Hegel’s Account of Contradiction in the Science of Logic Reconsidered

Karin de Boer. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 48, Issue 3. July 2010.

1. Introduction

Hegel’s philosophy is notorious for its alleged claim that all things are contradictory. Whereas Marxists took this claim to support their view that the social-political world exhibits “real” contradictions, non-Hegelian philosophers of various breeds have used it to argue that Hegelian dialectic annihilates the very principle of scientific reasoning. Yet, even if it is granted that Hegel did not intend to violate the law of non-contradiction, the stakes of Hegel’s account of contradiction in the Science of Logic are far from clear. According to Robert Pippin, Hegel’s claim that all things are contradictory is “one of the most important, even if most obscure things said in the Logic.” In what follows, I hope to remove such misunderstandings of this claim as continue to thwart an adequate interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy at large.

In our days, Marxist readings of Hegel are generally thought to have become obsolete. Recent debates on Hegel rather concerned the metaphysical or non-metaphysical nature of the Science of Logic. For some reason, these debates largely ignored the issue of contradiction, thus leaving the traditional assessments of Hegel’s concept of contradiction to their own devices. The present article intends to fill this gap by reconsidering Hegel’s account of the concept of contradiction in the Science of Logic. Its second part-the Doctrine of Essence-contains a detailed examination of the concepts constitutive of classical logical laws, including the principle of non-contradiction. I hold that Hegel by no means denies the validity of this principle insofar as the natural sciences are concerned. I will contend, however, that the text also contains remarks on contradiction that do not pertain to the formal requirements of valid propositions at all. As I hope to show, these latter remarks concern the principle of Hegel’s method, a method intended to comprehend modes of thought-rather than “things”-as elements of a dynamic totality.

Only at the end of the Logic does Hegel discuss the nature of his method in a systematic way. Since his preliminary remarks on the role of contradiction in this method occur within a chapter devoted to traditional logic, it is difficult to grasp the crucial difference between, on the one hand, Hegel’s account of the classical principle of non-contradiction and, on the other, his references to the principle of speculative science as such. In order to remove the obscurity of Hegel’s text it will be necessary, therefore, to disentangle the various layers that together make up the Doctrine of Essence.

Although I do not wish to suggest that Hegel’s Science of Logic can be reduced to the premises of Kant’s critical philosophy, I take the view that Hegel’s achievement can only be measured by considering the extent to which he moved beyond these very premises. Accordingly, the first layer I will examine consists in Hegel’s largely implicit appropriation of Kant’s account of the so-called concepts of reflection in the Critique of Pure Reason (sections 2 to 4). As we will see, the larger context of Hegel’s discussion of the concept of contradiction roughly corresponds to the section of the Critique entitled “On the Amphiboly of the Concepts of Reflection.” Although this section, in my view, greatly clarifies the general thrust of the Doctrine of Essence, it does not suffice to dissolve the prevailing embarrassment concerning Hegel’s remarks on the concept of contradiction. This task further requires an examination of the way in which the Logic-in the wake of Kant’s Critique-criticizes pure reason such as it has informed the actual history of scientific and philosophical thought. Hegel’s criticism of the concepts that emerged during this history, I will argue, always sets out from the limited understanding of these concepts achieved in the history of philosophy itself. This layer of the Doctrine of Essence emerges most clearly in Hegel’s account of the classical logical laws derived from the concepts “identity” and “opposition,” an account which I discuss in sections 5 and 6. Since this account provides the context of Hegel’s remarks on contradiction, I will draw on it to closely examine these remarks themselves (sections 7 and 8). Sections 9 and 10, finally, point out how the methodical principle that Hegel considers to derive from the concept of contradiction actually informs his speculative logic, in particular his analysis of the determinations of reflection themselves.

The present article takes its bearings from the view that Hegel’s Logic consists in a philosophical reconstruction of the pure concepts brought about in the history of scientific and philosophical thought. Whereas this history provides the Logic with its “material,” Hegel abstracts from the actual history of thought in order to comprehend the totality of its necessary moments. On this account, the Remarks that complement the main text of the Logic do not deal with a different content than the main text, but treat the same content from a more concrete angle. Since I consider the Remarks to provide important clues for interpreting Hegel’s extremely abstract treatment of pure concepts in the main text, this article broaches Hegel’s discussion of the concepts identity, opposition, and contradiction primarily through the former. This focus on the historical dimension presupposed by the main text will allow me, I hope, not only to develop a consistent interpretation of Hegel’s conception of contradiction, but also, in the final sections, to shed new light on the method that informs the Science of Logic as a whole.

2. Kant’s Account of the Concepts of Reflection

In order to trace the Kantian strand of Hegel’s Doctrine of Essence, a brief examination of Kant’s account of transcendental reflection is in place. In the chapter of the Critique entitled “On the Amphiboly of the Concepts of Reflection,” Kant opposes both Leibniz and the adherents of the “Leibnizian-Wolffian doctrine” by arguing that they purported to achieve knowledge of things by means of logical reflection alone. Criticizing this metaphysics for its failure to distinguish adequately the domains of science and speculation, the chapter devoted to the concepts of reflection forms the hinge between the Transcendental Analytic and the Transcendental Dialectic.

For Kant, reflection always proceeds by comparing the content of various representations (A262/B318). This comparison underlies the very generation of empirical concepts, the subsumtion of a given object under a concept, as well as the combination of concepts in a judgment. According to Kant, I can only determine the content of my representation as, for instance, a rose, by comparing it to the content of the concept “rose” and by singling out what they have in common (A137/B176). Although this comparison relies on the concept of sameness (Einerleikeit), it does not yet require logical reflection. We do reflect logically, by contrast, when comparing the content of various concepts to one another in order to form judgments (A261-62/B317-18; cf. A279/B335). In order to state that all roses are plants, I must first have singled out the characteristics which the concept “rose” and the concept “plant” have in common. The statement that some roses are red, conversely, requires that I consider the object thought under the concepts “rose” and “red” in view of its distinction from other objects thought under the concept “rose” (A261-62/B317-18). Apart from sameness and distinctness, Kant discusses three further pairs of concepts of reflection, including agreement and conflict. Even though these concepts of reflection do not suffice to turn empirical representations into objective judgments, any scientific knowledge necessarily relies on them.

