Issue #44 September 2021

How To Pull An Ought From An Is: Hegel’s Being to Ought

Jacob Kainen, "Hesperus", 1974

Hear ye, hear ye! Ladies and gentlemen, step right up! Today only! The magic act of a lifetime!

It is attributed to Hume that he famously brought up the crux of the question of getting and an ought from an is. That is, that from what happens to be in our experienced world, we cannot conclude that what is ought to be, let alone that anything else ought to be. The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, as he is so famed for his contradictory nature, confronts Hume with a confident and amused smile as he prepares to pull out the contradiction right out of Hume’s smug judgment. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, Hegel is about to show exactly how we can pull that ought right out of that is.


The Scottsman’s Guillotine

Most of us who passingly engage philosophy are familiar that Hume famously judged that from observing that something is the case, it makes no logical sense to pass over to claim that it ought to be the case. Most understand this as referring to empirical cases, e.g. that as we see a rabbit strolling about its business, we conclude that it should be strolling about its business, or that if the world exists as it is, then it should exist as it is. We go from descriptive statements to normative statements. We can also frame this in purely abstract propositional argument: If A happens, then B happens. If A happens, then B ought to happen. Here, Hume tells us, we simply have no justification to link the is and the ought, and he is right. But this, wouldn’t you know it, is not the end of the issue.


The Equivocation of Being and Empirical Experience

Hegel seems to not care to answer Hume directly, rather he answers Kant and Fichte on the issue of the ought. In fact, Hegel almost never cares to respond to anyone directly. He never poses the question: Can we derive an ought from an is? No, instead he sets out on his own project with his own reflexive methodology, and occasionally comments when a certain concept and relevant issue has come up in the discussion developing in his thoughts. So, how does Hegel problematize Hume’s question?

First, Hegel’s treatment and immanent development of the concept of Being brings up two relevant conclusions: 1) that what is has no immediate identification to be made with the sensuous appearances experienced about an external world, i.e. there is no reason to equate the empirically immediate given with what is, and 2) that what is is not truly anything that is immediately grasped by the senses or by thought at all. Even in the realm of empirical experience, we easily understand that there is in fact a difference between what seems to be, and what actually is. Here, no greater example can be made than the famous allegory of the blind men and the elephant. Each man, appraising their immediate experience when touching, smelling, and hearing the elephant, judges that what is before them is a certain thing. One man grabs the leg and claims it is a solid pillar, one hears it toot and says it is a kind of instrument, one grabs the trunk and believes it a hose, etc. Were they to let go of their immediate intuition and pay attention to the whole, then they would know it is none of those things, but really an elephant. Even if they grasped that it is in fact an elephant, if by that they only grasp that an elephant just is that adult animal before them, they would again fall for a mere seeming. An elephant isn’t always an adult, it isn’t always alive, it isn’t always in one place and doing one thing. An elephant has a life, it has a life cycle. There is, therefore, a very real distinction to be made between what happens to be before us and how it seems to be, and what it actually is. This is important for the question of what ought to be.

With Being, Hegel shows us something regardless of what possible position we take regarding Being. If we take the Parmenedian view of Being as the immutable and unchanging, then we must conclude that immediate sensuous experience is not true Being since in examining it we find that immediate sense experience reveals everything to be contingent, mutable, and mere insubstantial vanishing. If we take an empiricist view of Being as what is experienced as particular or singular, then we must conclude that more than Being is in play, and that Being gives way to something else. Both conclusions lead us to Hegel’s path: What is is to be comprehended to in truth be something which is beyond empirical immediacies and which is grasped as a determining process underlying it, and that what is necessarily yields not merely to what it is not, but also to what it should be. To offer an intelligible argument for this double conclusion is, yes, a tall order. Nonetheless, the German Idealists are no strangers to taking on seemingly impossible tasks such as this, and Hegel is perhaps the most brazen of the travelers of the paradoxical.


From Being to Ought: What Is (Not) As What Ought To (Not) Be

If one has encountered Hegel, one has encountered Being, Nothing, and Becoming. This is, to be sure, almost entirely misunderstood in its common expositions. While not much explanation is to be given here, I shall offer a summary traversal of the issue as put forth in the Science of Logic.


From Being to… Being?

