I applied x to y rightly, and because applying x to y once doesn’t mean I’ll never have to do it again (in fact, I might have to do it every day). There are things in life that can never be “settled,” and if we take Freud, Lacan, and the like seriously, the more important the entity, the higher the likelihood I should apply a “Hegelian Dialectic” versus a “dialectic which leads to unity.” My identity, my relationships, my aspirations—a “Hegelian Dialectic” seems to be the correct lens through which to understand these entities. Seeking stability, we misunderstand them at our own peril.
If we believe “all dialectics are resolvable (and the same),” then when I resolve a “Discussion Dialectic” say over a political issue (like tax rates), then I can use this as evidence that I can resolve the dialectic between “my idea of myself” and “my real self.” Although this isn’t actually possible (as we learn from the psychoanalytical thinkers), it’s very possible for me to “self-deceive” myself into thinking I’ve achieved this goal, which functions as evidence that I should be able to resolve the dialectic between myself and “The Other.”1 And this is where the trouble starts, because I can “self-deceive” myself into thinking there is no unresolvable tension between myself and others—until that is the dire consequences begin manifesting, though even then I can interpret the problems as evidence of a need for unity (not that unity leads to effacement). In other words, I can close myself into my own sinking ship and believe that I will float.
Since we tend to think all dialectics are identical, we often work from the possibility of resolving “Discussion Dialectics” to assuming we can resolve “Hegelian Dialectics” (which is something we’re able to “plausibly believe” due to all the cognitive biases our brain can use for “self-deception”), and it’s not until we encounter “The Other” that we’re perhaps forced to face the reality that “unresolvable dialectics” exist. So, what do we do then? Well, typically, we tend to blame others for not having their stuff together, and then we go about continuing to believe “all dialectics are resolvable”—no trouble. Indeed, no trouble…
Progress and improvement are possible in “Hegelian Dialectics,” and in fact, if x situation is a “Hegelian Dialectic,” then the only way to improve, fix, etc. x situation is with Hegel. If “Hegelian Dialectics” do in fact exist, then knowing about “Hegelian Dialectics” and accepting them is the only way to live “a real life.” Yes, it sounds like a defeat to accept that “two people can never become fully one,” for example, but if this is in fact true, accepting this is easily the only way for two people to live better lives (we can’t know how to get somewhere if we don’t know where we are). If two people want to become one and believe they can, then when they try and fail, untold frustrations will easily emerge. It will be like a force encountering an unmovable object, but the forces we can generate are not unstoppable. We are human.
The following hopefully depicts the difference between “Resolvable Dialectics” and “Hegelian Dialectics”:
Hegel forces us to live with tension, but that does not mean Hegel forces us to live with stagnancy. We can improve dialectically (according to however we define “improvement”), but only insomuch as we don’t try to escape dialectics. Also, the “gap” depicted above is not devoid of potential, and in fact can be a source of creativity. Because there is a “gap” between my wife and I, it is possible for us to produce a child, as it is possible for us to arise to a third entity, “O.G. Rose” (that doesn’t exist “in of itself” but that nevertheless couldn’t exist without “the gap”). Critically though, children are possible because of the “gap” between parents, but children don’t fill it. “Gaps” can be generative, but they can’t be “filled.” We can only respond to “gaps,” which makes it tempting (as if they aren’t there) to talk over them.
