Michela Bordignon (University of Padova) Contradiction or not-contradiction?

This is the problem Contradiction is a key concept in Hegel’s logic. Nevertheless, this concept is highly problematic because of its ambiguity or polysemy. This paper has two aims: I. To distinguish the three basic ways in which Hegel uses the concept of contradiction. II. To show how each of the three ways is based on a specific perspective on negativity and how this corresponds to a different value of the contradiction in the dialectical process. PART I Starting with the first point, I will analyze the general features of the three kinds of contradiction, and for each one I will provide and examine an example in Hegel’s Science of Logic1. 1. Contradiction as mistake of the understanding First of all, contradiction in Hegel’s logic means the mistake of the abstract comprehension of the understanding (Verstand). Understanding fixes every determination as something independent and self-subsistent and therefore it stops to the immediate and abstract structure of a determination. This abstraction basically consists in an exclusion of the constitutive role of the other of a determination in the way the determination defines itself. Nevertheless, this exclusion is still a kind of relation between the other and the determination. Therefore, the understanding at the same time
(a) denies the constitutive role of the other in the way in which a determination defines itself; (b) implicitly affirms it, because this constitutive role is implied in the exclusion denoted by the

denial itself. This is exactly what happens in the understanding’s claim about the infinite. Conceived as absolutely separate from the finite, the infinite turns out to be itself something finite, namely the bad infinite:
The infinite as thus posited over against the finite, in a relation wherein they are as qualitatively distinct others, is to be called the bad infinite, the infinite of the understanding, for which it has the value of the highest, the absolute Truth. The understanding […] is entangled in the unreconciled, unresolved, absolute contradiction […]. This contradiction occurs as a direct result of the circumstance that the finite remains as a determinate being opposed to the infinite, so that there are two determinatenesses; there are two worlds, one infinite and one finite, and in their relationship the infinite is only the limit of the finite and is thus only a determinate infinite, an infinite which is itself finite2.
1

The distinction between these three kinds of contradiction refers to an interpretative model that I developed with Prof. Luca Illetterati. Cf. L. Illetterati, Contradictio regula falsi? Intorno alla teoria hegeliana della contraddizione, in F. Puppo (ed.), La contradizion che nol consente. Forme del sapere e valore del principio di non contraddizione, F. Angeli, Milano 2010, pp. 85-114. 2 G.W.F. Hegel, Science of Logic, transl. by A.V. Miller, Allen – Unwin, London 1969, pp. 139-140.

Hegels Analytische Philosophie. even if negative. Making it explicit. The term ‘contradiction’ is synonymous with some kind of opposition (the relation between correlatives. Berto. An example of this metaphorical meaning of the notion of contradiction can be found in a passage about the mechanical object: 3 Some interpreters generalize this meaning of contradiction and see this logical structure only a negative-critical moment of the dialectical method. This means to acknowledge the truth of a determination. The contradiction of the understanding is a symptom of the falsehood of understanding’s determination. Paderborn 1992. conceives of the infinite as something determinate. Schöningh. Marconi. Nevertheless. The unity of opposed determinations in some passages is defined as contradictory. A Study of the Science of Logic. Padova 2005. Il Poligrafo. the understanding (a) claims that the infinite is separate from the finite. in keeping apart the finite and the infinite as two separate determinations. but its structure is not always a real contradiction. Rather. (b) this same claim implies the being finite of the infinite itself. it is simply the negative result of their immediate and abstract articulation3. Cambridge Mass. Contradiction and the Language of Hegel’s Dialectic. If we relate this notion of contradiction with the development of the dialectical process. or. Pittsburgh 1980. 2. etc). The contradiction forces us to look at the structure of the determination in question by abandoning the immediate perspective of the understanding. its real and concrete structure. finite. D. . Brandom. as a unity of opposites. because it is able to grasp only the first. Hence. more precisely. That’s why understanding’s claim on the nature of infinite is in itself contradictory. Contradiction as a metaphor The second way in which Hegel uses the notion of contradiction is the metaphorical one. contrary terms. Harvard University Press. the contradiction of the understanding arises implicitly in the first moment of the method (the abstractintellectual one). Therefore. University Microfilms International. going beyond the abstract fixation of the opposite terms. This metaphorical meaning deals with some occurrences of the unity of opposed determinations. this contradiction does not characterize the concrete structure of the determinations. that is to say. namely of the impossibility for the understanding to develop the concrete nature of a logical determination. an infinite which contradicts understanding’s initial assumption about the infinite being strictly separate from the finite. R.The understanding. Die Wissenschaft der Logik als kritische Theorie der Bedeutung. P. F. Cf. it is a kind of relation between two opposite terms that can be called a contradiction only in a metaphorical sense. Stekeler-Weithofer. Che cos’è la dialettica hegeliana?. the role of the contradiction of the understanding is constitutive too. This first meaning of the concept of contradiction does not undermine the logical consistency of the system. immediate and abstract moment of it. 1994. and is made explicit in the second one (the dialectical-negative one).

