Hegel's Basic Logical Blunders
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Summary Of My Main Objections To Dialectical Materialism
Return To The Main Index
This is an elementary summary of some of Hegel's more important logical blunders; it has been written for those new to the subject, not experts. This isn't meant to be an academic exercise, so the many complications that logicians are aware of in this area have had to be ignored.
I have posted four much more detailed and technical analyses of Hegel's many errors here, here, here and here. The disastrous political implications of 'the dialectic' (upside down or 'the right way up') have been exposed here.
Finally, some readers might be tempted to conclude that the points made below are merely 'semantic', and therefore have no real substance. In response, it is worth reminding ourselves that Hegel's core logical arguments depend precisely on 'semantic' issues like these. Except, it is my contention that he seriously screwed up in this regard. So, if anyone still objects to these 'semantic' issues, they should pick a fight with Hegel, not me.
All I am trying to do is repair the damage!
Anyone using these links must remember that they will be skipping past supporting argument and evidence set out in earlier sections.
(1) Where Hegel Screwed Up
(a) The Identity Theory Of Predication
(b) Hegel Misidentifies Identity
(i) The 'Negative Form' Of Identity
(ii) Identity No Enemy Of Change
(c) Confuses Naming With Describing
(d) Confuses Identity With Identification
(e) The Theory Implodes
(f) Traditional Grammar To Blame
(g) The Pseudo-Problem Of The Relation Of 'Thought' To 'Being'
(h) Propositions Turned Into Lists
(2) An Objection
(3) Linguistic Idealism
(4) Does This Essay Refute Itself?
Where Hegel Screwed Up
'The Identity Theory Of Predication'
Dialectical 'Logic' [DL] derives from (1) Hegel's
logic, and from (2) A logico-linguistic dodge invented in the Middle Ages. As a
result, Hegel thought that certain sentences contained an in-built contradiction.
If we use Lenin's example, we can see where this idea came from, and hence where it goes astray:
J1: John is a man.
[Hegel in fact used the sentence, "The rose is red".]
First of all, Hegel accepted a theory invented by
Medieval Roman Catholic Theologians (now called the
Identity Theory of Predication),
propositions like J1 in the following manner:
J2: John is identical with Manhood.
The former "is" of predication has now been replaced by an "is" of identity.
[Predication involves saying something about someone or something. So, J1 can be used to say something about John. "John" is the subject, and "a man" is the predicate. The verb "is" linking them is called the "copula". When this "is" is turned into an "is" of identity, J1 becomes the following monstrosity: "John is identical with a man." That is why J2 is often used in its place, even though it, too, is bizarre.]
Greatly simplified, the argument then went roughly as follows: Since John can't be identical with a general term
("a man"/"Manhood" -- or, rather, with what it supposedly represents, a
Universal), we must conclude the
J3: John is not identical with Manhood.
The argument then continued: however, if John is a man, he must be identical with (or, at least, he must share in) what other men are, so we must now conclude:
J4: John is not not identical with Manhood.
Or, more simply:
J5: John is not a non-man.
Hard though this might be to believe, out of this was born the Negation of the Negation and the Unity and Interpenetration of Opposites -- the entire dialectic concocted from a re-configuration of a diminutive participle of the verb "to be" -- namely, "is"!
[Readers who might prefer to consult Hegel's argument in
all its glory can access it here.
Its logical ramifications are spelt out in detail in a (Marxist) paper
I have reproduced (and then criticised),
here. Lenin transcribed much of this
material from Hegel into his Philosophical Notebooks, and wrote in the margin: "This is
very important for understanding dialectics." In relation to that, and the philosophical
background to Hegel's argument (which was in fact a response to
criticism of rationalist theories of causation) -- as well as Lenin's appropriation of
this aspect of Hegel's theory -- see here.
(Rationalism is explained
Anyway, Hegel thought this showed that movement was built into our concepts as thought passes from one pole (one opposite conclusion) to another (i.e., from conclusions about John to negations and then double negations about him), which suggested to Hegel that speculative (i.e., properly 'philosophical') thought, and thus all of reality, had dialectics built into it.
