8 Feb 2015

Priest, (6) ‘Dialectic and Dialetheic’, section 6, “Contradiction in Hegel’s Dialectic”, summary


by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. All boldface, underlying and bracketed commentary are my own, unless otherwise indicated.]

Graham Priest

“Dialectic and Dialetheic”

6 Contradiction in Hegel’s Dialectic

Brief Summary:

In Hegel’s dialectical movement, contradictory categories result from one another and are conjoined. It is in this ways that Hegel is a dialetheist [someone who thinks that there exist true contradictions].


Previously Priest established, on the basis of his influences, that Hegel is a dialetheist [he believes that true contradictions exist]. Now Priest will examine the role of dialetheias in Hegel’s dialectics. Priest begins by distinguishing three aspects of Hegel’s dialectic.

(1) “the fundamental movement of Geist,” which Priest will call “the global dialectic”,

(2) the local developments by which the fundamental movement of Geist is achieved. Among these local developments is the development of the categories. Priest will call these developments “the logical developments”. And,

(3) the development of people and societies, which Priest will call “the historical dialectics”.

We begin then with the global dialectic, which Priest says is Hegel’s version of Fichte. (401) [Recall what Priest wrote about Fichte and the ego in the prior section:

there is nothing to think about except itself; and it is impossible to think something unless there is something else to contrast it with. (So at least thought Fichte.) Hence, the self had to create something different, the non-self, against which it could conceive itself. (This is precisely Reason leading a life of its own.) It therefore produces contradiction. Specifically, the non-self must also be self, since nothing else exists. […] as Fichte puts it […]: self = not-self and not-self = self.


The transcendental ego, or spirit (Geist) as it has become, has as its essence, or telos, to think. Since it is all there is, it must think about itself. And since it cannot do this without a contrast, it must create its opposite, nature.
(Priest, citing Taylor, 1975)

[With Fichte, we noted, this dialectic generates a self contradiction: self = not-self.] Just like with Fichte, this situation in Hegel creates a contradictory situation.

For spirit, s, is | then both spirit and not spirit. In the notation of section 3: (s=s)&(s≠s). Alternatively, nature, n, which is not spirit, is spirit: (n≠s)&(n=s). The existence (truth) of this contradiction allows spirit to think (understand) what it is: spirit and nature, spirit and not spirit; and thus to achieve its telos, in which form it is the Absolute.

Priest then notes that nature and spirit do not annihilate one another, but somehow there is resolution [it seems in the sense of solving a puzzle, where the puzzle remains even though it has been solved].

It should be noted that the Absolute is still a contradictory state. Nature and spirit do not annihilate each other; each still exists, requiring the other. In the final state of the dialectic, the contradiction is said to be resolved; or aufgehoben; but as Hegel is often at pains to point out, the state which is aufgehoben continues to exist. Resolution, in this context, is more like the resolution of a puzzle: we know the answer. The puzzle does not cease to be a puzzle; it just ceases to puzzle us. (A riddle is still a riddle even if we all know the answer.)

[[Note, in another context, regarding “the positive” and “the negative”, Hegel says that their contradiction created by their unity destroys both sides, creating “the Null”. I am not sure at all how this relates to Nature and Spirit, but I think it would be important for the terms to subsist rather than annul one another, for otherwise the conjunction of incompatible terms will not hold.