Perhaps this suggests why the “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” notion became popular, for “gaps” can be creative sources, but what emerges from “gaps” are not syntheses of the entities which made the “gaps” possible. In Hegel, there is no “replacement” or “reconciliation” as traditionally understood, terms often associated with “synthesis”: it is not the case that some “thesis” and “antithesis” are replaced by a “synthesis,” let alone “reconciled into” one. What emerges from the dialectic is an entirely “new entity,” and though children share resemblances with their parents (and so seem like a “synthesis” and I suppose are in a “combinational” sense), children are their own people and cannot be reduced to their parents. Yes, “O.G. Rose” is a kind of combination of Michelle and Daniel, but O.G. Rose is also an “emergence” that is not readily reducible to Michelle and Daniel (a kind of “network effect”). And most obviously, parents don’t cease to exist once they have children and “become” their children. When a child is born, the parents are not “absorbed” into the child where they find a long-sought “Primordial Unity” (which sounds like something out of a Science Fiction novel): the parents continue to exist as themselves and with a “gap” between them (and do note that a new “gap” emerges between the parents and the child that must be managed too, suggesting that childbirth doesn’t reduce “gaps” but increases them). Yes, the “gap” between parents made a “new being” possible, but that “new being” doesn’t fill the “gap” (even if the child brings the parents closer together in other ways, though please note that “closer together” isn’t the same as “totally unified with,” as we see with apostrophe lines).2, 3
If parents think children will “fill” their “gaps,” if college friends think starting a company can bring them “closer together,” if artists think a new painting will help them “connect with the world”—all of these notions of “unity” and “overcoming divides” will likely lead to disillusionment and disappointment. Sure, children can bring parents closer together, as a critically acclaimed painting can help an artist feel appreciated, but these experiences don’t make “gaps” disappear. The “gaps” are still there, as the potential for weeds is still present in the garden after a long session of weeding. If we think we can weed the garden once and it will forever be taken care of, we are in for a rude awakening; likewise, if we think landing our novel on The New York Times bestseller list will make it easy to live with ourselves, we too will end up disturbed, as will the parents who think children will fix their marriage. Gardens cannot be solved.
Why this point matters so much to grasp is that no matter what “gaps” may generate or make possible, “the gap” remains. Parents do not solve their neuroses or differences by having a child; worse yet, the child can hide the “gap” temporarily, which means the neuroses could be left unattended and worsen, like weeds in a garden that are hidden out of sight behind a shed. One day, we finally walk behind the shed and see a horrific jungle; one day, our child leaves home, and we find ourselves a mess. This doesn’t have to be the case, for parents can “do the work” of progressing and improving “shoulder-to-shoulder” with one another all while having children: the problem is that it’s easy to lose sight of the need to do this work once we have kids, as it’s easy to think such work isn’t needed when we don’t even have a category of “Hegelian Dialectic” in our thinking.
Just knowing “total unities are impossible” isn’t enough: we also have to do the work of trying to be “more harmonized than not” even if ultimately “Absolute Unity” isn’t an option. A violin can never be a cello, but the violin and cello can still learn to play together, if only they’ll learn to listen to one another and “put in the work.” If the violin and the cello weren’t different, the song would not be possible (it is the difference which makes possible what’s created). They are harmonizing when performing (relating, love, etc.), but if they stop playing, there will be silence (a gap, a lack, etc.). It is physically impossible for the musicians to play forever, but when they stop, they will rest, and that rest is what will make it possible for them to play again in the future.
Once we accept Hegel and “integrate ourselves” with inescapable and essential “lacks” (due to the uncrossable “gaps” we find characterizing our lives), then we will know the “work of our lives”—to “manage gaps” versus “fill gaps”—and so we won’t be tricked into thinking “gaps” are filled by the entities which the “gaps” make possible and generate.4 We can move forward with others, shoulder-to-shoulder, and harmonize. Otherwise, we’ll walk toward others and bump heads. Then, we’ll step back, look at one another, and hurt.
