Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis: Hegel's 'Mystical Triad'?


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I am re-publishing this material here in the vain hope that it will help squash the myth that Hegel's method can be summarised by the crude (and hackneyed) formula: 'Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis' (but in view of the fact that this 'Triad' appears in the article on 'Dialectical Materialism' over at Wikipedia, despite it having been pointed out many times, and over several years, that this isn't Hegel's method, that hope is itself wildly overoptimistic!):


"The most vexing and devastating Hegel legend is that everything is thought in 'thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.' [...] The actual texts of Hegel not only occasionally deviate from 'thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,' but show nothing of the sort. 'Dialectic' does not for Hegel mean 'thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.' Dialectic means that any 'ism' -- which has a polar opposite, or is a special viewpoint leaving 'the rest' to itself -- must be criticized by the logic of philosophical thought, whose problem is reality as such, the 'World-itself.'


"Hermann Glockner's reliable Hegel Lexikon (4 volumes, Stuttgart, 1935) does not list the Fichtean terms 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis' together. In all the twenty volumes of Hegel's 'complete works' he does not use this 'triad' once; nor does it occur in the eight volumes of Hegel texts, published for the first time in the twentieth Century. He refers to 'thesis, antithesis, and synthesis' in the Preface of the Phenomenology of Mind, where he considers the possibility of this 'triplicity' as a method or logic of philosophy. According to the Hegel-legend one would expect Hegel to recommend this 'triplicity.' But, after saying that it was derived from Kant, he calls it a 'lifeless schema,' 'mere shadow' and concludes: 'The trick of wisdom of that sort is as quickly acquired as it is easy to practice. Its repetition, when once it is familiar, becomes as boring as the repetition of any bit of sleigh-of-hand once we see through it. The instrument for producing this monotonous formalism is no more difficult to handle than the palette of a painter, on which lie only two colours....' (Preface, Werke, II, 48-49).


"In the student notes, edited and published as History of Philosophy, Hegel mentions in the Kant chapter, the 'spiritless scheme of the triplicity of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis' (geistloses Schema) by which the rhythm and movement of philosophic knowledge is artificially pre-scribed (vorgezeichnet).


"In the first important book about Hegel by his student, intimate friend and first biographer, Karl Rosenkranz (Hegels Leben, 1844), 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis' are conspicuous by their absence. It seems Hegel was quite successful in hiding his alleged 'method' from one of his best students.


"The very important new Hegel literature of this century has altogether abandoned the legend. Theodor Haering's Hegels Wollen und Werk (2 vol., Teubner, 1929 and 1938) makes a careful study of Hegel's terminology and language and finds not a trace of 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis.' In the second volume there are a few lines (pp.118, 126) in which he repeats what Hegel in the above quotation had said himself, i.e., that this 'conventional slogan' is particularly unfortunate because it impedes the understanding of Hegelian texts. As long as readers think that they have to find 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis' in Hegel they must find him obscure -- but what is obscure is not Hegel but their coloured glasses. Iwan Iljin's Hegel's Philosophie als kontemplative Gotteslehre (Bern, 1946) dismisses the 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis' legend in the Preface as a childish game (Spielerei), which does not even reach the front-porch of Hegel's philosophy.


"Other significant works, like Hermann Glockner, Hegel (2 vols., Stuttgart, 1929), Theodor Steinbüchel, Das Grundproblem der Hegelschen Philosophie (Bonn, 1933), and Theodor Litt, Hegel: Eine Kritische Erneuerung (Heidelberg, 1953), Emerich Coreth, S.J., Das Dialektische Sein in Hegels Logik (Wien, 1952), and many others have simply disregarded the legend. In my own monographs on Hegel über Offenbarung, Kirche und Philosophie (Munich, 1939) and Hegel über Sittlichkeit und Geschichte (Reinhardt, 1940), I never found any 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis.' Richard Kroner, in his introduction to the English edition of selections from Hegel's Early Theological Writings, puts it mildly when he says: 'This new Logic is of necessity as dialectical as the movement of thinking itself.... But it is by no means the mere application of a monotonous trick that could be learned and repeated. It is not the mere imposition of an ever recurring pattern. It may appear so in the mind of some historians who catalogue the living trend of thought, but in reality it is ever changing, ever growing development; Hegel is nowhere pedantic in pressing concepts into a ready-made mold (sic). The theme of thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis, like the motif of a musical composition, has many modulations and modifications. It is never "applied"; it is itself only a poor and not even helpful abstraction of what is really going on in Hegel's Logic.'


