The Limits of Dialectics: Logical Necessity And Empirical Contingency
Hegelian logic is great; after all, what could be better than absolute concepts and arguments? Is there anything at all that Hegel’s logic could not enlighten us about, nothing which we should not eagerly process through its almighty speculative lens? So called ‘dialectics’ have become strangely privileged by some, mainly Marxists, as a logical and conceptual form which supposedly says something important, and yet more often than not attempts to use this method result in the obtuse mystification of what is common and obvious. These confusions are in part simple naivete which flexes its cognitive muscles in a mistaken pride of conquering such a famed logical method, but there are not so obvious issues which lead to this error and they deserve clarification.
What these errant enthusiasts fail to understand is something that may seem obvious: That pedantic presentation does not an intelligent conception make. But it is not pedantry alone that is their error, a confusion underlies the incapacity to see where this logic is rightly deployed. They fail to make a distinction between the exercise of Hegel’s philosophical logic and our common natural logic. Hegel is well aware of the difference and notes:
“The broad distinction between instinctive act and act which is intelligent and free is that the latter is performed consciously. . . . Here and there on this web there are knots, more firmly tied than others, which give stability and direction to the life and consciousness of spirit; they owe their firmness and power simply to the fact that, having been brought before consciousness, they stand as independent concepts of its essential nature. . . . As impulses the categories do their work only instinctively; they are brought to consciousness one by one and so are variable and mutually confusing, thus affording to spirit only fragmentary and uncertain actuality. To purify these categories and in them to elevate spirit to truth and freedom, this is therefore the loftier business of logic.” — Science of Logic §21.16
Instinctive (natural) logic generates as its concepts (categories) objects which are more or less firmly tied here and there by an external necessity in messy knots. The intelligent and free concepts, those consciously developed by philosophical logic, are firmly tied by their own internal necessity. We are here not interested in mere concepts, however, but also with concepts of objects.
To find the place of Hegel’s logic (dialectics) in our own cognition the delineation of what I shall call here necessary concepts of logical nature and contingent concepts of natural existence must be made, and in treating things in this way we can strike two birds — concept and object — with one stone. First, let us consider the ideal logic of necessity found in Hegelian philosophy, afterward our natural logic, and finally the link between both. With this distinction a limitation of Hegelian logic will appear, but such a limitation is also the opening for its fruitful use.
Concepts and Truth
The question of real objects is ultimately a question about the true concepts which we can know them as. Hegel’s logical method and its truths are intimately tied with concepts — in fact, the method is ultimately nothing but the concept of the self-development of concepts from simple abstractness to complex concreteness. This self-development is considered in an ideal self-containment, and this mirrors a structure of independence many consider to be the privilege of objectivity. Further, this self-development of a concept is logic itself, i.e. concepts are logics.
Concepts are for Hegel, to put it concisely, structures of unity, and at their most concrete they are developmental unities. To have a unity is to have a concept, and this regards any and all forms of unities regardless of how abstract, concrete, mental, or material they are. One of the hallmarks of Hegelianism is its claim to a necessary development which attains in the end an absolute truth as an equally necessary and objective conceptual whole, and it is this which is the siren song for those who wish to use it. For Hegel concepts are the very measure of truth against which things can be said to be false or lacking, e.g. a chicken is a true chicken only if it corresponds to the concept of chicken.
Truth is commonly understood to be identical to that which objectively is. The object is the truth. It is being not as it appears to our relative understanding, but as it is independently in itself. But that which is truly independent is itself because of itself, it must be self-grounding and the full development of itself. Our more daily considerations of comparative truth fail to grasp such independent objectivity.