Kant holds that Leibniz misused this logical reflection for the purpose of achieving a priori knowledge of things as such (A273/B329). In his view, Leibniz committed a “subreption” (A268/B324) by tacitly moving from the domain of empirical knowledge (where logical reflection is appropriate) to the domain of ontology (where it does not suffice). Thus, Leibniz relied on the concept of sameness to assert that things are identical if all of their intrinsic determinations are identical. According to Kant, this claim only makes sense insofar as things are treated as mere noumena. Leibniz went wrong, in his eyes, by claiming the validity of the principle of indiscernibility for the domain of the natural sciences as well. Yet these sciences are concerned not so much with the intrinsic determinations of things as with objects that differ from one another at least with regard to their spatial position. These objects are defined by relational rather than intrinsic determinations (A265/B321). While the Leibnizians entangled themselves in vain speculations concerning, for instance, the nature of monads (cf. A274/B330) and the divisibility of substances (cf. A434-43/B462-471), Kant maintains- throughout the first Critique-that philosophy should turn its inquiries to a priori principles that govern scientific knowledge rather than metaphysics.

According to Kant, Leibniz’s philosophy can be traced back to its failure adequately to distinguish between phenomena and noumena. The mode of reflection to which Kant assigns this task-transcendental reflection-is as pure as logical reflection, yet considers given representations in view of the cognitive faculties to which they belong, namely, either sensibility or the understanding. Just as logical reflection precedes the formation of empirical judgments, transcendental reflection should precede the philosophical investigation into the a priori principles of all knowledge.

Kant notably illustrates the function of this transcendental reflection by pointing out how Leibniz failed to perform what he calls the “duty” of philosophy (A263/ B319). I take him to mean that Leibniz considered things as such by means of concepts of reflection that actually pertain to noumena alone. Leibniz, that is, conceived of these things in terms of the sameness and agreement of the characteristics thought under their concepts, and he regarded these characteristics as intrinsic to the things themselves. Lastly, he considered these things-considered as the matter of thought- to precede their spatio-temporal form (A271-76/B327-32). Whereas Leibniz thus disregarded the opposites of each of these four concepts of reflection (A270/ B326), Kant suggests that these opposites constitute precisely the very characteristics of the sphere of phenomena. These potential objects of scientific knowledge are characterized by spatial distinctness, conflicting forces, and extrinsic determinations. Moreover, their spatio-temporal form precedes their sensible matter. Taken together, the four pairs of concepts of reflection allow transcendental reflection adequately to distinguish the characteristics of the sphere of phenomena from those of the sphere of noumena and, hence, to limit the domain of scientific knowledge to the former. It is only within this sphere that understanding and sensibility can generate valid synthetic a priori principles, laws of nature, and empirical judgments.

Yet Kant’s solution to the problem created by dogmatic metaphysics gave rise to a new problem. Within two decades, philosophers realized that Kant’s clear-cut opposition between the realms of sensibility and thought precluded a thorough comprehension of the dynamic proper to life, spirit, and thought as such. Hegel’s Doctrine of Essence is intended, in my view, to expose the limit of any philosophy- including Kant’s-that holds on to a strict division between appearances and reality as it is in itself. In the second chapter of the Doctrine of Essence, Hegel implicitly sets out from Kant’s discussion of the concepts of reflection to achieve this aim.

3. Hegel’s Doctrine of Essence

Hegel’s speculative logic differs from Kant’s transcendental logic by almost completely disregarding the role of pure concepts in the formation of empirical knowledge. This abstraction allows Hegel to concentrate on the content of these concepts themselves and, hence, to bring out the limits of the conceptual paradigms they define. Yet this is not to say that Hegel departs from Kant’s transcendental philosophy in all respects. When he presents the Science of Logic as “the system of pure reason” (LI 43/49), he clearly recalls Kant’s view that such a system should be elaborated on the basis of his critique of pure reason. To be sure, Hegel’s Logic moves beyond Kant’s critical philosophy in that it no longer treats the basic elements of this system-pure concepts-from a subjective point of view. And whereas Kant’s first Critique largely abstracts from the historical development of pure reason, the Logic reconstructs the totality of pure concepts that have evolved in the history of scientific and philosophical thought.

However, a truly philosophical comprehension of these concepts calls for a method that takes the form of a strict deduction, for it must proceed independently of any external considerations. Thus, even though pure concepts such as being, substance, or identity have actually been put forward by individual philosophers, Hegel abstracts from this historical dimension in order to comprehend their totality. In line with Kant, he therefore assigns the production of pure concepts not so much to individual human beings as to pure thought (cf. A55/B79). Unlike Kant, Hegel treats pure thought as the a priori source of the concepts that have informed the history of the sciences and of philosophy itself. Accordingly, he refers to its principle as the concept as such (LI 30/39).

Hegel also assigns the activity of “reflection” to pure thought. He uses this term, as we will see, to characterize the possible ways of determining the concept in terms of essence. At the beginning of the Doctrine of Essence, Hegel briefly discusses these possible determinations of essence, which he takes to have informed the most basic paradigms of scientific and philosophical thought. The most abstract determination of the relation between essence and its counterpart is that between the essential and the unessential (LII 18/394). The relation between essence and the realm of immediately given beings can also be determined-and has been determined so-as semblance (Schein). This latter determination of essence underlies, Hegel notes, both skepticism and the modern idealism of Leibniz, Kant, and Fichte (LII 20-21/397).

Yet the dualism implied by this determination of essence cannot, in the long run, prevail. According to Hegel, the sphere of semblance is not foreign to that of essence, but results from essence’s own effort to establish itself as essence (LII 22/398). This might be clarified by means of the following example. The good as such only emerges as the essence of any moral act by distinguishing itself from the acts through which it appears. These acts, in turn, only emerge as moral acts in light of the good as such. Seen in this way, essence and semblance presuppose rather than exclude one another. For Hegel, the term ‘essence’ does not designate a self-identical substrate, but pertains to the movement in which it distinguishes itself from its contrary and reflects itself in the latter. That is why Hegel maintains that “essence in this its self-movement is reflection” (LII 24/399).