"Well, shall we keep this 'poor and not helpful abstraction' in our attic because 'some historians' have used it as their rocking-horse? We rather agree with the conclusion of Johannes Flügge: 'Dialectic is not the scheme of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis imputed to Hegel.'


"In an essay by Nicolai Hartmann on Aristoteles und Hegel, I find the following additional confirmation of all the other witnesses to the misinterpretation of Hegel's dialectic: 'It is a basically perverse opinion (grundverkehrte Ansicht) which sees the essence of dialectic in the triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.' The legend was spread by Karl Marx whose interpretation of Hegel is distorted. It is Marxism superimposed on Hegel. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, Marx says in Das Elend der Philosophie [The Poverty of Philosophy -- RL], is Hegel's purely logical formula for the movement of pure reason, and the whole system is engendered by this dialectical movement of thesis, antithesis, synthesis of all categories. This pure reason, he continues, is Mr. Hegel's own reason, and history becomes the history of his own philosophy, whereas in reality, thesis, antithesis, synthesis are the categories of economic movements. (Summary of Chapter II, Paragraph 1.) The few passages in Marx's writings that resemble philosophy are not his own. He practices the communistic habit of expropriation without compensation. Knowing this in general, I was also convinced that there must be a source for this 'thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,' and I finally discovered it.


"In the winter of 1835-36, a group of Kantians in Dresden called on Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus, professor of philosophy at the University of Kiel, to lecture to them on the new philosophical movement after Kant. They were older, professional men who in their youth had been Kantians, and now wanted an orientation in a development which they distrusted; but they also wanted a confirmation of their own Kantianism. Professor Chalybäus did just those two things. His lectures appeared in 1837 under the title Historische Entwicklung der speculativen Philosophie von Kant bis Hegel, Zu näherer Verständigung des wissenschaftlichen Publikums mit der neuesten Schule. The book was very popular and appeared in three editions. In my copy of the third edition of 1843, Professor Chalybäus says (p. 354): 'This is the first trilogy: the unity of Being, Nothing and Becoming...we have in this first methodical thesis, antithesis, and example or schema for all that follows.' This was for Chalybäus a brilliant hunch which he had not used previously and did not pursue afterwards in any way at all. But Karl Marx was at that time a student at the university of Berlin and a member of the Hegel Club where the famous book was discussed. He took the hunch and spread it into a deadly, abstract machinery. Other left Hegelians, such as Arnold Ruge, Ludwig Feuerbach, Max Stirner, use 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis' just as little as Hegel.


"{Quote from the article of Gustav E. Müller: The Hegel Legend of 'Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis', in 'Journal of the History of Ideas', Volume XIX, June 1958, Number 3, Page 411. The article is still as valid today as it was in 1958.}"


[This passage can be accessed here. Bold emphasis alone added. Quotation marks have been altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site; spelling adjusted to agree with UK English. The full article is Müller (1958). (The comments (in curly brackets) appended to the end of the above passage aren't mine!)]


Glenn Magee has tried to blunt conclusions like this, arguing as follows:


" often distorted by well-meaning commentators who see Hegel's apparent obsession with triadic form as an embarrassing superstition. For instance, Gustav Müller treats the passage as follows: 'According to the Hegel legend one would expect Hegel to recommend this 'triplicity'. But, after saying that it was derived from Kant, he calls this a "lifeless schema"...'.... Müller, however, completely distorts what Hegel has said. As I have pointed out, Hegel says that Kant rediscovered triadic form, not that it derives from Kant. Further, Hegel says...that triadic form is unscientific 'when it is reduced to a lifeless schema'.... He does not say that it is always a 'lifeless schema'. A cursory glance at the structure of Hegel's system shows that he thought that there was some life in the old schema yet." [Magee (2008), p.100. Italic emphases in the original.]


However, as far as I can see, Müller is merely making a point about the wooden formula, "Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis", not about triplicity itself.