[He concluded this about 'reality' since he was an Absolute Idealist and believed that such thoughts mirrored, if not constituted the world.]
It also led Hegel into casting doubt on the validity of the
so-called 'Law of Identity'
[LOI] -- a
'Law', incidentally, that can't be found in Aristotle's work
-- despite what many dialecticians would have us believe. It, too, was invented
by Medieval Roman Catholic Theologians.
As a result, Hegel argued that it was important to consider the LOI stated negatively. The LOI, as it had been passed down to Hegel, went as follow: "A is equal to A", or "A = A" (where "A", it seems, could stand for such diverse things as: objects, processes, predicates, concepts, relations, relational expressions, or, indeed, anything he wanted it to stand for).
[A supposed instance of this 'Law' (and an example Hegel himself used) is "A planet is a planet". (Shorter Logic, §115.) The radical confusion sloppy logic like this generates -- and upon which Hegel's core arguments actually depend -- is exposed here.]
Hegel then translated the LOI into the following
'negative form': "A cannot at the
same time be A and not-A", which he also claimed was the so-called
Law of Non-contradiction
[Incidentally, to save confusion, I have put "A" in bold type to help distinguish it from the normal use of the capital letter "A".]
However, in order to proceed, Hegel not only employed a barrage of impenetrably obscure jargon, he relied on some hopelessly sloppy semantics (as noted above).
[Semantics -- what words/symbols are supposed to designate, refer to, signify, or mean.]
Hegel plainly thought he could ignore the logical/grammatical distinctions that exist between our use of certain terms --, or, at least, between the roles they occupy in sentences. More importantly in this regard, he thought he could ignore the distinction between naming and describing. This 'enabled' him to bamboozle his readers, using what amounted to a series of verbal tricks, and from the ensuing confusion, hey presto, 'the dialectic' emerged like a rabbit from a hat.
So, Hegel's core argument was that the LOI, stated negatively, implied the LOC (why this was important for Hegel will be considered presently):
When the principles of Essence are taken as essential principles of thought they become predicates of a presupposed subject, which, because they are essential, is "everything". The propositions thus arising have been stated as universal Laws of Thought. Thus the first of them, the maxim of Identity, reads: Everything is identical with itself, A = A: and negatively, A cannot at the same time be A and Not-A. This maxim, instead of being a true law of thought, is nothing but the law of abstract understanding. The propositional form itself contradicts it: for a proposition always promises a distinction between subject and predicate; while the present one does not fulfil what its form requires. But the Law is particularly set aside by the following so-called Laws of Thought, which make laws out of its opposite. It is asserted that the maxim of Identity, though it cannot be proved, regulates the procedure of every consciousness, and that experience shows it to be accepted as soon as its terms are apprehended. To this alleged experience of the logic books may be opposed the universal experience that no mind thinks or forms conceptions or speaks in accordance with this law, and that no existence of any kind whatever conforms to it. [Hegel, Shorter Logic §115. Bold added.]
[See what I meant by "impenetrable"! And he was being relatively clear here! (Any who doubt this should perhaps read this extended passage devoted to this topic, and then perhaps think again!)]
Hegel Misidentifies Identity
The 'Negative Form' Of Identity
So, from the LOI -- i.e., from A = A -- Hegel thought he could obtain "A cannot at the same time be A and not-A", which, while it is supposed to be the LOI 'stated negatively', is also supposed to be the LOC.
This is a key point in the argument, since he believed that a commitment to the LOI was tantamount to denying that change occurred in reality -- an unsupported assumption that has been appropriated equally uncritically and then parroted by Marxist dialecticians and Hegelians ever since.
Hegel further reasoned: if change is universal (an idea he pinched from another mystic, Heraclitus, who in turn concocted this 'universal truth' from his (mistaken) conclusions about the possibilities involved in stepping into a river!), then nothing could possibly be identical with itself, and so everything must contain, or imply, a contradiction: A is at the same time not-A!