This reflection has allowed thought to grasp, for instance, a particular act as moral act, and, conversely, to grasp the good as such as the essence of such acts. If one isolates these contrary conceptual determinations from this movement, nothing remains. For the good itself is nothing apart from its appearance in actual deeds, and, seen from a moral point of view, these deeds are nothing apart from their finite reflection of the good as such. This is what Hegel means, it seems to me, when he notes that the reflecting movement enacted by essence “is the movement from nothing to nothing and so back to itself” (LII 24/400). Thus, essence and semblance owe their meaning exclusively to the reflection in which essence establishes itself as essence. Just as the good is reflected in moral acts, the essence of a rose is reflected in the actual rose that I see, touch, and smell. This presupposes, according to Hegel, that the pure concepts of essence and semblance themselves are also reflected into one another. I cannot define the essence of something, that is, without presupposing the conceptual unity of essence and semblance.

However, the actual history of philosophy testifies precisely to the incapacity of thought to comprehend essence and semblance-or essence and appearance-in terms of this “pure absolute reflection.” Insofar as pure thought has produced conceptual oppositions such as that between infinity and finitude, identity and difference, or form and matter, it is, on Hegel’s account, dominated by the understanding. Since pure understanding is, in this case, not engaged in determining objects, Hegel refers to it as a mode of reflection, more precisely as “external reflection” or even “self-alienated reflection.” Dependent on the mode of reasoning characteristic of common sense, this form of philosophical reflection fails to grasp the unity of contrary determinations. Insofar as the conceptual oppositions it produces can be traced back to finite ways of determining essence as such, they are treated in the Doctrine of Essence. The Encyclopedia characterizes this part of the Logic as follows:

This (most difficult) part of the Logic mainly contains the categories of metaphysics and of the sciences as such,-as the products of reflective understanding, which at once assumes the independence of the distinctions and affirms their relativity. (Enc I, §114, rem.)

External reflection is a mode of pure thought that defines essence in terms of its opposition to the inessential, semblance, or appearance, that is, in terms of two ontological spheres that exclude one another. This is what Hegel calls their reflection into themselves (LII 34/407). The Logic considers the “sphere of reflection” (LII 46/417) that results from this mode of thought as the conceptual paradigm which has dominated the history of both the sciences and philosophy from Plato onward. On the one hand, this paradigm allowed thought to rise above the sphere of empirical knowledge so as to define the essence of beings. On the other hand, it prevented thought from grasping the unity of the two realms it thus distinguished. On this account, Kant’s transcendental distinction between that which is given in sense perception (appearances) and that which can merely be thought (things in themselves) constitutes a particular instantiation of this paradigm. As such, it testifies no less to the sway of external reflection than Platonism or Leibnizianism.

I have argued above that Kant considers transcendental reflection not only to disentangle the realms of phenomena and noumena, but also to limit the domain of scientific knowledge to the former realm. Now it is the aim of the Doctrine of Essence to expose the limits of the conceptual paradigm defined by this very opposition. However, Hegel does not develop his internal criticism of external reflection by straightforwardly opposing his own insights to those achieved by dogmatic metaphysics and Kant’s critical philosophy. His strategy rather consists in setting out from the purported truth achieved by external reflection itself so as to make it aware of the untenability of its initial position. Thus, Hegel seeks to demonstrate that what external reflection takes to be the true content of a particular principle is at odds with its true, speculative content. That is why Hegel, in my view, dwells on the determinations of reflection as conceived by both traditional formal logic and the metaphysics that relied on this logic. The next section considers Hegel’s implicit discussion with Kant on this subject.

4. Hegel’s Conception of the Determinations of Reflection

The second chapter of the Doctrine of Essence is titled “The Essentialities or Determinations of Reflection.” Its three main sections investigate the concepts of identity, difference, and contradiction. Interestingly, Hegel refers to Kant’s corresponding treatment of the concepts of reflection only once, in the introductory section of the Doctrine of the Concept. He there characterizes the sphere of the concepts of reflection as “a sphere lying between intuition and understanding or between being and the concept” (LII 257/586). Since the three parts of the Logic are devoted to the spheres of being, essence, and the concept, Hegel apparently considers Kant’s account of the concepts of reflection to be concerned with the sphere of essence.

Although Hegel does not explicitly refer to the corresponding section of the Critique of Pure Reason, he clearly takes his bearings from Kant’s suggestion that transcendental reflection establishes the very distinction between phenomena and noumena. However, Hegel does not differentiate between the ways in which Leibniz and Kant opposed these two realms, nor does he mention their contrary motives for doing so. Moreover, he does not eschew the concept of essence to characterize the products of transcendental reflection taken in a broad sense. He points out, accordingly, that the Doctrine of Essence elaborates the system of determinations of reflection and, as such, constitutes a “mediating sphere” between the Doctrine of Being and the Doctrine of the Concept. This sphere, he notes, consists in

the concept qua system of determinations of reflection, that is, a sphere of being insofar as being is turning into the in-itself of the concept, such that, in this way, the concept … remains at once fettered by immediate being as something external to it.

This remark suggests that the Doctrine of Essence as a whole is devoted to the determinations of reflection. Actually, however, only the second chapter contains this term in its title. Clearly, this chapter treats the most formal determinations of reflection, that is, the concepts that constitute the content of classical logical principles. As I see it, the Doctrine of Essence conceives of these formal concepts as just one kind of pure concepts produced by the reflective understanding, which, as such, creates the very paradigm based on the distinction between essence and appearance.

Insofar as concepts are conceived by this mode of reflection, we have seen, they tend to exclude their contrary. Rather than presenting themselves as mutually dependent, they purport to be indifferent to one another and “stubbornly oppose their movement” (LII 31/405). This also holds true for identity and difference. In line with external reflection itself, Hegel introduces the concept of identity as a way of determining the essence of something that completely abstracts from the relation between identity and difference. Seen in this way, identity does not testify to the movement of reflection at stake in the Doctrine of Essence as a whole. However, Hegel considers even the concept of identity to result from reflection. Since it does not explicitly oppose its counterpart, he notes that identity results from immediate reflection (LII 39/411). Contrary to determinations of reflection such as difference or opposition, this most abstract determination of reflection does not explicitly testify to the role of external reflection. This distinction between implicit and explicit reflection allows Hegel to treat all determinations of reflection as particular determinations of essence, that is, as conceptual pairs that presuppose and instantiate the reflecting of essence and semblance into one another.