3. On the contrary. 285-316. the negative unity of a number of object which. Études Hégélienne. in their being together in the object. or the contradiction of their complete externality in the identity of their determinateness. The two contradictory aspects of the mechanical object are: (a) the mutual indifference between the different parts of the object – the object is an aggregate of different parts. In some cases. It is not a contradiction between two different 4 Ivi. Some interpreters see in this metaphorical meaning as the essential value of the notion of contradiction in Hegel’s thought. Roma-Bari 1974. If we relate this notion of contradiction with the development of the dialectical process. because it is the truth of this determination. The indifference of each part is a quality intrinsic to the parts themselves. This contradiction turns out to be the concrete articulation of a determination: its function is constitutive in a positive sense. The speculative self-contradiction Contradiction in Hegel’s logic has a third meaning too. which is one with the intrinsic reflection of the determinations themselves. Hartmann. 5 . Les points capitaux du système. Colletti. the mechanical object is not contradictory in itself. Nevertheless. namely with their internal dialectic. because it is not characterized by the structure of a logical contradiction: it consists simply in a relation between opposite terms not implying any kind of inconsistence5. their being related in a unity is a quality extrinsic to them. Laterza. Cf. simply repel one another: this is the mechanical process4. F. the truth of this contradiction does not undermine the logical consistency of the system. L. because (a) and (b) cannot be ascribed to it in the same respect. Intervista politico-filosofica. Gregoire. we have the manifest contradiction between the complete mutual indifference of the objects and the identity of their determinateness. It belongs to the concrete reflection of reason (Vernunft). each one with its specific determinacy. where the unity of opposed determination get developed. then. In fact. p. Therefore this contradiction takes place in the third moment of the dialectical process (positive-speculative one). Hence. this metaphorical contradiction characterizes the structure of the determinations. the metaphorical contradiction is the result of the overcoming of the abstractness of understanding’s comprehension. their relation is ascribable only to the whole within which they stay together. Even if (a) and (b) are in contradiction with one another. form the determinacy of the object itself. (b) the identity of the determinacy of these parts – the different parts. the unity of opposites in not only metaphorically contradictory. Hegel et le problème de la dialectique du réel.Here. Contradiction denotes the concrete logical structure of some determinations. N. therefore. namely it is an objective contradiction. This contradiction is. Paris 1958. 38 (1931). in that unity. and this because of their constitutive indifference. Lovain. that is their identical determinacy. in «Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale». but properly contradictory. 715. pp.