We have explored how approaching the world in terms of Hegel’s dialectic versus “resolvable dialectics” changes how we experience, interpret, and carry ourselves in the world, and we have suggested that failing to make this adjustment can be very consequential. Having done that, we should emphasize again that Hegel doesn’t use dialectics as a mental model and “press it down” on phenomena; rather, he finds that things entail a “dialectic movement” in themselves and hopes to “speculatively reason” from things based on that movement. As Merold Westphal brilliant explains, ‘[Hegel’s] method [entails] watching the familiar repeatedly self-destruct and replace itself with a new mode of consciousness to which new objects correspond.’⁵ This occurs repeatedly, and ‘[t]his is the ‘dialectical movement which consciousness exercises on itself.’ ’ In other words, it is consciousness and not Hegel’s method which is dialectical […] The dialectical movement belongs to the subject matter of philosophy whose task is simply to describe this movement. […] His ‘method’ is the reine Zusehen of human consciousness, the pure description of its dialectical restlessness and its striving to transcend its own finitude.’⁶
All this suggests that Hegel stays true to his skepticism and distrust of method (which often smuggles in presuppositions without realizing it), for “Hegel’s method” (though it can seem inappropriate to call it that) is description-based versus epistemologically constructed. Hegel is more like Cezanne than a typical Platonist (though both seem similar in their “staring”), and critically what we see is that ‘the phenomenology [emphasis added] of Spirit is to replace psychological explanations as well as the more abstract discussions of the foundation of knowledge.’⁷ To quote Westphal again:
‘It is entirely typical of Hegel that while Descartes points out the changeability of the wax in our sensory experience of it, [Hegel] focuses on the volatility of our attempts to think the salt. It is not the changing appearance of the salt from one moment to the next but its contradictory character at any given moment which drives consciousness beyond Perception.’⁸
This notion will be expanded on in “Absolute Knowing” by O.G. Rose, but the point is that ‘[t]he sensible salt is the familiar salt which we sprinkle on our food and on icy sidewalks. The supersensible salt is, most simply, NaCl, an object which does not directly appear to sense perception,’ and we could say that “the dialectical movement” emerges in and between “salt-on-food/NaCl.”⁹ Salt is both these and yet state is the other: the salt is two irreducible dimensions which cannot both be “entirely true.” Thought and/or Notion is where this “multiplicity” can be experienced, and Hegel believes this way “thought moves” is a revelation into how “things move” themselves, per se (that Nature and Notion are perhaps isomorphic). This will be expanded on (say in “How the Absolute Might Move” by O.G. Rose), but on this point we can understand better why Hegel felt Phenomenology of Spirit was needed before Science of Logic: the very experience of thought coming to understand itself through history (as Hegel articulates) functions as “a proof” for why there is “reason to think” Aristotelian logic needs to be updated. Things are not stable (A/As) in thought or themselves: if we say “salt is salt,” we have said “salt-on-food is salt-on-food,” “NaCl is NaCl,” and “salt-on-food is NaCl,” all at once. Yes, perhaps each of these notions is an “A is A” to itself, but each notion is distinct from the other, and yet all notions are implied in the other, a reality which is not captured in “A is A.” Yes, A/A-thinking can be useful and is even unavoidable, but we must avoid “autonomous A/A” — logic must be upgraded. To be tongue-in-cheek, Hegel believes Kant leaves us to think “NaCl is NaCl,” but does anyone put NaCl on their food? If “yes,” then why think so?
We have explored how approaching the world in terms of Hegel’s dialectic versus “resolvable dialectics” changes how we experience, interpret, and carry ourselves in the world, and we have suggested that failing to make this adjustment can be very consequential. Having done that, we should emphasize again that Hegel doesn’t use dialectics as a mental model and “press it down” on phenomena; rather, he finds that things entail a “dialectic movement” in themselves and hopes to “speculatively reason” from things based on that movement. And we have mainly focused on something which sounds epistemological in this work, but might there be imagery which helps us understand the more ontological side of Hegel’s dialectic?
In terms of method, I consider the dialectic an oscillation between principles, an acknowledgment of how everything contains within it a destabilizing element, and I do think the language of “abstraction, negation, and concretion” is very helpful for considering it (even if we must be careful to suggest that these terms “are” Hegel’s dialectic). However, Hegelian dialectics are not merely “a method” but instead refer to something deep and ontological (arguably, the “ontological” dimension of the dialectic is primary, while the “epistemology” is secondary and ultimately only something derived). Hegel is overall giving us an ontoepistemology, not just one or the other, but we must note that “the epistemology” results from “the ontology,” and not the other way around (“truth organizes values”).