Being for Hegel is not a being, nor can it be specified as the Being of beings. It simply is; it is not something special. Just as we mean nothing special in everyday activities when we say to each other that “Here is an apple,” “Here it is,” or “It is what it is,” so too does Hegel use Being as simply the concept of positive immediacy. It is before us—it is—yet we cannot even specify it as anything, for you, I, and we are just as much as all else is. Being here is simply the ‘is’ which has not yet specified differences at all, and so for that same reason has not specified any thing whatsoever. Parmenides is famous for taking  Being as this inescapable all encompassing immutable and undifferentiated identity: All things are, and Being is what is in and as all things—in truth, Being alone is.

But against the protestations of Parmenides, Being clearly is not all there is to be said, conceived, or experienced. Hegel enjoins us to think Being, and to notice that against all belief otherwise we are forced to declare something that by the standard of Being simply should not be possible: If we enter this thought and activate its cognition, we have a failure to think—the thought fails to be—and what we have with Being is the total absence which is Nothing. With Being we have what is analogous to the indivisible zero-dimensional atom of matter, and here we attempt to split and pry into the unsplittable and unconstituted. Within the atom there are no further atoms, no building blocks, no space, no further matter—it is emptiness and matterlessness itself.  We may also think here of the one-dimensional line, wherein no attempt made will ever find width in it. The absolutely immediate, because it is immediate, has no determinate features within or outside it, for nothing is holding it neither apart from itself nor together with itself. This absence, against all who proclaim only the positivity of Being to be real, is here for us in thought itself. We cannot ignore it, we notice and announce it. The sun of Being, stared at directly, leaves us as incapable of seeing just as much as the darkest abyss would. The fact that Nothing is apparent to us is a contradiction, and yet it is simply what we naturally conceive in trying to activate the immediate immediately, and by the power of thinking we easily notice this immediate absence of thought within thought itself. We find that Being is Nothing, or that Nothing is Being just as much as they are not each other. Here Hegel again enjoins us to think, but no longer to think Being or Nothing, but to calmly and easily step back and behold their total process. We already know that we are stuck in a self-generating loop, and this circuit of thought is.  The fact of this stepping back from the dialectical circuit is the emerging of the third which they are as this circuit.

Becoming appears from the immediacy of Being and Nothing, and it appears as that which truly is enduring in and through them. What is is not the rigid and immutable immediacy, but the fluid and fluxing unseparatedness of this self-mediated immediacy. But Becoming also is not just the immediate as such. Not only does it have internal structure and dynamic with Being and Nothing, it also has an unavoidable activation as Becoming, an activation that again presents us two sides. Becoming is coming to be and ceasing to be, and each is not simply a description or operation of Being and Nothing, but also a reflexive operation of each other. That which is ceases to be and ends as Nothing, but this ceasing to be, the moment that it finishes its operation and finalizes Nothing, itself has been the coming to be of Nothing, and so itself is its own ceasing to be. The same applies to coming to be, and so what comes to be is only ceasing to be, and what ceases to be is coming to be. We here have not one singular circuit of one side going over to the other, but two circuits inverting themselves from within and never reaching across, for each moment of Becoming is a totality of the negative unity of Being and Nothing. Because they are immediately self-subverting, the moment they are they become the other, and in becoming that other they are immediately back to themselves as what they began. What is here is Becoming now self-inverted as a whole: Becoming becomes, it moves from incessant flux to quiescent stability, and the mutually opposing sides finalize themselves as follows: ceasing to be as actualized settles itself to Nothing, and coming to be as actualized settles itself to Being. In other words: When Becoming becomes, i.e. when it is allowed to actuate its operation without interference, the thought must of its own impetus settle as a non-flux, for what moves only moves because it is moving somewhere, and so all motion must resolve even if for a moment into a place in order that it be motion at all. This self-sublation of both sides of Becoming, and Becoming as a whole, is first Being and Nothing, and these, because they can no longer fall back into flux without simply coming back to themselves, stand within and beside each other as a unity of both. Being is Becoming which has come to be and so already ceased to be Nothing, and Nothing is Becoming that has ceased to be and so has ceased to be Being. Again we stand back and look upon this constancy of inconstancy: What is is not Becoming, flux, but Being and Nothing as inseparable and constant, as immediate unity which has vanished its intermediary, and so is this unity as Being which is equally non-being at once. The Being and Nothing which are now beside each other and inseparable in truth are what Hegel calls existence.

