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114. Now these arguments for the existence of change in the
method are also arguments for supposing that the change will
be continuous. There is reason to expect a change in the method


whenever we have advanced a step towards truth. But we
advance towards truth, not only when we pass from one chief
division of the Logic to another, but whenever we pass from
category to category, however minute a subdivision of the pro-
cess they may represent. It would therefore seem that it is to
be expected that the method would change after each category,
and that no two transitions throughout the dialectic would
present quite the same type. However continuous the change
of conclusions can be made, it is likely that the change of method
will be equally continuous.

It may also be noted that the three doctrines themselves form
a triad, and that in the same way the three divisions of each
doctrine, and the three subdivisions of each division, form a
triad. The similarity of constitution which exists between the
larger and smaller groups of categories may perhaps be some
additional reason for anticipating that the smaller transitions
will exert on the method an influence similar to that of the larger
transitions, although, of course, less in amount.

115. We may therefore, I think, fairly arrive at the con-
clusion, in the first place, that the dialectic process does and must
undergo a progressive change, and, in the second place, that this
change is as much continuous as the process of the dialectic
itselfi. Another question now arises. Has the change in the
method destroyed its validity? The ordinary proofs relate only
to the type characteristic of Being, which, as we have now found
reason to believe, is only found in its purity in the very first triad
of all. Does the gradual change to the types characteristic of
Essence and the Notion make any difference in the justification
of the method as a whole?

This question must be answered in the negative. The process
has lost none of its cogency. It consisted, according to the earliest
type, of a search for completeness, and of a search for harmony
between the elements of that completeness, the two stages being
separate. Later on we have the same search for completeness

1 Note to Second Edition. The change occurs in the characteristics men-
tioned in Section 108, and also in those mentioned in Section 109, except the
characteristic that the direct transition to the synthesis is from the antithesis
alone, and not from both thesis and antithesis. This caimot be continuous,
and is found in all the stages after the first.


and for harmony, but both objects are attained by a single
process. In Being, the inadequacy of the thesis led on to the
antithesis. Each of these ideas was regarded as an immediate
and self-centred whole. On the other hand each of them implied
the other, since they were complementary and opposite sides of
the truth. This brought about a contradiction, which had to be
reconciled by the introduction of the synthesis. Now the change
in the process has the effect of gradually dropping the inter-
mediate stage, in which the two sides of the whole are regarded
as incompatible and yet as inseparably connected. In the stage
of Essence, each category has a reference in its own nature to
those which come before and after it. When we reach the anti-
thesis therefore, we have already a sort of anticipation of the
synthesis, since we recognise that the two sides are connected
by their own nature, and not merely by external reasoning. Thus
the same step by which we reach the idea complementary to our
starting-point, and so gain completeness, does something towards
joining the two extremes in the harmony which we require of
them. For, when we have seen that the categories are in-
herently connected, we have gone a good way towards the per-
ception that they are not incompatible. The harmony thus
attained in the antithesis is however only partial, and leaves a
good deal for the synthesis to do. In the Notion, the change is
carried further. Here we see that the whole meaning of the
category resides in the transition, and the whole thesis is really
summed up in the antithesis, for the meaning of the thesis is
now only the production of the antithesis, and it is absorbed
and transcended in it. In fact the relation of thesis, antithesis
and synthesis would actually disappear in the typical form of
process belonging to the Notion, for each term would be the
completion of that which was immediately before it, since all
the reality of the latter would be seen to be in its transition to
its successor. This never actually happens, even in the final triad
of the whole system. For the characteristic type of the Notion
represents the process as it would be when it started from a
perfectly adequate premise. When, however, the premise, the
explicit idea in the mind, became perfectly adequate and true,
we should have rendered explicit the whole concrete idea, and


the object of the dialectic process would be attained, so that it
could go no further. The typical process of the Notion is there-
fore an ideal, to which the actual process approximates more
and more closely throughout its course, but which it can only
reach at the moment when it stops completed.

116. The process always seeks for that idea which is logically
required as the completion of the idea from which it starts. At
first the complementary idea presents itself as incompatible with
the starting-point, and has to be independently harmonised with
it. Afterwards the complementary idea is at once presented as
in harmony with the original idea in which it is implied. All
the change lies in the fact that two operations, at first distinct,
are fused into one. The argument of the dialectic all through is,
If we start with a valid idea, all that is implied in it is valid,
and also everything is valid that is required to avoid a con-
tradiction between the starting-point and that which we reach
by means of the starting-point. As we approximate to the end
of the process, we are able to see, implied in the idea before us,
not merely a complementary and contradictory idea on the same
level, but an idea which at once complements and transcends
the starting-point. The second idea is here from the first in
harmony with the idea which it complements. But its justifica-
tion is exactly the same as that of the antithesis in the Being-
type of the process — that is, that its truth is necessarily involved
in the truth of an idea which we have already admitted to be
valid. And thus if we are satisfied with the cogency of the earlier
forms of the process, we shall have no reason to modify our
beUef on account of the change of method.

