Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2004
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

6. The system: Science of Logic

The real centre of the Hegelian system is the discipline he described as ‘Logic’. It contains his doctrine of the categories, to use traditional terminology (see Categories §1). Hegel dedicated his most comprehensive and complex work to this discipline, the Science of Logic (1812–16), later adding a much shorter version within the framework of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences.

The starting point of the Logic is the insight, justified in Hegel’s view by the result of the Phenomenology of Spirit (1) that all true knowledge is knowledge of oneself, and (2) that the subject of this knowledge, that is to say, that which knows about itself, is reason. Because Hegel - following Schelling - only considers that to be real which can also be known, he concludes from the results of the Phenomenology of Spirit that only reason is real. He thinks of this reason as, internally, an extremely complex entity. Hegel now distinguishes between the ‘Concept’ of reason and the process of its realization. The object of the Science of Logic is the conceptual, that is to say, for Hegel, the logical development of this Concept. Since this Concept is the Concept of that which alone is real, Hegel can maintain that his Science of Logic takes the place of traditional metaphysics, which concerned itself with the elucidation of the basic ways in which we can think of reality.

Since the object whose Concept is to be logically discussed is reason, understood to be the sum of reality, the Concept of reason must include not only those aspects which account for reason’s character of reality or of being, but also those aspects which do justice to the peculiar character of reason as thinking. Hegel calls both these aspects ‘Determinations of the Concept’ (Begriffsbestimmungen). Those aspects of the Concept of reason which take into account its character of being are developed by Hegel in the section ‘Objective Logic’ in the Science of Logic. He presents those aspects which are intended to do justice to its thinking character in the section called ‘Subjective Logic’. He further subdivides ‘Objective Logic’ into ‘Logic of Being’ and ‘Logic of Essence’.

In his ‘Objective Logic’, Hegel tries to show how it is possible to generate from very simple, so-called ‘immediate’ determinations such as ‘Being’, ‘Nothing’ and ‘Becoming’ other categories of quality and quantity as well as relational and modal determinations, such as ‘Cause-Effect’, ‘Substance-Accidence’ and ‘Existence’, ‘Necessity’ and the like. As in the ‘Subjective Logic’, the basic strategy here for the creation of categories or determinations of the Concept, assumes that (1) for every category there is an opposing one which upon closer analysis reveals itself to be its true meaning, and that (2) for every two categories opposing each other in this manner there is a third category whose meaning is determined by that which makes the opposing categories compatible. Hegel considers these two assumptions justified because only they can lead to what in his eyes is a complete and non-contingent system of categories. Hegel himself, however, did very little to make their exact sense clear, although he uses them with great skill. Immediately after his death this led to a confused and still inconclusive discussion regarding their interpretation. Many judgments concerning the worth or worthlessness of Hegel’s philosophy are linked to this discussion, which has taken its place in the annals of Hegel research as a discussion concerning the meaning, significance and value of the so-called ‘dialectical method’. (Hegel himself preferred ‘speculative method’.)

In particular, Hegel’s claims about the truth-generating function of contradiction have played a major role in the discussion of the ‘dialectical method’ described in the Science of Logic. Though highly praised by Hegel himself, his doctrine of the nature and methodological merits of contradiction has proved to be inaccessible and obscure. This may have been caused in part by Hegel’s extremely concise and provocative formulations of this methodical maxim. The reader is reminded in this context not only of the succinct formulation which he chose to defend on the occasion of his Jena Habilitation - ‘contradiction is the rule of truth, non-contradiction the rule of falsehood’ - but also of his provocative version of the principle of contradiction, according to which ‘everything is inherently contradictory’. The difficulties associated with the comprehension of the Hegelian conception of contradiction have perforce a link with his particular unconventional concept of contradiction. Two points are particularly important, in that they differentiate his concept from the classical concept of contradiction of traditional logic: (1) A contradiction between two propositions cannot be confirmed solely on the basis of their ascription to a single subject of two contradictory predicates; it is also necessary to take into account the meaning of the subject of these propositions. If the contradictory predicates cannot meaningfully be attributed to the subject, then no contradiction arises. ‘Legible’ and ‘illegible’ are predicates which will only lead to contradiction if attributed to texts, but not, for example, to bananas. For Hegel, this means among other things that the relation of contradiction is dependent on the context. (2) Hegel thinks of contradictions as analogous to positive and negative determinations, which neutralize each other but without making that whose neutralizing determinations they are into a contradictory concept which has absolutely no meaning, which therefore means nothing (the Kantian ‘Nihil negativum’). Rather, the way in which positive and negative determinations neutralize each other tells us something informative about the object to which the neutralizing determinations apply. For example, possession of Euro 100 neutralizes a debt of Euro 100, without thereby making the concept of property a contradictory concept. Instead, the way in which this neutralization takes place makes clear that the concept ‘property’ means something which must be thought of as of a quantifiable size. For Hegel this is a consequence of ‘the logical principle that what is self-contradictory does not dissolve itself into a nullity, into abstract nothingness, but essentially only into the negation of its particular content’. Whether these two convictions are sufficient to justify Hegel’s thesis that contradictions play a ‘positive’ role in cognition procedures is rightly controversial.

