Hegel’s Sublation and the Historical Process

Hegel’s main concern – which was also his main insight – was to overcome fragmentation and bifurcation. Modern philosophy (since Descartes) has been mostly characterized by the turn to the subject. For Hegel, modernity produced bifurcations and fragmentations, and he sought to unite subject and object in a way that was historical, concrete and realistic. Some of the dualisms he sought to transcend were: thought and being, finite and infinite, reason and faith, reason and revelation, intellect and feeling, and theory and praxis.

It is important to note that dualisms are more than mere statements of duality. A dualism absolutizes each element, separates them, and deprives them of internal connections. This is what Hegel sought to overcome – the dualistic reification of opposites in which there is no resolution to the tensions. Hegel’s way of achieving that was argue for the sublation of dualisms. For every subject and every state of affairs, there is something, someone, or some state of affairs that comes into conflict with the given. This is the moment of negation. This negation has to be internalized, and transcended. This movement of transcendence will involve then the preservation of the negation element (not the disposal of it), but in a way that it is harmonized with that which it negated, and moved forward into a new unity.

Sublating is to go beyond the dualisms (negation), denying isolation, finding their relation (transcendence) and preserving them (preservation). It is to negate that the subject exists apart from the object and vice-versa, and to transcend the dualism by seeing their eternal relatedness. Then, it is to sublate them by preserving them in relation to one another and unity. For example, I can posit myself as a sheer self-identity: I am who I am. But who I am cannot be exhausted by my idea of who I am – first, because others have different ideas of who I am, and, most importantly, because I define myself in reference to things other than myself.

I’m a totality of relations – and, for that matter, even a watch is a concrete totality of materials, culture, purpose, etc. I am a citizen of such-and-such country, I have such-and-such profession, I am a son/parent/spouse/friend of such-and-such persons, I have such-and-such political/religious/philosophical beliefs that define my actions, etc. I am what I am not only in relation to myself (identity) but also in relation to things other than myself (otherness) – thus, there is an internal relationship between myself and the other. An external relationship leaves each party intact, but an internal relationship is constitutive of each party. In this way, the otherness, which is the dis-identity, defines my identity.

All relationships of identity and dis-identity bring contradictions. The world is a struggle of classes, religions, ideas, systems, cultures, and so on. This starts at the personal level: I have different needs, desires, impulses and goals and often contradict each other, and have to be reconciled, compromised, put in hierarchical order in order to achieve harmony. As many have recognized – from ancient theologians like Augustine, all the way through modern psychologists – a fragmented self will have no rest, and might suffer mental, spiritual, and physical illnesses of diverse kinds. There has to be a continuous resolution of contradictions in the individual as he lives in the concrete world.

Furthermore, contradictions also inevitably occur in human relationships. People have different needs and goals, different expectations, and all those have to be negotiated, compromised, overcome. The same holds true for all ascending levels: of social groups, of societies, of nations, etc. It is a basic aspect and need of human nature that we want to overcome contradictions – there’s an inherent struggle towards a movement to reconcile and unify. I cannot be conscious of myself unless I am conscious of things other than myself and vice-versa, but I am never completely happy with the relation between the other and myself. Therefore there is a struggle in the ego to see oneself in the other and vice-versa. There is a desire to be free by being truly myself in relating to the other without contradictions, and so there is movement and impulse toward a telos. Hegel’s philosophy is, in this way, fundamentally a philosophy of hope and reconciliation.

But even if a contradiction is reconciled (i.e., sublated), all reconciliations are historical, and not final – and so they eventually generate new contradictions that need be reconciled as well, in an ever-dynamic ascending movement of the spirit in history (through individual lives and through the lives of nations and of the world) to achieve freedom. This movement is essential to the world, and it is a teleological movement of the spirit. This movement is not just they way things are (i.e., Hegel is not just making descriptive statements), but also the way things ought to be. The dialectical movement cannot be divorced from the ethical.

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2 comments on “Hegel’s Sublation and the Historical Process

  1. Christine says:

    What comes to mind is psychonanlyst, D W Winnicott’s observation ( to paraphrase) ‘There is no such thing as a baby’: a baby exists in relation to mother…. Similarly, in Australian History the Historian, Bain Attwood’s ‘The Making of the Aborigines’ also suggests the creation of the notion and type ‘Aboriginal’as a construct of settler imagination, which then set up the terms of the relationship between them.

    If I am reading your take on Hegelian thought correctly, part of the historical process concerns the reconciliation between these positions – or constructions – a dynamic process indeed.

    A very interesting post.

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