Contradiction is the very moving principle of the world: and it is ridiculous to say that contradiction is unthinkable. The only thing correct in that statement is that contradiction is not the end of the matter, but cancels itself. But contradiction, when cancelled, does not leave abstract identity; for that is itself only one side of the contrariety. The proximate result of opposition (when realised as contradiction) is the Ground, which contains identity as well as difference superseded and deposited to elements in the completer notion. [Hegel (1975), p.174; Essence as Ground of Existence, §119.]
[B]ut contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity. [Hegel (1999), p.439, §956.]
[The serious problems that these hyper-bold, and unsubstantiated claims create for Hegel are explored here. And, of course, contradictions don't 'cancel', either!]
Identity No Enemy Of Change
In fact, identity is no enemy of change, for if two objects are identical, they will both change equally quickly -- otherwise they can't have been identical.
Moreover, if an object is no longer identical with its former self, it must have changed.
So, identity doesn't prevent change (an odd idea in itself!); it simply enables us to decide if and when it has occurred.
With these observations the entire 'dialectic' completely falls apart.
Be this as it may, Hegel failed to notice that there is no connection whatsoever between the LOI and the LOC. The LOI concerns the conditions under which an object is supposedly identical with itself, or with something else; it isn't about the alleged identity between propositions, nor of clauses with propositions, or clauses with clauses.
In fact, this is where the sleight-of-hand occurs. Hegel's sloppy semantics (mentioned above) masked this serious error. Allowing A to slide effortlessly between various denotations (i.e., between different meanings -- one minute it stands for an object, the next a sentence, the next a predicate expression, the next a concept, the next a process, the next a relational expression...) 'enabled' Hegel to perform this verbal conjuring trick.
Indeed, if a proposition has no identity (i.e., if we allow A to stand now for a proposition, not an object), it wouldn't be a proposition to begin with. That is, if it were unclear what was being proposed -- i.e., put forward for consideration, which is what propositions do or can be used for -- then plainly nothing has yet been proposed, and so nothing can follow from it.
In that case, the alleged 'negative' version of the LOI has nothing whatsoever to do with the connection between a proposition and its contradictory.
The LOC, on the other hand, concerns the truth-functional connection** between propositions (or clauses), not objects (since objects can't be true or false!). In its simplest form it concerns the conjunction of a proposition with its negation (e.g., "Today is Tuesday and today isn't Tuesday" (said at high noon on any particular day)). It plainly has nothing to do with objects or their supposed identity. [Readers can check out my more technical comments on this topic posted at Wikipedia.]
[**"Truth-functional" is a technical term for the type of link that exists, or might exist, between propositions. In this particular case, if a certain proposition is true its negation is false, and vice versa. The one affects the truth-status of the other. Unfortunately, the full details of Hegel's moves here are rather complex, so I have omitted them. However, interested readers can access them here, here, here, and here.]
Hegel Confuses Naming With Describing
Only by confusing objects (or the names of objects) with propositions (or clauses) -- that is, by confusing objects and/or their names with what we say about them -- was Hegel able to conjure the 'dialectic' into existence.
[His other 'arguments' are merely window dressing. (They too will be demolished in Essay Twelve Parts Four and Five, when they are published.)]
We name objects and persons (among other things). Typically, only then can we say things about them, and we do so in sentences. These familiar features of language are quite distinct.
[I'll explain why it is important that they stay that way later. (Sure we have other ways of referring to things, but they only complicate the picture, they don't alter it.)]
Furthermore, propositions aren't objects. Nor are they the names of anything, as Hegel appears to have assumed. If they were, they couldn't be used to say anything. Sure, we use various inscriptions (words, phrases, clauses, sentences, utterances) to articulate our sentences -- that is we write words on paper, type letters on computer screens, or we say things -- , but when we do this, these inscriptions serve as symbols (i.e., they signify things for us, and to us, and convey meaning). We achieve this by the way we employ such linguistic resources according to the grammatical complexity our ancestors built into language.