Hegel notes that these determinations of reflection used to occur in the form of isolated principles or propositions (Sätze). In various Remarks he discusses the classical principles of identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle. He does this, however, to extricate their conceptual content from their propositional form. In his view, pure concepts such as identity, difference, and opposition should not be treated as predicates to be attributed to “all things” (LII 37/410). In fact, they should not be considered as predicates at all, but rather as forms of pure thought which, as such, deserve close examination. In order to clarify this I first turn to the Remarks in which Hegel discusses the principles of traditional logic.

5. The Concept of Identity

Hegel suggests in the first Remark that external reflection treats “identity” and “difference” as more or less independent concepts (LII 39/412). It is justified in doing so, I would like to add, insofar as these concepts are used with regard to empirical representations. If I regard a rose from the perspective of identity, I focus on that which the content of my empirical representation has in common with other roses or with the content of the concept “rose.” If I regard the same rose from the perspective of difference, on the other hand, I focus on those elements that it does not have in common with other roses or with the concept of a rose. The implicit use of such concepts as identity and difference in empirical judgments is therefore not problematic. This is not to say, however, that such concepts are suited to define the basic principles of thought as such.

The second Remark elaborates on the principle of identity, to which Hegel refers as A = A. According to Hegel, this principle does not lead anywhere (LII 41/413), for it merely allows thought to state that each thing is what it is. Those who maintain the absolute truth of this principle do not see, in his view, that they thereby reduce the concept of identity to an abstract, one-sided determination (LII 41-42/413-14). Yet the logical principle that allows empirical thought to compare its various representations contains more, Hegel claims, than it actually states:

Thus, the form of the proposition in which identity is expressed contains more than simple, abstract identity; it contains this pure movement of reflection in which the other appears only as semblance. (LII 44/415)

Hegel here seems to suggest that the very form of the proposition entails that a subject is connected to a predicate that differs from the subject itself. This is not the case in a proposition which states that a rose is a rose. Whereas such a proposition, on the one hand, refers thought to possible predicates that might be attributed to a rose, on the other hand, it suggests that none of them has any significance. Hegel seems to hold, moreover, that the principle of identity relies on a particular conception of the essential as such: it presupposes that the essence of something is opposed to its transient determinations. However, external reflection itself is not aware of the difference between essence and appearance on which the principle of identity relies.

This also obtains of the classical principle of non-contradiction-or Satz vom Widerspruch-which Hegel equally treats under the heading of the concept of identity. The somewhat rudimentary version of the principle of non-contradiction he puts forward states that A cannot simultaneously be A and not-A. This principle differs from the principle of identity merely by its negative form (LII 45/416). Just as the principle of identity, the principle of non-contradiction presupposes that the identity of something, that is, its essence, is nothing but the unity of its contrary determinations. Both principles, Hegel notes, “contain more than is meant by them,” that is, they contain absolute difference (LII 45/416). In line with Kant, but without mentioning him, Hegel seems to hold that both classical principles contain a concept of identity that can be employed to distinguish the essence of something-that which remains self-identical-from its actual, transient appearance. Yet whereas Kant’s transcendental distinction between noumena and phenomena reaffirms the classical ontological distinction between essence and appearance, Hegel argues, as we will see, that the true essence of something consists in the unity of essence and appearance. As long as philosophy continues to oppose essence and appearance, it will not be able to comprehend living beings, modes of human culture, or modes of thought as exhibiting the effort to actualize their essence from within, that is, to overcome the opposition between the inner and the outer.

For Hegel, the principles of identity and non-contradiction presuppose the concept of difference. Since neither principle actually expresses the unity of identity and difference, however, he maintains that they are unsuited for philosophy. Insofar as they do not allow philosophy to comprehend self-consciousness, for instance, as the unity of pure self-consciousness and empirical consciousness, they are “unfitted for higher spheres and for the whole.” As I see it, Hegel’s account of the principles of identity and non-contradiction is implicitly guided by the question as to whether these principles adequately define the very relation between essence and appearance, that is, whether philosophy itself should take its bearings from them. Clearly, the answer to this question is “no.” As we will see, the formal principles derived from the concept of difference do not fare any better in this respect.

6. The Concept of Opposition

In his account of the concept of difference Hegel distinguishes between distinctness (Verschiedenheit) and opposition (Gegensatz). When I consider arbitrary differences between various roses, I do so on the basis of the concept of distinctness. When I reflect on such non-arbitrary differences as that between light and darkness or virtue and vice, by contrast, I necessarily presuppose the concept of opposition (cf. LII 71-72/437). In what follows I will only consider Hegel’s treatment of the concept of opposition.

Hegel notably considers the way in which this concept operates in the realms of arithmetic and empirical knowledge. Within both realms, the contrary moments of the concept of opposition emerge as the positive and the negative. External reflection, Hegel notes, assumes that “something is in itself positive, outside the relation to the negative; and [that] something is in itself negative, outside the relation to the positive.” As Hegel points out, it is by dint of this opposition that empirical thought tends to conceive of light as positive in itself and of darkness as negative in itself. He suggests that this perspective prevents thought from comprehending light as the result of its struggle against darkness and darkness as the result of its struggle against light.

Within arithmetic, by contrast, the positive and the negative are not always assigned to fixed contents in this way. Without realizing the true bearing of its insight, external reflection here holds, for instance, that the same amount of money can be determined as possession or debt, but that the amount of money itself is neither positive nor negative. In this case, external reflection implicitly affirms that the positive and the negative constitute contrary determinations-that is, contrary moments-of a single conceptual perspective. However, external reflection achieves this insight only with regard to a most abstract form of thought. It is not in the position to raise this insight into the principle of philosophical thought itself. Had it done so, it would have been obliged to conceive of the very relation between noumenon and phenomenon as grounded in a unity that posits and resolves the opposition between its contrary moments. If philosophy is to achieve insight into this dynamic, according to Hegel, it will have to take its bearings from the concept of contradiction.