117. We may draw several important conclusions with regard
to the general nature of the dialectic, from the manner in which
the form changes as it advances towards completion. The first
of these is one which we may fairly attribute to Hegel himself,
since it is evident from the way in which he deals with the
categories, although it is not explicitly noticed by him. This is
the subordinate place held by negation in the whole process. We
have already observed that the importance of negation in the
dialectic is by no means primary^. In the first place Hegel's

1 Chap. I. Section 9.



Logic is very far from resting, as is supposed by some critics,
on the violation of the law of contradiction. It rather rests on
the impossibility of violating that law, and on the necessity of
finding, for every contradiction, a reconciliation in which it
vanishes. And not only is the idea of negation destined always
to vanish in the synthesis, but even its temporary introduction
is an accident, though an inevitable accident. The motive force
of the process lies in the discrepancy between the concrete and
perfect idea implicitly in our minds, and the abstract and imper-
fect idea explicitly in our minds, and the essential characteristic
of the process is in the search of this abstract and imperfect idea,
not after its negation as such, but after its complement as such. Its
complement is, indeed, its contrary, because a relatively concrete
category can be analysed into two direct contraries, and therefore
the process does go from an idea to its contrary. But it does not
do so because it seeks denial, but because it seeks completion.

But this can now be carried still further. Not only is the
presence of negation in the dialectic a mere accident, though a
necessary one, of the gradual completion of the idea. We are
now led to consider it as an accident which is necessary indeed
in the lower stages of the dialectic, but which is gradually
ehminated in proportion as we proceed further, and in proportion
as the materials from which we start are of a concrete and
adequate character. For in so far as the process ceases to be
from one extreme to another extreme equally one-sided, both
of which regard themselves as permanent, and as standing in
a relation of opposition towards one another, and in so far as it
becomes a process from one term to another which is recognised
as in some degree mediated by the first, and as transcending it
— in so far the negation of each category by the other disappears.
For it is then recognised that in the second category there is
no contradiction to the first, because, in so far as the change has
been completed, the first is found to have its meaning in the
transition to the second.

The presence of negation, therefore, is not only a mere accident
of the dialectic, but an accident whose importance continuously
decreases as the dialectic progresses, and as its subject-matter
becomes more fully understood.


118. We now come to a fresh question, of very great im-
portance. We have seen that in the dialectic the relation of the
various finite ideas to one another in different parts of the pro-
cess is not the same — the three categories of Being, Not-Being,
and Becoming standing in different relations among themselves
to those which connect Life, Cognition, and the Absolute Idea.
Now the dialectic process professes to do more than merely
describe the stages by which we mount to the Absolute Idea —
it also describes the nature of that Idea itself. In addition to
the information which we gain about the latter by the definition
given of it at the end of the dialectic, we also know that it
contains in itself as elements or aspects all the finite stages of
thought, through which the dialectic has passed before reaching
its goal. It is not something which is reached by the dialectic,
and which then exists independently of the manner in which
it was reached. It does not reject all the finite categories as
absolutely false, but pronounces them to be partly false and
partly true, and it sums up in itself the truth of all of them.
They are thus contained in it as moments. What relation do
these moments bear to one another in the Absolute Idea?

We may, in the first place, adopt the easy and simple solution
of saying that the relation they bear to one another, as moments
in the Absolute Idea, is just the same as that which they bear
to one another, as finite categories in the dialectic process. In
this case, to discover their position in the Absolute Idea, it is
only necessary to consider the dialectic process, not as one which
takes place in time, but as having a merely logical import. The
process contemplated in this way will be a perfect and complete
analysis of the concrete idea which is its end, containing about
it the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And
this, apparently, would have been Hegel's answer, if the question
had been explicitly proposed to him. For he undoubtedly asserts
that the dialectic expresses the deepest nature of objective