To see this, just look at any object or collection of objects (assuming they do not represent a coded message of some sort) and ask yourself what it/they say to you. You might be tempted to reply that it/they say this or that, but in order to report what it/they allegedly say, you will be forced to articulate whatever that is in a proposition, or some other sentence. You couldn't do this by merely reproducing the original objects, or, indeed, any other objects, nor could you do so by just naming them.
story taken from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels exposes the
absurdity of the idea that
we could say things simply by using objects. More on this
This isn't surprising, since objects have no social history, intellect or language, whereas we do, and have.
Naming is like setting out the pieces on a chess board ready for a game. A move in a game is like a proposition (describing, or explaining, for example). While they both depend on each other, only someone intent on ruining a game (or who had a hidden agenda) would deliberately confuse the two.
Unfortunately, Engels and Lenin swallowed this spurious Hegelian word magic, hook, line and sinker -- and that is because neither of them were logicians. Despite this, they both had a wildly inflated opinion of Hegel's expertise in this area.
[This isn't to malign these two great revolutionaries; others, who should know better, have similarly allowed themselves to be duped. Exactly why they do this is explained in Essay Nine Part Two.]
However, because of their misguided respect for Hegel, Marxists ever since have been saddled with his fractured 'logic' (upside down, or 'the right way up').
Here, for example, is Lenin's use of this idea:
To begin with what is the simplest, most ordinary, common, etc., [sic]
with any proposition...: [like] John is a man…. Here we already have dialectics
(as Hegel's genius recognized): the individual is the universal…. Consequently,
the opposites (the individual is opposed to the universal) are identical: the
individual exists only in the connection that leads to the universal. The
universal exists only in the individual and through the individual. Every
individual is (in one way or another) a universal. Every universal is (a
fragment, or an aspect, or the essence of) an individual. Every universal only
approximately embraces all the individual objects. Every individual enters
incompletely into the universal, etc., etc. Every individual is connected by
thousands of transitions with other kinds of individuals (things, phenomena,
processes), etc. Here already we have the elements, the germs of the concept of
necessity, of objective connection in nature, etc. Here already we have the
contingent and the necessary, the phenomenon and the essence; for when we say
John is a man…we disregard a number of attributes as contingent; we separate the
essence from the appearance, and counterpose the one to the other….
Thus in any proposition we can (and must) disclose as a "nucleus" ("cell") the germs of all the elements of dialectics, and thereby show that dialectics is a property of all human knowledge in general. [Lenin (1961), i.e., Philosophical Notebooks, pp.359-60.]
[Engels's much shorter version of the same idea can be found here.]
Both of these comrades plainly felt confident they could 'derive' fundamental truths about reality, valid for all of space and time -- not from a scientific investigation of the world --, but from examining a few words inspected through Hegel's distorting lens!
And yet, dialecticians still tell us with a straight face that their theory hasn't been imposed on nature!
Unfortunately, the sentence Lenin used -- J1 (repeated below)
-- is descriptive. We use sentences like this to describe the individuals concerned --, so it can't be treated in the way Hegel imagined
it could (that is, as an identity statement). In fact, Aristotle
would have approached it differently. In order to explain its structure, he
would have said something like:
A1: Manhood applies to John.
[J1: John is a man.
J2: John is identical with Manhood.]
In other words, in J1 the predicate expression is used to describe John; it isn't expressing an identity, as it is attempting to do in J2.
Indeed, it makes no sense to suppose with Hegel that John (or his name) could be identical with a general term -- any more than it would make sense to suppose that you, for example, are identical with a conjunction, a preposition, or an adverb --, or with what any of these supposedly 'represent'.
In which case, this example of Medieval Roman Catholic 'logic' isn't simply misguided, it is bizarre in the extreme!
It surely takes a special sort of 'genius' (which we are assured by Lenin that Hegel possessed) to suppose that an object/individual like John could be identical with a predicate expression, or with the 'abstraction' it supposedly designated!