Jacob Kainen, "The Fabulous Manipulator", 1973


Being, we now see, only seemed to be. What is is not Being, but Existence, the being of non-being and the non-being of being, or in other words: The Nothingness of Being, and the Being of Nothingness. Behind the first immediacy which tempted thinking by being posited as the truth without remainder, we found that so much remained that we could not remain in the illusions of one-sided immediacy as such. We now know that the immediacy is immediate only because there are two entangled in the dancing of what is. Just as a mirage disappears as we approach it, so too has Being vanished as the immediacy which we first saw from far away in the beginning. We approached it, we engaged it, and like vaporous illusions it has yielded its truth in the clasping of our hands. What is is imperishable, it is everywhere, even in Nothing. What is the case is inescapable, we say. What is is existence. That which exists is that which steps forward from the indeterminate blinding light or shadow, and in stepping forward it is by not being this background.

Something is bubbling to the surface here—do not avert your eyes or you may miss it! The division of the worlds of the ought-to-be and the world-that-is is weakening. Just as a mirage is not the case, the immediate world we experience shows itself constantly to not be the case either, i.e. the world that is for us in common terms is in fact what we all know to be a world that is not. Those who appeal to this immediate world of the senses, those who appeal to the mere seeming of the state of the world’s affairs, are not pointing to the true being of this world. They indeed do not have justification to claim that what is ought to be, for they do not even clearly have a grasp of what truly is. But here we have not yet arrived at the self-producing identity of Being and what ought to be. Here we have only arrived at the immanent and necessary consequence that what is is existence, but ought it be existence? Ought it be anything else? If what things ought to be were already what they were, then the ought would be superfluous. But if what is is not in some way already what it ought to be, then the ought would be an impossible abstraction whose projection on the world would be a mental fiction.


Determinacy To Something

With existence we have what is, strangely, not widely acknowledged as one of the most difficult movements in the works of Hegel. This is perhaps because there is a formal appearance to the development which occludes for most readers how simple yet difficult the ordeal really is. The concept of existence up to something is full of explicitly self-referential operations which are neither found in the prior chapter nor found in the sections after. While only three genuinely operatively different concepts come into play, the way these concepts relate to each other is almost mind boggling if one tries to diagram a complete exposition.

Existence is in as much as it is not, and it is this unity. Existence therefore accents and privileges its being, its sheer immediacy, and hides its nothingness—it simply is. Insofar as existence is, however, it is not to the extent that it comes unified with Nothing beside it. Being exists precisely because it is not the Nothing beside it. The explicitness of non-being which is within this unity’s being, or the non-being which it is, is determinateness. That which exists is in virtue of its negative relation to an opposite. In the broadest sense, existence is being which stands out from the indeterminate background of immediate Being and Nothing. The distinction of existence and determinateness is stated in a way that may be confusing, for existence and determinacy are both the being of the unity of Being and Nothing, so how are they actually different? The difference can be made clear with an emphasis on the very way these concepts are distinct for us in common language. Existence not only has an accent on Being, it is virtually used as synonymous with it, and so existence refers to Being as immediate and almost as if without reference to Nothing, yet it is explicit in not being Nothing. Existence in common use is understood as pointing out a purely positive being against an implicit negative, even when that negative is the void of nothingness itself.  Determinacy, however, is Nothing which is not beside or along with Being, but is Nothing taken up into Being explicitly. Existence states explicitly only this necessary duality of Being and Nothing as bound to shadow each other, and determinateness states the explicit binding of Nothing, non-being, as internal to Being itself. In the immediacy of determinateness as such, determinateness is quality in general.

In the immediacy of existent determinateness, quality is reality as the immediate unity or being of determinateness, and it is negation as the immediate distinction or non-being of the unity of determinateness. In other words, and in so many ways one can externally reflect on them at this point, reality is the identity of the unity of Being and Nothing, and negation is the difference of the unity. Quality is therefore determinate only through being real and negated, but it is no longer mere quality just as it is not mere determinateness or mere existence. It is now existent existence, determinate determinateness, qualified quality, or negated negation. This being of the unity of reality and negation is something, the immediate being which we take as having the implied meaning of being-in-itself, for here what is in existence is existence itself.