7. The Concept of Contradiction

Hegel introduces the concept of contradiction by reconsidering the concept of opposition from a speculative point of view. This means that he now completely disregards the role of oppositions in arithmetic and empirical science. The contrary determinations of the concept of opposition present themselves, we have seen, as the positive and the negative. Unlike the concept of identity, the concept of opposition affirms that its contrary determinations owe their meaning to one another. When I consider the content of the concept of the positive, that is, I will immediately behold its relation to the negative. Or, as Hegel puts it, the concept of the positive contains the negative within itself, and the same is true of the concept of the negative. In this respect, each moment can be considered to constitute the unity of its contrary determinations.

Yet external reflection, we have seen, tends to disregard the mutual dependence of the positive and the negative. Due to the force of external reflection, even the positive and the negative tend to present themselves as independent concepts: the positive posits itself as that which is not the negative and vice versa. In this respect, both contrary determinations attempt to affirm their independence of their counterpart, thus excluding the latter from themselves:

As this whole, each is mediated with itself by its other and contains it. But further, it is mediated with itself by the non-being of its other; thus it is a unity existing on its own and excluding the other from itself. (LII 64-65/431)

Thus, whereas, on the one hand, both contrary moments presuppose their mutual dependence, on the other hand, they tend to posit their independence. By doing so they reduce themselves to abstract, one-sided moments. This double bind, so to speak, is characteristic of the concept of opposition. As such, it also defines the conceptual oppositions that are treated in the Doctrine of Essence as a whole. Now Hegel introduces the concept of contradiction by claiming that the positive and the negative which present themselves as independent concepts exhibit the concept of contradiction:

Insofar as the independent determination of reflection, which owes its independence to the contrary it contains within itself, at once excludes this contrary, it excludes … its proper independence from itself. For this independence consists in containing the contrary determination within itself … It is thus the contradiction.

Seen from a speculative point of view, any one-sided concept turns out to be contradictory, for it can only affirm its independence of its counterpart by affirming its dependence on the latter, thus exhibiting the self-exclusion that characterizes logical contradictions as well. Inconspicuously abandoning his reflections on the concept of opposition, Hegel here suggests that any determination of reflection contains a contradiction. This allows him to make the transition to the concept of contradiction itself. In order to clarify the passage just quoted I will use the relation between the positive and the negative, to which Hegel returns in the next paragraph, as an example.

On the one hand, we have seen, the positive consists in the unity of its contrary moments, for it has no meaning whatsoever apart from the negative. On the other hand, it tends to posit itself as independent of its contrary. Put more concretely, this means that the way in which the positive has actually emerged in the history of thought-as an independent concept-is at odds with what it is in itself, namely, the unity of its contrary moments. If we regard the positive and the negative from the perspective of external reflection, we merely see an opposition between fixed concepts. Seen from a speculative point of view, by contrast, the positive turns out to suffer from the contradiction between what it is in itself (the unity of its contrary moments) and what it has actually become (a determination opposed to its contrary), and the same is true of the negative. By no means does Hegel claim, I would contend, that the positive and the negative-or any other opposites-contradict one another. Hegel would certainly agree that mutually exclusive concepts give rise to a contradiction if they are simultaneously attributed to the same thing. But the Logic is not concerned with the attribution of concepts to things. Hegel’s point is rather that both the positive and the negative, qua concepts, contradict themselves. For insofar as they actually posit themselves as independent of their contrary, they contradict their ultimate principle, that is, their unity or mutual dependence. This is, in my view, also the gist of the following passage:

The contrary determinations [Entgegengesetzten] contain the contradiction insofar as they are, in the same respect, negatively related to one another … and are indifferent to one another. (LII 77/441)

Whereas contrary conceptual determinations such as the positive and the negative essentially presuppose one another, they actually tend to oppose one another, thus contradicting themselves. Since such oppositions result from the external reflection that has dominated the history of philosophy, this (implicit) self-contradiction only inhabits pure concepts insofar as they have actually be conceived by, say, Plato, Leibniz, or Kant. Hegel would argue, however, that these philosophers relied on a conceptual paradigm the nature of which cannot be adequately grasped by focusing on their actual work. Because he seeks to comprehend the pure concepts that emerged from this paradigm, throughout the Logic he largely abstracts from the way individual philosophers contributed to the constitution of self-contradictory pure concepts.

As we have seen, Hegel conceives of the concept of opposition, which contains the positive and the negative as its contrary moments, as a particular determination of reflection. As such, it presupposes a particular conception of the very relation between essence and appearance. Just as the positive and the negative, essence and appearance constitute a unity, but they tend to present themselves as independent of their contrary. Whence the emergence of ontological dualisms, including Kant’s epistemological opposition between noumena and phenomena. For Hegel, by contrast, the true essence of the concept essence itself consists in the unity of essence and appearance:

It is of the greatest importance to understand and retain this nature of the reflective determinations, namely, that their truth consists only in their relation to one another, that therefore each in its very concept contains the other.

However, the history of thought testifies to the incapacity of philosophy to affirm the unity of contrary conceptual determinations. The Doctrine of Essence is precisely concerned with those determinations of pure thought that remain, at least to some extent, opposed to one another. By opposing such contrary determinations as the positive and the negative, external reflection “alienates” both moments from their essential unity, that is, from the concept as such which constitutes their ultimate principle. Hegel’s speculative logic annuls this alienation, as it were, by exposing the contradiction between, on the one hand, their essential unity and, on the other hand, their prevailing opposition.

Thus, the concept of contradiction plays a twofold part in the Doctrine of Essence. On the one hand, Hegel treats this concept as a particular determination of reflection that has emerged in the history of thought and, as such, belongs to the content of the Doctrine of Essence. On the other hand, he employs the concept of contradiction to resolve the very opposition between essence and appearance, laying bare their “common root.” This is, of course, the step which Kant did not take-and could not have taken-when he, in the Critique of Pure Reason, established the opposition between sensibility and thought, when he treated the various conceptual oppositions produced by transcendental reflection, and when he criticized the antinomies produced by pure reason. Clearly, Hegel considers the method that might resolve such conceptual oppositions to involve the concept of contradiction. His actual remarks on this concept, however, have given rise to quite a few misunderstandings. Before turning to the role of the concept of contradiction in Hegel’s own method, I will first examine these remarks themselves.