Identity Not The Same As Identification
To be sure, Hegelians might want to call propositions like J1 "essential", in that they tell us what kind of being John is; that is, sentences like this help identify an individual. Even if that were so, and there are good reasons for supposing it isn't (on that see Essay Thirteen Part Two, when it is published), that still wouldn't affect the counter-argument presented here. Nor would it affect the point that J1 is still descriptive. It certainly doesn't justify turning J1 into J2.
And, of course, identifying something isn't the same as asserting an identity relation.
For example, if squaddie NN is asked whether or not he can identify Osama bin Laden in a line-up, and he replies, "Yes, Sarge! Osama is identical to Osama, Sarge!", he would risk being put on a charge. On the other hand, if he points to one of the suspects and says, "That's him, Sarge!", he wouldn't. [This was, of course, written before the US military executed Osama bin Laden.] So, identification isn't the same as identity (no pun intended). Hegel ran the two together.
The Theory Implodes
If we return to the original sentence, translated this time into Hegel-speak, we can perhaps see more clearly where the argument goes astray:
J2: John is identical with Manhood.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to explain what the extra "is" here (highlighted in green) now means. But, this extra "is" has to be used in order to make the alleged identity between John and Manhood (or whatever) plain.
["John Identical Manhood" is just a list! More on that presently.]
In fact, if all such uses of "is" expressed disguised identities (as we are assured they must), J2 would now have to become:
J2a: John is identical with identical with Manhood,
as the green "is" from J2 is replaced with what it is supposed to mean, i.e., "is identical with" --, in turquoise, in J2a.
After another such 'dialectical' switch J2a would then become:
J2b: John is identical with identical with identical with Manhood,
as the turquoise "is" we had to use in J2a is replaced by "is identical with" to yield J2b. And so on:
J2b: John is identical with identical with identical with identical with Manhood.
These untoward moves can only be halted if we argue that "is" doesn't always express an identity in such propositions. But, dialecticians gave up the right to lodge that particular appeal the moment they accepted The Identity Theory of Predication.
Fortunately, Aristotle's approach short-circuits this; there is no "is" at all in A1:
A1: Manhood applies to John.
By way of contrast, Hegel's 'analysis' can't avoid this verbal explosion; indeed, it positively invites it.
Anyone who thinks this is just "pedantic" nit-picking need only reflect on the fact that Hegel -- or anyone who agrees with him --, can't explain this 'theory' without using J2:
J2: John is identical with Manhood.
But, as we can now see, Hegel's theory stalls at this point, for this extra "is" can't be one of identity (for the above reasons), and if it isn't, then the theory that tells us that "is" is always one of identity (in such contexts) is defective.
In fact, this Hegelian trick can only be performed using one or other Indo-European language. By-and-large, other language groups do not possess this particular grammatical feature. The above moves depend solely on the subject-predicate form taking the copula "is" (or its cognates), which form is found almost exclusively in the aforementioned family of languages.
This shows that Hegel's 'logic' isn't just bizarre, it is parochial into the bargain!
Traditional Grammar To Blame
To illustrate these bogus moves in yet more detail,
J1: John is a man.
traditional grammar, J1's
general form is in effect this:
G1: S is P.
[Where, "S" = "Subject", "P" = "Predicate" -- or rather "Predicate Expression".]
Now, we already have a facility in language that allows us to express identity -- and genuinely so. For example, here is an uncontroversial identity statement:
G2: Cicero is Tully.
["Tully" was Cicero's other name. Cicero was a reactionary politician, orator and author who lived in Ancient Rome about the same time as Julius Caesar.]
So, G2 quite legitimately means:
G2a: Cicero is identical with Tully.
[However, the extra blue "is" here is now an "is" of predication, not identity! So, the verbal explosion we met earlier isn't implied by G2a.]
G3: A = B.
[Where "A" is "Cicero" and "B" is "Tully"; using "="
as the identity sign, again.]
G2 and G3 express an unambiguous use of the "is" of identity -- no problem with that -- whereas, in G2a, the "is" is one of predication.
However, it is important to note that the identity relation here operates between two names or singular terms (on this, see below***) -- or it does so between two named individuals, depending on how identity is finally understood. This is typical of the use of the "is" of identity.
