The path of Freedom

Georg W. F. Hegel

Thomas Masini

Truth is constructed, it is the result of the whole dialectical process that precedes it, that same process that brings opposites together and elevates them to a unity that safeguards and enriches them.


     The hope of being able, in an article of a very few pages, to present G. W. F. Hegel’s thought in a correct, refined and comprehensible manner wavers on a razor’s edge between foolish optimism and madness. Not because the task is impossible, but because it exceeds the writer’s capabilities by far. Hegel’s work is a pinnacle of Western philosophical history, and this is not only because of the vastness of the themes it addresses, but also because of the complexity of its logical passages and – the last but essential feature – the formal elegance of its conceptual system. However, it is not possible to shirk this task, and so we will embark on this enterprise by attempting to steer our ship back into port as best we can.

        The last article in this online magazine [1] concluded by noting how the dialectic, which historically consisted of two moments (affirmative and negative) appears for the first time in tripartite form. This triadic dialectic is the foundation and key to understanding Hegelian thought. The system consists of three main sections: The Phenomenology of Spirit, The Science of Logic and The Philosophy of Spirit (the first two are titles of as many texts by Hegel, respectively published in 1807 and 1812-16, while the third one corresponds to the third part of Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline, 1817); but what is this system? One could say that it is essentially the path of Freedom becoming self-aware ‒ the same freedom that Hegel had seen during the French Revolution, which he considered the essential turning point of the Modern Era. This path, however, is not consistent nor peaceful, but a continuous succession of crises and discrepancies ‒ contradictions ‒ that must be resolved in the speculative reconciliation of opposites. This is why the most suitable instrument for rationally grasping reality in its concrete totality is the dialectic, which consists of three moments: affirmation, negation and the speculative reconciliation of the two. Since we cannot treat the Hegelian system in its entirety, we will limit ourselves to a simple exposition of this dialectic.

           The task of Logic is to rationally understand concrete reality, in its fullness and totality, that is, in Hegelian terminology, the Absolute – the All in its concrete reality. Here, however, a problem arises: the categories of Understanding ‒ those already encountered in Kant’s thought ‒ cannot completely think the Absolute, because they belong to a finite dimension, and when they try to grasp the Absolute they become contradictory. From this impasse Hegel determines that contradiction is the truth of the Absolute, because it can open a world before us  that would be positively inaccessible. However, it is not possible for the Absolute to be a pure and simple contradiction, but it must also have within it a ‘resolving’ moment: this is where dialectics comes into play. It consists of three moments, each of which has peculiar characteristics and has value only if it is related to the others.

      I- Abstract or Understanding’s Moment

     The first moment corresponds to the action of the Understanding, the faculty that conceives the determinacy of the thing and the logical moment. It is the organ of clarity and distinction, and operates determination by means of exclusion: every meaning is determined as what it is and as what every other thing is not (e.g. the colour white is the colour white, and it is not every other thing). The Understanding grasps differences, and in it everything can subsist without all other things having to subsist as well; it is the organ of finiteness and its every logical act manifests itself as the exclusion and negation of everything that is not what is determined from time to time. However, Hegel notes how this type of determination possesses a certain surplus in relation to itself; for in order to determine something one must not only affirm it, but at the same time deny that everything else other than it participates in its determination. In this way, however, for every determination of something all other things are also evoked, at least as ‘that which is excluded and denied’. Returning to the example given earlier, let us assume that the colour white is ‘A’; the determination of ‘A’ consists of two moments: ‘A’ is ‘A’ and ‘A’ is not ‘not A’. In order to determine ‘A’ I must evoke ‘not A’, i.e. its negation, and therefore it is not possible for ‘A’ to be given in a determinate way if we do not also give ‘not A’.