8. The Principle of Self-Contradiction

Hegel begins his remarks on the concept of contradiction by going along with the language of dogmatic metaphysics, which he considers to have applied the principles of traditional logic to things as such. This view clearly corresponds to Kant’s criticism of Leibniz. In line with this metaphysics, Hegel presents the concept of contradiction in the form of a proposition. Even more than the other determinations of reflection, he notes,

the determination into which they pass as into their truth, namely, contradiction, should be given the form of a principle; it should be said “that all things are in themselves contradictory,” and this in the sense that this principle, unlike the others, expresses rather … the essence of things. (LII 74/439)

To my knowledge, no commentators who quote this remarkable passage have paid attention to the quotation marks, the conditional form of the sentence that introduces it, or the larger context of Hegel’s account. In my view, Hegel here ironically couches his conception of contradiction in the metaphysical language he is intending to overcome. As we will see, Hegel indeed considers the concept of contradiction to give rise to a particular philosophical principle. Yet this principle has nothing to do with the classical principle of non-contradiction, which was already discussed in the section devoted to the concept of identity. Unlike this classical principle, it is concerned neither with the relation between subject and predicate, nor with that between things and their properties. In order to mark the difference between the classical principle of non-contradiction and Hegel’s speculative principle of contradiction, I will refer to the latter as the principle of self-contradiction.

Unlike the principle of non-contradiction, the principle of self-contradiction does not concern a formal condition of the validity of judgments, but, as Hegel puts it, rather expresses the essence of things. This means, I would like to suggest, that it is concerned with the same ontological sphere as Kant’s transcendental concepts of reflection, that is, with the very relation between essence and appearance. Even the term ‘thing’ is therefore misleading here. As we have seen, Hegel dismisses not only the propositional form in which the determinations of reflection are traditionally rendered, but also the subject-all things-to which they are traditionally assigned. Since these classical principles “adopt being, or everything, as their subject, they resuscitate being” (LII 37-38/410), which renders them “unfitted for higher spheres and for the whole.”

Thus, Hegel by no means wishes to reject the logical rules constitutive of empirical judgments. On his view, the understanding is perfectly justified in avoiding contradictions as long as it is involved in the production of empirical knowledge. If thought engages in purely philosophical reflection, by contrast, the classical principle of non-contradiction turns out to be completely inadequate. For only the speculative principle of self-contradiction allows thought to comprehend a particular content, whatever its nature, as a process, more precisely, as the attempt to resolve the contradiction between its essential principle and its actual determination:

The contradiction … is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only insofar as something contains a contradiction within itself that it moves, has an urge and activity. (LII 75/439)

In order to clarify the speculative meaning of the principle of self-contradiction, Hegel then offers various examples drawn from the realm of common experience. According to the second example, a living being is at once its inner principle and the negation of this principle. Since an acorn is at once an acorn and a potential oak tree, it can be regarded as suffering from the contradiction between its essence and its actual determination and, hence, as impelled to resolve its selfcontradiction (LII 76/440). Yet it is completely irrelevant, first, to regard ‘acorn’ and ‘oak tree’ as mutually exclusive predicates and, second, to ask whether or not they can simultaneously be attributed to the same thing. This example is echoed in the following passage from the Lectures on the History of Philosophy:

The germ does not manifest anything. It has the urge to develop; it cannot bear to be merely in itself. Its urge consists in the contradiction that it is merely in itself and should not be so. The urge pushes [the germ] into existence. Much is brought forth; but everything that is brought forth is already contained in the germ, albeit not developed, but enveloped and ideal. (LHP I, 40-41/22)

Yet Hegel would not have gone such lengths merely to provide biology with the means to comprehend its objects in a non-mechanistic way. The Lectures on the History of Philosophy rather refer to the example of the germ to elucidate the distinction between “being in itself” and “being for itself,” a distinction without which a speculative comprehension of history-and, for that matter, of any development- would be impossible. Thus, Hegel holds that world history from its very beginning contains the principle of freedom, but in such a way that the actual, one-sided determinations of this principle, achieved by the subsequent cultural epochs, contradict the very essence of freedom until the epoch of modernity has been reached. The same distinction governs the Phenomenology of Spirit and, in various ways, Hegel’s oeuvre as a whole. It is only against this background, it seems to me, that the following remark begins to make sense:

Speculative thought consists solely in holding on to the contradiction, and thus to itself. Unlike representational thought, it does not let itself be dominated by the contradiction, it does not allow the latter to dissolve its determinations into other ones or into nothing. (LII 76/440-41)

If the principle of contradiction is conceived in this way, it can no longer be articulated in the form of a proposition that assigns a predicate to “all things.” For even though Hegel sometimes illustrates his method by referring to forms of movement and development proper to things, his philosophy is pre-eminently concerned with modes of thought, whether they appear in the form of consciousness, science, spirit, or pure concepts. Even when Hegel refers to the contradiction inherent in things, however, he always has in mind the asymmetrical contradiction between that which something is in itself (the unity of its essence and appearance) and its actual, one-sided determination (its appearance). Once again, this approach- proper to speculative science-has nothing to do with the classical principle of non-contradiction, that is, with the impossibility of attributing, at the same time and in the same respect, contrary predicates to a single subject or thing.

By raising the principle of self-contradiction into the basic principle of his method, in sum, Hegel can comprehend any particular mode of thought as torn apart by the contradiction between, on the one hand, the unity of its contrary determinations which it is in itself, and, on the other, the one-sided content to which it has been reduced within the actual history of thought. Once Hegel has done this, he merely has to observe-as he explains most clearly in the Phenomenology-how such a mode of thought, suffering from this its internal contradiction, attempts to incorporate the moment it had so far excluded from itself. By thus treating pure concepts-and, by the same token, any mode of thought-as if they were living beings, Hegel has brought about a philosophical revolution the importance of which, in my opinion, equals the one initiated by Kant.