Now, just look at the superficial similarity between the following two linguistic forms -- especially between J1/G1 (predication) and G2 (identity):
J1: John is a man.
G1: S is P.
G2: Cicero is Tully.
G3: A = B.
Highly influential Ancient and Medieval logicians and grammarians noticed this, too, and combined the two distinct forms into one, reading the "is" of predication as an "is" of identity. [Why they did this will be explained presently.]
But, this move now turns the predicate "P" into a name, in parallel with the Proper Name ("Tully") used in G2.
As noted a few paragraphs back, identities concern the relation between names, or between other singular terms -- for example:
P1: The 43rd President of the United States is George W Bush.
***Here, the first singular term (highlighted in blue) is a definite description; the second singular term ("George W Bush") is a Proper Name.
[Alternatively, identity propositions express a relation that is supposed to hold between whoever/whatever it is that these terms refer to.]
Unfortunately, given this view, "P" now becomes a name -- hence, it can no longer be a predicate.
[Why that is so will be explained presently, too.]
As we have seen, Hegel adopted this Medieval analysis, deliberately conflating the "is" of identity with the "is" of predication. This then 'allowed' him to claim that propositions like J1 were in fact identity statements.
Of course, this means that the core of Hegel's 'logic' is based solely on what is in effect a grammatical stipulation -- i.e., it is a dogmatic assertion that these two forms (predicate and identity statements) are one and the same, which move creates the intractable problems we met above --, but which stipulation Hegel nowhere adequately justified.
Moreover, as we will soon see, this particular stipulation destroys the capacity language has for expressing generality. Predicates enable us to say general things about named individuals or objects (etc.) -- for example, that John is a mechanic, or a hospital porter, or even a man. Turning predicates into names stops them doing this, preventing them from being used to say anything general.
So, given a 'Hegel-make-over', J1 thus becomes J1a (and/or J1b):
J1: John is a man.
J1a: John = man/Manhood.
J1b: John is identical with man/Manhood.
Hence, on this view, just as "Tully" names Cicero, "man" names Manhood --, or perhaps, the class ('category', or 'concept') of men.
The Pseudo-Problem Of The Relation of 'Thought' To 'Being'
As noted above, the 'rationale' underlying these linguistic moves had already been laid down by earlier theorists and mystics, who were, among other things, concerned to explain the alleged union or identity between the human soul and 'God'/'Being'. Hence, they played around with the Greek verb "to be" (and thus with the "is" of predication) until it was made to say what they wanted it to say.
[Of course, this grammatical sleight-of-hand helps account for the emphasis placed by subsequent Idealists on the supposed 'identity' of 'Thought' and 'Being', which later became the main problematic of German Idealism --, a problematic Engels also bought into. On that, see his Ludwig Feuerbach And The End Of Classical German Philosophy.]
There is in fact no other reason for adopting the Identity Theory of Predication, which also helps explain why it was theologians and mystics who concocted it (and why Hegel, the Mystery-Meister Himself, eagerly appropriated it).
[Of course, none of these moves took place in an ideological or political vacuum; a brief outline of some of the relevant issues can be found here.]
Anyway, logicians and grammarians after Aristotle, and especially those working in the Middle Ages (who also used this theory to help them tackle and try and explain the incomprehensible Christian Trinity), began to conflate these two distinct forms as a matter of course. This fed into, and was fed in return by an increasingly elaborate and complex metaphysic supposedly centred on the ultimate structure of reality and the relation of 'Thought' to 'Being'/'God' --, which speculative gyrations were based solely on: (1) This linguistic sleight-of-hand, (2) Mystical Theology --, and (3) Nothing more!
Certainly not on a scientific investigation of the world.
As George Novack pointed out:
A consistent materialism cannot proceed from
principles which are validated by appeal to abstract reason, intuition,
self-evidence or some other subjective or purely theoretical source. Idealisms
may do this. But the materialist philosophy has to be based upon evidence taken
from objective material sources and verified by demonstration in practice....
[Novack (1965), p.17. Bold emphasis added.]
