Nominalism versus Realism

P 25: Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2(1868):57-61


[We print below some strictures upon the position assumed in our last number with reference to M. Janet's version of Hegel's doctrine of the "Becoming." We hope that these acute statements which have been written, for the most part, in the form of queries, will receive a careful reading, especially by those who have differed from our own views hitherto expressed. They seem to us the most profound and compendious statement of the anti-speculative standpoint as related to the Science of Pure Thought (Prima Philosophia), that we have seen. But for this very reason we are fain to believe that the defects of the formalism relied upon are all the more visible. We have endeavored to answer these queries with the same spirit of candor that animates their author.--Editor.]


Mr. Editor of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy:

I should like to make some inquiries in regard to your meaning in the paragraph beginning "Being is the pure Simple," p. 140.

I will begin by stating how much of it I already understand, as I believe. I understand that 'Being' and 'Nothing' as used by you, are two abstract, and not two general terms. That Being is the abstraction belonging in common and exclusively to the objects of the concrete term, whose extension is unlimited or all-embracing, and whose comprehension is null. I understand that you use Nothing, also, as an abstract term = nothingness; for otherwise to say that Being is Nothing, is like saying that humanity is non-man, and does not imply at all that Being is in any opposition with itself, since it would only say 'Das Sein ist nicht Seiendes', not 'Sein ist nicht Sein'. By Nothing, then, I understand the abstract term corresponding to a (possible) concrete term, which is the logical contradictory of the concrete term corresponding to 'Being'. And since the logical contradictory of any term has no extension in common with that term, the concrete nothing is the term which has no extension. I understand, that, when you say 'Being has no content', and 'Being is wholly undetermined', you mean, simply, that its corresponding concrete has no logical comprehension, or, at least, that what you mean follows from this, and this, conversely, from what you mean.

I come now to what I do not understand, and I have some questions to ask, which I have endeavored so to state that all can see that the Hegelian is bound to answer them, for they simply ask what you mean, whether this or that; they simply ask you to be explicit upon points upon which you have used ambiguous expressions. They are not put forward as arguments, however, but only as inquiries.

1. Abstract terms, according to the doctrine of modern times, are only a device for expressing in another way the meaning of concrete terms. To say that whiteness inheres in an object, is the same as to say that an object is white. To say that whiteness is a color, is the same as to say that the white is colored, and that this is implied in the very meanings of the words.

But, you will undoubtedly admit that there is a difference between a hundred dollars in my pocket, Being or not Being, and so in any other particular case. You, therefore, admit that there is nothing which is, which is also not. Therefore, it follows that what is, and what is not, are mutually exclusive and not coëxtensive.

Since, then, you nevertheless say that the corresponding abstractions, Being and Nothingness, are absolutely the same (although you at the same time hold that it is not so, at all), it is plain that you find some other meaning in abstract terms than that which other logicians find. I would, therefore, ask what you mean by an abstraction, and how you propose to find out what is true of abstractions.


[Here we have stated, 1st, what our interrogator thinks he understands, in brief, as follows: (a) That Being and Nothing are two abstract, and not two general terms; (b) that Being belongs to the concrete term, whose extension is unlimited, and whose comprehension is null; (c) that Nothing means nothingness, and belongs to the concrete term, whose extension is null.

At this point we will pause, in order to call attention to a vital misapprehension of the signification of Being, as we used the term. If Being were the abstraction corresponding to the concrete term, "whose extension is unlimited and whose comprehension is null," Being would then signify existence (not the German "Seyn," but "Daseyn," sometimes called extant Being),i.e. it would signify determined Being, and not pure Being. If Being is taken in this sense, it is not equivalent to Nought, and there is no support given to such an absurdity in any system of Philosophy with which we are acquainted. Therefore, whatever is based on this assumption falls to the ground. But the question may be asked, "If the abstraction corresponding to the most general predicate of individual things is existence, by what process of abstraction do you get beyond this most general of predicates to a category transcending it?" We answer, by the simple process of analysis; let us try: in the most general predicate, which is determined Being, or existence--for all things in the Universe are determined beings--we have an evident two-foldness (a composite nature), which allows of a further analysis into pure Being and determination. Now, pure Being, considered apart from all determination, does not correspond to any concrete term, for the reason that determination, which alone renders such correspondence possible, has been separated from it by the analysis.

