The 200th anniversary of Hegel’s absolute method

From the new November-December 2012 issue of News & Letters

Essay

The 200th anniversary of Hegel’s absolute method

by Ron Kelch

All revolutions, in the sciences no less than in general history, originate only in this, that the spirit of man, for the understanding and comprehension of himself, for the possessing of himself, has now altered his categories, uniting himself in a truer, deeper, more intrinsic relation with himself.

–Hegel

Today’s global search for a new world against the “dictatorship of capital” is seen in waves of revolutionary mass self-activity and organization in public squares. This global drive for freedom is happening on the 200th anniversary of Hegel’s absolute method which meant so much to Marx’s philosophy of permanent revolution. Marx’s philosophy takes on new meaning with every revolutionary event.

In 1812 Hegel made a startling proclamation, and demonstration in his Science of Logic[1] of an absolute method in which the concept (Notion) determines itself. The philosophical world and the world of revolutionary theory continue to be alternately attracted and repulsed by Hegel’s assertion in his 1812 Preface that “a given particular is not subsumed under this universal” (Science of Logic, 28) of absolute method. Rather, Hegel says, absolute method is the movement through which the particular, the given, the concrete, etc. determines itself.

Hegel

Then the dialectic is no longer a spectator sport as it was in the “introductory” Phenomenology of Spirit where the philosopher traced how consciousness, in its movement through each stage over 2,500 years, worked out the way it knows its object as itself. Hegel’s Logic starts directly with the movement of the concept, thought itself, as the organization of the historical movement of consciousness. However, Hegel’s concept, which has its own self for an object, is no mere turn inward. Rather, the freedom of the concept emerges out of this movement to engage life and spirit as a new unity of theory and practice.

MOVEMENT THROUGH THE NEGATIVE

While Hegel’s self-determination of the concept is not “mystical,” it is counterintuitive because it does not begin from “the understanding”–the particular conceptual framework through which facts emerge. Rather the conceptual framework, the paradigm, is a moment of the universal of thought’s power of the negative. The conceptual framework through which facts present themselves as given comes out of the negation of its predecessor, just as what is currently taken as the given will likewise be negated and its negation will generate a new positive, a new set of given facts. The movement through negating specific, determined content always implies a new positive and never stops. Hegel aimed to overcome the pervasive prejudice which forgets this movement of the concept and repeatedly falls back into viewing thought as a general empty negative.

In the Logic’s 1831 Preface to the second edition, a prescient Hegel asserted that thought’s movement through the negative even shapes “the empirical and natural sciences” where “the study of nature compels us to fix the categories” (Science of Logic, 32-33). Today it is commonplace to acknowledge that scientific revolutions occur through negations of given facts driving paradigm shifts. Thus, the Ptolemaic earth-centered universe gave way to the solar system and Newton’s grand synthesis. Its negation, in turn, produced Einstein’s world in which every fact is different from Newton’s world. 2012 is also the 50th anniversary of Thomas Kuhn’s groundbreakingStructure of Scientific Revolutions, after which “paradigm shift” became practically a cliche but which Kuhn proved captured a crucial moment in the true development of the most empirically oriented natural sciences.

HEGEL’S CONFRONTATION WITH KANT

In his time Hegel confronted the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant, to his credit, recognized that the Newtonian synthesis was not just about what was “out there,” but was impossible without pure categories of thought. Yet Kant was so “overawed by the object” that he stopped the dialectical movement dead with a purely thought-up abstraction, the “thing-in-itself” (Science of Logic, 51). Kant posed the “thing-in-itself” as a barrier that thought could never penetrate.

Hegel confronted the mental barrier Kant erected against revolutionizing philosophy even as the French Revolution revealed the power of thought to totally break with the old in the arena of human institutions (spirit), resulting in a new Napoleonic landscape. Hegel’s absolute method came out of soberly facing that new landscape, and the terror from which it emerged, as being no conscious realization of the positive in the power of the negative. For Hegel, such a conscious self-realization would become absolute Spirit, not as any fixity but as totally new beginnings in human freedom.

In other words, if a conceptual movement can shape the natural sciences, how much more does the negation of the negation, the positive in the power of thought’s negation of the old, hold for the human world where logic is the specifically human attribute? While logic, which for Hegel is the self-determination of the concept, is at “the very heart of things,” the concepts that shape humans’ relations with each other and with nature come within thought. Thus, thinking can move beyond “instinctive activity” to reveal the concept as “an intelligent and free act,” that is, an act “performed with awareness of what is being done.” In so doing “spirit begins to be free” (Science of Logic, 37).

MARX’S NEW BEGINNING FROM ABSOLUTE METHOD

Marx, too, begins in 1844 from what is specific to the human species–labor as free, conscious, life-affirming activity in contrast to alienated labor, reduced to a mere means to life (CW, 3:276). Distinguishing himself from Hegel, Marx insists on beginning from the concept explicitly embodied in the whole human being.

As with Hegel, this specifically human species character could only emerge in its own right as “negation of the negation” (CW, 3:329). “Positive humanism, beginning from itself” is not negatively counterposed to nature because human labor is itself a dimension of nature. Nor is positive humanism a fixed concept external to labor like collective property. It is, rather, labor which constantly transforms or negates the given state of nature as well as human nature. Only when labor is alienated does this negation express itself as a logic external to the human being like the accumulation of capital. Rather, negation that begins from positive humanism is accompanied by a negative return to self (negation of the negation) in which each one recognizes the constant expansion of human capacities in their own work, especially in cooperation with others (CW, 3:341-42).

