The Dialectical Method: A Treatise Hegel Never Wrote

The Dialectical Method: A Treatise Hegel Never Wrote

by Clark Butler

Most people, if they have heard anything about Hegel, associate him with the "dialectical method" he claimed to use. The associated "Hegelian dialectic" is often cavalierly explained as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Yet, in fact, Hegel never wrote any substantial account of dialectical logic or dialectical method.

This book reopens the whole question of the


Most people, if they have heard anything about Hegel, associate him with the "dialectical method" he claimed to use. The associated "Hegelian dialectic" is often cavalierly explained as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Yet, in fact, Hegel never wrote any substantial account of dialectical logic or dialectical method.

This book reopens the whole question of the dialectical method in a contemporary context. Dialectical logic is explained in terms of variations on indirect proof translatable into today’s standard formal logic, and evidence is given that it can be found embedded in individual and collective histories. Hegel scholar Clark Butler distinguishes Hegel’s use of the dialectical method for understanding the standpoint of the present from its little-recognized adaptation by Sigmund Freud and from its well-known use by Karl Marx. Butler notes a strong convergence emerging from the historical Hegel, psychoanalysis, and historical materialism. Beyond Hegel scholarship, he suggests ways of continuing Hegel’s work in our own time.

This book will be of interest not only to Hegel scholars but also to students of history, psychoanalysis, Marxism, theology, and formal logic.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Dialectical Method is very helpful in throwing important light on the power of dialectical thinking. With precise knowledge of Hegel’s system and careful analytic intelligence in making its guiding concerns intelligible to the non-Hegelian, Butler offers what some admirers and many critics of Hegel deem impossible—the formalization of Hegel’s dialectical logic. Claims to succeed in this translation from dialectical to formal logic will raise important disputes, but the complex arguments offered by this well-respected Hegel scholar illuminate the central Hegelian themes and are well deserving of serious attention."
—William Desmond, David Cook Visiting Chair in Philosophy, Villanova University, past president of the Hegel Society of America, and professor of philosophy, Institute of Philosophy, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium

"Clark Butler goes further than Jean Hyppolite’s path-breaking article of the 1950s in connecting the ideas of Hegel with psychoanalysis. Butler points to a justified optimism in Hegel because he accepts a radical teleology that pushes human civilization toward mastering both the otherness of nature and the painful dependence upon other human beings."
—Wilfried Ver Eecke, professor of philosophy, Georgetown University, teaching psychoanalysis as an affiliated faculty member in the psychology department.

"Hegel’s dialectical logic displays a kind of necessitation present unwittingly in historical reality as well as in thought and alone makes them intelligible. That necessitation cannot be understood by standard textbook formal logic of self-conscious reasoning. Clark Butler provides unique and indispensable help in understanding how dialectical necessitation works and how it depends upon and interweaves with standard logic. Such understanding is of great importance, because standard logic alone has never been remotely capable of elucidating the necessary connections that structure thought, language, and life. Of these connections Hegel is the master, and this book goes far to make his contributions to philosophy intelligible."
—Dallas Willard, professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California

"Clark Butler’s The Dialectical Method is the finest and most illuminating study of the purely dialectical and purely logical methods of Hegel’s thinking, and while we are living in the time of perhaps the most creative of all periods of Hegelian interpretation, Hegel’s dia-lectical method has remained tantalizingly opaque until the publication of this all too important book."
—Thomas J. J. Altizer, author of The New Gospel of Christian Atheism and Godhead and the Nothing.

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The Dialectical Method

A Treatise Hegel Never Wrote
By Clark Butler

Humanity Books

Copyright © 2012 Clark Butler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-489-0

Chapter One

From Speculative to Systematic Philosophy in the Tradition of Pythagoras

1. Hegelian Pythagoreanism in the Jena Years

Hegelian philosophy may be characterized as dialectically systematic speculative philosophy. Philosophy is speculative when as a philosopher one comes to see the cosmos as a mirror image of oneself. "Speculum" in Latin means a mirror. Speculative philosophy is dialectically systematic when the philosopher comes to first reconstruct and then behold himself in the dialectical development of the human career (including the history of philosophy) from which his or her own identity has resulted. This chapter explores the historical root of speculative philosophy in the thought of Pythagoras, and then the transition of such philosophy into its Hegelian development as dialectically systematic.

