Thursday, 2 April 2015

Hegel and Fine: Sublation means concretion

One of the passages in Robert Fine's Political Investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt (2001) contains a beautiful definition of sublation:
'Sublation' (Aufhebung) is the name Hegel gives to the movement from the simple and abstract to the complex and concrete…. The relation between the simpler forms and the more complex is not merely one of progression, as if the state is a ‘higher form of right’ than individual personality; still less is it one of transcendence, as if the emergence of the state somehow makes individual personality redundant; nor is it one of reconciliation, as if the state resolves the conflicts and contradictions that previously tore civil society apart. The use of the term ‘sublation’ indicates a relation between preservation and transcendence in which both sides are kept in mind: it indicates that the contradictions present within the simpler forms of right are preserved as well as transcended in the more complex. (Fine 2001:33)
As the references to state and civil society indicate, this passage occurs as part of Fine's discussion of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. This is a work where Fine's definition works perfectly, the entire work describing a movement from the most simple and abstract forms of right towards the complex, concrete forms of right embodied in the modern family, civil society and the state.

As is well known, what Hegel means by the concrete is not closeness to empirical facts as opposed to conceptual constructions (a “chair” is thus not more concrete than “furniture” since all concepts taken in isolation are equally abstract). Instead concretion is what you gain when you add determinations to a concept, capturing more and more of its aspects until you arrive at what Hegel calls the Idea, the concept in its full concretion. Abstract is simple and isolated while concrete is complex and embedded in determinations. To get a sense for what Hegel is doing, compare with Marx’ Capital. Here Marx works out his central concepts such as "commodity", "labour" and so on by gradually illuminating their mutual relations in the course of the exposition. The result is a concrete model of capitalism that captures something essential about our present society without corresponding exactly to empirical reality. In Hegelian terms, one might say that he presents the Idea of capitalist society.

Fine's definition helps us come to terms with the well-known riddle of how the sublated contradictions can simultaneously be preserved and transcended. Such a simultaneity is hard to fathom if seen as a logical operation, but begins to seem almost natural and self-evident if we change perspective and view sublation simply as a movement of thought towards a more concrete and complex grasp of our object. Almost all objects are complex in the sense that they are determined in multiple ways that at first sight appear contradictory; yet at the same time all these determinations of course coexist in sustaining the object. The fact that a person is a loving father may, for instance, be "negated" by duties related to his occupation that prevent him from spending much time at home - yet both parenthood and occupation form part of what determines him as a concrete person. Such a person may well be plagued by pangs of conscience, but in many cases he will also have developed a modus vivendi that helps him manage his life and to secure a measure of understanding from family members, colleagues and friends. In this way, the demands of parenthood and occupation can be seen as things that are not just negative but also productive or constitutive. They produce our "Idea" of this person and the way he manages his life.

I'm also attracted to Fine's definition since it suggests that dialectics as a whole can be viewed as a movement of thought that unfolds by adding concretion. Dialectics is what happens to thought as it closes in on the idea from an abstract starting point, each moment of "negativity" implying added concretion. There's a simple - almost seductive - beauty to this idea, which helps us discard many connotations of the term "dialectics" which are not very helpful in grasping the Philosophy of Right. Thus dialectics has been viewed as a logic through which thought arrives at new findings, as a principle of historical development, and also as a way of justifying the present social order as rational.

Using Fine's definition it becomes clear that dialectics cannot be a deduction or logical derivation, nor a description of a historical development. Hegel himself confirms this in the Philosophy of Right, where he is explicit about the fact that dialectics cannot produce anything like a new conclusion or finding. The initial abstract concept is never abandoned, but merely enriched. The endpoint is not new, but is already given in the form of the modern political order. The latter is already historically present and merely needs to be comprehended.
The Idea… is initially no more than an abstract concept. But this initial abstract concept is never abandoned. On the contrary, it merely becomes continually richer in itself, so that the last determination is also the richest… One cannot therefore say that the concept arrives at anything new... What we obtain in this way… is a series of thoughts and another series of existent shapes, in which it may happen that the temporal sequence of their actual appearance is to some extent different from the conceptual sequence. Thus, we cannot say, for example, that property existed before the family, although property is nevertheless dealt with first. (Hegel 1991:61)
Again and again, Hegel stresses that his only task is to comprehend the present. Philosophy is thus simply “its own time comprehended in thoughts” (ibid. 21). The truth concerning right, ethics and the state is already here, he writes, but it needs to be comprehended (ibid. 11). Similarly, to return to our example of the conflict-torn father, there is clearly no logical necessity leading from parenthood to occuption; nor is there anything that says that there is only one way to deal with the contradiction. All we can say is that all these moments were necessary in order for this person to become what he is. The only necessity we can discern is retrospective.

