Negation and Negativity

“Hegel is willing to say some extraordinary things about the concept he sometimes calls ‘negation’, sometimes ‘negativity’. What he has been taken to mean has been the source of most of the criticism of Hegel: that he confused logical negation with actual opposition, as in the oppositions of forces or magnitudes in general in the world; that he thought everything in the world contradicted itself, and so believed that pairs of contradictory judgments could both be affirmed; or simply that what he said about negation and contradiction cannot be coherently understood. And any commentator must face the fact that he invoked the notion of negation in many different contexts in many different ways. So the first task is to have in view that variety of contexts before we can understand what they all might have in common (if anything)” (Pippin, Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 139).

Some time ago I touched on the most elementary parts of this thorny issue in Contradiction vs Polarity. My basic sense at this point is that Hegel does indeed have very worthwhile things to say on this very distinctive theme of his, but that the standard connotations of his core vocabulary for talking about it — negation, negativity, contradiction — are so impoverished relative to what he really means in his extensive and varied metaphorical uses of it that the vocabulary does not communicate well.

Pippin identifies five somewhat overlapping contexts that ought to be taken into account in a serious interpretation of Hegelian negation: the nature of thinking; the talk about freedom; the nature of intelligibility; the notion of speculative truth; and the talk about contradiction.

In the context of the nature of thinking, he says “In the simplest sense, we are talking about the logical structure of apperceptive intentional knowledge, as well as the ontological status of agency. What it means to claim that the intelligibility of any content of empirical knowledge is not… wholly ‘positive’… is best understood by contrast. If it were not so and were wholly positive, subjectivity would be something like a mere complex registering and responding device (of the same ontological status as a thermometer) ” (p. 141).

“As we have seen, one is not simply wholly absorbed in the presence of the world to one, not wholly and merely reactive to the stimulation of sensibility, and that ‘not’ is the beginning (but certainly not the end) of all the logical issues of negation that emerge in Hegel’s philosophy, at both the phenomenological and the logical level. In making such a judgment I ‘negate’ the mere immediacy or givenness of perceptual content, negate it as immediate and putatively given, and take up, am always taking up, a position of sorts about what is there, what is the case” (p. 142).

The suggestion is that all “taking” of things to be thus-and-such for Hegel implicitly involves a negation of immediacy.

“What thinking is is such a ‘negation’ of one’s immediate ‘positive’ state. (One can say: this negation of mere immediacy is ‘taking a stand’, rather than being put into a state.) Any thinking could be a seeming-to-be-the-case, not what is the case, and that possibility is constitutive of the act’s being a judging in the first place…. The constitutive feature attended to in a Hegelian philosophical logic is the fact that judgments are potentially responsive to reasons and revisions just qua judgments” (ibid).

Pippin thus cites responsiveness to reasons as another non-obvious instance of negation for Hegel.

“And in being an agent, I am not simply causally responsive to inclinations and desires; there is no ‘fullness of positive being’ here either. I interrupt or negate positive being (what I feel inclined to do, experience as wanting to do) by deliberating and resolving what to do” (p. 143).

Deliberation is another non-obvious instance.

“As noted before, the closest first and general approximation of what he means is Aristotelian: subjectivity (thinking and acting according to norms) is the distinct being-at-work… of the biological life form that is the human, reason-responsive substance; this in the same sense in which Aristotle says, if the eye were body, seeing would be its form, its distinctive being-at work” (ibid).

Subjectivity in general is another.

“Instead of thinking of the fundamental act of understanding as a synthesis of independent, originally unrelated elements, either by subsuming an individual under a concept, or by including one concept under another, we should understand ourselves, both in experience and in logical reflection, beginning with ‘wholes’, never with experiential or logical subsentential simples [individual words] or atoms” (pp. 143-144).

Hegel presents this last point as a sort of inversion of Kant, and it does speak to some of Kant’s language. But I would argue that the true starting point of Kantian synthesis is not experiential or logical atoms, but rather the sensible manifold in intuition, which is only potentially differentiable. This brings Kant closer to Hegel. True, the manifold has such a loose unity that arguably it might have trouble qualifying as a “whole”, but even less does it consist in already predifferentiated “atoms”. In Kant I think we have no basis for identifying putative atoms in experience until “after” the figurative synthesis of imagination has done its work. (It is the preconscious, in a non-Kantian sense “spontaneous” figurative synthesis that for Kant creates an inevitable gap between being and thinking, and that for Hegel gives us the fixed representations relied upon by common sense.)

In the context of freedom, Pippin says that “In the same way that judging, insofar as it is genuine, holds open the possibility of its negation or disconfirmation, just by being judging, not by virtue of any second, reflective act…, a deliberation about action, if it is to be a deliberation, is open to the force of reasons the agent has already accepted by deliberating at all, a possibility criterial for his acting at all…. [Hegel] is insisting on the logical or categorical requirements of the normative, and in that sense (the sense in which freedom is normatively constrained judgment and rational action), the negative (here only the possibility of not doing what I am powerfully inclined to do) is ‘that by which a person is free’. (And he does not mean any uncaused causality, but that which counts to the subject as a reason” (p. 147).

Normativity in general thus counts as depending on a kind of negation.