Thomas Bole, discussing this in his “Contradiction in Hegel's Science of Logic,” writes of the positive and the negative that:

Each pole of contradiction annuls itself and posits its contrary. Both poles are destroyed (WL II, 51:33-35 [SL 433]). Indeed, this mutual self-annihilation by its poles is the “formal determination” (WL II, 51:37 [SL 433]) of contradiction. Thus, “the initial unity which results from contradiction is the Null” (WL II, 51:12-13 [SL 433]); in whatever respect anything can be said to be self-contradictory, it is indeterminate.
(Bole, 525)

In the Giovanni translation, the quoted sentence reads:

In the self-excluding reflection we have just considered, the positive and the negative, each in its self-subsistence, sublates itself; each is simply the passing over, or rather the self-translating of itself into its opposite. This internal ceaseless vanishing of the opposites is the first unity that arises by virtue of contradiction; it is the null.
(Hegel, 376)

In the German:

In der sich selbst ausschließenden Reflexion, die betrachtet wurde, hebt das Positive und das Negative jedes in seiner Selbständigkeit sich selbst auf; jedes ist schlechthin das Ubergehen oder vielmehr das sich Ubersetzen seiner in sein Gegenteil. Dies rastlose Verschwinden der Entgegengesetzten in ihnen selbst ist die nächste Einheit, welche durch den Widerspruch zustande kommt; sie ist die Null.


There is a long process which leads to the Absolute where thought thinks itself.

The achievement of the Absolute in the global dialectic is not, however, arrived at in a trice. Rather, the production of a category that allows spirit to think itself is achieved only after a period of conceptual evolution, the logical dialectic. The most primitive category, being, produces a contradiction. This contradiction produces a novel category, which is itself contradictory. This, in turn, produces a novel category. And so it goes, until we arrive at the Absolute Idea (Taylor, 1975, 339) – a category which applies to the biggest contradiction of them all, the Absolute. This allows thought to think itself.
(Priest 402)

For Hegel, all categories are contradictory (402).

Priest will take the example of being and becoming to illustrate. [[Priest here seems to be saying this. If something has no properties, it does not have being. Pure indeterminate being has no properties, thus it both has being as being and it does not have being as something without properties. This also means that one of being’s properties is its non-being, and thus the being of being is its non-being. Now we think of a being with no properties. The same would follow that its being is its non-being. I still cannot figure out what things in motion have to do with being propertiless. But let us consider striking a match and wood turning to fire. Insofar as it is wood, it has being, and insofar as it is not-wood, it does not have being. One of its properties is changing from one to the other. So its being is its being both itself and not itself. I am not entirely sure, but it seems he is referring to the opening paragraphs of The Science of Logic. Here I understand Hegel making a slightly different point. We begin with pure being, which has no determination (it is indeterminate). But since it has nothing to determine it, to distinguish it from anything else, it is (conceptually) empty. “There is nothing to be intuited in it”. Thus “Being, the indeterminate immediate is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing”. So out of the category of pure being arises the category of pure nothingness. It as well is indeterminate. But this means there is nothing to distinguish it from being. We can intuit nothing as being different from being, but we cannot distinguish them in our intuitions. This means “Pure being and pure nothing are therefore the same”. We saw how the category of being “passes over” to nothing, which then “passes over” to being. They are indistinguishable yet not the same, and “each immediately vanishes in its opposite”. This movement of vanishing into its opposite then is what characterizes both of them. And since movement into something’s opposite is its becoming something else, the two categories together give rise to the category of becoming. I will quote from the first three paragraphs of Hegel’s Science of Logic.

Chapter 1
A. Being
Being, pure being – without further determination. In its indeterminate immediacy it is equal only to itself and also not unequal with respect to another; it has no difference within it, nor any outwardly. If any determination or content were posited in it as distinct, or if it were posited by this determination or content as distinct from an other, it would thereby fail to hold fast to its purity. It is pure indeterminateness and emptiness. – There is nothing to be intuited in it, if one can speak here of intuiting; or, it is only this pure empty intuiting itself. Just as little is anything to be thought in it, or, it is equally only this empty thinking. Being, the indeterminate immediate is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing.

B. Nothing
Nothing, pure nothingness; it is simple equality with itself, complete emptiness, complete absence of determination and content; lack of all distinction within. – In so far as mention can be made here of intuiting and thinking, it makes a difference whether something or nothing is being intuited or thought. To intuit or to think nothing has therefore a meaning; the two are distinguished and so nothing is (concretely exists) in our intuiting or thinking; or rather it is the empty intuiting and thinking itself, like pure being. – Nothing is therefore the same determination or rather absence of determination, and thus altogether the same as what pure being is.