From Something to Limit

Insofar as something is it exists, and insofar as it exists it is qualified and distinguished. The immediacy of something, however, offers to us only the poverty of this determinacy. Something existent is not merely reality, but reality which is also just as negative, and so just as something is a real unity it is also a negative distinction. The negativity of something, the distinction hidden in the positive face of immediacy, is that it is as not being the unity of reality and negation; it is their distinction, and this non-being of something is the otherness which it opposes to itself as its unreality or negation, for something’s existence requires its negation of an opposite in order to step forth as something. Something, therefore, is the other of this otherness, but in being this immediate other, it loses its being as something and is the abstract other.

Otherness, being that it is other, is not initially the other of something, but only the other of the other which opposes it, and this other is itself: the other. Therefore, it does not go outside itself as other in this relation or movement, but remains within itself, for the other outside it is the other—itself. However, if otherness returns to itself only as the same, it thereby fails to be other, it is not distinguished at all, and so it only shows itself to be something, the unity of that which is self-identical and in-itself. If in being other, however, it is other to the other, in being this it is opposed to itself as other to otherness, and so does not return to itself as other, but as something, that to which otherness is external as otherness. Something and other, therefore, fall into each other, yet also distinguish themselves from each other as mutual others which are independent only on their face.

As separate and distinguished, something and other are being-for-other in their mutual otherness and non-being. This mutual non-being is from each side the non-being of the opposed non-being,  i.e. Being by not being Nothing, reality by not being negation, something by not being the other. When being-for-other itself is, however, it is only in operating its own logic on itself. What is the other which being-for-other is other to? Another being-for-other which negates it, but just like otherness it falls immediately into its opposite. If it remains itself in this movement we find that it remains within its concept, and so it is no being-for-other, but being-in-itself. If it is being-for-other opposite a true being-for-other, what is this first to which the other is negatively for? Being-in-itself. Just as something is the necessary consequence of the otherness of the other, being-in-itself is the necessary consequence of the self-otherness of being-for-other. Another way to consider this properly is that in being-for-other the implicit condition is that there is an otherness to which a thing is other to, for were this not so there would be no being-for-other at all, and so the other to which there is an otherness to has a being which is not collapsed into and by the other, a being-in-itself.

As immediately unified reality in something, being-for-other and being-in-itself are determination in that this unity is the recollection of being-for-other as the identity with being-in-itself, as the total process of the dialectic, as negation of negation, for what is in-itself is this being-for-other. This concept makes explicit that what is in something is also its being-for-other, i.e. that insofar as it is-for-other it is to that extent in-itself precisely as the non-being of this otherness, or in other words, as the being-for-other of being-for-other. As a reality and as in something, determination covers over its inherent negativity and appears only as the positive immediate. We say: ‘I have the determination to be X.’ By this we are not speaking of the concept of determinism, rather, we are stating that something is within us, not as an abstraction of an indeterminate in-itself, but as a something which definitively holds itself against the external world, and further, actively resists this external world’s setbacks on the realization of this determination. To have determination is to declare one resistant if not unshakeable and indifferent to the otherness of the world.

But if what is in something is in it, it also for that reason distinguishes itself as inner from something as outer, and so it is other to it, is not truly in it, but is outside it.—This is attested by empirical experience in the very fact that we experience our inner lives as external to ourselves when our conscious will and unconscious desires and mental events do not cohere.—Determination as the determinateness of being-in-itself uptaking being-for-other therefore passes of its own existence into its otherness, into constitution, for what is in something now can only be by virtue of what is outside it, by negating this otherness and so becoming an otherness itself. As constitution, however, being-for-other has outside it being-in-itself, but this distinction is precisely the otherness of being-for-other in which what is is by not being, and so being-in-itself is not outside being-for-other precisely because it is the being-for-other of it, and so it is in it. That which has in-it what is for-other, however, is determination.