Marx could launch such a new perspective on human liberation in total continuity with Hegel’s absolute method because method itself is subject to dialectical development. It is why Marx could say in Capital that his dialectic is the “opposite” of Hegel’s “Idea” as “creator of the world” and yet avow himself a “pupil of that mighty thinker” (Capital, 102) whose dialectic is “the source of all dialectics” (Capital, 744). At the very start of his focus on labor in the 1843 introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx warned that one “cannot abolish [Hegelian] philosophy without realizing it” (CW, 3:180). Realizing Hegel’s self-determination of the concept had a pull on Marx, from his 1841 doctoral dissertation and his first critique of Hegel to the end of his life. That was when Marx explained Hegel’s (Science of Logic, 238-313) critique of that most thought-centered of fields, mathematics, in particular the invention of calculus.

MARX’S CRITIQUE OF NEWTON

Marx

Marx’s 1881 Mathematical Manuscripts showed, against Newton’s and Leibniz’s mystical form of calculus, that calculus comes out of the “negation of the negation” of the quantum in ordinary algebra. [2] Like Hegel, Marx criticized Newton for merely using calculus as an operational extension of his theories about external planetary motion. This critique, written toward the end of Marx’s life, corroborated a central theme of Hegel’s Logic, namely that fixing the idea in an abstract materialism does not allow the idea to speak for itself, nor is it conducive to a genuine empiricism, that is, letting the world speak for itself in its absolute difference.

It wasn’t atomism (the theory that all matter is composed of individual particles) as an abstract materialist philosophy that interested Marx when, in his 1841 doctoral dissertation, he claimed Hegel missed something in the ancient atomism of Epicurus. As a young Hegelian, Marx confronted how to move forward after Hegel’s total philosophy of freedom co-existed with a world of unfreedom. Many post-Hegelians turned inward, focusing only on the inadequacy of philosophy because of its non-realization. Real progress, said Marx, would only come from “the party of the concept” which instead turned “against the inadequacy of the world which has to be made philosophical” (CW, 1:86).

What interested Marx is that Epicurus introduced the element of freedom in the atomism of Democritus where everything is the result of a mechanical necessity of atoms creating different combinations as they fall through the void. Epicurus added the dimension of freedom asserting that atoms freely “swerve” [3] into each other and mix it up.

Marx, in Capital, drew on Epicurus’ view of atomism to criticize the capitalist cult of isolated individuals operating as atoms while the thoroughly social character of their lives is determined by relations among things, commodities and capital (Capital, 172). The 1871 Paris Communards, who created a new way of organizing their lives, made it clear to Marx that the form in which reality presents itself to those who create that reality through their labor is absolutely a function of human relations.

The absolute opposite of the self-alienating commodity-form is social individuals, recognizing themselves as such through freely associated labor, that is, freely, consciously created human relations in production (Capital, 171). Further, the self-alienating commodity-form arises, not from sensuous experience, but rather from the “power of abstraction.” The “power of abstraction” specifically sets humans apart from the beasts because whenever humans engage each other and nature they do so through abstractions (Capital, 90;CW, 30:232). Any new beginning in human “atoms” freely mixing it up is, as well, a new beginning in the self-determination of the concept.

DUNAYEVSKAYA: ABSOLUTE AS NEW BEGINNING

Dunayevskaya

Hegel’s absolute method–the self-determination of the concept through the negation of the negation–underwent another development when Raya Dunayevskaya confronted the problem of “what happens after the revolution?” She was working out the meaning of the transformation of the great 1917 Russian Revolution into its opposite–a totalitarian one-party state. Absolute method never bows to a new given–especially one that is a fixed identity, like collective property. Rather, it provides a new vantage point for the future after the revolution. Far from Marxism being an external mediating force like a vanguard party to lead, absolute method is an organization of thought that can be a force for a new beginning in the conscious self-realization of the freedom idea. What is key is that the self-development of the freedom idea is seen as a dimension of the spontaneous movement.

MASSES IN MOTION: A FORM OF THEORY

For Dunayevskaya, the action of masses in motion is not just a force or content for a preexisting theory, but is itself a form of theory. That form of theory manifests the power of abstraction. The reason in mass action often undermines the dualities or paradigms which shape the prevailing view of the world. Thus, it was the Black masses in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56 that brought the U.S. out of McCarthyism and shifted the perspectives on freedom from “us vs. them” to contradictions within this country. So, too, the Hungarian revolutionaries created new Workers’ Councils and rediscovered Marx’s original humanism as a weapon against state-capitalist totalitarians calling themselves “Marxists.”

Organization that recreates Marxism for our epoch is the “party of the concept.” That “party of the concept” has to explicitly bring the creative power of the negative into the fray in a way that it does not just undermine prevailing dualities but becomes recognized in-and-for-itself. Hegel’s “self-bringing forth” of the freedom idea can be recognized as immanent in the masses’ reach for totally new human relations and self-organization in the public square. Absolute method as new beginning shapes a new unity of theory and practice insofar as a new reality created by the movement is not, once again, experienced as a given but as a moment in a permanent movement of the concept as an “intelligent and free act.”

____________

Notes:

1. Hegel’s Science of Logic (Humanities Press, 1989). Also Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (International Publishers: New York) is referenced as “CW” with the volume number and page number in the text, except for the commonly used Ben Fowkes translation of Capital (London: Penguin, 1976).

2. For a summary of Marx’s argument see The Fetish of High-tech and Karl Marx’s Unknown Mathematical Manuscripts by Ron Brokmeyer (Kelch), Raya Dunayevskaya, Franklin Dmitryev, et al, now available online at: http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/003870963

3. A new book by Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve (Norton, 2011), tells of the 15th century rediscovery of Epicurus through Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things.” This rediscovery of Lucretius’ life-celebrating ode to Epicurus, for whom death was nothing to fear, animated Renaissance humanism against the Church’s obsession with the beyond, especially death, and the suffering that will ensue if Church dictates are not followed.

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