As Hegel scholar Terry Pinkard notes:


"This myth was started by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus. It appears in a history he wrote of recent German philosophy (published in the 1840s), in which he said, roughly, that Fichte's philosophy followed the model of thesis/antithesis/synthesis, but Hegel went further and cosmologized that notion, extending it to the entire universe. The book was widely read (apparently the young Marx was one of its readers), and the idea stuck. It's still touted in a lot of short encyclopedia entries about Hegel. Like many little encapsulations of thought, it has the virtue of being easy to understand and easy to summarize. It's just not very helpful in understanding Hegel's thought. It has also contributed to the lack of appreciation of Hegel in Anglophone philosophy. It's not too hard to point out all the places where it doesn't apply, dismiss it as a kind of dialectical trick, and then just go on to conclude that Hegel isn't worth reading at all.


"Both ideas (Hegel as cosmological idealist, Hegel as seeing the development of this Great Mind as progressing from thesis to antithesis to synthesis) represent a falsification of Hegel's thought, and their ongoing popularity surely has to do with their sound bite quality. You can sum up Hegel quickly, get the impression you understand him, and also dismiss him just as quickly. Looking at the real Hegel is harder but more rewarding...." [Extract from an interview quoted from here. (Unfortunately, this link is now dead!)]


Indeed, this is what Hegel himself had to say about triplicity:


"In this turning point of the method, the course of cognition at the same time returns into itself. As self-sublating contradiction this negativity is the restoration of the first immediacy, of simple universality; for the other of the other, the negative of the negative, is immediately the positive, the identical, the universal. If one insists on counting, this second immediate is, in the course of the method as a whole, the third term to the first immediate and the mediated. It is also, however, the third term to the first or formal negative and to absolute negativity or the second negative; now as the first negative is already the second term, the term reckoned as third can also be reckoned as fourth, and instead of a triplicity, the abstract form may be taken as a quadruplicity; in this way, the negative or the difference is counted as a duality. The third or fourth is in general the unity of the first and second moments, of the immediate and the mediated. That it is this unity, as also that the whole form of the method is a triplicity, is, it is true, merely the superficial external side of the mode of cognition; but to have demonstrated even this, and that too in a more specific application -- for it is well known that the abstract number form itself was advanced at quite an early period, but, in the absence of the Notion, without result -- must also be regarded as an infinite merit of the Kantian philosophy. The syllogism, which is threefold, has always been recognised as the universal form of reason; but for one thing it counted generally for a quite external form that did not determine the nature of the content, and for another thing, since it progresses in the formal sense merely in the understanding's determination of identity, it lacks the essential dialectical moment of negativity; yet this moment enters into the triplicity of determinations because the third is the unity of the first two, and these, since they are different, can be in the unity only as sublated determinations. Formalism has, it is true, also taken possession of triplicity and adhered to its empty schema; the shallow ineptitude and barrenness of modern philosophic construction so-called, that consists in nothing but fastening this schema on to everything without Notion and immanent determination and employing it for an external arrangement, has made the said form tedious and given it a bad name. Yet the triteness of this use of it cannot detract from its inner worth and we must always value highly the discovery of the shape of the rational, even though it was at first uncomprehended." [Hegel (1999), pp.836-37, §§1801-1802. Bold emphases alone added. I have used and re-formatted the on-line version, and have restored the italic emphases that the latter has (mysteriously) omitted, but which appear in the published version.]


So, although Hegel didn't reject triplicity outright, he clearly thought it too crude to represent the full complexity of his method.


However, since Hegel's method suffers from other, far more serious defects (on that, see here and here), the above comments would appear to be merely academic.


And, here is Lenin:


"In our times, the idea of development, of evolution, has almost completely penetrated social consciousness, only in other ways, and not through Hegelian philosophy. Still, this idea, as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel's philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis ('the negation of the negation'), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; 'breaks in continuity'; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws -- these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one. (Cf. Marx's letter to Engels of January 8, 1868, in which he ridicules Stein's 'wooden trichotomies,' which it would be absurd to confuse with materialist dialectics.)" [The Marxist Doctrine,1914. Bold emphasis alone added; quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site. Minor typo corrected.]


Although, Marx's letter, to which Lenin refers, merely says this:


"But the oddest thing is that he [Dühring -- RL] ranks me with Stein, because I pursue the dialectic, and Stein assembles thoughtlessly the greatest trivialities in clumsy hair-splitting, with a few Hegelian category conversions." [MECW, Volume 42, p.513. Unfortunately, this letter has not yet been reproduced on-line at the Marxist Internet Archive.] 


So, even though Marx doesn't mention these "triads" in this letter (Lenin is notoriously cavalier with such details), the important thing to note is Lenin's negative opinion of them, nonetheless.