119. But this conclusion seems open to doubt. For the change
of method results, as we have seen, from a gradually growing
perception of the truth which is at the bottom of the whole
dialectic — the unreality of any finite category as against its


synthesis, since the truth and reality of each category consists
only in its reference to the next, and in its passage onwards to
it. If this was not true all through the dialectic, there could be
no dialectic at all, for the justification of the whole process is
that the truth of the thesis and the antithesis is contained in
the synthesis, and that in so far as they are anything else but
aspects of the synthesis they are false and deceptive. This then
must be the true nature of the process of thought, and must
constitute the real meaning and essence of the dialectic. Yet
this is only explicitly perceived in the Notion, and at the end
of the Notion — or rather, as I pointed out above, we never attain
to complete perception of it, but only approximate towards it
as our grasp of the subject increases. Before this the categories
appear always as, in their own nature, permanent and self-
centred, and the breaking down of this self-assertion, and the
substitution for it of the knowledge that truth is only found in
the synthesis, appears as opposed to what went before, and as
in contradiction to it, although a necessary and inevitable con-
sequence of it. But if this were really so, the dialectic process
would be impossible. If there really were any independent
element in the lower categories, or any externality in the recon-
ciliation, that reconciliation could never be complete and the
dialectic could never claim, as it undoubtedly does claim, to sum
up all the lower elements of truth.

The very existence of the dialectic thus tends to prove that
it is not in every sense objectively correct. For it would be
impossible for any transition to be made, at any point in the
process, unless the terms were really related according to the
type belonging to the Notion. But no transition in the dialectic
does take place exactly according to that type, and most of them
according to types substantially different. We must therefore
suppose that the dialectic does not exactly represent the truth,
since if the truth were as it represents it to be, the dialectic
itself could not exist. There must be in the process, besides that
element which actually does express the real notion of the tran-
sition, another element which is due to the inadequacy of our
finite thought to express the character of the reality which we
are trying to describe.


This agrees with what was said above — that the change of
method is no real change, but only a rearrangement of the
elements of the transition. It is, in fact, only a bringing out
explicitly of what is implicitly involved all along. In the lower
categories our data, with their false appearance of independence,
obscure and confuse the true meaning of the dialectic. We can
see that the dialectic has this true meaning, even among these
lower categories, by reflecting on what is implied in its existence
and success. But it is only in the later categories that it becomes
explicit. And it must follow that those categories in which it is
not yet explicit do not fully represent the true nature of thought,
and the essential character of the transition from less perfect to
more perfect forms.

120. The conclusion at which we are thus compelled to arrive
must be admitted, I think, to have no warrant in Hegel. Hegel
would certainly have admitted that the lower categories, re-
garded in themselves, gave views of reality only approximating,
and, in the case of the lowest, only very slightly approximating,
to truth. But the procession of the categories, with its advance
through oppositions and reconciliations, he apparently regarded
as presenting absolute truth — as fully expressing the deepest
nature of pure thought. From this, if I am right, we are forced,
on his own premises, to dissent. For the true process of thought
is one in which each category springs out of the one before it,
not by contradicting it, but as an expression of its truest sig-
nificance, and finds its own truest significance, in turn, by passing
on to another category. There is no contradiction, no opposition,
and, consequently, no reconciliation. There is only development,
the rendering explicit what was implicit, the growth of the seed
to the plant. In the actual course of the dialectic this is never
attained. It is an ideal which is never quite realised, and from
the nature of the case never can be quite realised. In the dialectic
there is always opposition, and therefore always reconciliation.
We do not go straight onward, but more or less from side to side.
It seems inevitable, therefore, to conclude that the dialectic does
not completely and perfectly express the nature of thought.

This conclusion is certainly startling and paradoxical. For
the validity of the dialectic method for any purpose, and its


power of adequately expressing the ultimate nature of thought,
appear to be so closely bound up together, that we may easily
consider them inseparable. The dialectic process is a distinctively
Hegelian idea. Doubtless the germs of it are to be found in
Fichte and elsewhere ; but it was only by Hegel that it was fully
worked out and made the central point of a philosophy. And in
80 far as it has been held since, it has been held substantially
in the manner in which he stated it. To retain the doctrine, and
to retain the idea that it is of cardinal importance while denying
that it adequately represents the nature of thought, looks like
a most unwarranted and gratuitous distinction between ideas
which their author held to be inseparable.

Yet I cannot see what alternative is left to us. For it is Hegel
himself who refutes his own doctrine. The state to which the
dialectic, according to him, gradually approximates, is one in
which the terms thesis, antithesis, and synthesis can have no
meaning. For in this state there is no opposition to create the
relation of thesis and antithesis, and, therefore, no reconciliation
of that opposition to create a synthesis. "The elements distin-
guished are without more ado at the same time declared to be
identical with one another, and with the whole. . . .The other which
the notion sets up is in reality not another^." Now, nowhere in
the dialectic do we entirely get rid of the relation of thesis, anti-
thesis, and synthesis ; even in the final triad of the process there
are traces of it. The inference seems inevitable that the dialectic
cannot fully represent, in any part of its movement, the real
and essential nature of pure thought. The only thing to be done
is to consider whether, with this important limitation, the pro-
cess has any longer a claim to any real significance, and, if so,
to how much? I shall endeavour to show that its importance can
scarcely be said to have diminished at all.