Let us consider two forms of truth which are common, though one of them is not commonly recognized. The first is correspondence of concept to object, e.g. ‘It is true that X is an apple because apple corresponds to what X is’; second is correspondence of object to concept, e.g. ‘It is true that X is an apple because X fits the concept of apple’. The first is seemingly most intuitive, yet there is a problem: we presuppose our objects as if we already knew their structure such that the comparison can be made. The relation itself functions positively only negatively, for the relation can only work so long as the object does not show something which negates the concept’s fit. If the fit fails, however, we do not immediately know why it fails, i.e. is it just the superficial concept that is wrong, or is it manifesting a deeper problem concerning our conception of objects? The object fails to reveal its true structure to us on its own and we are able to concoct concepts to force fits even when there are none, e.g. Ptolemaic epicycles. In the latter relation — object to concept — another issue arises with knowing if our concepts are themselves valid and not mere illusions of reason, and because of this we may use concepts that correspond to nothing real, e.g. 7th dimensional immaterial gnomes explaining why I have terrible luck. The issue of both forms of truth ultimately must collapse into the second, for what we lack in the first conception is precisely a concept of the object as it really is in its independence, but if the problem is one of concept we must then answer to the issue of the validity of this concept.
What is validity anyway? Most seem to think it is lack of contradiction and necessity in conclusion following premises. With a concept we can see the first quality, but other considerations apply. We all know of invalid concepts: a square circle. This is not simply false because no such object can exist, but because it also fails to meet the conditions of conceptual intelligibility, or, it fails to meet the structure of what a concept in general is. Hegel’s valid concept meets these three qualifications: it is as a whole coherent, it necessarily follows as a whole from its internal parts, and it is intelligible in itself. Because valid concepts are self-developed, they are conceived in their independence and are thus objective, and as objective they find their content as their own self-determination and necessity according to this content.
“Necessity is the inseparability of terms which are different, and yet appear to be indifferent.” — Philosophy of Nature Vol.1, P. 210, Allen & Unwin trns.
The ideal of logical thinking is to solidly establish necessary connections between premise and conclusion, beginning and result, thought and being, or proposition and fact. Necessity here is meant as the immanent link of things, the link we find as simply what they are in their own free self-development — that is, in their ideal absolute self-abstraction. In common understanding that which is necessary is what is linked and inseparable, a connection which cannot not be. This necessity is the necessity which empirical science seeks in the model of experiment: to isolate a thing and see what is linked in itself, that which is there when it alone is present. In common consideration necessity as such is normally a relation between things, but not something which can be shown of things themselves. This is necessary for that, or, that necessarily follows this. This necessity, however, is not yet the necessity of truth as that which is itself necessary.
Necessary Necessity, Or Self-Necessity
To conceive of that which is itself necessary is something which is baffling at first thought. What in the world could it mean for the thing itself to be necessary? Seems a bit incomprehensible, doesn’t it? Take for example the necessity of self-identity in A=A. We fail to grasp anything that is itself necessary in something like self-identity for two reasons: we have completely abstract objects with no internal structure, and we have an external judge as the only link between the identical terms. This connection is necessary only for us who abstract A from itself and compare it to itself. In order for the object to posit its own necessity it would have to develop the self-referencing structure itself, not as we who are consciously reflective beings do with thought, but with the only thing available to such objects: their being itself.
For Hegel, this mysterious self-referencing trick is amazingly simple. To conceive of that which is itself necessary is to conceive of relations which relate in such a manner as to produce themselves necessarily. The necessity of self-necessity is the relation of a chain of necessary connections that come back around to link to the beginning in the end. This is the conceptual circle in which the necessary positing by every part in total posits an enclosing unity of them all. This circle of parts is a whole unbreakable and irreducible to anything but itself as a whole the moment it or any of its parts are posited. If there is the whole, there are all the parts; if there is a part there are implicated all the others in the whole. To be self-necessary is to simply be an object with a self-enclosed and regenerating structure such that the parts generate a whole in which all are generated in a necessary organization. This circular developmental system differentiates Hegel’s necessity from being a mere endless chain of efficient causes or sufficient reasons which have nothing which is ever self-necessary; it also differentiates it from such forms of necessity which dogmatically end in an arbitrarily privileged necessary absolute which is simply ‘obvious’.