[According to the editors of the above volume, Stein was a "German lawyer, historian and economist, author of works on the socialist movement, advocate of 'social monarchy'." (Ibid., p.709.)]


However, a few months ago, I received a copy of Wheat (2012), which claims that everyone (other than Paul Tillich and Karl Marx!) has misunderstood Hegel. Nevertheless, as far as I can see, Wheat provides no new textual evidence to support the claim that Hegel accepted the wooden formula, 'Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis'. In its place, Wheat simply assumes that triplicity (as such) and dialectics are identical. [Compare that with what Hegel himself thought, and with what he says about identity!]


I will add more details when I have finished reading Wheat's convoluted book.


Independently of this, it is a moot point whether anyone has ever understood Hegel. In fact, I'd go further, it is a moot point whether there is anything (substantive) in Hegel that is comprehensible --, or, indeed, whether there is anything in Hegel that is worth a single materialist, atheist, or anti-mystic even attempting to understand. No more than there is anything worth studying in, for example, books devoted to dowsing or crystal gazing.


As I pointed out in Essay Nine Part One (in relation to Lenin's infamous words):


Even worse, Lenin's comments suggest that only a tiny fraction (if that!) of revolutionaries have ever fully understood Marxism (or, at least Das Kapital). Lenin is quite clear: only those Marxists who have "thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic" (emphasis added) can claim to be able to comprehend Das Kapital; short of that they can't. Again, how many revolutionaries have thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic (let alone read it) since Lenin's day? Even professional philosophers find that work daunting, and of those who claim to understand it, the presumption must be that that is an empty boast until they succeed in explaining it clearly to the rest of us.


Nevertheless, a far more serious and damaging question is the following: How would it be possible to decide if anyone has ever actually understood all of Hegel's Logic?


Plainly, we can't enquire of Hegel what the correct interpretation of his work is. Even Lenin himself failed to provide us with a comprehensive (or comprehensible) account of all of Hegel's Logic. And, as we know with regard to the interpretation of that other (but far less) obscure book -- The Bible --, it is always open for someone to claim that their interpretation is the correct one, while all the rest aren't, with no viable way of deciding between them.


To be sure, Wheat's book largely focuses on the Phenomenology of Spirit/Mind, but the above points are valid all the same.


Be this as it may, the above suggests that Marx and all subsequent Marxists who use or reference this 'schema' aren't reliable interpreters of Hegel. Having said that, it is arguable that Marx was being ironic and dismissive when he said the following in The Poverty of Philosophy.


"If we had M. Proudhon's intrepidity in the matter of Hegelianism we should say: it is distinguished in itself from itself. What does this mean? Impersonal reason, having outside itself neither a base on which it can pose itself, nor an object to which it can oppose itself, nor a subject with which it can compose itself, is forced to turn head over heels, in posing itself, opposing itself and composing itself -- position, opposition, composition. Or, to speak Greek -- we have thesis, antithesis and synthesis. For those who do not know the Hegelian language, we shall give the ritual formula: affirmation, negation and negation of the negation. That is what language means. It is certainly not Hebrew (with due apologies to M. Proudhon); but it is the language of this pure reason, separate from the individual. Instead of the ordinary individual with his ordinary manner of speaking and thinking we have nothing but this ordinary manner purely and simply -- without the individual....


"So what is this absolute method? The abstraction of movement. What is the abstraction of movement? Movement in abstract condition. What is movement in abstract condition? The purely logical formula of movement or the movement of pure reason. Wherein does the movement of pure reason consist? In posing itself, opposing itself, composing itself; in formulating itself as thesis, antithesis, synthesis; or, yet, in affirming itself, negating itself, and negating its negation.


"How does reason manage to affirm itself, to pose itself in a definite category? That is the business of reason itself and of its apologists.


"But once it has managed to pose itself as a thesis, this thesis, this thought, opposed to itself, splits up into two contradictory thoughts – the positive and the negative, the yes and no. The struggle between these two antagonistic elements comprised in the antithesis constitutes the dialectical movement. The yes becoming no, the no becoming yes, the yes becoming both yes and no, the no becoming both no and yes, the contraries balance, neutralize, paralyze each other. The fusion of these two contradictory thoughts constitutes a new thought, which is the synthesis of them. This thought splits up once again into two contradictory thoughts, which in turn fuse into a new synthesis. Of this travail is born a group of thoughts. This group of thoughts follows the same dialectic movement as the simple category, and has a contradictory group as antithesis. Of these two groups of thoughts is born a new group of thoughts, which is the antithesis of them.