Fine's definition thus helps us get a clearer grasp of the "necessity" that ties the Hegelian whole together. As mentioned, this can neither be logical necessity in a strict sense, nor a historical causal necessity. Nevertheless, it does make sense to speak of a certain form of necessity to any movement of thought that earnestly tries to comprehend "its own time". Seyla Benhabib remarks in one of her articles that Kant uses the word "necessity" in a way that appears strange to us today because he lived in a time before people were aware of any difference between the natural and the human or social sciences (Benhabib 1988). The same could be said for Hegel. Today, many of us would probably say that human or social phenomena need to be grasped through methods that involve some form of hermeutical procedure or interpretation. Hegelian dialectics too seems to conform to this hermeneutical model in the sense that it retrospectively tries to understand "our times". Thus it is "necessary" to pay attention to civil society to understand the modern, rational state. To use our example of the father, the contradiction of work and parenthood was "necessary" to make him the person he is.

If dialectics is disconnected from logical or causal necessity, then it also becomes more historically open-ended. It simply closes in on whatever happens to be actual, endeavouring to comprehend it as concretely as possible, but without ever saying that this is the way things must be or that they can't change in the future. This also means that dialectics cannot really be used to justify the present order. This may seem surprising since Hegel has so often been charged with glorifying the Prussian society of his time. But if dialectics simply consists in grasping the actual state of the idea concretely, then it is bound to do so in regard to any present, regardless of how good or bad it is. An example of the consequences of this interpretation comes when Fine discusses Hegel's views about the modern political system of representation and the many exclusions and limitations that accompanied this system.
It was not Hegel’s opinion that women ought to be excluded, nor that the democratic element ought to be supervised by state officials… This is just the way things are in certain forms of representative government once we view it stripped of its mystique. This is the reality of representation in the modern state. (Fine 2001:64f)
He was not an apologist for this order, Fine argues, since he merely let his dialectic move towards a goal that was given by history, namely the Idea as it was manifested in the society of his times. The dialectic is stripped of all connotations of deduction or justification. It simply approaches the concrete, ending up in “the way things are”.

One might object to my interpretation that if the endpoint of dialectics is the present state of an Idea that merely needs to be grasped in a more concrete fashion, then dialectics is no method at all. Isn't it just be a technique of presentation, whereby the reader is guided from an abstract starting point towards a fuller and more concrete comprehension of that complex Idea? But this is not necessarily so, at least not if we take Hegel on his word when he says that the Idea hasn't yet been fully comprehended. There are almost more determinations to add. Dialectics can be seen as the means whereby we move closer to this comprehension without ever achieving it fully. It would then be more than a matter of exposition. In dialectics, thought strives towards an Idea that preexists it objectively but whose full concretion still eludes it.

A second objection. This interpretation might make sense when applied to the Philosophy of Right or Capital. In both of these works, the dialectic is a matter of tracing relations between concepts and thus gradually achieving a fuller and more concrete picture. Neither is it really concerned with depicting historical development. But how does this interpretation fare when applied to Hegel's other works - such as those that clearly work with a historical or developmental dialectic, like the Phenomenology or the lectures on the philosophy of world history? A similar problem can be discerned in Marxist thought, where dialectics is used not merely to explain the workings of capitalism but also the course of history. In view of this objection, one would probably have to recognize that the interpretation I'm offering here mainly works for one kind of dialectic - the kind referred to by Taylor as "ontological" as opposed to the other "historical" form of the dialectic (Taylor 1979, Ch I:8).

A third objection also deals with change, but from another angle. If dialectics is wholly disconnected from justification, simply closing in on whatever stage of its development the idea happens to have arrived at, can Hegel then never criticize what is, the Idea as concretely unfolded? Does he have to accept the exclusion of women from political representation, for example? The kind of criticism that he does seem to allow for is highly limited - namely either a criticism of concepts for still being too abstract or a criticism of reality for failing to live up its Idea. In any case, in Hegel the Idea in itself seems immune against criticism, no matter defective it might appear. To use his own simile, it is the "cross" in which reason must find the rose.

The interpretation of dialectics I have presented here is attractive but it also has some problematic implications. I will come back to them later, in a few entries which I promise to post soon. The first of them will deal with the rose in the cross.


Benhabib, Seyla (1988) “Judgment and the Moral Foundations of Politics in Arendt’s Thought”, Political Theory 16(1):29-51.

Fine, Robert (2001) Political Investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt, London: Routledge.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1991) Elements of the Philosophy of Right (ed. Allen W. Wood, tr. H. B. Nisbet), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Charles (1979) Hegel and Modern Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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