“In terms of the structure of the Logic, what Hegel will want to argue is that we cannot adequately explain freedom if we consider just a determinate property that some beings happen to have…, and we cannot explain it either as a kind of essential ideal, manifest in but never adequately expressed in its appearances, in concrete individual actions…. We need the logic of the Concept, in which concepts are said to ‘give themselves their own content’ and be ‘self-determining’ in a way indebted to [the] Kantian claim on self-legislation…. Any philosophical determination of actuality must be understood as ‘self-legislating’ in the broad sense [that] reason relies only on itself in determining such a normative structure. These are not empirical questions. There is no flash of ‘essence intuition’ (Wesenschau) giving access to a world of abstract immaterial objects, essences” (p. 148).

Self-legislation too involves some subtle kind of negation.

In the context of the nature of intelligibility, Pippin says “Every determination of every sort of content in the Logic is a negation of some insufficient determinacy that must be able to be conceived positively” (p. 153). This is another way of characterizing the basis of the notorious “movement” in Hegel’s logic.

The determination of content for sure involves negation.

In the context of speculative truth, he mentions that “[E]valuative judgments, like ‘this action is good’, or our familiar ‘this is a bad house’, will be paradigmatic examples of judgment in the logic of the Concept. They do not qualitatively specify a thing by distinguishing it from other things; they do not identify the appearances that show the ‘essence’ of the thing; they understand the content ‘in terms of its concept'” (p. 154).

Evaluation of anything against its concept is another subtle variety.

In the context of the notorious “contradiction”, Pippin says “So in a general sense, one has to say that a thing… ‘includes’ its contrary, or more precisely its relation to its contrary, in order to be, and be known to be, what it is. Neither of these ‘moments’ of negation involves contradiction in the Aristotelian sense because ‘is’ and ‘is not’, while said of the same thing and at the same time, are not meant in the same sense. But Hegel wants for various reasons to call such an analyzed state a ‘contradiction’, and there is some ground in the use of the term for saying that…. In the simplest sense, personifying the process, what someone intends to say, means to say, can be ‘contradicted’ by what is actually said, what he finds he has to or can say” (p. 156).

Evaluation of any outcome against intent is another.

Pippin notes that Hegel says retrospectively at the end of the Logic that the abstract treatment typical of the logic of being and the logic of essence is due to “mere opinion” or lack of awareness of what it is actually treating. “It cannot say what it means to say” (p. 157). This is yet another way of characterizing the Logic‘s “movement”.

Logical “movement” is another.

“Hegel’s speculative notion of contradiction is not predicate or sentence negation…. [H]e means to focus attention on concept negation…. Now concepts, understood as rules, have content by being understood to have the content that they have. To understand a rule is to know how to use it, and in using it, to know one is following it…. So understanding… is not… ‘grasping a content’ but understanding what the rule instructs us to think. That is, the concept is always already a moment of discursive activity, a thinking through of its implications” (pp. 158-159).

“[T]he considerations discussed so far should not be understood to be matters of formal clarity…. As Hegel insisted, we are not studying how we think about (or talk about) matters (or even how we ‘must’ think). The question is a question about ‘any possible intelligibility’, and so about being in its intelligibility, … not ‘our ways’ of rendering intelligible” (p. 160).

All the above varieties of “negation” involve normativity in one way or another. Here Pippin again emphasizes the universality of criteria of intelligibility that Hegel counterposes to the Kantian gap between thinking and being.

“The forms of intelligibility are the forms of what could be true, although they do not settle the question of what, in particular, is true” (p. 175).

“[O]ur first orientation in trying to understand Hegelian negation should be not the logical operation of predicate or sentence negation, but real opposition…. [Michael] Wolff also thinks that the controversy in the eighteenth century about positive and negative magnitudes, especially as it surfaced in Kant, as well as the emerging clarity about negative numbers, played a far larger role in the development of Hegel’s thinking about negation and contradiction than did a reflection on the logic of the formal operator” (pp. 177-178).

Real opposition is an instance of contrariety, which is actually much more relevant to Hegel than formal logical contradiction.

“Hegel’s category of becoming, so important at the beginning of the logic of being, owes much to Hegel’s defense of Newton and the latter’s doctrine of the becoming equal of magnitudes” (pp. 178-179).

“Critics like Crusius were aghast at the idea of forces having positive and negative values. But Kant understood that such ‘values’ (and here again an important precedent for Hegel) had those values in relation to each other, not absolutely, that they were relative values, arbitrarily reversible even” (pp. 179-180).

Negative magnitudes are another instance of contrariety.

“This is not the sense of contradiction throughout the Logic, but it gives us enough background… to appreciate that Hegel is neither a lunatic for saying that ‘everything is contradictory’, nor a mystical Heraclitean” (p. 180).

Pippin devotes nearly half of this chapter to critical remarks about Brandom’s interpretation of Hegelian negation as material incompatibility, which involves a more nuanced form of contrariety. He says Brandom’s reading very well captures the meaning of negation in Hegel’s logic of being, but is inadequate for what Hegel goes on to do in the logic of essence and the logic of the concept. For example, material incompatibility alone is insufficient to explain things like the “self-legislation” of the concept or the idea of the good, but Hegel at least claims that these have something to do with the concept of negation.

Brandom’s interpretation of Hegelian negation seemed to me incomparably clearer than Hegel himself, so until now I have adopted it enthusiastically as a charitable rendering of what Hegel ought to have said to better express his meaning. This is the first of many counter-arguments to Brandom I have seen that really seems to me to at least raise a serious question, but for now I will forego another lengthy tangent.