Once more the dialectic is recollected, and determination and constitution’s cycle is grasped as limit. Limit is peculiar in that unlike something, its immediate accent is not of being, but of non-being. Through limit, something sets the non-being of its other, but in doing so it also is impinged with non-being by this other which is itself something, and so is itself limited. Since the other is something and the something is just as much an other, as something both face their true other in the limit which determines and constitutes them alike and at once as their being through non-being. Something both is and is not through the limit, is in and outside it, yet this is precisely why the limit is the true other, for something finds its being and non-being inside and outside this limit, and while not immediately this limit, it nonetheless is only through its internally negative relation to the limit. The other, however, we know to already be internal to something, and so the limit is not outside it nor originating from an alien power, but within it as its own production. Without the limit something and other fall away as indistinct and return to existence in general. The limit falls just as much outside something as it does within it, and is itself limited by the something which it splits apart into the constituted and determined, each appearing as two sides outside the limit, as others, and so equally as somethings. As such, something reveals the limit as internal to it, and the limit reveals itself as the negative unity of something with something, i.e. of something with itself. The limit as limit is only as the negative unity of something and other, of determination and constitution, and so falls apart as them. This dialectic recollected, the limited something is the concept of the finite as such.

Jacob Kainen, Untitled, 1971

The Finite

The finite as such is contradictory, for it declares itself as non-being, the standpoint which privileges the negativity of something as inherently limited and which comes to be and ceases to be. The finite if first determinate as restriction and ought.

In simplified and direct terms, restriction is the concept of something negated by its limit, and the ought is the something’s determination which sets itself as the positive against and beyond this limited being. In the terms of everydayness we can and must say: As what is is n0t what it ought to be, and stands restricted in becoming it, what ought to be likewise is restricted in not being what is. We hold the ought as a superior truth, a higher reality compared to what is, yet how can we believe this when the ought is also restricted to nonbeing just as much as restriction itself is?

The negative unity of limit and something’s determination is restriction, for here determination refers negatively to its limit as internal yet other to itself—a repetition of the initial logic of something as otherness which is other to otherness. The immediate unity of determination and limit, in which determination is itself a limit to limit (limit here references itself in this reflexive operation), the unity wherein they are identical and positive self-reference which is in-itself, is the ought—a repetition of the logic of something which has being-in-itself as positive being against being-for-other as a merely negative being. Stated this way the development may be correct, but it is not true to the concepts as immanently linked to each other. Restriction, being that it is restricted, must be restricted by an other. This other which is immediately beside it as its seeming positive (for restriction is clearly emphasizing the negative), is the ought. An image of what is meant may be this: a rubber balloon’s surface restricts the air within it, but the air also restricts the rubber surface. Which is the restriction, and which is the ought in the balloon is all a matter of perspective.

Restriction itself, insofar as it is, is itself restricting of an opposing other as well as restricted by it, i.e. in being limited it also limits what limits it. However, if restriction remains itself in being constituted by this other restriction, it is then not restricted by a limiting other, for the other is itself (restriction), and so what restricts restriction is restriction itself—it is then not constituted at all, its other is merely itself, and it in fact has this otherness in-itself as its own self, and so its restriction stands as its determination. Determination is a positive inner content, and restriction, being restricted, passes over to the other (restriction) only to return to itself again, and so it reveals that it (restriction) in fact is what it ought to be precisely as restriction. In other words, when a restriction is restricted and not absolute it must pass through and over itself as a constituting limit, as restriction, and so transcends itself as restriction, shows itself to be within itself all along, and so it is in-itself and not constituted, but is the positive being which is what it ought to be, and to be restricted is its positive determination and what it ought to be.

If restriction were immediately absolute, it would be unrestricted since it would not be bound through existence to a negative other, it would have no limit, and so would no longer be restriction at all, it would not exist, but we already know where this leads. If restriction is or is not, it exists, and it is something faced with the other as limit. Restriction is what it is precisely because it is restricted by the ought beside it, however, this ought is likewise restricted by restriction which in turn appears as the ought to the ought. What is is restricted and ought to be other than it is, but what ought to be likewise ought to be other than it is as a non-being, it should be what is, and so it is restricted precisely because it is not already what is, what it ought to be. Both restriction and ought are mutually limited and limiting. But if restriction truly is what it is, then it is restricted and not absolute, thus it passes over itself into its beyond, and the ought likewise passes over into its beyond as the restricted negative existent.

Here, we have done it. What is is now what ought to be. Let us take some concrete examples from Hegel to flesh out the meaning of how this makes sense.