A dialectic is a dialectic of thought. Since world history is in nature, nature generates a dialectic. The history of science from mathematics through the natural science to psychology and sociology (Auguste Comte) may be dialectically reconstructed more easily than prebiological nature understood as devoid of thought, or containing what we as thinking beings can now identify only as hints of thought.

Pythagoras, or at least the Pythagoras of legend, is the principal historical source of Hegel's idea of speculative philosophy. Yet Hegel gives meager recognition of this source and is even critical of the Pythagorean tradition as pseudoscience. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History he seems largely concerned to prove that he has mastered the trend of German scholarship toward critical history writing about history writing. Instead of writing the philosophical history of philosophy, which he does elsewhere in these lectures, he gives us a highly critical account of the historical sources of what we claim to know of Pythagoras.

A consequence of the fact that Hegelian philosophy is speculative is that it ends in what he calls "absolute knowledge." Absolute knowledge is absolute because it is not relative to an object of knowledge that would be other than it, in which it cannot find itself. Absolute knowledge finds nothing but itself in the object known. The oneness of knowing consciousness and its object has its earliest historical root in the Pythagorean oneness of the individual human soul and the cosmos. For Pythagoras, this takes the form of a oneness between the microcosmic individual soul and the macrocosmic world soul. The macrocosm-microcosm distinction itself is not hard to understand. Consider any community that is not just a society of individuals who are juxtaposed side by side, but that enjoys community spirit—such as a closely knit family spirit, team spirit, or national spirit. We may say that such a family, team, or nation has a soul. The spirit or soul of the community is not an extra member of the community, but is the raised consciousness which all its members attain by adopting one another's standpoint in messaging one another. Each member of the community, by adopting the perspective of other individual members in directing messages to them, internalizes those other perspectives so that the recipient will understand the message as intended. The messenger thus becomes a microcosm of the whole community conceived as a macrocosm. The microcosmic member of a community reproduces in miniature the whole community from his or her unique perspective.

The Pythagorean innovation was to view the entire cosmos, not just a team or nation, as a macrocosm. He was thus able to conceive a world soul, the spirit of the cosmos. In this chapter I will try to make this innovation plausible. The connection to Hegel will be that the Pythagorean cosmic macrocosm will prove to include dialectically successive microcosmic voices, each articulating a new and more comprehensive identifying description of the cosmos, Hegel's all-inclusive absolute. And that is how Hegelian philosophy, while preserving the Pythagorean idea of speculative philosophy, will go beyond it to become dialectically systematic.

In the history of natural science, Pythagoras is associated with the discovery of quantitative ratios on which distinct qualitative determinations depend. In Hegel's Science of Logic, specifically in his logic of measure, he focuses on this side of Pythagoras as the founder of natural science. What primarily concerns us in this chapter, however, is the larger religious-speculative context of Pythagoras's interest in natural science. That is what needs attention in bringing to light the Pythagorean tradition in which Hegel's stands.

The speculative dimension of Pythagoreanism takes it entirely beyond Hegel's objective logic to which he restricts explicit consideration of it. In objective logic, the philosopher grasps the absolute as an object apart from herself. In objective logic or objective philosophy, the Pythagorean contemplates the absolute as an object with which he or she does not yet identify. The Pythagorean contemplates it as a cosmos in which things of differing quality are each determined by a distinct underlying quantitative ratio of elements. Thus water, taken qualitatively, is H20 taken quantitatively. But true logic for Hegel is subjective logic, in which the philosopher finds himself speculatively lodged in the absolute itself. True logic, speculative philosophy, attains subject-object identity, an identity that we should not be afraid to call cosmic consciousness. Pythagoreanism, beyond its role in founding natural science as the search for quantitative ratios underlying the qualitative distinction of things, lies at the heart of Hegel's subjective logic.

It is important to realize that a macrocosm and its microcosms are all both body and soul. Thus the world soul is not any more immaterial that the soul, heart, or spirit of an athletic team. The individual inner soul is outwardly expressed in the body of the community of which it is a member, ultimately the "body of the cosmos." But the human microcosmic soul is distinguished from all other microcosms by the possibility of its fall into dissonance with its macrocosmic community. The spirit or soul of a family, team or nation of human beings can also ebb as well as flow. And if a human being, in body and soul, is lodged in a cosmic community, the cosmic world soul in and through its human members can ebb and flow, too.