How would I describe Hegel’s dialectic more ontologically? Well, I’d say that Hegel writes about shifts, changes, and leaps between Notion and Nature, which is to say that a good image to understand Hegel might be Flubber. Flubber? It’s a metaphor, and thus automatically lacking, but a way to consider Hegel’s dialectic might be to think of the Robin William’s movie from the 1997 called Flubber. Flubber is something Robin Williams invents in the movie, and it is a green, shapeshifting goo that is full of tension and constantly “pulling back into itself” when pulled apart. It can split into pieces, but then merge back together — it is very transformative but also full of tension, which is why I prefer it to consider Hegel’s dialectic than say clay. Also, Flubber is “free” and wild: it basically seems unstoppable precisely because its slippery, transformative, and like a spring. When it’s held and contained, it always feels and seems temporary: Flubber will break free soon enough.
Now, a limitation to this metaphor might be in how Flubber comes back to and maintains a relatively consistent form, while in Hegel things change and dialectically “become”: for Flubber to work as a metaphor, whenever it pulled apart or underwent one of its wild episodes, Flubber would return to itself anew and/or have generated something new outside of itself which cannot be reduced to it. A fair critique, but it should be noted that the dialectic is not mere “being” or autonomous “becoming,” but rather the dialectic is a “(be)coming” that explores a more consistent being that is consistently becoming something else in being itself. Thus, we should expect Flubber to “seem the same” to us looking at him from the outside, but Flubber in this example has undergone transformations in his stretching and tensions. And yet Flubber to himself is consistently the same subject: it is not as if a new “thing viewing the world” begins with each stretch. The same mind and “act of viewing” is carried through the life of Flubber, and yet Flubber is not the same Flubber. There is an inescapable “gap” between Flubber’s consistent “undergoing of experience” as itself and what exactly constitutes Flubber, as there is an inescapable “gap” between what Flubber was before it stretched and what it is afterwards. And all of these “gaps” can prove generative if Flubber can learn to live with them — or alternatively they can prove sources of effacement.
In the Preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel speaks of an embryo, which is something that, in being itself, is becoming a baby (it “is a becoming,” a (be)coming), which is to say that the baby is in the being of the embryo and yet only emerges in the becoming of an embryo, and yet a baby ultimately isn’t reducible to an embryo (even if similarly classified). The baby and the embryo are not synthesized into anything, but rather the embryo generates in and out of itself “the difference” that is a baby. The difference between a baby and an embryo is always maintained, and yet a baby only exists thanks to an embryo. And the wild idea Hegel seems to present us with is that every entity, every idea, and every relation (itself) between entities and ideas, are themselves like embryos and Flubbers. Whenever Flubber stretches, it is like an embryo becoming a baby, and then with another stretch that baby is like an embryo becoming a baby again, on and on. Everything in the universe entails in itself a tension that causes everything to make itself “become” like an embryo (this is “pandialecticism,” to use a term from Alexander Bard). The tension and movement in us is what makes the embryos of us “(be)come” (us), with irreducibility and the inescapability of “gaps” defining every development of the process. As discussed in “The Absolute Choice,” I believe this means Hegel suggests everything in the universe is like the Christian and mystical eucharist, which is to say everything is a transubstantiation of “(be)coming” — but what I mean by that will have to be elaborated on in the other paper.
More epistemologically again, Hegel notes how we must think categories and believe in them to think well (even if only to unveil their inevitable failure and thus our need to try to think “pre-category,” as we find in Science of Logic), and yet “pure categories” necessarily fail, bifurcate, split apart, and the like. This suggests that we cannot think unless we “think to fail,” suggesting that the life of the mind is not a place to run to for safety, but precisely a place where the limits of the human subject and finitude prove unavoidable. In this way, Hegel suggests human thought is tragic and incapable of avoiding that tragedy, and yet thought must “practically think” it can; otherwise, thought won’t think well enough for the tragedy to occur. In this way, we see thought pulling itself apart, which is what precisely creates the tension that pulls thought back together. We also see here how, according to certain “conditionalism” (to allude to the paper by that name), thought is calm and still, while under different conditions it is tense and wild — it depends. For me, this describes the operations of Flubber, which align with Hegel’s dialectic, and it is this “(in)stability” Hegel works tirelessly to describe.