or. Sometimes this unity is only metaphorically contradictory. namely the finite is identical with itself in its passing over into its other. Padova 2004. An example of this kind of contradiction is the determination of the finite: Something with its immanent limit. Affirming that the true structure of a determination is a real contradiction means to claim that there are true contradictions7. L’eco della caverna. This contradiction is the truth of these determinations. p. The finite is itself in not being itself. (b) it is not itself – it ends in its not-being. It is the contradiction of the finite in itself. but it turns out to be is highly problematic with respect to the third conception of contradiction. It is their truth. posited as the contradiction of itself. S. the fully articulated structure through which they realize their very nature. it is the finite6.determinations. Chiereghin. On the one hand. Cf. in its coming to an end and not being itself anymore. The contradiction of the finite is not a contradiction of the finite in relation with something else. at the same time and in the same respect. Therefore the finite. its own truth. insofar as it get determined in two ways that are incompatible according to the principles of standard logic. It is basically another way in which the unity of opposites get embodied in the dialectical development of the logical system. that is to say. it is properly itself because it realizes its own finitude. The way the finite fully displays its way of being. is characterized by two properties that are incompatible according to the principles of standard logic. as the concept of these determinations. but a contradiction which deals with the content of the determinations. F. the finite is itself insofar as it ends and it is no more itself. by stopping being itself. The Opening of Hegel’s Logic. This corresponds to a denial of 6 Ivi. Some other times it is properly contradictory. 129. 7 . namely in its ending: (a) it is itself – it realizes its own being. The finite is self-contradictory. Rather. Il Poligrafo. Ricerche di filosofia della logica e della mente. where truth needs to be meant in a Hegelian sense. If we relate this notion of contradiction with the development of the dialectical process. the structure in which they realize their nature. its finitude. simply said. through which it is directed and forced out of and beyond itself. This is not problematic for the metaphorical contradiction. In both cases the contradiction characterizes the structure of the determination. On the other hand. and then in being different from itself. namely the concrete way in which they get developed. Houlgate. Hence it is not a formal contradiction. Few interpreters acknowledge such a kind of thesis. Purdue University Press. realizes its very nature. the finite. it is a contradiction of a determination in itself. It takes place in the third moment of the dialectical process. this contradiction is – like the metaphorical one – the result of the overcoming of the abstractness of understanding’s comprehension.

it is the not being of its other: The finite is real determinate being which persists as such even when transition is made to its nonbeing. as has been shown. It represents the very first moment which leads to the unfolding of the truth. It rather turns out to render the infinite something finite. just as the finite as opposed to that negation has. . 8 Ivi. Königstein/Ts 1981. in order to avoid contradiction. In the case of the bad infinite. 1. giving rise to that contradiction that the understanding wanted to avoid at the beginning of the process. p. Der Begriff des Widerspruchs. Hein. this contradiction is a necessary step in the dialectical process. namely the concrete nature. keeps the determinations separated from their opposite. According to the way negativity is considered. each of the determinations is simply the other of its opposite. It is not determined at all. This kind of contradiction arises because the understanding. Wolff. this. has only the first.the principle of non-contradiction. The infinite is simply the other of the finite and in this way it is merely what is “beyond” the finite. contradiction develops in different senses and assumes different values in the dialectical process. that is the negativity intrinsic and constitutive in the determinations themselves (omnis determinatio est negatio). immediate negation for its determinateness relatively to the finite. M. is substantially critical-negative. and within this abstract conception each one of the two opposite determinations is the immediate negation of the other. The infinite is kept apart from the finite. as mistake of the understanding. The abstract negativity at the basis of this one-sided infinite has not a determining value with respect to the way this determination is constituted. This is what happens in the bad infinite. PART II Given these three meanings of the concept of contradiction in Hegel’s logic. This connection is based on the negativity that grounds them. of a determination. on the basis of the principle of ex falso quodlibet. 140. Eine Studie zur Dialektik des Kants und Hegels. On the basis of this abstract and immediate negativity. The abstract negativity I will start with the conception of contradiction as mistake of the understanding. Nevertheless. The value of this contradiction. therefore. and undermines the logical consistence of the system. namely it is not developed in its concrete nature. the second step will be to highlight what kind of connection there is between them. only the significance of an other and is. the contradiction of the understanding turns out to render the infinite West Lafayette 2006. to the infinite. still [only] something8. as negated.

