Edward Caird's Hegel



WHEN Aristotle laid down the Law of Contradiction as the highest law of thought, and opposed it to the Heraclitean principle of universal flux, he argued that, unless distinction is maintained, -unless things are definitely what they are, and are kept to their definition, -knowledge and thought become impossible. If A and not-A are the same, it is no longer possible to find any meaning in the simplest statements. Even the doctrine of flux itself must mean something, and that obviously implies that it does not mean anything else; even the skeptic, therefore, when he assails the law of contradiction, tacitly gives in his adhesion to the truth he assails. To this argument no objection can be taken, if it be regarded as vindicating one necessary aspect or element of thought, and not as expressing its whole nature. Thought is always distinction, determination, the marking off of one thing from another; and it is characteristic of Aristotle-the great definer-that he should single out this aspect of it. But thought is not only distinction, it is at the same time relation. If it marks off one thing from another, it, at the same time, connects one thing with another. Nor can either of these functions of thought be separated from the other: as Aristotle himself said, the knowledge of opposites is one. A thing that has nothing to distinguish it is unthinkable, but equally unthinkable is a thing which is so separated from all other things as to have no community with them.


If, therefore, the law of contradiction be taken as asserting the self-identity of things or thoughts in a sense that excludes their community - in other words, if it be not taken as limited by another law which asserts the relativity of the things or thoughts distinguished-it involves a false abstraction. A half-truth is necessarily distorted into a falsehood when taken as the whole truth. An absolute distinction by its very nature would be self-contradictory, for it would cut off all connection between the things it distinguished. It would annihilate the relation implied in the distinction, and so it would annihilate the distinction itself. If, therefore, we say that everything- every intelligible object or thought as such-must be differentiated from all others, yet we must equally say that no object or thought can be absolutely differentiated; in other words, differentiated so as to exclude any identity or unity which transcends the difference.

An absolute difference is something which cannot exist within the intelligible world, and the thought which attempts to fix such a difference is unconscious of its own meaning. If it could succeed, it would, ipso facto, commit suicide. We can stretch the bow to the utmost point consistent with its not breaking, but if we go an inch further, it ceases to be stretched at all. We can embrace in one thought the widest antagonism consistent wth the unity of thought itself, but an antagonism inconsistent with that unity is unthinkable, for the simple reason that, when the unity disappears, the antagonism also disappears with it.

If then the world, as an intelligible world, is a world of distinction, differentiation, individuality, it is equally true that in it, as an intelligible world, there are no absolute separations or oppositions, no antagonisms which cannot be reconciled. All difference presupposes a unity, and is itself, indeed, an expression of that unity; and if we let it expand and develop itself to the utmost, yet ultimately it must exhaust itself, and return into the unity. This is all that Hegel means when he, as is often asserted, "denies the validity of the laws of identity and contradiction." All he denies, in fact, is their absolute validity.

"Every finite thing is itself, and no other." True, Hegel would answer, but with a caveat. Every finite thing, by the fact that it is finite, has an essential relation to that which limits it, and thus it contains the principle of its destruction in itself. It is therefore, in this sense, a self-contradictory existence, which at once is itself and its other, itself and not itself. It is at war with itself, and its very life-process is the process of its dissolution. In an absolute sense, it cannot be said to be, any more than not to be. "Every definite thought, by the fact that it is definite, excludes other thoughts, and especially the opposite thought." True, Hegel would answer, but with a caveat.

Every definite thought, by the fact that it is definite, has a necessary relation to its negative, and cannot be separated from it without losing its own meaning. In the very definiteness with which it affirms itself, therefore, is contained the proof that its affirmation is not absolute. If we fix our attention upon it, to the exclusion of its negative, if we try to hold it to itself alone, it disappears. To maintain it and do it full justice is already to go beyond it. Hence we are obliged to modify the assertion, that every definite thought absolutely excludes its negative, and to admit that, in this point of view, it also includes or involves it. It is, and it is not, itself, for it contains in itself its own negation. If we are to reassert it again, it can only be so far as we combine it with its negative in a higher thought, in which, therefore, it is partly denied and partly affirmed.