In addition to the imperfect metaphors of Flubber and embryos for thinking about Hegel’s Dialectic, I highly suggest the work of Alex Ebert, who explores The Science of Logic in profound and intrinsic ways before which I had never seen. His paper, “The Sublation of Mathematics,” can be found in Enter the Alien: Thinking as 21st Century Hegel, and will be discussed throughout The Absolute Choice. To borrow from Alex Ebert, we could say that contradictions give rise to an equilibrium that then interrupts itself due to its own generated contradiction, which gives rise to an equilibrium that then interrupts itself due to its own generated contradiction, which gives rise — on and on. In my opinion, Ebert shows well why ultimately mathematics might be the best way to show and explain Hegel’s dialectic, and I think that any descriptive shortcomings of this work can be corrected in Ebert’s essay.
Hegel believes if we witness and observe ideas and things unfold and operate, we will see that ideas and things operate dialectically, and from this ontological observation we can then derive a corresponding dialectical epistemology, the reliability of which is high precisely because it arose from ontology. What is “realized” is more likely to be accurate than what is “created” (not that it is always easy to tell the difference), and Hegel seems to think that his dialectic is realized, thus strengthening the effectiveness of his method. And yet the next step is that Hegel believes the very act of measuring the world or considering it methodologically could change how the world unfolds and understands itself, which is to say epistemology has ontological consequences, as ontology determines what epistemologies arise and are possible. Thus, for Hegel, though we can focus on ontology here and epistemology there, we are ultimately always in the business of an ontoepistemology.
In closing, the full implications of Hegel’s dialectic ultimately rests on what might be the most mysterious question that I can think of in Hegel, a topic which will be discussed more in “Hegel’s Unknown.” Basically, it is the question of the relationship between Nature and Notion, and/or the question on if Nature and Notion are formally identical. Hegel’s dialectic is arrived at by Hegel through his “immanent critique,” which is to stay his analysis of concepts to themselves, where Hegel concludes concepts entail their own destabilization, but is Nature the same way or only our knowledge of Nature? How can we tell? Four possibilities arise:
1. Notion and Nature are different in structure yet relate.
2. Notion and Nature are different in structure and don’t relate.
3. Notion and Nature are the same in structure and relate.
4. Notion and Nature are the same in structure and don’t relate.
2 and 4 don’t seem possible, for thoughts about things relate insomuch as thoughts are “about” things, so what of 1 and 3? Indeed, if 1, then Hegel’s “immanent critique” and hence dialectic may only apply to the Notion, but if 3, then Hegel’s dialectic also describes Nature to its very self somehow. How exactly? Well, that’s Hegel’s Unknown.
¹I as Homo Egeo can believe I am Homo Ego, to use language from “Homo Egeo” by O.G. Rose.
²Now, what can happen is that the birth of children radically changes the parents, to the point where the parents “practically” become entirely new people. Whether this is a good or bad is another topic (in my view, essentially changing versus only accidentally changing could be a sign that certain “self-work” wasn’t done), but even if the parents do “entirely change,” a “gap” remains between them. Nothing produced thanks to a “gap” can ever “absolutely unify” parents even if that child changes the parents: there is no “synthesis,” only “transformation” (and, at best, “resemblance”).
Sticking to the parenting example, we can say that Hegel believes the “gaps” between “differences/beings” can generate a “new difference/being” which “reaches back” and transforms the “original differences/beings” into “new differences/beings,” making it seem “as if” the “original differences/beings” were never there in the first place. A “total loss” seems to occur, which the parents can experience as notably traumatic, for just when they thought “totally unity” would occur with childbirth, they experience both a “multiplication of gaps” and the vanishing of their “original identities” as if those “original identities” were never there at all (a “flip moment” which can make them feel crazy and delusional, which could also unveil to them the very real possibility that they can be crazy and delusional).