C. Becoming
1. Unity of being and nothing
Pure being and pure nothing are therefore the same. The truth is neither being nor nothing, but rather that being has passed over into nothing and | nothing into being – “has passed over,” not passes over. But the truth is just as much that they are not without distinction; it is rather that they are not the same, that they are absolutely distinct yet equally unseparated and inseparable, and that each immediately vanishes in its opposite. Their truth is therefore this movement of the immediate vanishing of the one into the other: becoming, a movement in which the two are distinguished, but by a distinction which has just as immediately dissolved itself.
(Hegel, 59-60)


it may help to illustrate the process with one example, that of being and becoming (Hegel, 1969, Vol. I, book 1, section 1, ch. 1). Consider being. If something, a, were merely to be, that is, to have no | properties other than being, then there would be nothing to distinguish it from an object that has no properties at all, i.e. , that is not. It would therefore both be and not be, Ba&~Ba (where B is the one place predicate of being). Thus, we are led to a category of things, a, whose being is their non-being ^Ba=^~Ba. These are the things that are coming into being or out of it. (Recall the discussion of change in section 4.) This is therefore the category of becoming.
(Priest, 402-403)

The logical dialectic [by which the categories generate one another dialectically] is not a process in time. But spirit is embodied in nature, and the dialectic unfolds through history. These parts in time are involved in a series of destructions, even though the whole stands. [Here Priest cites Charles Taylor’s book on Hegel. Let me quote some of it first:

Hegel thinks of contradiction as the source of movement because whatever is in contradiction must pass over into something else, be this passage the ontological one between levels of being which go on existing coevally, or the historical one between different stages of human civilization. But it would seem impossible to have it both ways. If contradiction is the source of passage from one level to another, it is because it is fatal to continued existence, or so one would think from the commonsense principle that nothing contradictory can exist. Hegel seems to be using this commonsense principle when he explains dialectical passages in this way. And yet on the other hand things do go on existing (in the chain of being, if not in history) even after being convicted of contradiction, and indeed contradiction is said to be everywhere. How can we reconcile these affirmations?

The answer is that contradiction, as Hegel uses the term, is not wholly incompatible with existence, and as such perhaps does not really deserve the name. When we say that the whole is in contradiction, we mean that it unites identity and opposition, that it is opposed to itself. Perhaps one might want to amend this way of putting it to get over the apparent paradox. We might want to say, for instance, that ‘identity’ and ‘opposition’ are not to be considered incompatible. But to put it this way would miss part of the point, for in a way, | Hegel wants to retain some of the force of the clash between ‘identity’ and ‘opposition’. For Geist is in struggle with himself, with his necessary embodiment, and only comes to realization out of this struggle. So that we would have to say that ‘opposition’ is both compatible and incompatible with ‘identity’.
(Taylor, 105-106)

We can now see more clearly the underlying principle of those ascending dialectics in which Hegel will show that finite things cannot exist on their own, but only as part of a larger whole. The motor of these dialectics is contradiction; and the contradiction consists in this, that finite beings just in virtue of existing externally in space and time make a claim to independence, while the very basis of their existence is that they express a spirit which cannot brook this independence. The ascending dialectic reveals the contradiction in things and shows from the nature of the contradiction how it can only be understood and reconciled if things are seen as part of the self-movement of the Absolute. Thus contradiction, in the strong sense which involves combining ontological conflict with its denial, is mortal. But since this ‘denial’ is not just an intellectual error by us who observe, but is essential to the whole which is in ontological conflict itself, we can see that contradiction in the strong sense is what makes things move and change. It is their inherent changeability (Veränderlichkeit); while contradiction in the sense of ontological conflict is the source of this changeability.