Let’s use a rather fun example: a dog. A dog is necessarily itself as all of what it is in that each part is there according to the developments of a unity which is self-given by the object and connecting all parts of itself to itself as itself. Consider the logical dog, i.e. the necessity of the dog as a unique species-being. The logical dog is seen to be connected in a conceptual circle of self-generation as its enduring and reproducing species. As individual existents of the species their very body is a unity of self-necessity of parts and whole: the body and its organs are for the sake of the whole dog, to enable and maintain its basic biological ends of survival and reproduction, but likewise the dog is for the maintenance and ends of its parts. A single dog, whether male or female, is not absolute in the species for it exists in a sexual asymmetry for the sake of reproduction. In turn, pups are born, grow up and live lives which tend to regenerate the process anew. Regardless of what dogs do other than merely live and reproduce, regardless of their love for walks, pets, and chasing things for fun, these necessities are in themselves necessary in the species as species and cannot fail to appear in the species universal though they certainly can fail to appear in existent individuals.
Because actual natural beings may fail to embody their conceptual logical necessity and are thus incapable of being fully self-necessary, it is a misunderstanding of Hegel’s logic to think that it derives concepts that must exist regardless of conditions. Nature’s transgression of concept boundaries is nothing surprising, and Hegel notes:
“It is not only that in nature the play of forms has unbounded and unbridled contingency, but that each shape by itself is devoid of its Notion. Life is the highest to which nature drives in its determinate being, but as merely natural Idea, life is submerged in the irrationality of externality, and the living individual is bound with another individuality in every moment of its existence.” — Philosophy of Nature, P. 209
As is to be expected due to the external being essential to them, natural beings are necessarily open to intrusion into their determination because they are internally constituted and dependent on objects indifferent to them.
Nonetheless, the concepts of Hegel’s method are necessarily what they are. Their unity is necessarily a differentiated one which cannot exist without its parts, yet in the conclusion of development the parts are proved to themselves depend on their unity as a whole for their being. Whether we begin with an adult dog, a pup, or a dog fetus, the unity derived is necessarily the same when it comes to the ‘absolute form’ of the species. In abstract, the dog may of course be split into parts which seem to lack any necessary unity, such that we may imagine various parts independent of the whole, but with regard to the dog as dog nature refutes us whenever we see the process of its life in full. If one is stubborn and still doubts, let material biology be the judge: A living being’s genome contains the possible development of it from prick of hair to beating heart. The species, however, is no mere genome, it is a living being and as living being it posits every part including the genome’s unity (genetic combination in fertilization). So long as the minimal conditions for the possibility of its life are there, the dog maintains itself indefinitely through its own self-necessity — a necessity that is entirely within it as what it is.
Given these concepts and their unbreakable necessity, the practical thinker is left to wonder where in their own world this fits. Nature, after all, seems to have no care for these logical concepts. Let us now examine the reality of us and our world, a reality not of pure inner necessity, but muddled with arbitrariness and contingency. A reality where unity is not preordained by self-given inner reason, but mingles with increasingly complex yet contingent and non-logical Nature. In the real world nothing seems to exist that is able to absolutely overcome a second necessity to its ideal inner one, and thus something external is always present within the very being of material things, something which makes it impossible for them to be purely their own necessity. This external necessity marks all of nature, and it marks our very thoughts.
“Thoughts are not coordinated in nature, for Notionlessness holds sway here, and each material point appears to be entirely independent of all the others. . . . Since unity in nature is a relation between apparently self-subsistent entities however, nature is not free, but merely necessary and contingent.” — Philosophy of Nature, P. 210
If necessary concepts are brought into unity through their inner necessity, contingent concepts are brought into unity through an external necessity. That which is contingent is that which is through and by external relation to others; it is that which can not be, or that which can be otherwise. As a form of necessity, however, it is a connection which must be there given conditions external to the object under inquiry. Because this connection is not posited by objects from within they have no power to generate this relation themselves.