"Just as from the dialectic movement of the simple categories is born the group, so from the dialectic movement of the groups is born the series, and from the dialectic movement of the series is born the entire system.


"Apply this method to the categories of political economy and you have the logic and metaphysics of political economy, or, in other words, you have the economic categories that everybody knows, translated into a little-known language which makes them look as if they had never blossomed forth in an intellect of pure reason; so much do these categories seem to engender one another, to be linked up and intertwined with one another by the very working of the dialectic movement. The reader must not get alarmed at these metaphysics with all their scaffolding of categories, groups, series, and systems. M. Proudhon, in spite of all the trouble he has taken to scale the heights of the system of contradictions, has never been able to raise himself above the first two rungs of simple thesis and antithesis; and even these he has mounted only twice, and on one of these two occasions he fell over backwards.


"Up to now we have expounded only the dialectics of Hegel. We shall see later how M. Proudhon has succeeded in reducing it to the meanest proportions. Thus, for Hegel, all that has happened and is still happening is only just what is happening in his own mind. Thus the philosophy of history is nothing but the history of philosophy, of his own philosophy. There is no longer a 'history according to the order in time,' there is only 'the sequence of ideas in the understanding.' He thinks he is constructing the world by the movement of thought, whereas he is merely reconstructing systematically and classifying by the absolute method of thoughts which are in the minds of all." [Marx (1978), pp.98-102. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site. Link added.]


It is clear that when Marx refers to Hegel's 'dialectics'/'method' he is talking about his earlier comments from the same section of this book:


"Is it surprising that everything, in the final abstraction -- for we have here an abstraction, and not an analysis -- presents itself as a logical category? Is it surprising that, if you let drop little by little all that constitutes the individuality of a house, leaving out first of all the materials of which it is composed, then the form that distinguishes it, you end up with nothing but a body; that if you leave out of account the limits of this body, you soon have nothing but a space -– that if, finally, you leave out of account the dimensions of this space, there is absolutely nothing left but pure quantity, the logical category? If we abstract thus from every subject all the alleged accidents, animate or inanimate, men or things, we are right in saying that in the final abstraction the only substance left is the logical categories. Thus the metaphysicians, who in making these abstractions, think they are making analyses, and who, the more they detach themselves from things, imagine themselves to be getting all the nearer to the point of penetrating to their core -- these metaphysicians in turn are right in saying that things here below are embroideries of which the logical categories constitute the canvas. This is what distinguishes the philosopher from the Christian. The Christian, in spite of logic, has only one incarnation of the Logos; the philosopher has never finished with incarnations. If all that exists, all that lives on land, and under water, can be reduced by abstraction to a logical category -- if the whole real world can be drowned thus in a world of abstractions, in the world of logical categories -- who need be astonished at it?


"All that exists, all that lives on land and under water, exists and lives only by some kind of movement. Thus, the movement of history produces social relations; industrial movement gives us industrial products, etc.


"Just as by means of abstraction we have transformed everything into a logical category, so one has only to make an abstraction of every characteristic distinctive of different movements to attain movement in its abstract condition -- purely formal movement, the purely logical formula of movement. If one finds in logical categories the substance of all things, one imagines one has found in the logical formula of movement the absolute method, which not only explains all things, but also implies the movement of things.


"It is of this absolute method that Hegel speaks in these terms:


'Method is the absolute, unique, supreme, infinite force, which no object can resist; it is the tendency of reason to find itself again, to recognize itself in every object.' (Logic, Vol. III [p. 29])


"All things being reduced to a logical category, and every movement, every act of production, to method, it follows naturally that every aggregate of products and production, of objects and of movement, can be reduced to a form of applied metaphysics. What Hegel has done for religion, law, etc., M. Proudhon seeks to do for political economy." [Marx (1978), pp.99-100. Italic emphases in the original.]


And we can see from what Marx wrote in The Holy Family that it is this method of abstraction, turning everything into a 'logical category', that "constitutes the essential character of Hegel's method", not the 'thesis-antithesis-synthesis' triad:


"Now that Critical Criticism as the tranquillity of knowledge has 'made' all the mass-type 'antitheses its concern', has mastered all reality in the form of categories and dissolved all human activity into speculative dialectics, we shall see it produce the world again out of speculative dialectics. It goes without saying that if the miracles of the Critically speculative creation of the world are not to be 'desecrated', they can be presented to the profane mass only in the form of mysteries. Critical Criticism therefore appears in the incarnation of Vishnu-Szeliga ["Szeliga" was the pseudonym of a young Hegelian, Franz Zychlinski -- RL] as a mystery-monger....