The fallen human soul loses awareness of its microcosmic oneness with the macrocosm. It is alienated from the macrocosm by the prison of its mortal body. The cosmos is the immortal body of the individual soul. A mortal human body is a body which is a detached fragment of the cosmos, one that is no longer in communication with other bodies. Immortality for body and soul means surrendering oneself to participation in the cosmic community. Ultimately, the microcosm comes to know itself as a passing microcosmic expression of an everlasting macrocosm. The individual soul increasingly partakes of the immortality of the cosmos by being increasingly assimilated to it by contemplation of its natural laws. But when the individual body and soul cease to enjoy sympathetic bonds with all other bodies in the cosmos through beholding its universal laws, it shrivels and loses awareness of its standing as a microcosm internalizing the universal laws of the cosmic macrocosm.

The Pythagoreans sought to reawaken the fallen soul to an awareness of its residual harmony with the cosmos. They did so by discovering and teaching the natural laws. They sought to liberate the human soul from the tomb of its mortal body by teaching contemplation of these laws, by bringing to light a microcosmic replication of the macrocosmic laws of the universe. They sought to raise the fallen human subject to conscious microcosmic participation in eternal macrocosmic intersubjectivity. This may be compared to the way in which a dispirited athletic team may regain team spirit by being reminded of the local laws governing relationships between the different members with their varying strengths, weaknesses, and respective specialized roles within the team. Each team member knows herself as a microcosm of the whole, one for all and all for one. Cosmic spirit rises when its members all contemplate the same natural laws underlying what would otherwise be a chaotic sensory flux of things with changing qualities. Natural scientists grow in harmony with one another as they increasingly agree about the laws of the universe. From the Pythagorean point of view, human beings generally grow in harmony by participating in natural science. And because one is progressively assimilated to what one steadily contemplates, one also increasingly partakes of the immortal life of the cosmos.

But the Pythagorean contemplation of natural laws, eternal ratios realized in the natural world, "natural measures" such as H20, is never more than a progressive approximation to the end of the fallen soul's reunion with its cosmic home. Every microcosm is distinct by its perspective in space and time, and by the degree of clarity and distinctness it enjoys in beholding the system of natural laws. Positively, however, such contemplation is, first of all, a way of not privileging objects of immediate experience from a purely subjective point of view in disproportion to their true objective significance. For example, knowledge that any two harmonious notes an octave apart are quantitatively distinguished by doubling or halving the length of a string in a stringed instrument leads to contemplatively thinking the cosmic range of all such pairs of notes, not merely the range to which human sense perception is limited.

Pythagoras's famous "music of the spheres" models cosmic harmony on musical harmony. Quantitative ratios underlie aesthetic qualitative harmonies. The original model for the harmony of notes produced by musical instruments is the harmony of voices. "A good intellect is the choir of divinity." The harmony of artificial musical instruments is an extension of a natural sympathetic identification of singers with one another. As fallen souls recover from disharmony, all microcosmic souls begin to sing in unison.

H. S. Harris has concluded that Hegel, in his early Keplerian philosophy of nature, bought into the Pythagorean sympathetic kinship of all beings. He writes that "Hegel's main line of connection with Pythagorean speculation" in his Jena years lies in a "theory of stable ratios as the bond of identity." Thus Hegel himself once partook of the speculative philosophy that formed the larger context of the Pythagorean logic of measure in his Science of Logic. In ancient Pythagorean philosophy, the contemplation of ratios and figures in natural science serves the human soul's assimilation to the divine. But Hegel soon freed himself in his Phenomenology of Spirit from the Keplerian contemplation of stable, cyclical natural measures as the path of the soul's self-assimilation to the divine absolute.

However, he retained a Pythagorean concept of what philosophy is in its relation to the cosmos. The absolute knowledge that philosophy develops does not arise by our shared contemplation of repetitive "stable" Pythagorean natural laws understood as natural cycles. The law of water, H20, is cyclical because it returns wherever water returns. Absolute knowledge is rather gained by recollecting and contemplating a non-repetitive, ascending historical scale of different ways of singling out the absolute, beginning in the Logic with Parmenides' early equation of the absolute with mere indeterminate being. Each new occurrence of what Hegel will call "negation of the negation" in the science of logic places the absolute under a more comprehensive, more nearly true identifying description.

