Notes on reading Hegel: The Dialectic
Before we get into it, first understand a couple things.
First a couple of value terms get reversed in Hegel in a way important to remember (but fairly easy once we get into the swing of it): When most people refer to what is “abstract” in philosophy, they are referring to ideas, or concepts, as ‘abstracted’ from experience, the experience itself held to be ‘concrete.’ For Hegel, this can’t be true, because there is no articulable knowledge in experience just as such, but only in the concepts we derive from it. Therefore, the experience (just as such) is an abstraction – from the senses, from the immediate events, from the raw context of things we see and bump into – which then has to be made concrete into a meaningful concept through the application of reason.
Secondly, I remind my reader that for Hegel, the Dialectic is both a process of reasoning and a structure of human behavior over time. That’s because Hegel assumes reasoning determines human action, not only locally, but collectively throughout a culture. Thus politics, religion, law, art – all manifest moments of the Dialectic as expression of reasoning in history.
To see this reasoning in something like actual practice, let’s tell a little story here – compared to the epic Hegel narrates of it, a mere episode in the life of Consciousness:
… so, one day a Consciousness came to a university to ask a question, “what does it mean to be ‘Human?’”
The first person he encountered was an anatomist, who said, “Oh, I’m dissecting the corpse of one of those in the surgery theater, come along.” And during the dissection, the Consciousness saw the bones and the meat, and the skin, and sinews and nerves, etc. “So this is human?” “Well,” says the anatomist, it’s the corpse of one. It’s the body when not alive.”
So the body, just as body, negates the living of the human as a concept of an entity that, to be fully human, must be alive.
So the anatomist sends our Consciousness to consult another expert, in the university hospital, a physiologist, who, using as example a brain-dead patient kept on life-support, demonstrates how the body actually functions when alive – the interactions of the nerves, the collection and dispersion of oxygen by the blood, the digestion of nutrition and separation from waste, and so on. “So, now I know the human!” “Well, no,” the physiologist admits, this is the body, but what was most human about it has fled.” “So, this body is mere abstraction of the human as organism. Where can I find the concrete ‘human’?” The physiologist opens the door, and our Consciousness finds itself on the street outside, surrounded by living entities much like the brain-dead body in the ward of the university hospital. Except that as immediately living organisms, they negate any expectation learned from study of the living body alone: As they approach, they respond to Consciousness’ inquires, concerning the human; but they each respond in a different way. Frequently these differences are quite small, but occasionally, they are telling. And what they are telling is that The Human, taken as mere collection of representatives, amounts to another kind of abstraction, the abstraction of a catalogue of data that doesn’t yet amount to a concrete idea of what it means to be human.
But in among this data, our Consciousness discovers a couple of interesting facts and reports, specifically concerning how humans control release of urine. Now, the physiology of urinating is already known; but what the physiologist had not explained was the way certain humans urinate standing up, and others do so squatting. This turns out to be a rather empty detail, having largely to do with physiognomic difference between the sexes. But in reviewing this detail, Consciousness finds two rather troublesome reports from his subject humans. In one, a young woman reports having “wet herself” slightly when shocked by the news that the school her children attended had been the scene of an explosion and a massive fire. Her further response was to contact her family and friends and rush to school to see if they could help put out the fire and search for survivors.
In other, a young man reported having “wet the bed” in his sleep while dreaming of a waterfall.
Now, in the first report, what Consciousness recognizes is that humans can function collectively; they form a community, which in certain moments will respond as one. They do so by sharing a language, apparently finding value in similar hopes, worries, and concerns. From this Consciousness extracts the principle of the Social, the necessary attribute that brings together representatives of the human into a communal whole. This seems to be satisfactory completion of the idea of The Human, given objective observation of their behavior, in a manner complimentary to our understanding of the human body.
But in the second report, Consciousness discovers a completely other principle: What the young man is reporting is events in a private mental life; events that only happened to and for himself. Obviously, his body responds as any human body would. But it now responds to an experience only he can know and which he must learn to articulate – not only to communicate with others, but to understand himself qua individual. This thus asserts his importance as individual identifiable separate from the community around him.
Through comparing both these reports, Consciousness also learns something new about any meaningful knowledge about The Human – namely that it must incorporate not only the immediately observable, but also, the concepts that emerge from the reports and articulations by humans themselves. And what Consciousness discovers is that such reports and articulations are frequently in conflict. Almost, one would say, in contradiction.
After all, take the two principles learned from analyzing the reports from the young woman and the young man. To be human is to exist as Social, as part of greater whole, influenced by and acting with, a community of peers. So the human only realizes him/herself by blending into the collective.
But: To be human is to be as Individual, to be the unique focus of a certain series of experiences and thoughts. Thus, surely the human can only realize himself or herself by separation from the community and assertion of self.
Can these two seemingly contradictory principles be somehow brought together in one Absolute Idea of what it truly means to be human, the Truth of The Human, the Idea as absolutely true? The Knowledge, that is the complete knowledge, of The Human?
The answer is yes; what one will have to do is account for all possibly essential (that is, truly important and distinctive) differences of particularities of the human experience, and of their blending into a totality, wherein perceived conflicts stand revealed as moments of the Whole – but a Whole that validates, rather than obliterates, the Particulars as necessary moments of this blending.
This manifest working through of these conflicts into the realization of the proper relations between the Whole and its particulars, as objectively observable human behavior, is called: history.
But the understanding of this resolution can only be accomplished intellectually by a Subject as knower, but only in a manner completely articulable with any other Subject-Consciousness. Thus the Absolute Knowledge will be what the Individual Consciousness knows, that every Consciousness knows, of the Idea as Whole, derived dialectically from its particulars.
The truth of this Knowledge will be determined through logic (as Hegel discusses in the Science of Logic). The narrative of the process for acquiring it is described in: The Phenomenology of Mind.