"The mystery of the Critical presentation of the Mystéres de Paris is the mystery of speculative, of Hegelian construction. Once Herr Szeliga has proclaimed that 'degeneracy within civilisation' and rightlessness in the state are 'mysteries', i.e., has dissolved them in the category 'mystery', he lets 'mystery' begin its speculative career. A few words will suffice to characterise speculative construction in general. Herr Szeliga's treatment of the Mystéres de Paris will give the application in detail.


"If from real apples, pears, strawberries and almonds I form the general idea 'Fruit', if I go further and imagine that my abstract idea 'Fruit', derived from real fruit, is an entity existing outside me, is indeed the true essence of the pear, the apple, etc., then -- in the language of speculative philosophy –- I am declaring that 'Fruit' is the 'Substance' of the pear, the apple, the almond, etc. I am saying, therefore, that to be an apple is not essential to the apple; that what is essential to these things is not their real existence, perceptible to the senses, but the essence that I have abstracted from them and then foisted on them, the essence of my idea -– 'Fruit'. I therefore declare apples, pears, almonds, etc., to be mere forms of existence, modi, of 'Fruit'. My finite understanding supported by my senses does of course distinguish an apple from a pear and a pear from an almond, but my speculative reason declares these sensuous differences inessential and irrelevant. It sees in the apple the same as in the pear, and in the pear the same as in the almond, namely 'Fruit'. Particular real fruits are no more than semblances whose true essence is 'the substance' -- 'Fruit'.


"By this method one attains no particular wealth of definition. The mineralogist whose whole science was limited to the statement that all minerals are really 'the Mineral' would be a mineralogist only in his imagination. For every mineral the speculative mineralogist says 'the Mineral', and his science is reduced to repeating this word as many times as there are real minerals.


"Having reduced the different real fruits to the one 'fruit' of abstraction -– 'the Fruit', speculation must, in order to attain some semblance of real content, try somehow to find its way back from 'the Fruit', from the Substance to the diverse, ordinary real fruits, the pear, the apple, the almond etc. It is as hard to produce real fruits from the abstract idea 'the Fruit' as it is easy to produce this abstract idea from real fruits. Indeed, it is impossible to arrive at the opposite of an abstraction without relinquishing the abstraction.


"The speculative philosopher therefore relinquishes the abstraction 'the Fruit', but in a speculative, mystical fashion -- with the appearance of not relinquishing it. Thus it is really only in appearance that he rises above his abstraction. He argues somewhat as follows:


"If apples, pears, almonds and strawberries are really nothing but 'the Substance', 'the Fruit', the question arises: Why does 'the Fruit' manifest itself to me sometimes as an apple, sometimes as a pear, sometimes as an almond? Why this semblance of diversity which so obviously contradicts my speculative conception of Unity, 'the Substance', 'the Fruit'?


"This, answers the speculative philosopher, is because 'the Fruit' is not dead, undifferentiated, motionless, but a living, self-differentiating, moving essence. The diversity of the ordinary fruits is significant not only for my sensuous understanding, but also for 'the Fruit' itself and for speculative reason. The different ordinary fruits are different manifestations of the life of the 'one Fruit'; they are crystallisations of 'the Fruit' itself. Thus in the apple 'the Fruit' gives itself an apple-like existence, in the pear a pear-like existence. We must therefore no longer say, as one might from the standpoint of the Substance: a pear is 'the Fruit', an apple is 'the Fruit', an almond is 'the Fruit', but rather 'the Fruit' presents itself as a pear, 'the Fruit' presents itself as an apple, 'the Fruit' presents itself as an almond; and the differences which distinguish apples, pears and almonds from one another are the self-differentiations of 'the Fruit' and make the particular fruits different members of the life-process of 'the Fruit'. Thus 'the Fruit' is no longer an empty undifferentiated unity; it is oneness as allness, as 'totality' of fruits, which constitute an 'organically linked series of members'. In every member of that series 'the Fruit' gives itself a more developed, more explicit existence, until finally, as the 'summary' of all fruits, it is at the same time the living unity which contains all those fruits dissolved in itself just as it produces them from within itself, just as, for instance, all the limbs of the body are constantly dissolved in and constantly produced out of the blood.