Thus neither things nor thoughts can be treated as simply self-identical - as independent or atomic existences, which are related only to themselves. They are essentially parts of a whole, or stages in a process, and as such they carry us beyond themselves, the moment we clearly understand them. Nor can we escape from this conclusion by saying that it is merely a subjective illusion, and that the objects really remain, though our mind passes from the one to the other. In regard to thoughts, this is obviously a subterfuge; for the thought is not something different from the process which our minds go through in apprehending it - it is that process. And in regard to "things," the distinction is equally inapplicable; for what we are considering is the conditions essential to the intelligible, as such, and the "things" of which we speak must be at least intelligible, since they exist for our intelligence.

The truth therefore is, that definiteness, finitude, or determination, as such, though they have an affirmative or positive meaning, also contain or involve in themselves their own negation. There is a community or unity between them and their opposites, which overreaches their difference or opposition, though it does not by any means exclude that difference or opposition in its proper place, and within its proper limits. Of any definite existence or thought, therefore, it may be said with quite as much truth that it is not, as that it is, its own bare self. This appears paradoxical, only because we are accustomed to think that the whole truth about a thing can be expressed once for all in a proposition; and here we find that two opposite propositions can be asserted with equal truth. The key, however, to the difficulty is, that neither the assertion nor the denial, nor even both together, exhaust all that is to be said. To know an object, we must follow the process of its existence, in which it manifests all that is in it, and so by that very manifestation exhausts itself, and is taken up as an element into a higher existence.


The thought that there is a unity that lies beneath all opposition, and that, therefore, all opposition is capable of reconciliation, is unfamiliar to our ordinary consciousness for reasons that may easily be explained. That unity is not usually an object of consciousness, just because it is the presupposition of all consciousness. It escapes notice, because it is the ground on which we stand, or the atmosphere in which we breathe; because it is not one thing or thought rather than another, but that through which all things are, and are known. Hence we can scarcely become conscious of its existence until something leads us to question its truth. Our life is an antagonism and a struggle, which rests upon a basis of unity, and would not be possible without it. But immersed in the conflict, and occupied with our adversary, we cannot at the same moment rise to the consciousness of that power which is working in him and in us alike. Rather are we disposed to exaggerate the breadth of the gulf that separates us, and the intensity of the repulsion that sets us at war with each other. We disown the community that binds opposite ideas together, because we think that in no other way can we emphasize sufficiently our own watchword.

We lose sight of truth itself, that we may assert our truth. Of this we may find examples in every sphere of life. Thus we find the scientific man exaggerating the contrasts of subjective and objective, thought and fact, to a point that would make all science unmeaningful. The demand so often made, "Give us facts, and not hypotheses or ideas," does not mean what it says; for enough of facts may be collected- say, about the articles in a room, or the history of an hour's life in it - to break down the strongest memory. What it does mean is, "Give us facts that will answer the questions of our intelligence" i.e., facts that are ideas.

But the scientific man feels so strongly the necessity of struggling against subjective opinions and "anticipations of nature" in his own mind and the minds of others in order that he may reach the objective truth, the ideas which are facts, that thought itself seems to be his enemy. In his struggle against "mere ideas," he loses sight of that ultimate unity of thought and things which is the presupposition of all his endeavors, and indeed the very principle which he is seeking to develop and to verify. It is, however, the moral and religious consciousness, which, just because its conflicts are those that most deeply divide us against ourselves and against each other, is most obstinate and stiff-necked in insisting on the absoluteness of its divisions and oppositions. Thus pious feeling is prone to exaggerate the division between divine and human, and even fears to admit the possibility of the intelligence of man apprehending in any sense the nature of God."

Our fittest eloquence is our silence when we confess without confession that "Thy glory is inexplicable and beyond our reach." Such words may have a certain relative truth; but if we took them in their literal meaning, that divine and human reason are different in kind, and that God cannot be known, religion would be an impossibility. In like manner, the moral sense is jealous of the admission that good overreaches the antagonism between itself and evil, or in any sense comprehends, even if it be at the same time declared that it transcends, that antagonism: such an idea seems to it "a confusion of right and wrong." Yet the great moral teacher of our time, who above all has insisted that there is a hell as well as a heaven, is driven to meet what he thinks a superficial benevolence towards "scoundrels" with the cry, "Yes, they are my brethren, hence this rage and sorrow!" In other words, "Admit the antagonism which I assert in all its real depth and intensity, and I will admit that there is a unity beyond it." It is the unity itself that gives its bitter meaning to the difference, while at the same time it contains the pledge that the difference can and even must be reconciled.