Hegel’s ‘Subjective Logic’, the second part of the Science of Logic, contains not only his so-called ‘speculative’ interpretation of the objects of traditional logic, that is, his own doctrine of concepts, judgments and syllogisms, but above all his theory of the ‘Concept’. This theory is deeply rooted in Hegel’s critique of traditional metaphysics, and is thus most easily comprehended when placed in that context. He presents this critique most tellingly in the third edition of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. His starting point here is the claim that what matters in philosophy, and what philosophy aims at, is the ‘scientific recognition of truth’. This means among other things that philosophy is concerned with the recognition of ‘what objects really are’. According to Hegel, the question of what objects really are has been approached in philosophy from a variety of angles, but all the different modes in which the question has been answered to date are unacceptable because they are based on false premises. Traditional metaphysics is one of the ways of approaching the question of what objects really are. Hegel characterizes this approach as ‘the unbiased method’, which is motivated by the assumption that ‘through thinking the truth becomes known, what objects really are is brought to one’s consciousness’. In contrast to other philosophical approaches that deal with the question posed, metaphysics, according to Hegel, is in principle certainly capable of contributing to the cognition of what things in truth are, because it starts from the correct assumption that ‘the determinations of thought’ are to be seen as ‘the fundamental determinations of things’. But traditional metaphysics has not made a significant contribution to the cognition of truth, because it was only able to transform its correct initial assumption in a systematically erroneous manner.

According to Hegel, the crucial weakness of traditional metaphysics is to use the form of judgment in an unreflective manner, and this shows itself in various ways. First it shows in the unfounded assumption of traditional metaphysics that judgments provide a particular and direct insight into the constitution of reality or that which really exists. In Hegel’s view this unfounded assumption has two consequences: the first is that it tends without reason to favour a particular ontological model of reality because it regards the subject-predicate form as the standard form of the judgment; the second consequence, in Hegel’s view incomparably more problematic, consists of the unfounded tendency of traditional metaphysics to conclude from the unquestioned and assumed correspondence between the form of judgment and constitution of reality that one can express by means of judgments what objects really are. Hegel does not find problematic the assumption contained in this conviction that one can make judgments concerning objects. He believes that the problem lies rather in the fact that one can assume without examination that ‘the form of the judgment could be the form of truth’. In Hegel’s view, however, such an examination is essential because the traditional understanding of subject and predicate does not justify the assertion that a subject-predicate judgment actually contributes something to the determination of a real object. An additional problem lies in the fact that the unconsidered use of the form of judgment has led traditional metaphysics erroneously to use a ‘natural’ interpretation of the concepts of subject and predicate. The consequence of this interpretation is that judgments of the subject-predicate form can lay no claim to ‘truth’.

Hegel’s chief criticism of traditional metaphysics therefore lies in the lack of clarity associated with its interpretation of the form of the judgment. In particular he rejects its tendency to interpret the judgment ‘naturally’, which for him means to encourage a subjectivist interpretation of the judgment built on the concept of representation. Such a subjectivist interpretation cannot show how to guarantee for the judgment some sort of claim to truth or recognition of what something really is. Therefore the subjectivist metaphysical interpretation of the judgment is problematic at the very outset. Moreover, it becomes downright dangerous when one considers its ontological implications, for it leads erroneously to the assumption that the objects corresponding to the subject-concepts of the judgment are to be thought of as substances to which are attributed the characteristics described by the predicate-concepts. The unreflective subjectivist interpretation implies or at least suggests what may be called a substance-ontology, according to which substances which are independent of each other are taken as the fundamental entities of reality, determined predicatively by accidental characteristics which are applicable or not applicable to them. It is this commitment to a substance-ontology which Hegel critically imputes to traditional metaphysics. From this criticism, he deduces that it is first necessary to reach an agreement as to what the object really is before one can adequately assess the function and the achievement of the judgment in the context of knowledge. To reach this agreement is the task of the Logic of the Concept.

The starting point of Hegel’s theory of the Concept is the assumption which he imputes to traditional metaphysics as an insight which is in principle correct. This was the insight that only through thinking can one recognize what something really is. Since in Hegel’s view thinking is concerned not with intuitions or representations, but with concepts, he identifies that which something in truth or really is with its Concept. Because of this identification, talk of the Concept acquires an ontological connotation. Hegelian Concepts must not be confused with the so-called general concepts of traditional logic. They are difficult to understand precisely and are characterized by the fact that they are (1) non-sensible - which means that they are a particular type of thought-object - and that they are (2) something objective as opposed to subjective. Regarded as these objective thoughts, these Concepts are determined in the sense that in them different relations of determinations of the Concept are to be encountered which occur as determinations of thinking or of thought (Denkbestimmungen). These determinations of thought can themselves be regarded as a kind of predicative characteristic. They make up the multitude of all those determinations on the basis of which the Concept of an object can be seen as completely fixed.