9. Contradiction as Negativity

As we have seen, Hegel regards the contradiction as “the root of all movement” (LII 74-75/439). Now, both the Phenomenology and the Logic use similar terms to characterize the concept of negativity. The Logic defines negativity as the “indwelling pulsation of self-movement and vitality” (LII 78/442), and even states that “the contradiction is the negative in its essential determination, the principle of all self-movement.” Hegel likewise considers Kant’s account of the antinomies to reveal the force of this negativity. And this despite the fact that Kant himself merely used the antinomies to argue, in a skeptical vein, that thesis and antithesis necessarily annul one another. If, by contrast, this result is

grasped in its positive aspect, [it] is nothing else but the inner negativity that constitutes the self-moving soul of these determinations, and the principle of all natural and spiritual life.

Since Kant ignored the positive result of his criticism of speculative reason, his philosophy, Hegel suggests, “let itself be dominated by the contradiction,” thus allowing the latter “to dissolve its determinations into other ones or into nothing.” This criticism notwithstanding, Hegel clearly valued the general idea behind Kant’s account of the antinomies. For Kant had at least traced back the various conflicts between thesis and antithesis to philosophy’s incapacity adequately to distinguish between phenomena and noumena, an incapacity he considered to inhere in reason as such. However, this in itself does not explain why Hegel should consider the metaphysical conflicts exposed by Kant to exhibit the “self-moving soul” of pure concepts. Given the limits of this article a few remarks must suffice to answer this question.

As we have seen, the Logic extricates pure concepts from propositions which attribute them to substrates such as “all things” or “the world at large” so as to focus on the content of these concepts themselves. Once Hegel has taken this step, he can comprehend contrary determinations such as indivisibility and divisibility- or any other pair of contrary pure concepts-as complementary moments of a single conceptual perspective. Their unity can only be established, however, if each of these contrary determinations proves to be one-sided, that is, proves to be incapable of determining the whole (in the case of the antinomies, the world at large). According to Hegel, Kant rightly, if unintentionally, demonstrated that such contrary determinations as indivisibility and divisibility, applied to the world at large, yield conflicts that dogmatic metaphysics could not resolve. Unlike Kant, Hegel sometimes refers to such conflicts as contradictions. Yet I believe that in this case he does not use the term in its proper, speculative sense. According to the speculative meaning of the principle of contradiction, a conceptual determination such as indivisibility only contradicts its ultimate principle-the concept as such-insofar as it opposes its contrary, that is, insofar as it does not establish the unity of indivisibility and divisibility.

Throughout the Doctrine of Essence, Hegel seeks to exhibit the unity of contrary determinations by highlighting their mutual dependence. Yet the term ‘unity’ involves more than the fact that concepts such as “indivisibility” and “divisibility” presuppose one another. The term ‘unity’, as used by Hegel, always refers to an asymmetrical form of mutual dependence. What this means is explained relatively clearly in the discussion of the concepts “infinity” and “finitude” in the Doctrine of Being, pure concepts that are used in the domains of mathematics and metaphysics alike. Put briefly, Hegel here states that each of these pure concepts contradicts their inner unity, but that only the concept of infinity constitutes the true principle of its contrary determinations. As such, it establishes the unity of infinity and finitude by incorporating the concept of finitude. The concept of finitude, in its turn, establishes this very unity by reducing itself to a moment of the concept of infinity. Insofar as the concept of finitude resists this incorporation-and the history of metaphysics testifies to this resistance-the one-sided concepts “infinity” and “finitude” remain opposed to one another. For Hegel, however, this apparent opposition hides the in-depth contradiction between that which the concept of infinity truly is (the unity of its contrary determinations) and its actual appearance (infinity as opposed to finitude). Unlike the conflicts between the contrary metaphysical propositions exhibited by the antinomies, the conflicts exhibited in the Logic pertain to the asymmetrical contradiction between a one-sided conceptual determination and its true principle. Unlike symmetrical conflicts, this asymmetrical self-contradiction does not resolve into nothing, but necessarily yields the unity of contrary conceptual determinations implicit in each of them.

Kant, it might be argued, employed the classical distinction between essence and appearance to separate the realm of noumena from the realm of phenomena. This allowed him to block the route toward purely rational knowledge of things in themselves. Hegel, for his part, applies the distinction between essence and appearance neither to the various faculties of the subject nor to the world at large, but employs it to comprehend the totality of pure concepts themselves. On his view, a concept such as finitude appears to be opposed to its contrary, but is essentially a mere determination of the concept of infinity. Thus, Hegel regards each pure concept as the effort to overcome the internal contradiction between what it is in itself (the unity of its contrary determinations which it, qua concept, contains within itself) and the way it has actually appeared in the history of thought (as a one-sided determination implicitly or explicitly opposed to its contrary). As long as pure concepts such as “infinity” and “finitude” are conceived as excluding their contrary, thought finds itself entangled “in the irreconciled, unresolved, absolute contradiction.” It is precisely in the Logic-and in the Logic alone-that such onesided concepts are impelled to resolve this inner contradiction. It is this perspective, I would like to suggest, that allows Hegel to reconstruct the totality of pure concepts that have emerged in the history of science and philosophy.

According to Hegel, the classical principle of non-contradiction and Kant’s philosophical notion of conflict merely allow philosophy to expose the mutual annulment of contrary claims. In his view, only the speculative principle of selfcontradiction allows philosophy truly to resolve such conflicts as divide any mode of thought against itself. The principle of self-contradiction does this, I have argued, by exposing the asymmetrical contradiction between the unity that a concept is in itself and its actual negation of this unity. Whereas, in other words, the external mode of reflection which has prevailed in the history of thought has “negated” only the initial unity of contrary conceptual determinations, the Logic allows pure concepts to negate this first negation as well. This latter negativity, Hegel notes toward the end of the Logic, constitutes

the innermost source of all activity, of all animate and spiritual movement, the dialectical soul that everything true possesses and through which alone it is true… . [T]he negative of the negative … is this resolution [Aufhebung] of the contradiction. (LII 563/835-36)

While discussing the classical concept of contradiction, Hegel, we have seen, takes the opportunity to allude to its role in speculative science itself, thus anticipating his discussion of the speculative method at the end of the Logic. Although the concept of contradiction such as it has surfaced in the history of thought “contains” the speculative meaning Hegel attributes to it, its common usage does not explicitly expose this meaning. For this reason, Hegel more frequently uses the concept of negativity to refer to the principle of speculative science.