'The dialectic' is thus based on defective a priori dogmatics of the sort castigated by Novack (Engels and other dialecticians have also said similar things), but not on evidence. Sure, evidence is often sought after the event in order to 'illustrate' the 'laws' dialecticians uncritically imported from Hegel, but the original theses themselves were derived in the way that Novack highlights, by 'pure thought'. And, as we saw in Essay Seven Part One, the watery-thin evidence dialecticians have scraped-together since woefully fails to substantiate their theory.
So, in the end, J1/G1 and G2-type sentences were modelled along the lines expressed by G4 and G5 -- i.e., as identity statements:
J1: John is a man.
G1: S is P.
G2: Cicero is Tully.
G4: A = B.
G5: John = Manhood.
Propositions Turned Into Lists
But, and once more, this turns predicates into Proper Names -- i.e., "a man" becomes the Proper Name of Manhood (or the 'Concept Man'), which it plainly is not. Naming isn't the same as describing. We name our children when they are born, we do not simply describe them. If we do subsequently describe them, we use predicates, not names. We don't name children with phrases like "is a man", or "is tall". Not even pop stars do that to their off-spring! We describe the world around us, we do not simply name it.
The untoward result of buying onto linguistic confusion like this was recently outlined for us by Professor E J Lowe:
What is the problem of predication? In a nutshell, it is this. Consider any simple subject-predicate sentence, such as..., "Theaetetus sits". How are we to understand the different roles of the subject and the predicate in this sentence, "Theaetetus" and "sits" respectively? The role of "Theaetetus" seems straightforward enough: it serves to name, and thereby to refer to or stand for, a certain particular human being. But what about "sits"? Many philosophers have been tempted to say that this also refers to or stands for something, namely, a property or universal that Theaetetus possesses or exemplifies: the property of sitting. This is said to be a universal, rather than a particular, because it can be possessed by many different individuals.
But now we have a problem, for this view of the matter seems to turn the sentence "Theaetetus sits" into a mere list of (two) names, each naming something different, one a particular and one a universal: "Theaetetus, sits." But a list of names is not a sentence because it is not the sort of thing that can be said to be true or false, in the way that "Theaetetus sits" clearly can. The temptation now is to say that reference to something else must be involved in addition to Theaetetus and the property of sitting, namely, the relation of possessing that Theaetetus has to that property. But it should be evident that this way of proceeding will simply generate the same problem, for now we have just turned the original sentence into a list of three names, "Theaetetus, possessing, sits."
Indeed, we are now setting out on a vicious infinite regress, which is commonly known as "Bradley's regress", in recognition of its modern discoverer, the British idealist philosopher F. H. Bradley. Bradley used the regress to argue in favour of absolute idealism.... [Lowe (2006).]
So, a collection of names is just that: a list -- and lists say nothing, just as objects say nothing. For example -- coded messages aside, once more -- this list says nothing:
L1: John, book, car.
L1 can only be made to say different things if its constituent words are articulated with other expressions that do not function as names:
L2: John found my book in his car.
L3: John lost your book and sold his car.
L4: John isn't mentioned in that book, but his car is.
L5: John has vanished, so has your book and my car.
L6: John can book you a car tomorrow.
L7: Give John a book to read while I steal his car.
You just can't see any of these in L1. [Well, did any of you see one or more of L2-L7 in L1 before you read them?] But, there are countless sentences (that none of us have ever heard before) that can be constructed from just these three nouns, but only if we use expressions that do not function as nouns.
So, our use of expressions that aren't names, and which do not function like names, allows us to generate an endless number of sentences with different meanings -- meanings that would be unavailable to us if we simply employed lists of names, or collections of objects.
Hence, the list from earlier (i.e., "John Identical Manhood") has to be articulated with a verb if it is to say something to you:
J2: John is identical with Manhood.
But, that just generates the problems outlined in the first part of this Essay.
Of course, it could be objected that there are languages in which names do describe. For example, Native Americans use names such as "Sitting Bull", "Crazy Horse", or "Rain In The Face", which describe what the individual concerned either did or was reminiscent of.