Given this factor and that factor, an external relation must attain without fail. Given the factor of life, the history of the Earth, and the interplay of cosmic and microcosmic forces of matter, the dog necessarily has come to be on Earth at this time; however, this could have been otherwise with a different arrangement of the world. Though the dog may be necessary to itself, this necessity is itself a contingent necessity due to its dependence on factors beyond its control. Dogs could have been otherwise had the material history of the world been otherwise, and because their existence is tied to existents which do not necessitate dogs as their resultant unities, they are necessarily contingent beings. Self-necessity is thus differentiated between a relative form and an absolute form that becomes relegated to broader ontological concepts that cannot fail to attain. The existent forms of nature are necessarily contingent due to their dependence on external others indifferent to them, and contingently necessary in that these externalities necessarily come to relate by virtue of their empirical history and shared relations of existence.
On Absolute Contingency
One may find it tempting to consider all of existence as absolutely contingent, but this would be a misunderstanding of contingency itself. The purely contingent concept is an irrational madness, denying any internal order by positing pure externality in its entirety with no necessary things which can function as a reason. It begins with the irrational and irrationally connects to the irrational. Its unity is irrational, its parts are irrational, and thus their connection is likewise irrational — no reason is found in the unity. The purely contingent object is in fact neither an object nor a concept; it is only a fiction of the mind playing with abstraction. There can be no purely contingent object, something about it must be necessary even if the posited object as such has no internal necessity, e.g. a clump of dirt is a contingent object that at least exists by the necessity of matter and its gravity. Given that the actual objects which exist in the world are constituted in a chain of dependencies, this very dependency is a rationality even if utterly external to our assumed object.
The rationality of the natural mind has necessity, but it is not yet the fully internal necessity of the philosophical concept.
Contingent Connections of Natural Thought
In our natural experience of thought there is connection, but it is not based on a conceptual inner necessity; rather, it is based on external contingency. Two forms of external connection occur to concepts in our natural thinking: 1) things are externally united in the space of our mind according to the structures of the mind and its metaphysical concepts as well as our subjective judgments of what is and is not important; 2) objects are united in semi-arbitrary physical arrangement when stored as memories in the brain.
One natural form of concept is association, such that we hear, see, or feel, and recall or think as response something which has been associated with the stimulus. I see the word ‘cockroach’, and I recall a feeling of disgust. I hear ‘dog’ and I think of my own dog. I think freedom, and I think struggle. Associative memory and thinking are contingent to the individual and their unique circumstances and history. That freedom to me recalls a struggle, and that to another it recalls a flag, and to yet another it recalls a definition is proof enough of this contingency of natural thinking. Association is not the only contingent manner of thinking, so too are methods of formal logic. What system of logic we use to think, what axioms and postulates we accept, are contingent. Beside association there are unities which are merely postulated, defined and deployed by a myriad of criteria: utility, interest, abstraction, etc.
The association of ideas is not a mere quirk of consciousness, but has a basis in a physical reality and is to that extent a contingent necessity. The brain stores memory in physical arrangements, and often memories are linked physically despite having no chronological, rational, or thematic link; thus, one can experience a stimulus that recalls something in a manner that surprises since it seems like a random appearance of a disconnected thought in the flow of our experience. In this chronology of experience and its physical storing there is an external necessity of ordering connections through physics, chemistry, and biology in our own individual bodies. Though I could provide no inner reason for why a light beam striking a bead suddenly reminds me of someone, there is often no lack of an external reason, whether it be the association of place/time/object type, or that a memory of a glint in light or the emotion it elicited is physically connected to that other memory. If all other contingent links fail, the most basic explanation that can almost never fail to be given is that the physical arrangement of our being simply is as it is due to the physical contingencies of the world.