2. because the ‘being in itself’. The different terms are not determined in themselves. On the contrary. Abstract negativity moves from one single determination and highlights only the negative aspect of this relation: in determining each of the opposite determination as the nonbeing of the other. independent and self-subsistent. Both kinds of negativity deal with the relation between opposite determinations. but only on the basis of a relation that is external to them. In this sense the contradiction of the understanding is a sort of negative reflex of the concrete contradictory structure of the infinite itself. concrete negativity highlights also the determining value of this relation. or again an order. The mechanical object overcomes its immediacy and realizes its notion in the mechanical process. external to the terms in question: The form that constitutes their difference and combines them into a unity is external. In the same way. The external negativity The metaphorical contradiction is an opposition between two different terms which overcome their immediacy and form a ‘unity of opposites’ within which they realize their concrete nature. It is an external relation. namely the fact that every determination has in itself its other as its constitutive moment. all these are combinations that are indifferent to what is so related9. This relation is their 9 10 Ivi.something finite. but a kind of relation to other that constitutes the way a determination articulates itself. the infinite fully determines itself and it fully articulates its concrete structure. The negativity grounding this unity has a determining value. this relation remains. but I will say more on this in the account of negativity with respect to metaphorical and constitutive contradiction. The relation through which the different terms get determined as what they really are is not inherent in them. a certain arrangement of parts and sides. Ibid. That’s why in these terms «a principle of self-determination is nowhere to be found»10. Only in including in itself its opposite. So it is not a formal-abstract negation. in a certain way. This nature comes to light only in the mutual relation within the mechanical process that intrinsically connects each one with the others. namely that immediacy according to which its other is its simple not-being. where the different parts are really united in their difference. toward which they remain indifferent. indifferent one. is what is overcome in the unity of opposite determinations. the abstract negativity on which this contradiction is based is a sort of negative reflex of the concrete negativity that constitutes the real structure of the determination in question. p. of each term. whether it be a mixture. . indifferent to their own mechanical nature. The kind of negativity that grounds this opposition is not a simple negation. This shows that the infinite necessarily includes the finite in itself. like many others. Out of their relation they are simply independent elements. 713. Nevertheless. this negativity keeps them apart as independent and self-subsistent.

but it is in itself contradictory. This relation to other. but only in the negative unity containing them. This negativity is not a simple abstract negation. The finite is not in contradiction with respect to something else. and that’s why they are not determined in themselves. the exteriority of this relation to other does not allow the terms involved to fully determine their identity. In fact. This is why the finite is inherently contradictory. when determinations are articulated only through an external negation and are not properly contradictory. the constitutive negativity of the different parts does not characterize the parts themselves. The relation of the determination to its other is not fully a relation of the determination to itself. Nevertheless. Such a kind of negativity does not imply any contradiction. that is itself in its own coming to an end. that gets embodied in its passing over into in its other. because the other in which the finite passes over is not its simple not-being. Therefore. Each one is what it is in being together with other parts different from what it is. insofar as they need a further element external to them to realize what they are. because it is itself in its own negation. Therefore. they show to be not determined in themselves.constitutive negativity. because it determines how they realize their nature: each parts realizes its mechanical nature in the negative unity with the other parts. Their constitutive negativity is external to them. even if it can implicitly involve a contradiction that get developed in further dialectical development of the determinateness in question. This negativity is not a relation to an external other either. Hence. 3. the self-contradictory structure of the finite is built on a negativity which has a determining value insofar as it is nothing other than the way the finite as such realizes itself. This negativity is the self-negation of the finite and its passing over into its other. but the not-being in which it realizes its own finitude. This identity is concretely articulated only in a third term different from the immediate ones. The selfcontradictory structure of the finite has its origin in the intrinsic negativity of the finite itself. So this negativity is (a) On the one hand. In a certain sense they remain indeterminate. and then it is in itself its own other. The intrinsic negativity I referred to the determination of the finite as an example of speculative contradiction. . because the finite is in itself its passing over into its other. the intrinsic relation of the finite to its other. because in this relation this determination realizes its own identity. The negativity on the basis of the metaphorical contradiction is simply a negativity according to which something is what is only in the relation with what it is not. but their being together. is at the same time a relation of a determination to itself. in his constitutive value. this negativity is a sort of relation to other according to which a determination constitutes itself.