121. Since the dialectic, if the hypothesis I have advanced
be correct, does not adequately represent the nature of pure
thought itself, although it does represent the inevitable course
our minds are logically bound to follow, when they attempt to
deal with pure thought, it follows that it must be in some degree
subjective. We hav^ now to determine exactly the meaning in
1 Enc, Section 161.


which we are using this rather ambiguous word. On the one
hand it is clear that the dialectic is not subjective in that sense
in which the word has been defined as meaning "that which is
mine or yours." It is no mere empirical description or generalisa-
tion. For, whatever view we may hold with regard to the success
or failure of the dialectic in apprehending the true nature of
thought, it will not at all affect the question of its internal
necessity, and of its cogency for us. The dialectic is not an account
of what men have thought, or may think. It is a demonstration
of what they must think, provided they wish to deal with Hegel's
problem at all, and to deal with it consistently and truly.

On the other hand, we must now pronounce the dialectic
process to be subjective in this sense — that it does not fully
express the essential nature of thought, but obscures it more or
less under characteristics which are not essential. It may not
seem very clear at first sight how we can distinguish between
the necessary course of the mind when engaged in pure thought,
which the dialectic method, according to this hypothesis, is
admitted to be, and the essential nature of thought, which it is
not allowed that it can adequately express. What, it may be
asked, is the essential nature of thought, except that course
which it must and does take, whenever we think?

We must remember, however, that according to Hegel thought
can only exist in its complete and concrete form — that is, as
the Absolute Idea. The import of our thought may be, and of
course often is, a judgment under some lower category, but our
thought itself, as an existent fact, distinguished from the meaning
it conveys, must be concrete and complete. For to stop at any
category short of the complete whole involves a contradiction,
and a contradiction is a sign of error. Now our judgments can
be, and often are, erroneous. And so we can, and do, make judg-
ments which involve a contradiction. But there would be no
meaning in saying that a fact is erroneous, and therefore, if we
find a contradiction in any judgment, we know that it cannot
be true of facts. It follows that, though it is unquestionably
true that we can predicate in thought categories other than the
highest, and even treat them as final, it is no less certain that
we cannot, with complete truth, explain thought, any more than


any other aspect of reality, by any category but the Absolute

This explains how it is possible for the actual and inevitable
course of thought not to express fully and adequately its own
nature. For thought may be erroneous or deceptive, when it is
treating of thought, as much as when it is treating of any other
reality. And it is possible that under certain circumstances the
judgment expressed in our thoughts may be inevitably erroneous
or deceptive. If these judgments have thought as their subject-
matter we shall then have the position in question — that the
necessary course of thought will fail to express properly its own

122. The mistake, as we have already noticed, comes from
the fact that, whereas the logical relations, which form the
content of the Absolute Idea, and express the true nature of
thought, consist in a direct development in which each term
only exists in the transition to another, the actual process,
on the other hand, is one from contrary to contrary, each of
which is conceived as possessing some stability and indepen-
dence. The reason of this mistake lies in the nature of the process,
which is one from error to truth. For while error remains in our
conclusions, it must naturally afTect our comprehension of the
logical relations by which those conclusions are connected, and
induce us to suppose them other than they are. In particular,
the mistake may be traced to the circumstance that the dialectic
starts with the knowledge of the part, and from this works up
to the knowledge of the whole. This method of procedure is
always inappropriate in anything of the nature of an organism.
Now the relation of the moments of the Absolute Idea to the
whole of which they are parts is still more close and intimate than
is the relation of the parts of a living organism to the organism
itself. And here, therefore, even more than with organisms, will
it be inadequate and deceptive to endeavour to comprehend the
whole from the standpoint of the part. And this is what the
dialectic, as it progresses, must necessarily do. Consequently,
not only are the lower categories of the dialectic inadequate
when taken as ultimate, but their relation to each other is
not the relation which they have in the Absolute Idea, and


consequently in all existence. These relations, in the dialectic,
represent more or less the error through which the human mind
is gradually attaining to the truth. They do not adequately
represent the relations existing in the truth itself. To this extent,
then, the dialectic is subjective.

123. And the dialectic is also to be called subjective because

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Online LibraryJohn McTaggart Ellis McTaggartStudies in the Hegelian dialectic → online text (page 14 of 26)