I’ve just been reading a work that makes the very common argument that Hegel begins the Science of Logic with the category of Being because that category is the most abstract and free of determination possible – qualities that apparently assure us that Hegel isn’t presupposing any more than he absolutely has to, at the outset of his system. This interpretation is presented as though Hegel’s process was a sort of modified Cartesian method where, instead of trying to cast everything into doubt, he tries to come up with an indubitable abstraction – as though the starting point is chosen because, after trying to force himself to think of concepts increasingly free from concrete determination, he finally reaches a point where this process of abstraction can continue no further and, on this bedrock, constructs his system. For some reason, I always find this interpretation very irritating. Perhaps because Hegel says quite expressly that this is not what he is doing…
Specifically, he responds to hypothetical critics who might find the starting point – or, indeed, the subsequent exposition of the categories – to be arbitrary. Yes, Hegel responds: it looks arbitrary at first. This is because the non-arbitrariness of the categories and their relations cannot be demonstrated, other than through the presentation of the system as a whole. The justification for the starting point and for the order of exposition is not that, by starting with something as free of determinations as possible, we give ourselves the most solid possible anchor from which to derive the other categories – this would be a linear model of derivation, one that would rely on precisely the sort of exceptionalised, external starting point that, in Hegel’s view, would toss the starting point of the system outside the system.
For Hegel, this kind of move, when trying to construct a science of logic, is tantamount to claiming that the starting point of logic is illogical and that the ground of reason is irrational. Hegel knows no greater horror. The whole point of the system is to avoid precisely this problem. Everything must be in its place. Everything. Even the starting point. Especially the starting point. It is therefore of pivotal importance, not simply that the other categories in the system should be derivable from the starting point, but that the starting point should be derivable from the presentation of all of the other categories in the system.
What justifies the starting point and the subsequent order of exposition of the categories is therefore not some external criterion – not even the criterion that the starting category be as abstract as possible so as to smuggle as few assumptions as possible into the system – but rather the immanent criterion that the relations between the categories become visible only if the categories are positioned relative to one another in this exact way. As such, the “justification” can’t be evident at the start – or, indeed, at any point until the work has been presented in full. In Hegel’s inimitable formulation:
But to want the nature of cognition clarified prior to the science is to demand that it be considered outside the science; outside the science this cannot be accomplished, at least not in a scientific manner and such a manner is alone here in place.
The notion that the starting point of the Logic is justified because it is the most abstract category thinkable to us, is precisely such an external justification. It offers a rationale outside the science. This is not sufficient for Hegel’s goal of justifying his categories in a “scientific manner”.
Reaching for terminology to describe his method, Hegel argues that the system must be conceived, not as a linear derivation of categories from an a priori foundational category, but rather as a circle, whose starting point is therefore encompassed within its own trajectory, implicated by all the other moments of the system, and derivable from those other moments:
Through this progress, then, the beginning loses the one-sidedness which attaches to it as something simply immediate and abstract; it becomes something mediated, and hence the line of the scientific advance becomes a circle. It also follows that because that which forms the beginning is still undeveloped, devoid of content, it is not truly known in the beginning; it is the science of logic in its whole compass which first constitutes the completed knowledge of it with its developed content and first truly grounds that knowledge.
Perhaps a better contemporary image for Hegel’s circle would be of a hologram – where it becomes possible to reconstruct an image of the original object from the recorded light scattered from its surface… Regardless, Hegel’s image of the circular character of the system is intended to map out an alternative to systems that rely on an exceptionalised starting point that is derived in some qualitatively different manner from the other components within the system.
Certainly this seems to be what Marx takes from the Logic in constructing the order of presentation in Capital – as he argues to Kugelmann:
even if there were no chapter on ‘value’ at all in my book, the analysis I give of the real relations would contain the proof and demonstration of the real value relation. The chatter about the need to prove the concept of value arises only from complete ignorance both of the subject under discussion and of the method of science.
That Marx’s reference to “science” here is meant in a Hegelian inflection becomes clear a few sentences on (perhaps I shouldn’t have used the term “inimitable” in relation to Hegel above…):
Where science comes in is to show how the law of value asserts itself. So, if one wanted to ‘explain’ from the outset all phenomena that apparently contradict the law, one would have to provide the science before the science. It is precisely Ricardo’s mistake that in his first chapter, on value, all sorts of categories that still have to be arrived at are assumed as given, in order to prove their harmony with the law of value.
I have to admire Marx’s wild optimism here: yes – precisely what Capital needs is less discussion of value, since the need for this category is simply so obvious from the rest of the work… Marx may have been right that the demands that he “prove” the category of value are misplaced – but a bit of Hegelian stage whispering to clarify his method would not have been amiss, whether it breaks with the immanent presentation of his categories or not…
I’ve said more on this dimension of Hegel’s (and Marx’s) method in the thesis – apologies for the gestural repetition here – just venting in order to clear the system for more reading…