Contradiction is thus fatal to partial realities, but not to the whole. But this is not because the whole escapes contradiction. Rather the whole as Hegel understands it lives on contradiction. It is really because it incorporates it, and reconciles it with identity that it survives. This the partial reality –material object or finite spirit – cannot encompass. It is stuck with its own independent existence, and since this independence clashes with the basis of its existence, it is caught in contradiction and must die. It must die because it is identified with only one term, the affirmation, and cannot encompass the denial.

Not so the whole. The absolute goes on living through both the affirmation and the denial of finite things. It lives by this process of affirmation and denial; it lives via the contradiction in finite things. Thus the absolute is essentially life and movement and change. But at the same time, it remains itself, the same subject, the same essential thought being expressed, throughout this movement. It reconciles identity and contradiction by maintaining itself in a life process which is fed on ontological conflict. This combination of incessant change and immobility is described by Hegel in a striking image from the preface of PhG: ‘The true is thus the bacchanalian whirl in which no | member is not drunken; and because each, as soon as it detaches itself, dissolves immediately - the whirl is just as much transparent and simple repose’ (PhG 39).
(Taylor, 107-108)


The logical dialectic, though a development, is not a process in time. It is, however, connected with one that is. For spirit is embodied in nature, and, particularly, humankind and its social institutions; and these change in the historical dialectic. Each social institution, being a fragment of Geist, reflects its properties to a certain extent. (Rather as the whole of an image is visible in any fragment of a hologram.) In particular, it is contradictory. Thus, it also has its own telos which it must try to achieve by producing a contradictory state. However, unlike the similar maneuver with the whole, this maneuver results in the destruction and replacement of the situation. Contradictions are therefore fatal to parts of the whole (finite beings); not so the whole itself (Taylor, 1975, 105ff). It follows that the state which succeeds the old does not transcend (aufhebt) it in quite the same way that the Absolute transcends the spirit/nature contradiction. In particular, the old contradiction is no longer true (though new ones will be).
(Priest 403)

Hegel has the famous example for this, the master-slave relationship. People need recognition from others in order to develop themselves. At first they obtain it by force and enslave the other to obtain their recognition. But since this dehumanizes the other, the master cannot be recognized by someone who really matters to him. The slave, meanwhile, labors and [somehow] gains control of the world, granting him/her freedom. Also, the slave knows they can be killed any moment, granting them greater self-awareness, also allowing them to become aware of their freedom. By those means, the slave is on the road to overthrowing the master. (403)

As we can see, the slave in the enslaved situation is in a contradictory state, as “he is both free and bound (not free)” (404). Priest further illustrates with a passage by Sartre where he explains that the Nazi oppression only heightened their awareness of the freedom they should and really deep down do have. (404)

There is an objection that these dialectical sorts of contradiction are not really contradictory, since it is free in one sense and bound in another. Priest admits that some contradictions that dialetheists cite are merely apparent contradictions and are “dispelled once the respects in which the contradictory predicates apply are spelled out” (404).

Priest also replies that it is not always so clear that two senses of the same term are meant.

The quotation from Sartre illustrates this. What are the senses in which the occupied, people were free and not? They were not free in that they could not, because of the occupation, do exactly as they chose. But, as Sartre stressed, this made them realize that they could do exactly as they chose. But this is no consistent disambiguation: it is just as contradictory.

The trouble here is that the notion of having a choice does not have the crystal precision of, e.g., mathematical predicates.

Citations from:

Priest, Graham. ‘Dialectic and Dialetheiç’. Science & Society, 1989/1990, 53 (4) 388–415.

Or if otherwise noted:

Bole, Thomas J. “Contradiction in Hegel's Science of Logic.” The Review of metaphysics 40, no. 3 (1987): 515-534

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Science of Logic, edited and translated by George di Giovanni. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2010.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Wissenschaft der Logik II. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1969.

Taylor, Charles. Hegel. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1975.






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