Even so, no Native American would argue as follows:
N1: Sitting Bull has just stood up.
N2: Therefore Sitting Bull is no longer Sitting Bull, he is Standing Bull.
But, they would argue as follows:
N3: That animal over there is a sitting bull.
N4: It has just stood up, so it's now a standing bull.
[I have deliberately kept these sentences trite so that the logical point being made isn't obscured by needless complexity.]
This shows that the logical use of names is distinct from that of descriptions. Any contingent traditional, psychological, or idiosyncratic associations a name has are logically irrelevant to its use as a name, no matter how important such quirks of language are to a given culture.
Hence, the name "Sitting Bull" is a logical unit and cannot be split up like a description can. [Examples of the latter are given here.] That is partly because, as Aristotle noted (De Interpretatione, Section 3), names are tenseless, but predicates are not. So, we still call Julius Caesar, "Julius Caesar", even though he is dead, and even though there was a time when he had no name at all -- i.e., the moment he was born.
The above examples bring this out since change (expressed by the use of suitably tensed verbs like "stood" or "sitting") is conveyed by our use of tensed predicates, not names. That is why, whatever Sitting Bull does, he is still Sitting Bull. There is no past, present or future tense of names like "Sitting Bull", "Julius Caesar", or "George Washington".
[These and other complications are discussed at length in Geach (1968), pp.22-80. See also here.]
So, for Hegel,
"a man" became the Proper Name of Manhood, which was then dignified by
being called an "abstraction",
or even worse, an "essence" -- both of which were conjured into existence
by this linguistic dodge, and nothing more.
In this way, then, dialectics (in the post-Hegelian sense of this word, upside down or the 'right way up') arose out of egregiously defective logic and a series of errors compounded by a crass misconstrual of what is in effect minor aspect of a sub-branch of Indo-European grammar!
Hard to believe? Well, Marx himself indicated that this was so:
The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life. [Marx and Engels: The German Ideology, p.118. Bold emphases added.]
So, Traditional Philosophy and 'dialectics' (again, in the post-Hegelian sense of that word) are based on "distorted language".
Indeed, the analysis outlined in this Essay (and elsewhere at this site) underlines why Marx was right.
[Although, it isn't being argued here that Marx would have agreed with this assessment! On the other hand, if he were consistent, he should have!]
Now, even if the above analysis is incorrect in some way, neither Aristotle, nor Hegel (nor anyone else, for that matter) has been able to explain how or why contingent features of Indo-European grammar could possibly have such profound implications built into them --, that is, how they could contain/reveal such fundamental truths about the deep structure of reality, valid for all of space and time.
Did the rest of us miss a meeting?
In fact, I call this approach to 'knowledge': Linguistic Idealism.
[More on that here and here.]
So, the above considerations reveal how and why Hegel screwed up -- and why the 'dialectic' (upside down, or 'the right way up') enjoys absolutely no rational support whatsoever.
High time we ditched this confused, defective and failed 'theory'.
Historical Materialism doesn't need it, and can do without it.
Does This Essay Refute Itself?
Finally, some might want to argue that to refute Hegel is ipso facto to confirm the dialectic. Hence, in trying to refute Hegel, this Essay refutes itself!
However, the above considerations do not amount to, nor were they intended to be a refutation of Hegel. In order to refute his work, one would have to show it to be false. On the contrary, what I have done here is show that his work is far too confused for anyone to be able to say whether or not it is false.
It doesn't make it that far.
Geach, P. (1968), Reference And Generality (Cornell University Press, 2nd ed.).
Hegel, G. (1975), Logic, translated by William Wallace (Oxford University Press, 3rd ed.).
--------, (1999), Science Of Logic, translated by A. V. Miller (Humanity Books).
Lenin, V. (1961), Philosophical Notebooks -- Collected Works Volume 38 (Progress Publishers).
Lowe, E. (2006), 'Take A Seat And The Consider This Simple Sentence', Times Higher Education Supplement, 07/04/06.
Novack, G. (1965), The Origins Of Materialism (Pathfinder Press).
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