The Concreteness of Movement From Restriction and The Ought

“The ought has of late played a major role in philosophy, especially in connection with morality but also in metaphysics in general, as the final and absolute concept of the identity of the in-itself or of self-reference, and of determinateness or the limit. . . . “You can because you ought.” This expression, which is supposed to say a lot, is implied in the concept of the ought. For the ought is the transcendence of restriction; restriction is sublated in it, the in-itself of the ought is thus identical self-reference, and consequently the abstraction of “being able.” – But, conversely, “you cannot, even though you ought” is just as correct. For the restriction as restriction is equally implied in the ought; the one formalism of possibility has in it a reality, a qualitative otherness, that stands opposed to it, and the connection of each to the other is a contradiction, and thus a “cannot” or rather an impossibility.”

Hegel, Science of Logic §21.121, Cambridge trn.


“If, however, a concrete existence contains the concept not merely as abstract in-itselfness, but as a totality existing for itself, as instinct, life, sensation, representation, and so forth, it itself then brings about, by itself, this transcendence and this transcending. The plant transcends the restriction of being a seed, similarly, of being blossom, fruit, leaf; the seed becomes the developed plant, the blossom fades, and so forth. In the grip of hunger, thirst, and so forth, the sentient is the impulse to transcend this restriction, and it does transcend it.”

As Hegel states in the quotes above, the plant transcends its restriction as seed, and the thirsty animal transcends the restriction which manifests as thirst—all of this happens every day with no great effort on the part of Nature, let alone on the part of Spirit. The meaning is clear: When something truly appears as a limit, i.e. as a restriction, it is because the being which feels and is conscious of this restriction is already at an ontological level beyond such restriction, and further, the restriction is manifesting so that it be transcended into its ought. Were the plant seed fully what it ought to be, then it would not be restricted and would have no impetus to become anything more, but precisely because restriction would not arise immanently, for it it would also fail to be what it ought to be, perhaps not as seed, but as the realization of absolute being: free and self-determining.

It is here with the finite as such that the obstinate limit that supposedly eternally divides the is and the ought is brought to its absolute divide and absolute collapse. What is and what ought to be are indeed not one, cannot be one, and will never be one and the same. The restricted as restricted is what it ought to be, but the ought as what ought to be is restricted by positing itself against the restricted existent. What is becomes what it ought to be precisely because what it ought to be is internal to what it is, and what it is is the becoming of what it ought to be. We, the thinker, did not have to force anything upon Being so that it traverse existence to the Infinite. The seed is what it is only in the fulfillment of its conditions of soil and water, and precisely because these trigger the activation of its true being does it develop into the mature plant by no external force. A seed ought to grow into a tree, and precisely because of this it will, but precisely because of this it has not and may never do so. As the ought, the tree it is immanent to it, but as the finite stage of the seed it is restricted from immediately achieving this fulfillment at the moment of the seed.

The negative side of the unity and identity of restriction and ought, however, is that what is truly limited can not for that reason ever overcome this limit. This judgment and state of being, however, is only for a truly finite thing. When something or someone (a conscious subject) is fully bounded by a limit, this limit will never come to exist for it in its perspective. The rock will never experience its immobile and silent life as a fetter, the stupid person will never experience their stupidity as an object of awareness, and a microbe will never experience their thoughtlessness as a problem. Such a limit which does not appear is an infinite limit, and the beyond of this restriction, the ought which it should be, shall for this reason never come to be in this restricted being. Nature ought to be conscious and free, but it is not and will not be so long as it remains mere Nature. But Nature for this same reason shows that it ought to be precisely this restricted being, for if it were capable of being more it would of its own nature rise above it. Conditions have arisen in Nature, however, for conscious and thinking beings to attain embodiment with brains fit for universal free cognition, and they are the proof that Nature was always already capable of more just as Being is not mere immediacy. Because Being is in truth dynamic Becoming, what is has no problem in becoming what it ought, for what it ought to be is that becoming of its purpose!

From the hat of Being we have pulled the rabbit of what ought to be! The procedure has been entirely before your eyes, nothing is hidden from view. Who dares to say that what has been carried out ought to have been carried out otherwise? The presentation is what it truly is, dear audience! Adieu!

Antonio Wolf is a former philosophy student, and continuing autodidact. Currently he’s focusing on Hegel. He authors a blog, the Empyrean Trail, which tries to expound Hegel’s philosophy to make it accessible without watering it down.


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