     II – Dialectical Moment

     The second moment corresponds to the action of dialectical Reason, in which determinations are annihilated. In the Understanding’s attempt to separate something from everything else, determination itself is destroyed, and the thing that was to be determined falls into indeterminacy, that is, into the abstract totality of all things. Since, taking our example again, ‘A’ was what was to be determined, and ‘not A’ was the totality of all other indeterminate things, the exclusionary/denying action of the Understanding prevents ‘A’ from determining itself and causes it to fall into the indeterminacy of ‘not A’, i.e. causes it to fall into its opposite. The entire Hegelian system is a demonstration of this process. In this sense, the dialectic is nothing other than the incessant deduction of the opposite, i.e. the incessant appearance of the opposite with respect to what was intended to be determined. In this way, it would seem to be impossible to constitute any kind of rational knowledge, because every determination does nothing else but overthrow itself into its opposite, and what remains is nothing but pure contradiction; in reality, this is not the case at all. The fundamental point to be understood is that concretely (up to now we have analysed the problem abstractly) the determination does not overthrow itself into a generic and indeterminate ‘opposite’, but into its own opposite, i.e. into that specific opposite that belongs to that determination and no other. Resuming our example: the colour white does not spill over into red, green, or blue, etc., but into its opposite, i.e. black (in fact, white reflects most photons, while black absorbs most photons, hence they operate in an ‘opposite’ manner). In specific terms, it is usually said that the Hegelian negation is always determinate, that is, the negative ‒ the opposite ‒ of a determination is always something determinate, the ‘negative’ of that and that thing alone. It is precisely because of the determinate nature of negation that dialectics always has a positive result, and thus it is possible to find truth within contradiction.

    III – Speculative Moment

     The third moment corresponds to the action of speculative Reason, which holds the contradiction firm and conceives it as something affirmative, i.e. unitary with respect to the opposition. At this point we have the contradictory opposition between two determinations (the one that is to be affirmed and its determined negation), which constantly overturn each other giving rise to a contradiction that is by its very nature indeterminable; or at least this was what was commonly thought before Hegelian philosophy. In the third moment, what Hegel calls ‘Aufhebung‘ (‘removal’) takes place, i.e. the overcoming of contradiction through the subsumption of the determination and its opposite into a speculative unity that retains both in itself while differing from each other. In other words, the determination that the Understanding wished to affirm clashes with its opposite, but through the action of speculative Reason it recognises in this opposite itself, and returns to itself enriched and transformed: different from its starting self, different from its opposite, but retaining both in itself.

Let’s read some of Hegel’s words on the dialectic:

The understanding determines, and holds the determination fixed. Reason is negative and dialectical, since it dissolves the determinations of the understanding into nothing; it is positive, since it generates the universal, and comprehends the particular therein. Just as the understanding is usually taken as something separate from reason in general, so also dialectical reason is taken as something separate from positive reason. In its truth reason is however spirit, which is higher than both reason bound to the understanding and understanding bound to reason. It is the negative, that which constitutes the quality of both the dialectical reason and the understanding: it negates the simple, thereby posits the determinate difference of the understanding; but it equally dissolves this difference, and so it is dialectical. But spirit does not stay at the nothing of this result but is in it rather equally positive, and thereby restores the first simplicity, but as universal, such as it is concrete in itself; a given particular is not subsumed under this universal but, on the contrary, it has already been determined together with the determining of the difference and the dissolution of this determining. [2]

     Some concluding notes. Firstly, it should be noted that in Hegel the action of Reason is quite different from that ‘generating antinomies’ that Kant spoke of; although in a certain sense there is something similar, given that dialectical Reason constitutes the contradiction that is then resolved by speculative Reason. Secondly, it is interesting to note the depth and beauty of Hegelian thought, particularly with respect to the dialectic. The speculative result is not simply ‘positive’ but is a heightened meaning with respect to determination and its opposite; in other words, Hegel tells us that when determination meets its opposite, if it is reasonable enough to recognise itself in the other, it can give rise to something ‘richer’ and more ‘complex’, a new meaning within which determination and its opposite are both preserved and saved, and combine to constitute something that is more than them. Again, Hegel tells us that truth is not something fixed, always present and immutable, that perhaps someone can claim as their exclusive property; truth is constructed, it is the result of the whole dialectical process that precedes it, that same process that brings opposites together and elevates them to a unity that safeguards and enriches them. Again, Hegel makes the transition from a confutative logic to a revelatory logic: one does not proceed by denying and eliminating positions until only one position remains, which is held to be true for this reason; truth appears in the dialectical path, in which nothing is lost, nothing is excluded, nothing is erased but everything is saved, placed in relation to everything else – even its opposite -, to be enriched and enhanced. Nothing is outside the process, and this process ‒ which is the Absolute, the totality of contradictions, the totality of speculative relations ‒ is eternal and eternally moving. It is the path of truth and freedom to which we all ‒ no one excluded ‒ belong.


[2]  George W.F. Hegel, The science of Logic, translated and edited by George di Giovanni, Cambridge University Press, New York 2010, Preface to the first edition,  p. 10.

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