Now, in Hegel’s view, not everything has a Concept which in one sense or another is ordinarily thought of as an object. A (Hegelian) Concept is only allotted to objects which can be thought of on the model of an organism. Hegel thus maintains that one can only regard those objects as real or as existing in truth for which there is a Concept which can be interpreted on the organic model. If, then, the ‘scientific recognition of truth’ consists in recognizing the Concept of something, and if a Concept is always a Concept of a organic-type object, then the question arises how one should conceive of such a Concept. For Hegel it is clear that in his concept of a Concept, he must include everything needed to describe an organism. This includes first of all what Hegel calls the subjective Concept, which one can best regard as the sum of all characteristics whose realization represents an organic-type object. For Hegel, in the case of the concept of reason, whose Concept the Science of Logic elaborates, these characteristics are exclusively logical data which can be presented in the form of determinations of concepts, judgments and syllogisms. Furthermore, Hegel’s Concept must include the element of objectivity. ‘Objectivity’ here means more or less the same as reality or the state of being an object and suggests the fact that it is part of the Concept of an organism to realize itself. Since, however, Hegel holds that there is ultimately only one object which really exists, namely reason, the Concept of this object must include a characteristic which is exclusively applicable to itself. This characteristic must permit the justification of the claim that in reality there is only one Concept and therefore also only one object. Hegel calls this characteristic ‘subjectivity’.

Although it is easy to see that the term ‘subjectivity’ describes a central element of Hegel’s logical theory, it is very difficult to shed light upon its meaning and function therein. It is relatively obvious only that Hegel attributes the characteristic of subjectivity not just to his Concept, but also to entities such as ‘I’, ‘self-consciousness’ and ‘spirit’. We are therefore on safe ground if we assume that the subjectivity which is to be attributed to the Concept is precisely that which is also attributed to the I, self-consciousness or spirit and which distinguishes them from other types of organism. The ground becomes more dangerous when it is a matter of stating what subjectivity actually means. This is not merely because Hegel distinguishes between different types of subjectivity, but also because the subjectivity which is constitutive of the Concept is tied to conditions which are difficult to state with any precision. In general it seems to be correct to say that subjectivity occurs when something recognizes itself as being identical with something else. If we follow the Science of Logic, then this relationship of identity known as ‘subjectivity’ can only be established between entities which themselves can be thought of as being particular complexes of relations of similar elements or moments. Subjectivity in this sense is thus intended to describe a certain form of self-reference or self-relationship. According to Hegel, there should be only one entity to which the term ‘subjectivity’ can be attributed as a characteristic in the sense which has just been explained - the Hegelian ‘Idea’. He says of it, ‘The unity of the Idea is subjectivity’. This Idea now forms the end of the Science of Logic, because through it the Concept of reason has been completely explicated. He also describes this Idea as the absolute method, for it is not only the result, that is, the Concept which comprehends all his moments, but also the complete and systematically generated series of these moments.

The results of the Logic of the Concept represent the justification for Hegel’s belief that, apart from a system of logic, a complete system of philosophy must include a so-called ‘real philosophy’, which is divided into a philosophy of nature and a philosophy of spirit. Hegel undertakes this justification within the framework of the exposition of what characterizes the fully developed (Hegelian) Concept. This exposition only becomes comprehensible if one remembers that Hegel is a supporter of the organological paradigm in metaphysics, according to which that which really is must be regarded as a particular type of organism. Hegel describes the type of organism relevant to his metaphysics as an object which has realized or objectivized its Concept in such a way that it comprehends itself as the objectivization of this Concept of itself. On the basis of this conception, Hegel now develops the following consideration: the (Hegelian) Concept is something which is to be regarded as a unity of (in some ways incompatible) determinations of the Concept. Among these determinations also belong, as Hegel believes he can show, that of objectivity. By this he means that it is a part of the nature of a Concept to become objective, to manifest itself as an object. Now, the only object which is an adequate realization of the Concept is the one to which what Hegel calls ‘subjectivity’ can be attributed. ‘Subjectivity’ is the name of a relational characteristic which is present when something knows itself to be identical with something else. For Hegel, it follows from these stipulations that subjectivity can only be attributed to the object which knows itself to be identical with its Concept. To produce this knowledge is therefore a demand inherent in the nature of the Concept. Since it is the sole task of the Science of Logic to exhibit the Concept of reason, and since this Concept contains the demand for the production of a form of knowledge which can only be acquired when (1) the Concept objectivizes itself, that is, becomes an object, and (2) this object comprehends itself as being identical with its Concept, then it is already a demand inherent in the Concept of reason that reason should be discussed (1) from under the point of view of its objectivity or as an object, and (2) under the aspect of its known identity with its Concept. The first of these topics is the subject of a philosophy of nature; the second that of a philosophy of spirit.

Citing this article:
Horstmann, Rolf-peter. The system: Science of Logic. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831), 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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