Essence -|- Educational Philosophy Theory


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The Doctrine of Essence is the most important part of Hegel’s philosophy, because it is here that he explains the dialectic in detail. Human thought does not stop at what is immediately given in sense perception, but seeks to go beyond it and grasp the thing-in-itself. Beyond appearance, we look for the essence of a thing. But this is not immediately accessible. We can see the sun and moon, but we cannot "see" the laws of gravity. In order to go beyond appearance, the mind must be actively brought into play, to break down what we earlier learned through understanding. If the understanding is positive, asserting that a given thing "is," dialectical reasoning is essentially negative, in that it dissolves what "is," and reveals the inner contradictions, which will inevitably destroy it.

The contradiction which lies at the heart of all things is expressed as the idea of the unity of opposites. Dialectically, what seem to be mutually exclusive phenomena are actually inseparable, as Hegel explains:

"Positive and negative are supposed to express an absolute difference. The two however are at bottom the same: the name of either might be transferred to the other. Thus, for example, debts and assets are not two particular, self-subsisting species of property. What is negative to the debtor is positive to the creditor. A way to the east is also a way to the west. Positive and negative are therefore intrinsically conditioned by one another, and are only in relation to each other. The north pole of the magnet cannot be without the south pole, and vice versa. If we cut a magnet in two, we have not a north pole in one piece, and a south pole in the other. Similarly, in electricity, the positive and the negative are not two diverse and independent fluids." (Hegel, Logic, p. 173.)

In the process of analysis, Hegel enumerates a series of important stages: positive and negative; necessity and accident; quantity and quality; form and content; action and repulsion; and so on. One of the central features of Essence is that it is relative—everything is related to something else, in a universal web of interaction. The basic law of elementary knowledge (understanding) is the law of identity ("A = A"). This is generally considered as the basis of all that we know. Up to a point, this is correct. Without the law of identity, coherent thought would be impossible. We ascertain the basic fact of existence, and focus our attention on a particular thing. However, identity presupposes difference. A cat is a cat, because it is not a dog, a mouse, an elephant, and so on. In order to establish identity, we must compare something to another.

In real life, nothing is purely itself, as implied by the law of identity, despite its apparently absolute character. Everything is determined by everything else. In that sense everything is relative. As Engels remarks: "The true nature of the determinations of ‘essence’ is expressed by Hegel himself (Enzyklop÷die, I, paragraph 111, addendum): ‘In essence everything is relative’ (e.g., positive and negative, which have meaning only in their relation, not each for itself)." (Engels, Dialectics of Nature, p. 283.)

Not only that. Nothing is simple, as also implied in the law of identity. As we saw in relation to the simple cell or embryo, concrete being, as opposed to the purely abstract being of mere "identity," must contain inner differentiation. Moreover, this differentiation contains the seeds of contradiction. In order to develop, in order to live, the cell must contain the tendency toward self-dissolution, towards division, towards negation. This inner tension is, in fact, the basis of all life. But it is also found in non-living objects, for example, the phenomenon of surface tension in a drop of water, which holds the molecules in a certain order, and innumerable other examples.

The attempt to banish contradiction from thought has been an obsession of logicians for centuries. Hegel was the first one to show that, in fact, contradiction lies at the heart of everything that really exists. If we attempt to think of the world without contradiction, as traditional formal logic tries to do, all that we achieve is to introduce insoluble contradictions into thought. This was the real meaning of Kant’s "antimonies." To separate identity and difference, to attempt to deny the existence of contradiction, leads thought into a barren and empty formalism.

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