"We see that if the Christian religion knows only one Incarnation of God, speculative philosophy has as many incarnations as there are things, just as it has here in every fruit an incarnation of the Substance, of the Absolute Fruit. The main interest for the speculative philosopher is therefore to produce the existence of the real ordinary fruits and to say in some mysterious way that there are apples, pears, almonds and raisins. But the apples, pears, almonds and raisins that we rediscover in the speculative world are nothing but semblances of apples, semblances of pears, semblances of almonds and semblances of raisins, for they are moments in the life of 'the Fruit', this abstract creation of the mind, and therefore themselves abstract creations of the mind. Hence what is delightful in this speculation is to rediscover all the real fruits there, but as fruits which have a higher mystical significance, which have grown out of the ether of your brain and not out of the material earth, which are incarnations of 'the Fruit', of the Absolute Subject. When you return from the abstraction, the supernatural creation of the mind, 'the Fruit', to real natural fruits, you give on the contrary the natural fruits a supernatural significance and transform them into sheer abstractions. Your main interest is then to point out the unity of 'the Fruit' in all the manifestations of its life…that is, to show the mystical interconnection between these fruits, how in each of them 'the Fruit' realizes itself by degrees and necessarily progresses, for instance, from its existence as a raisin to its existence as an almond. Hence the value of the ordinary fruits no longer consists in their natural qualities, but in their speculative quality, which gives each of them a definite place in the life-process of 'the Absolute Fruit'.


"The ordinary man does not think he is saying anything extraordinary when he states that there are apples and pears. But when the philosopher expresses their existence in the speculative way he says something extraordinary. He performs a miracle by producing the real natural objects, the apple, the pear, etc., out of the unreal creation of the mind 'the Fruit'. And in regard to every object the existence of which he expresses, he accomplishes an act of creation.


"It goes without saying that the speculative philosopher accomplishes this continuous creation only by presenting universally known qualities of the apple, the pear, etc., which exist in reality, as determining features invented by him, by giving the names of the real things to what abstract reason alone can create, to abstract formulas of reason, finally, by declaring his own activity, by which he passes from the idea of an apple to the idea of a pear, to be the self-activity of the Absolute Subject, 'the Fruit.'


"In the speculative way of speaking, this operation is called comprehending Substance as Subject, as an inner process, as an Absolute Person, and this comprehension constitutes the essential character of Hegel's method." [Marx and Engels (1975), pp.71-75. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site. Italic emphases in the original; bold emphasis added.]


If not, then (according to Lenin) that must mean that Marx didn't understand Das Kapital!

"It is impossible completely to understand Marx's Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!" [Lenin (1961), p.180. Bold emphases alone added.]


Naturally, this implies that understanding Hegel (even if that were possible) isn't integral to Marxism, or we would be faced with the ridiculous conclusion that Marx didn't understand the core text of Marxism -- Das Kapital -- depending, of course, on how we read The Poverty of Philosophy.


Finally, I have explained here and here why I think Hegel's influence on Marx has been greatly exaggerated; I have also explained here why 'dialectical' Marxists in general have appropriated this Hermetic incompetent's work (upside down or the 'right way up'), saddling revolutionary socialism with a vague and incomprehensible 'theory', which has presided over a century or more of almost total failure.






Hegel, G. (1999), Science Of Logic, translated by A. V. Miller (Humanity Books).


Lenin, V. (1961), Philosophical Notebooks Collected Works Volume 38 (Progress Publishers).


Magee, G. (2008), Hegel And The Hermetic Tradition (Cornell University Press). [The Introduction to this work is available here.]


Marx, K. (1978), The Poverty Of Philosophy (Foreign Languages Press).


Marx, K., and Engels, F. (1975), The Holy Family (Progress Publishers, 2nd ed.).


Müller, G. (1958), 'The Hegel Legend Of "Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis"', Journal of the History of Ideas 19, pp.411-14; reprinted in Stewart (1996), pp.301-05. Much of this article can be accessed here.


Stewart, J. (1996) (ed.), The Hegel Myths And Legends (Northwestern University Press).


Wheat, L. (2012), Hegel's Undiscovered Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Dialectics: What Only Marx And Tillich Understood (Prometheus Books).


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