"The intelligible world is relative to the intelligence." This principle, which was expressed by Kant, but of which Kant, by his distinctions of phenomenon and noumenon, reason and faith, evaded the full meaning, is taken in earnest by Hegel. He is therefore forced to deny the absoluteness even of those antagonisms that have been conceived to be altogether insoluble: for any absolute antagonism would ultimately imply an irreconcilable opposition between the intelligence and its object. In other words, it would imply that the intelligence is not the unity that is presupposed in all the differences of things, and which, therefore, through all these differences, returns to itself. The essential unity of all things with each other and with the mind that knows them, is the adamantine circle within which the strife of opposites is waged, and which their utmost violence of conflict cannot break. No fact, which is in its nature incapable of being explained or reduced to law, - no law, which it is impossible ever to recognize as essentially related to the intelligence that apprehends it, can be admitted to exist in the intelligible universe. No absolute defeat of the spirit, - no defeat that does not contain the elements of a greater triumph, can possibly take place in a world which is itself nothing but the realization of spirit.


In a sense, this principle may be said to be incapable of proof, since a proof of it would already presuppose it. But a disproof of it would do so equally. And skepticism, when it brings this very result to light-in other words, when in its own necessary development it destroys itself-gives all the proof of it that is necessary. The self-contradiction of absolute skepticism makes us conscious of the unity of thought and things, of being and knowing, as an ultimate truth, which yet is not an assumption, because all belief and unbelief, all assertion and denial, alike presuppose it. The Kantian "transcendental deduction" was only a further, though still a partial, development of this idea; for it was an attempt to show what are the primary elements of thought involved in the determination of objects, as such; in other words, to show in detail what is meant by that identity or unity of the intelligence and its object, which is implied by all knowledge. As skepticism proved that to doubt the intelligence in general was suicidal, because with the intelligence disappears also the intelligible; so Kant's deduction proved that to take away any special part or form of the intelligence, any category of the understanding or form of sensibility, was to make knowledge impossible.

Unfortunately, for reasons already indicated, Kant treats this unity as existing only in the phenomenal world of experience; and while he gives us a catalogue of the different elements out of which it is made up, he does not show how, in such diversity of operation, the intelligence can still be one, and conscious of itself as one. Kant, in other words, deals with the intelligence as if it were a well-constructed machine, each and all of whose parts are necessary for an external purpose, and are externally combined for that purpose; but not as an organic unity, whose parts are united by the one life that expresses itself in them all, and whose purpose is only that life itself.

But to know the world is not an accidental or external purpose of the intelligence; it is the activity through which alone the intelligence can become conscious of itself - or, in other words, can exist as an intelligence at all. And the various categories or forms of thought by which it makes the world intelligible, are not external instruments it uses, but modes of its own activity, or stages in its own development. To complete the work of Kant, and clear it from these defects, philosophy must not only undertake the analysis of intelligence in relation to the intelligible world, a work which, after all, leaves us "with the parts in our hands, but the informing spiritual unity wanting."


It must also retrace, with watchful consciousness, the unconscious synthetic process in which the intelligence first manifests its life, and through which it becomes possessor of itself and of its world; and it must show how each of the forms of that life has its reason and meaning in the one principle from which they spring. In so far as philosophy can succeed in this, it may meet skepticism with the further answer of a "solvitur ambulando;" for the rationality of the world is best proved by rationalizing it. Still, it would be a mistake to think that reason's certitude of itself has to wait for this completed proof, or that there is no real answer to skepticism except omniscience. The primary answer of skepticism to itself - the answer which it gives by refuting itself - already is sufficient to show that reason can have to do only with itself; that all its conflicts and struggles are with itself, however they may seem to be with another; and that, therefore, there can never come into its life an antagonism which it has not in itself the means of reconciling. For reason, therefore, there can be no foreign object for which it is impossible, in Kant's language, "to unite with its consciousness of itself," and no external necessity which it cannot make the means of its freedom or self-realization.

