Hegel himself explicitly says that his “system of logic is the realm of shadows, the world of simple essentialities freed from all sensuous concreteness.”1
Hegel is thus no Platonic idealist for whom Ideas constitute a higher ontological realm with regard to material reality: they form a pre-ontological realm of shadows. For Hegel, spirit has nature as its presupposition and is simultaneously the truth of nature and, as such, the “absolute first”; nature thus “vanishes” in its truth, is “sublated” in the spirit’s self-identity:
This identity is absolute negativity, because the notion has its complete external objectivity in nature, but this, its externalization, has been sublated, and it has become identical with itself. At the same time therefore, it is only as this return out of nature that the concept constitutes this identity.2
Note the precise triadic structure of this passage, in the most orthodox “Hegelian” mode: thesis— the notion has its complete external objectivity in nature; antithesis (“ but”)— this externality is sublated and, through this sublation, the notion achieves its self-identity; synthesis (“ at the same time therefore”)— it is only as this return out of nature that the concept constitutes this identity. This is how one should understand identity as absolute negativity: the spirit’s self-identity emerges through its negative relationship (sublation) of its natural presuppositions, and this negativity is “absolute” not in the sense that it negates nature “absolutely,” that nature “absolutely” (totally) disappears in it, but in the sense that the negativity of sublation is self-related, in other words that the outcome of this work of negativity is the spirit’s positive self-identity. The key words in the quoted passage are: complete and only. The notion “has its complete external objectivity in nature”: there is no “other” objective reality, all that “really exists” as reality is nature, spirit is not another thing that adds itself to natural things. This is why “it is only as this return out of nature that the concept constitutes [its] identity”: there is no spirit pre-existing nature which somehow “externalizes” itself in nature and then re-appropriates this “alienated” natural reality— the thoroughly “processual” nature of spirit (spirit is its own becoming, the result of its own activity) means that spirit is only (i.e., nothing but) its “returning to itself” from nature. In other words, “returning to” is fully performative, the movement of the return creates what it is returning to.3
The point of the above is its anti-Platonic stance, not as reversibility, not as the opposite of Platonic Idea/Form other world from which our world is but a copy, and we copies of copies, etc., but that Spirit/Consciousness etc. do no pre-exist in some other realm as essence and potential, but rather that spirit-consciousness arise out of necessity and contingency as freedom – a tear in reality, a division, gap, crack, asymmetry, curve, clinamen in an otherwise all-pervasive and indifferent background of processual and blind materiality (not even Spinoza pushed hard enough, here!). Against the two-world theories of Plato and his belief in some other higher realms etc. we discover that Ideas/Forms et. al. all manifest from the inner necessity and contingency of this gap between reality and the Real (the part of no part that does not fit in our systems of logic: mathematics or sciences), a remainder that is in excess of all our linguistic traps. Materiality is that which cannot be sublated in any human system whatever, which is always hidden and withdrawn yet revealing its movement in the push and pull of our ever questioning of this incomplete and open universe that is. There being nothing beyond it, only the ever churning power of spirit arising not as some Idealist adjunct or addition (as Zizek states it), but as the very power of this blind process becoming absolute negativity, a self-relating negativity that arise out of freedom.
As Zizek puts it,
Freedom is thus the very “inter-,” the gap that separates necessity from itself. Conversely, contingency, in its immediacy, as blind natural contingency, also coincides with its opposite, with necessity: that something is contingent ultimately means that it is just so according to blind natural laws. The only way for contingency to get rid of this stain of necessity and posit itself (manifest itself) as true contingency is through the mediation of freedom: it is only here that contingency is a matter of a subject’s contingent decision. (KL 10583-10586)
- G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, trans. A. V. Miller, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International 1989, p. 58.
- G. W. F. Hegel, Hegels Philosophie des subjektiven Geistes/ Hegel’s Philosophy of Subjective Spirit, Vol. 1, trans. and ed. M. J. Petry, Dordrecht: D. Reidel 1978, pp. 24– 5.
- Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 10549-10562). Norton. Kindle Edition.