Wednesday, 27 February 2019

To explain dialectics, I tell people about a friend

To Hegel, dialectics is a retrospective presentation of the various moments that constitute the meaning of a concept. The meaning of the concept – der Begriff, which is also translated as the “Notion” – only emerges from the totality of the constitutive moments. In isolation, each moment is abstract, i.e. one-sided. When they come together, they allow for a concrete grasp of the concept. To Hegel, dialectics always involves a movement from the abstract towards the concrete. 

This procedure is hardly difficult to understand. In fact, we use it all the time when we try to explain something to somebody. Say that I want to tell you about a friend of mine. His name is George. I know him well and believe myself to have a clear grasp, or concept, of who he is. But how am I to transmit my concept of George to you? Well, I could start by saying that he is a writer, that he lives in Copenhagen and that he has a dog. But these determinations are necessarily abstract. They’re also all insufficient, since they don’t really capture what I think is essential in George. No matter what starting point I use, I’m bound to feel, sooner or later, that lots of important things are left out. And so I’m forced to add more determinations – telling stories about his life, describing his relations to other people, and so on – until I feel that the picture I’ve given is concrete and captures George’s essence. 

But why would this kind of explanation be dialectical? To Hegel, thought is dialectical if it involves negation. I can try to understand George’s life solely from the vantage-point of him being a writer, but I already know how silly that would be since there's so much of his life that can't be explained from that vantage-point. These things “negate” the vantage-point, which is revealed to be limited and partial. I face a contradiction between the abstract vantage-point and its negation. The only way to escape it is to find another vantage-point, from which the contradiction can be redefined into part of what constitutes George (this shift of vantage-point is what Hegel refers to as Aufhebung, or “sublation”). Yes, he is a writer but he is also a violinist and dreams of being an astronaut. Yes, he hates travelling but next month he is moving to Australia to marry. That’s how people are! People are full of contradictions, and yet, importantly, we can still know them and feel that there is a unity in their lives which to no small extent is defined precisely by these contradictions. Instead of preventing me from understanding my friend, the contradictions help me know him better and become part of what defines him for me. They become a necessary part of the higher unity or totality that defines his essence. 

Perhaps you’re thinking that George is a misleading example since Hegel was interested in wholes on a much grander scale – such as the spirit or the logic of thought. I admit that this objection has truth in it: Hegel’s wholes are defined by the fact that they are so all-encompassing that we ourselves are part of them and that it is usually hard to discern any form of outside to them. Nevertheless, I still find it useful to refer to George – or some other fictitiously named friend – whenever I'm asked what Hegel meant by dialectics. Like all people, George is a contradictory person, and in that sense he is similar to entities such as spirit or (the Hegelian) logic. And just like Hegel finds it necessary to explain the concept by reconstructing the totality of moments that constitute its meaning, the only way I can explain the essence of George is by a complex exposition of all the various moments that together, as a whole, define him for me. 

A good thing about an everyday example, such as George, is that it makes it plain how much in a dialectical procedure that hinges on retrospectivity. Dialectics is not about deducing the concept from a handful of premises, as if it were a logical conclusion. In fact, there is nothing in the abstract beginnings per se that compels thought to develop further. That George is a writer doesn’t allow me to conclude that he dreams of travelling in space or that he likes ketchup on his fries. Instead, dialectics is all about making sense of, or explicating, a concept constituted by a totality that we already know. It is when I already assume the standpoint of this totality that I can see that being a writer and wanting to be an astronomer are both conceptually necessary parts of what defines George to me. When Hegel stresses the importance of “internal” rather than “external” relations, “internal” means internal to the concept of the whole, not internal to the abstract starting points. One might object, of course, that if the meaning of the abstract starting points is mediated by the relation to totality, then relations internal to the totality must in some sense also be internal to the abstract starting points. This is completely correct, but my point is that we cannot see this, unless we first adopt the standpoint of totality. It’s only then that I can claim that George’s being a writer is defined in relation to his unfulfilled childhood wish to fly to the stars or that his visceral dislike of travelling can only be properly understood if viewed in the light of the fact that he nevertheless decided to travel to the other side of the world for the sake of love, and so on. Similarly, the only way in which Being, used as Hegel’s starting point in the Logic, can be seen to imply Nothingness is from the vantage-point of a higher unity or totality that must already be assumed and in which both moments are already part. In both cases, to quote Hegel, the starting-point is the goal. We do not deduce the goal from the premise, but explain how the starting-points can only be understood when viewed in relation to the goal.

Retrospectivity, then, is central. Retrospectivity also helps us understand the “necessity” that defines the relations between the moments and that drives thought onwards from the simple and abstract towards the complex and concrete. I’ve already pointed out that this isn’t the necessity of logical deduction. It’s also not causal necessity (not even in works, such as the Phenomenology, in which Hegel employs a historical dialectic that unfolds over time rather than a systematic one looking at interrelations in a given whole, as in the Logic or the Philosophy of Right). Rather, it is a conceptual necessity. Some moments have to be part of the whole in order for the concept to have the meaning that it has. Such necessity can only be retrospectively reconstructed, when I already know what the concept means. There is thus nothing in this necessity that can be used to predict the future or to deduce a more rational order than the one defined by the concepts that we hold to be valid today.

But if dialectics can only operate retrospectively, does that mean that it cannot generate new knowledge? If so, what is the point of it? My answer would be that even a dialectic that only operates retrospectively can generate new knowledge, in two ways: one that employs the dialectic more or less like Hegel does it, and another that takes the dialectic beyond Hegel, in the direction of Adorno’s negative dialectics (thus generating a knowledge that is critical and undermines idealist systems like Hegel's). 

To start with the first of these options, the retrospective procedure involves a clarification of the concept. That I already at the start possess the concept of a thing doesn’t mean that I possess it clearly. For instance, I can know George very well without having clarified to myself exactly what constitutes this knowledge. The same, obviously, applies to self-knowledge. Who hasn't had moments of shock or revelation when encountering memories of past events that we then retrospectively recognize as defining moments in our lives, as constitutive of what we are today? Hegel himself recognizes that we can have the concept of a thing without possessing it clearly. That is why, for instance, he can set it up as a task for philosophy to comprehend its age in thought, a task of self-clarification that is not so different from the self-clarification carried out on an individual scale in psychoanalysis. But not even successful self-clarification results in a concept that can be directly put in words. The concept can ultimately only be expressed through the totality of its moments and that in turn means that it’s impossible to express it in a unitary, simple way that is free from contradiction. The riddle-like reference to the rose in the cross in the preface to the Philosophy of Right is an example of this. 

To illustrate the second way, that of taking the dialectic beyond Hegel, let me return to George. What Hegel ultimately misses in his insistence on dialectics as a retrospective reconstruction of meaning is the problem of how to account for the things that have to be suppressed or forgotten for this meaning to arise. Let us imagine that George totally unexpectedly walks into the room, after I’ve finished telling you my stories and anecdotes about him. Frankly, I feel a bit disturbed by this appearance of the real object of my stories. Anxiously I look at your faces, searching for reactions. I know that you are all busy judging for yourselves whether I have been right or wrong. Suddenly I’m made aware of what Adorno calls the non-identify of concept and object, and this awareness triggers another kind of logic than the Hegelian one, a logic of disintegration that threatens the integrity of the concept. I’m no longer sure who George is.

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