Unfortunately, if childbirth causes parents to suffer “negation-into-newness,” I’m not of the opinion that the neuroses, traumas, etc. of the parents are lost in the change, but rather tend to be “carried over” into the new identity (the “new identities” are made in “the image and likeness” of our “old identities,” but if the “old identities” are gone, we lose the standard against which we can tell how). Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but I believe it’s safe to say that we’re in trouble if we assume “having a child” will fix us (and so it goes with “publishing a book,” winning a promotion, etc.). Without a framework of “Hegelian Dialectics,” it certainly will not (though perhaps the busyness and demands of child-rearing will distract us for a time), and worse yet trauma will stack upon trauma as we “totally lose” our “old identity” (which perhaps contained or “kept at bay” some neuroses that our “new identity” isn’t so able to contain), discover “gaps” multiply versus “be filled” as we expected — and that’s not even to mention the “rush” of responsibilities that come flooding in to add pressure (bills, late nights, work drama, etc.).
When they have children, parents can face greater challenges then they anticipated: they must cope with now being “new people” while dealing with “a new person.” There’s a “double transformation” that occurs which isn’t aided by any “increased unity”; if anything, “a multiplication of gaps” adds to the difficulty. And the culture at large, drunk on “myths of unity,” seems to do little to prepare us for this extraordinary change: when we undergo it, we’re made to feel as if we are alone, that everyone else is “doing something right” that we are not. And so we suffer silently, lacking a “Hegelian Dialectic” to help us adjust our expectations. We live lives of quiet desperation on the outside, while inside the desperation is loud.
³For Hegel, there is a(n) (essential, unfillable) “gap” between beings that can generate “a new being” which “reaches back” and transforms “the original beings” into “new beings” in a manner that makes it seem as if “the original beings” never existed in the first place. Hence, when “gaps” generate, there is also a “total split” from what came before to make it seem as if what’s new is original and not new at all, but “always already,” per se. Since “gaps” always exist, this “totally new generation” is always possible and can happen anytime, and when it happens, it’s as if “the totally new generation” is “the (only) generation” (and so isn’t “totally new” to itself, but simply “what is”). When “the ground of being” changes, the “new ground” presents itself as unchanging; when we become “new people,” we still see ourselves as ourselves.
⁴Please note that “gaps,” in generating “new entities,” thus generate new “gaps” which themselves can generate “new entities,” which thus generates even newer “gaps” — on and on (note the emphasis in Hegel is “on the gaps” as the source of creation and “newness” as opposed to the entities themselves). The following may help depict the point:
From an “original difference,” a new entity is created that then creates new “gaps” between entities that can arise to new creative possibilities in those “gaps,” on and on infinitely (where arrows point off into space, imagine new circles, new “gaps,” etc.). In this way, it is “gaps” which drive Hegel’s “march (of difference) through history,” per se, as is commonly discussed (with may or may not be “progressive” according to some standard we select). It is not so much that a thesis combines with an antithesis that gives us a synthesis and thus new thesis to restart the process (even though this can in some circumstances be a useful “mental model”), but rather that an encounter of “differences” realizes a “gap” out of which a new “difference” emerges, which generates new “gaps” out of which even newer “differences” can emerge, on and on (but do note none of the differences are “absorbed” into one another — no “gap” is fillable). There are perhaps periods of rest in Hegel but no final resolution (“rest-olution”).
Imagine that a person encounters the world and is thus inspired to write a book (which is possible thanks to the “gap” between the writer and the world). This book is then read by readers, and because there is a “gap” between the readers and the writer, they themselves can write their own books and live different lives inspired by the text, which may result in them having encounters with people and events they otherwise wouldn’t have had. From these “encounters,” new creative possibilities can emerge — on and on. (Do note that readers don’t have to be inspired by a book to write a book: the way “new differences” emergence manifest can be multifaceted. Whereas one reader might be inspired to write a book, another reader might be inspired to become a nurse, to fix his relationship with his children, etc.)
⁵Westphal, Merold. History and Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Atlantic Highlands, N.J. Humanities Press Inc., 1978: 17.
⁶Westphal, Merold. History and Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Atlantic Highlands, N.J. Humanities Press Inc., 1978: 17.
⁷Westphal, Merold. History and Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Atlantic Highlands, N.J. Humanities Press Inc., 1978: 18.
⁸Westphal, Merold. History and Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Atlantic Highlands, N.J. Humanities Press Inc., 1978: 97.
⁹Westphal, Merold. History and Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Atlantic Highlands, N.J. Humanities Press Inc., 1978: 94.
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