Insofar as the concept of contradiction has been conceived as a particular mode of the concept of opposition, as traditionally has been done, it remains opposed to the concept of identity (LII 38/411). In this form it does not allow thought to grasp the unity of contrary determinations, but merely to annul contradictory claims about empirical objects or the world at large. That is why the Doctrine of Essence treats the concept of contradiction on a par with the other finite determinations of reflection. Because the content that the concept of contradiction has actually posited is at odds with the concept as such, it cannot but give way-within the element of pure thought created by the Logic-to a less one-sided determination of the relation between essence and appearance, that is, to the concept of ground (LII 69-70/435).

Now if Hegel’s elusive remarks on the principle of self-contradiction pertain to his own method, then it should be possible to trace the role of this principle in Hegel’s account of the determinations of reflection themselves. The next and last step of this essay therefore consists in a brief reflection on the method Hegel employs in this text.

10. The Principle of Self-Contradiction in Hegel’s Method

For reasons discussed below, it is quite difficult to identify the principle of selfcontradiction in Hegel’s actual treatment of the determinations of reflection. Since the role of this principle emerges relatively clearly in his account of the concepts of identity and distinctness, I will focus on this section. External reflection itself, Hegel here notes, admits that “the principle of identity merely expresses a onesided determination” (LII 41-42/414). This insight implies, he holds, that the truth of this determination consists in the unity of identity and distinctness (LII 42/414). For when external reflection grants that the principle of identity is onesided, it implicitly assumes the unity of identity and distinctness as the criterion of its criticism. Yet instead of actually positing this unity, external reflection maintains that identity and distinctness are absolutely distinct. It thus gets entangled in “conflicting claims” (LII 42/414). External reflection itself is not aware of the contradiction between the content it ultimately presupposes and the content it has actually posited-this contradiction has not become “for it”:

Although the content of representational thought [das Vorstellen] is in each case the contradiction, it does not become aware of the latter; it remains external reflection.

The ultimate content of external reflection is constituted by the determinations of reflection as a whole, that is, by the ways in which thought has traditionally defined the relation between essence and appearance. In order to expose the contradiction that these determinations contain within themselves, Hegel, I argued above, often abstracts from the perspective of external reflection and, moreover, from its predominance in the history of thought. Thus, he maintains, albeit rather obliquely, that the “determinations of essence” are “contradictory in themselves” (LII 68/434). This means that the concept of identity, such as it has emerged in the history of thought, for instance, simultaneously presupposes the unity of identity and difference and actually excludes its contrary from itself. Once the concept of identity-and, for that matter, any pure concept-is regarded from a speculative point of view, it is pushed from within to resolve its self-contradiction, and this until a concept emerges that is no longer at odds with the principle of speculative thought as such.

However, Hegel’s actual treatment of the determinations of reflection hardly refers to their effort at resolving inner contradictions. As I see it, there are at least three reasons for Hegel’s reticence in this respect. First, the context of the Doctrine of Essence does not yet allow him to elaborate on his speculative method in any systematic way. When he, at the end of the Logic, actually does address his method, he confines himself to a very abstract description. Hegel here repeats, however, that speculative thought essentially consists in “thinking the contradiction” (LII 563/835). Contradictions emerge, he notes, wherever contrary determinations are brought together “in one relation” and, as such, have actually become present for thought (LII 562/835). The dialectical treatment of a determination opposed to its contrary then consists in “positing the unity that is contained in it” (LII 562/835), thus “resolving” its contradiction. Although these passages confirm my reading of the chapter devoted to the determinations of reflection, they are much too general to shed light on Hegel’s actual, multi-layered account of particular concepts.

Hegel’s understanding of the concept of contradiction is also difficult to grasp, second, because he sometimes uses the term ‘contradiction’ in a rather loose sense. As was noted above, he does not hesitate to refer to conflicts between contrary, yet equally valid claims-including Kant’s antinomies of pure reason-as contradictions. Such references obscure the fact that his speculative principle of self-contradiction is exclusively concerned with the asymmetrical conflict between the content a concept contains and the limited content it has actually posited.

Finally, throughout the Logic, Hegel often adopts a mode of reasoning reminiscent of ancient skepticism. This element of his method aims to show that a particular position presupposes its contrary and, if pushed to its limits, is overturned into the latter. As I see it, Hegel employs this classical way of exhibiting contradictions in order to fight external reflection by means of its proper weapons. It is completely in agreement with the method outlined in the Phenomenology that Hegel should speak the language of the mode of thought he aims to criticize. This negative element of speculative dialectics, the arguments of which are often far from convincing, is clearly intended to annul the initial dogmas of external reflection. Although this element may be a first, primitive way of highlighting the mutual dependence of conceptual determinations, it seems to me that it tends to conceal the proper, positive thrust of Hegel’s method. This positive thrust, I have argued, consists in letting a concept resolve the contradiction between what it is in itself and the way it has actually manifested itself. Throughout the Logic, this element of Hegel’s method largely occurs behind the back, so to speak, of the finite modes of pure thought addressed in this work.

II. Conclusion

I have argued that Hegel’s Logic reconstructs the totality of pure concepts that have emerged in the history of thought by interpreting each of these concepts as contradicting the unity of its contrary determinations, a unity they contain within themselves. I have wished to demonstrate that Hegel’s principle of selfcontradiction, unlike its classical counterpart, is exclusively concerned with the asymmetrical conflict between the true content of a pure concept (the unity of its contrary determinations) and its actual appearance (the abstract determination it has posited as its true principle). Precisely because this contradiction is asymmetrical, its resolution does not consist in the annulment of its contrary moments, but in a concept that has actually posited the unity it always already contained. It is to this asymmetry, I would contend, that Hegel’s dialectical method owes it tremendous force. As I noted above, the actual text of the Logic often conceals the principle of self-contradiction behind a tangle of dialectical arguments. Although these arguments may seem an easy target, I hold that their refutation does not infringe upon the principle of self-contradiction itself which, cunningly, awaits us at the end without so much as a single scar.