To develop this idea, however, and to develop it in such a way as to give room for all the oppositions of thought and life, is something more than to feel it, rest in it, and enjoy it like a mystic. "The life of God - the life which the mind apprehends and enjoys as it rises to the absolute unity of all things-may be described as a play of love with itself; but this idea sinks to an edifying truism, or even to a platitude, when it does not embrace in it the earnestness, the pain, the patience, and labor, involved in the negative aspect of things." In other words, the intuitive apprehension of the absolute unity is nothing, unless that unity be brought into relation to the differences of the finite world; when it is asserted by itself it loses all its meaning.

To the man of the world or the man of science, a religious or speculative optimism is apt to seem like a child's confidence in a world which he has never tried, rather than like that peace of spirit which has been confirmed by the completed experience of all its effort and pain. The words of triumph mean much or little, just in proportion to the greatness of the struggle, and the thoroughness with which it has been fought out, and they will not be listened to with patience on the lips of any one who has evaded his strongest enemies. The critical spirit is justly jealous of any solution that does not show, on the face of it, that the difficulty has been thoroughly sounded.

Hence there is always a difficulty in producing a mutual understanding between those, on the one hand, whose minds are directed to the particular interests of life or to particular spheres of science, and those, on the other hand, who, either as poets, or religious men, or philosophers, live habitually in contemplation of the unity that is beyond all difference, the reconciliation that is above all conflict. By the conditions of their life, the former seem to be as naturally biased toward a hard and unyielding dualism, which distrusts all "ideology," all harmonizing and reconciling views of existence, as the latter are prone to an easy idealism, which charms away the difficulties and reconciles the oppositions of life as if by a magic word. To bring about such an understanding, each of the two sides must be drawn out of itself, and brought into relation to each other.

Now it is Hegel's effort, on the side of philosophy, so to overcome the abstractness of the speculative idea and develop its unity into difference, that he may force the scientific or practical consciousness, in its turn, to overcome its abstract and one-sided assertion of difference, and bring it into relation to the unity of thought. For if the unity of thought, the unity of the intelligence with itself, is to be found in all the intelligible universe, -in all the "subtlety of nature," and all the complex movement of history, -that unity must be more than the simple identity which philosophy has often found in it.

If, as it was the aim or result of the Kantian philosophy to prove, self-consciousness is the principle of unity to which the world must be referred and by which it must be explained, self-consciousness must be a microcosm,-a world in itself, containing and resolving in the transparent simplicity or unity of its "glassy essence" all the differences and antagonisms which, in intensified form, it has to meet with in the macrocosm. The intelligence must not, therefore, be conceived as a mere resting identity, but rather as a complete process of differentiation and integration, which rests only in the sense that its movement returns upon itself.

It will thus be, in Aristotle's language, an energia akinesias; in other words, it will be without movement or change, not because it is not active, but because its activity is determined only by itself. For only through such a concrete conception of the intelligence in itself will it be possible to understand how it should be able to reach beyond itself, and so to rise above the opposition of thought and things. Otherwise it must seem impossible that knowledge of the world should be attained, except by the absolute passivity of the intelligence; by the mind emptying itself of itself, and becoming a pure mirror, or a tabula rasa on which the external object may impress its image.

Now what is involved in the idea of self-consciousness? Kant, who first pointed out that the unity of the ego is presupposed in all our knowledge, has given a curious account of it. "Of the ego," he says, "one cannot even say that it is a conception of anything; it is rather a consciousness that accompanies all our conceptions. In this I, or He, or It-the thing which thinks -we have before us nothing but a transcendental subject of thought, an x or unknown quantity, which is known only through the thoughts which are its predicates, and of which, if we separate it from those thoughts, we cannot form the slightest conception. If we attempt to do so, we are obliged to revolve round it in a continual circle; for we cannot make any judgment about it without being obliged to presuppose and make use of the idea of it, -an inconvenience which is inevitable, because consciousness in itself is not, strictly speaking, the idea of a particular object, but a form for all ideas which deserve the name of knowledge-i.e., for all ideas through which any object is thought."