2. The Absolute as the Cosmos

The One, which for Pythagoreans was the principle of all numbers, was not itself a unit of any amount. It was not a quantitative one or number. In Pythagorean language, it was the Cosmos, the Monad. By the earliest Pythagorean account, the cosmos was viewed as finite. By this account the cosmos was limited by surrounding air. It is inflated by inhaling Anaximenes' airy matter, to which it lends form. Being finite, it was not yet the all-inclusive absolute. Yet it was perfect or "divine" in the ancient Greek sense of being finished. It was a world soul that lives by breathing air in and out. "The general principle applied by the [earliest] Pythagoreans to the construction of the cosmos is the imposition of limit on the unlimited apeiron [infinite] to make the limited." The result is a formed, delimited whole, the cosmos, the breath of life, a world soul conceived as an open system interacting with an environment like a living organism. Inhalation belonged both macrocosmically to the One and microcosmically to the individual soul. Lodged within the cosmos, individual souls enlightened by philosophy keep harmonious society, each finding within itself a sympathetic reflection of the same configuration of them all.

However, by a later account, which would be preserved by the Stoics, the "cosmos" has as its elements both the limited and the unlimited. Embracing both, the One, Cosmos or Monad, becomes a genuine way of singling out what Hegel calls "the absolute," that outside of which there is nothing. It becomes a closed system, embracing the apparent chaos of air as governed by a natural law unto itself. It is this later account that is in question as we place Hegel in a Pythagorean tradition.

In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, though surprisingly not in his Encyclopaedia or in the Science of Logic, Hegel grants that with Pythagoras "the speculative makes its appearance as speculative." Hegelian absolute knowledge is also speculative. The object of knowledge, the world, mirrors thinking itself.

Hegelian speculative philosophy preserves four Pythagorean concepts: (1) the intelligent soul's awakening to immortality through its self-assimilation to an eternal intelligible absolute; (2) philosophical participation in wisdom by virtue of the very quest for it; (3) theory viewed as speculative, contemplative spectatorship; and (4) the human soul's conscious recovery of its microcosmic replication of the macrocosm. Pythagoras and Hegel both hold that redemption of the soul occurs by a journey from mere consciousness to science, to absolute knowledge. The macrocosm knows itself in and through its knowing microcosmic members. Theory for Pythagoras is self-assimilation to the all-embracing divine cosmos by contemplation of the stable natural quantitative ratios that underlie all aesthetic qualitative harmonies in nature. A sympathetic bond between human souls deepens as they all converge in the contemplation the same natural ratios. W. K. C. Guthrie attributes these seminal principles to the historical Pythagoras himself:

The world is a cosmos—that untranslatable word which unites, perhaps as only the Greek Spirit could, the notion of order, arrangement or structural perfection with that of beauty. All nature is akin, therefore the soul of man is intimately related to all the living and divine universe. Like is known by like, that is, the better one knows something the more one is assimilated to it. Hence to seek through philosophy for a better understanding of the structure of the divine cosmos is to realize and cultivate the divine element in oneself.

Throughout nature, like is sympathetically known by like. The cosmic scale of notes, a master scale, the scale of scales behind all ephemeral melodies, is eternal. By a sympathetic realization within oneself of the full range of microcosmic perspectives in the cosmos, one realizes one's own likeness to the immortal cosmos and awakens to a participation in immortality. But as long as one misidentifies with one's mortal body, a detached fragment of the cosmos which has lost all sympathetic bonds, it will seem that one is mortal. An active partaking of immortality, unattainable by identification with one's mortal earthly city or even with the spirit of humanity, comes by identification with the cosmic spirit, one's true eternal home and identity. Each subjective soul is a fleeting expression from its unique perspective of the eternal macrocosm in which it is grounded. In Hegel's own words:

The self-concept realizes itself within the body as the soul.... The soul is what is speculative, and exists as such. Taken externally, the body is something material. As a body it is in space, and is one among beings which are all outside one another. The soul ... has no belief in bodies external to one another.... And so the soul retains its universality, an all-penetrating oneness with itself.


Excerpted from The Dialectical Method by Clark Butler Copyright © 2012 by Clark Butler. Excerpted by permission of Humanity Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Clark Butler is a Purdue University professor of philosophy at the Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne Campus and director of the Human Rights Insitute. He is the author or editor of ten books including An Introduction to the Study of Hegel’s Logic.

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