Hegel’s philosophy is in the idealist tradition that evolved in Germany in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Immanuel Kant and the post-Kantians felt that the empirical philosophy of David Hume, with its skeptical consequences, was inadequate; that mind through intuition, understanding, and reason could discover the grounds of experience either in an a priori categorical structure or in experience itself, if that experience were looked upon as primarily rational. Kant took the first alternative and argued that although events in themselves are unknowable (thus, keeping an element of Humean skepticism), as phenomena that one perceives, they are constructed according to the categories of the understanding and the forms of intuition. As such, they have their intelligible basis in mind, although there is an empirical content given from the external world. Hegel believed that the categories and forms are as much a part of reality as anything else, that the dichotomy between mind and its objects is a false one, and, hence, that reality is as rational as thought itself. He expressed this view in his famous statement, “What is real (actual) is rational; what is rational is real (actual).”
How is thought to express the nature of reality? Philosophy from Hume through Kant (and earlier) held that the agreement of thought with reality is the criterion of truth. However, Hegel claimed that thought alone brings to light the nature of things; this is the true sense of thought and reality being in agreement.
Like all idealists, Hegel maintained that because reality is known by means of ideas, and because the only thing that can agree with an idea is something like an idea, reality must be mindlike. In seeking to know the nature of things via reflection, the individual concentrates upon the universal character of things. However, thought so directed loses its individual character, for in proceeding in this way, a person reflects as any other individual would who was in pursuit of the truth. Reflective thought thus loses its subjective aspect and becomes objective; thought and reality become one.
The Three Stages of Logic
Hegel held that thought expresses itself in triads, each of which usually has its own triadic structure, a structure that often has a triadic structure of its own. Thus, logic has three stages; its subdivisions are three, and each of these has a triadic structure. It is interesting that Hegel apparently did not use the expression “thesis-antithesis-synthesis,” which has been correctly used to characterize his position. At any rate, the emphasis upon the development of thought in terms of a point of view, its negation, and the reconciliation of the two is reminiscent of the dialectical procedure of Socrates and Plato. Hegel, keenly aware of this resemblance, used the term “dialectical” for his own philosophy.
Hegel uses the word “logic” in somewhat the same sense that Saint John spoke of “logos.” That is, the word refers to a systematic creative process rather than to an analysis of language and argument. For him, there are three stages of logic: the abstract stage, or that of the understanding; the dialectical stage, or that of negative reason; and the speculative stage, or that of positive reason.
In the abstract stage, every term or product of thought appears separate and distinct from the others. The understanding believes that they exist on their own account. What Hegel is saying is that on reflection, the individual initially considers the elements of his thought—that is, whatever he is reflecting upon—as taken from the context of experience (or abstracted) and as having an existence of their own independent of anything else. This stage in thinking occurs throughout the history of thought, so that in each stage of philosophical development, people begin by abstraction. Thus the first stage has its own abstract beginning, but the stage itself, when compared to the next stage, will be seen as abstract.
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