This remark of Kant's brings out the peculiarity of self-consciousness, that it is no simple unity or identity; for if so, it must be purely an object or purely a subject, but really it is both in one; all other things are for it, but it is for itself. This strikes Kant as "an inconvenience," which prevents us from knowing it as we may know other things,-as if the ego somehow, by reason of its duality as both subject and object, stood in its own light, and was guilty of a kind of circular reasoning in pretending to know itself. But when we look at the matter more closely, it would seem that Kant is here himself guilty of a curious paralogism, in attacking what is our very highest type of knowledge, and rejecting it because it does not conform to his own preconceived ideas.

It is as if one should say that it is impossible to see the sun because we cannot throw the rays of a candle upon it. But as it is the light that reveals both itself and the darkness, so it is self-consciousness through which we know both it and all other things. If knowledge is the relation of an object to a conscious subject, it is the more complete, the more intimate the relation; and it becomes perfect when the duality becomes transparent, when subject and object are identified, and when the duality is seen to be simply the necessary expression of the unity, in short, when consciousness passes into self-consciousness."

It is just the intelligence itself which Kant declares to be unintelligible. And the reason is, that Kant's mind was secretly possessed with the preconception that the one thing entirely intelligible is a pure abstract identity which has no division or difference in it all. This preconception, however, was shown by Kant himself to be a false one. It was his special work, in the 'Critique of Pure Reason,' to prove that every object of knowledge, as such, involves a relation to a subject; in other words, that it is not a simple identity, but involves difference, and unity in difference. But if so, then self-consciousness is the knowable par excellence, in so much as in it the object, which is distinguished from the subject, is, at the same time, most perfectly coalescent with it.

It was, in fact, just because Kant took pure identity as his ideal of knowledge, that he was driven to seek for absolute truth in a region beyond the objective consciousness, or, what to him was the same thing, beyond the phenomenal consciousness. And as such an identity is really unknowable and incomprehensible, he was obliged at the same time to confess that this region of pure self-identical subjectivity cannot be reached by knowledge, but only by faith. If, however, Kant's " reason " had thus to enter into the "intelligible world" or "kingdom of ends" "halt and maimed," it was because he had maimed it himself. It was his own definition of truth, or rather his tacit preconception of truth, which made truth unattainable to him, and which even made him reject its very quintessence and antitype in self-consciousness as unintelligible.


This failure of Kant, however, directly points to a new conception of knowledge, and a reform of logic. The old analytic logic was based on that very idea of identity by which Kant was misled. It started with the presupposition that each object is an isolated identity, itself and nothing more. It accepted the law of contradiction in a sense that involved a denial of the relativity or community of things. It separated object from subject, one thing from another; or, if it admitted relations between things, these were regarded by it as altogether external, or outside of the real nature of the things in themselves. But such a theory of knowledge is, as it were, broken in pieces against the idea of self-consciousness, in which the true unity, the pattern of all knowledge, is seen to be essentially complex or concrete, a unity of differences, a circle of relations in itself. Self-consciousness is the standing enigma for those who would separate identity and difference; for it is not merely that, in one aspect of it, self-consciousness is a duality, and in another aspect a unity; duality and unity are so inseparably blended in it, that neither has any meaning without the other.

Or, to put it still more definitely, the self exists as one self only as it opposes itself, as object, to itself, as subject, and immediately denies and transcends that opposition. Only because it is such a concrete unity, which has in itself a resolved contradiction, can the intelligence cope with all the manifoldness and division of the mighty universe, and hope to master its secrets. As the lightning sleeps in the dewdrop, so in the simple and transparent unity of self-consciousness there is held in equilibrium that vital antagonism of opposites, which, as the opposition of thought and things, of mind and matter, of spirit and nature, seems to rend the world asunder. The intelligence is able to understand the world, or, in other words, to break down the barrier between itself and things, and find itself in them, just because its own existence is implicitly the solution of all the division and conflict of things.

To see, however, that this is the case, and that in the intelligence, as the subject - object, there lies an adequate principle for the interpretation of nature and history, it is necessary that we should explain more fully what is involved in the idea of self-consciousness. For such an interpretation is possible only in so far as in self-consciousness are implicitly contained all the categories by which science and philosophy attempt to make the world intelligible, -a doctrine, the detailed proof of which is the object of the Hegelian Logic.