Because of their external necessity, contingent concepts and objects of existent nature can never be derived a priori. Here, yet again, we have another myth and misunderstanding of Hegel’s method denied, for no matter how much of the external world we take into account there is always more. In the Philosophy of Nature’s introduction Hegel speaks of the endless repetition of finite space and time which by its very concept can never terminate at a finite absolute beginning nor end, for the finite is always in the middle of other finites. All that Hegel can derive is necessary concepts on the ontological level, but nowhere can he derive the existential empirical world. The method, then, can not be used positively on anything empirical without ascertaining it to be at least a contingent self-necessity. The event of war as an empirical event, for example, has no such inner necessity when it is caught in a myriad of external triggers, events, and personalities. Though Hegel does the derive the necessity of war as a derivation from the logical reality of states, he cannot derive the necessity of any particular war.
A contingent concept is a unity which functions not as a necessary connection, but as an arbitrary subsuming structure. This is nothing other than our common concept, the notion we have of abstract universals. We, the thinking subject, consider an encountered unity and posit it as a structure in whatever we privilege in this unity as worthy of entering our concept. The abstract concept seems to necessarily subsume or apply to whatever fits its structure of definition; however, the concept itself is arbitrary.
Let’s take a common concept: the sandwich. What comes to mind? Slices of meat, a leaf of lettuce, perhaps a slice of cheese and a few slices of tomato between two slices of bread which have whatever flavoring condiment or lack thereof you wish. If ‘sandwich’ is defined as any meeting of two pieces of bread with anything between them, it should necessarily apply to any such structure. However, consider that a hot dog falls into this definition, and that this feels weird and wrong for many. The same happens with many things: the concept of sports (NASCAR and E-Sports), art (video games), etc. It seems that with all of these there are strange cases of things that fit yet don’t fit, and the reason for this is due to the arbitrary nature of the concepts themselves as well as the arbitrary associations of the thinker who posits these concepts. So long as the concept itself is arbitrary, the judgment of what does and does not fall into the concept is just as arbitrary.
Why do we find it so difficult to define these things? There is first an intended arbitrary association we wish to privilege in a concept structure, but the concept structure ends up being more general or restrictive than what we intend. Hegel’s logic does not make these arbitrary concepts its aim to develop or explain, for with contingent concepts semantic arguments about them are doomed to never have resolution, for they have no self-necessity. It is not to say that there is no treatment of empirical contingents, for the Phenomenology of Spirit, and the Philosophy of History/Art/Religion deal with such historical contingencies, but the manner is not in merely taking them as they contingently appear.
Given that in nature we do find fringe cases which defy the purity of logical concepts, however, are we really able to assert that natural beings really have such essential truth? As has been stated in the section on necessity, nature is expected to transgress concept boundaries, but this does not negate truth. Yes, nature loves to fudge boundaries, but there are indeed boundaries. We cannot just breed anything with anything, or make anything with anything, there are actual objective limits set by the things themselves. — This may be so, but what does that have to do with concepts? The concepts of things, particularly their valid concepts, give us an intelligible grasp of how and why these boundaries exist beyond merely speaking of a mere matter of world states. To say that the dog is merely a highly mediated mechanical product of the Big Bang does not really explain the fact that dogs come from dogs and produce other dogs regardless of what happened 13 billion years ago.
Additionally, having a valid concept on hand can let us judge things and persons as more or less true to not just their concept, but many other concepts as well. We may speak of dogs that are more or less ‘doggy’ without simply denying their status as dogs entirely, and we may also judge them as friends without deluding ourselves to how much of a friend they can really be. While the truths of contingent animals may in the grand picture of things seem rather inconsequential when it comes to our pets, it is not so when it comes to the ecosystems of nature, where they themselves become organs of the biosphere.
The Use of Hegelian Thinking
To give a real example of misunderstanding the use of Hegel’s logic, take for example Mr. Laurits’s dialectic of a coal mine and power plant. He writes as follows:
“A power plant ( thesis ) relies on coal from a nearby mine. The coal that produces energy is also turning the mine into an empty mine ( antithesis ) which negates it. Conflict between the opposing tendencies of plant and mine develop an internal contradiction in the system which eventually collapses to a new state that either uses a different energy-source or shuts down ( multiple synthesis possibilities ).”