Everything is finite determines itself as this self-contradiction. but it realizes its own identity. it is intrinsic to the finite itself. This negativity defines the determination as the abstract not being of its other and this implies a contradiction which marks the abstract comprehension of the understanding. where the opposites are in contradiction with one another. and this implies a unity of opposites. (3) The properly contradictory structure of some other determinations. namely its finitude: The finite is thus inwardly self-contradictory. The contradiction entailed by the self-negation of the finite displays the concrete articulation of the finite itself. self-reflected negativity means nothing other than self-reference of the negation intrinsic in the determination of the finite. seen not as an external negative relation between different determinations. […] The finite in its ceasing-to-be. Conclusions The three kinds of contradiction in Hegel’s logic are not totally unrelated. The finite ‘reflects’ this negativity on itself. (1) The contradiction of the understanding is the structure arising from the first immediate moment of the development of the negativity of a determination. In such a self-contradictory structure the finite fully determines itself. namely as a selfnegation.(b) On the other hand. in this negation of itself has attained its being-in-itself. 11 Ivi. it sublates itself. but as a negative relation of a determination to itself. Finite is its own self-negation: the finite is itself insofar as it is no more itself (it realizes itself in its self-negation into its other). namely it is the truth of this determination. they are different logical structures in which the development of the constitutive negativity of the determinations get embodied. like the finite. namely it applies this negativity to itself. because in this self-negation it realizes its very nature. its own concrete identity. and it is no more itself insofar as it is itself (it denies itself insofar as it realizes its finitude). the finite does not lose itself. On the contrary. . Negativity and contradiction remain external to them. ceases to be. in united with itself 11. PART III. Therefore. the intrinsic relation of the finite to itself. p. arises from the same negativity. But in its coming to an end and in its passing over into in its other. and by negating itself it comes to an end and passes over into its other. but not contradictory in themselves. (2) The metaphorical contradiction is the structure arising from a more concrete account of the same negativity of a determination. This negativity is a self-reflected negativity. This negativity defines the determination as concretely united with its other. 136.

is overcome and a new paradigm of rationality. On the other hand. this conception of contradiction can be regarded as a challenge against any conception of reality based on the principles of standard logic. On the one hand. as Popper tried to argue in his famous article What is dialectic?12. On the contrary. . Oxford University Press. Considered as a logical structure that allow to go – quoting the title of a famous work by Graham Priest – beyond the limit of thought13. Oxford 2002. undermining any kind of scientific pretence of the system itself. Michela Bordignon Via Noè Bordignon 15. a challenge where contradiction is shown to be the structure of things and phenomena that standard approaches leave partially or completely unexplained. Hegel would be an antecedent of the today’s Priest’s dialetheistic thesis. Beyond the limits of thought. Priest.it 12 13 K. namely speculative thought. can be thought of in two ways. 403-426 G. What is Dialectic. in «Mind» 49 (1940). pp.The first two meanings of contradiction do not imply any risk with respect to the logical consistence of the system. Therefore only contradiction can express the concrete constitution of these things and phenomena. it can be meant to be the biggest threat to the consistency of Hegel’s logical system. the third one turns out to be a scandal according to the principles of standard logic. Contradiction or not-contradiction? This is the problem. and not just some kind of opposition. is developed. In this perspective. contradiction in Hegel’s logic is the locus where the normal way of thinking. Popper. corresponding to the understanding. This conception of contradiction as a positive-speculative contradiction that is still a properly contradictory structure. 31020 – San Zenone (TV) – Italy michelabordignon81@yahoo.

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