Given what we know of necessary concepts as the products of the logic, the two objects do not properly count as such a concept since even as a system they have no self-necessity. As a contingent concept it rightly deserves a negative treatment to ascertain its objectivity , however, this is not what Mr. Laurits does. The erroneous formalism of thesis-antithesis-synthesis aside, he makes a mistake in thinking the problem he identifies has anything to gain from a ‘dialectical’ treatment in pure abstraction. The issue can be stated in plain English: Coal mines cannot run forever; thus, we better figure out an alternate or better source of power. Why complicate it? Why would we even bother with using the legitimate logic even if we can? We already know it is a contingent object that exists because humans will its being by simply knowing what a coal mine is on normal accounts with no Hegelian logic necessary.
Hegel’s logic is limited — very limited — however, it does not seem to be any more limited than how philosophy itself is limited. Any philosophy and logic runs the risk of becoming uselessly pedantic when thoughtlessly carried out. That said, the capacity to distinguish contingent from necessary concepts has a dual utility: negative deconstruction, and positive development. The negative deconstruction is far more general in use and shows a concept to not be necessary, which can allow us to dissolve problems which originate with invalid concepts. The sooner we grasp that we are arguing arbitrary unities, the sooner we can move towards grasping the inner unities which will account for our external ones.
Hegel’s positive system shows the origination of his concepts developed from the most abstract towards an increasing concretion. Unlike contingent deconstruction in which we can begin with virtually anything and tear it apart, the positive developments chain together necessarily, yet this necessity is only assured as valid if the entire underlying structure is valid. The reason Hegel begins with the greatest abstraction and builds up to concretion is to ensure that no invalid concept structures are possibly left as assumptions in a blind spot of our minds. This generates for us systematic concepts which allow a special type of contextualization, an organic conception, due to its internal necessity. In its highest work, Hegelian logic provides us with the very concept of valid objects we may think: the valid concepts of space, living organism, mind, etc. These concepts, being self-necessary, additionally give us a conception of why a thing is itself. A qualification is made by Hegel, however, in order to place limits on speculation: We must let the experience of humanity provide the concepts we are to consider for such logical re-construction and bring them in the order necessitated by these reconstructed concepts — that is if they enter at all. As such, there is no point in speculating on the concept of angels and the possibility of higher dimensional aliens.
Most of us, however, are not quite in the business of deriving such groundwork concepts. To give an object conception of what makes for a good Hegelian consideration, consider an ecosystem. The recognition of ecosystems as themselves living wholes which are not indifferent to their parts has come to hit us very hard in the last four decades, yet this view may have come to us sooner had we had an inkling that this was a possible reality of nature. Though we have become accustomed to the unity of animals, habitat, and climate we are now astonished yearly with discoveries of how interconnected the non-animal world is. To make such higher concepts we certainly need to have valid determining concepts, however, this does not require speaking in convoluted Hegelese. To speak of a Hegelian ecosystem is nothing strange, it is to speak of substantive actors, living organs which serve a role in the life of the whole. Predator, prey, animal, plant, decomposers, geology, climate, and more are found in ecosystems as logical possibilities at their most richly concrete.
Given all that has been covered, it is hopefully clear that the belief that ‘dialectical’ conception is automatically superior to the normal ways of conceiving is mistaken. There is little reason to consider everything under the sun of consciousness through the lens of Hegel’s logic, and to do so merely makes us bungle about with pedantry. Though we should strive for a unified understanding of the world, and thus build systems, we must also recognize when this is simply misguided at best, and simply of no use at worst. This logic, however, lives and shines with its proper objects: living self-generating, self-differentiating, and self-maintaining concrete wholes — whether these be metaphysical concepts or actual living biological or social wholes.