As regards the point (c), it is sufficient to remark that we did not use the term "Nothing" for nothingness, in the place referred to, but used the term "Nought," so as to avoid the ambiguity in the term Nothing, to-wit: the confusion arising from its being taken in the sense of no thing, as well as in the sense of the pure void. In analyzing "determined Being," we have two factors: one reduces to pure being, which is the pure void, while the other reduces to pure negation, which is likewise the pure void. Determination is negation, and if determination is isolated it has no substrate; while on the other hand all substrates, or substrate in general when isolated from determination, becomes pure vacuity.

Hence it seems to us that the process of analysis which reflection initiates, does not stop until it comes to the pure simple, which is the turning point where analysis becomes synthesis. Let us see how this synthesis manifests itself: our ultimate abstraction, the pure simple, has two forms, pure Being and pure negation; they coincide, in that they are the pure void. Neither can be determined, and hence neither can possess a distinction from the other. Analytic thought, which sunders the concrete, and never takes note of the link which binds, must always arrive at the abstract simple as the net result of its dualizing process. But arrived at this point it is obliged to consider the tertium quid, the genetic universal, which it has neglected. For it has arrived at that which is self-contradictory. To seize the pure simple in thought is to cancel it; for by seizing it in thought, we seize it as the negation of the determined, and by so doing we place it in opposition, and thereby determine it. Moreover, it would, objectively considered, involve the same contradiction, for its distinction from existing things determines it likewise. Therefore, the simple, which is the limit of analysis, is only a point at which synthesis begins, and hence is a moment of a process of self-repulsion, or self-related negation. So long as analysis persists in disregarding the mediation here involved, it can set up this pure immediate for the ultimatum. But so soon as it takes it in its truth it allows its mediation to appear, and we learn the synthetic result, which, in its most abstract form, is "the becoming." This we shall also find in another mode of consideration: differentiation and distinguishing are forms of mediation; the simple is the limit at which mediation begins; it (mediation) cancels this limit by beginning; but all mediated somewhats imply, likewise, the simple as the ultimate element upon which determination takes effect. Thus we cannot deny the simple utterly, nor can we posit it affirmatively by itself; it is no sooner reached by analysis than it passes into synthesis. Again we see the same doctrine verified by seizing the two factors of our analysis in their reflective form, i.e. in their mediation: Being, as the substrate, is the form of identity or self-relation, which, when isolated, becomes empty self-relation, or self-relation in which the negativity of the relation has been left out; this gives a form that collapses into a void. Determination, as the other factor, is the relation to a beyond, or what we call the relative proper; it is the self-transcending element, and when isolated so that its relation remains within itself, it falls into the form of the self-related, which is that of substrate, or the form of Being, and this collapses still further into the void, when we continue our demand for the simple; this void (or "hunger," as Boehme called it) is the same relativity that we found determination to be, when isolated, and thus we may follow these abstractions round and round until we find that they are organic phases of ONE PROCESS. Then we have found our synthesis, and have left those abstractions behind us.

We do not pretend to speak for "Hegelians"; we do not know that they would endorse our position. We give this as our own view, merely.

The first query which our interrogator offers contains the following points:

(a) Abstract terms are devices for expressing the meaning of concrete terms.

(b) Difference between a hundred dollars in his pocket being and not being (i.e. that the existence of a hundred dollars in his pocket makes a difference to his wealth) granted, it follows that what is and what is not are mutually exclusive, and not coëxtensive.

(c) The assertion of the identity of Being and Nothing [nought?] and the simultaneous denial of it indicates some other meaning given to abstract terms than the one he finds.

With regard to the first point, (a), we are ready to say at once, that we could not hold such a doctrine and lay any claim to be speculative philosophers. Nor, indeed, could we consistently hold it and join the class of thinkers which belong to the stage of Reflection--such as the Positivists, the Kantists, the Hamiltonians, &c., &c.,--who agree that we know only phenomena, and hence agree that the immediate world is untrue in itself, and exists only through mediation. For it is evident that the doctrine enunciated by our querist implies that general terms as well as abstract terms are only "flatus vocis"--in short, that individual things compose the universe, and that these are valid and true in themselves. On the contrary, we must hold that true actualities must be self-determining totalities, and not mere things, for these are always dependent somewhats, and are separated from their true selves. (See chapter VIII of our "Introduction to Philosophy," and, also, chapter X on The Universal.) That which abides in the process of origination and decay, which things are always undergoing, is the generic; the generic is the total comprehension, the true actuality, or the Universal, and its identity is always preserved, while the mere "thing," which is not self-contained, loses its identity perpetually. The loss of the identity of the thing, is the very process that manifests the identity of the total.

Hence, to pre-suppose such a doctrine as formal logic pre-supposes, is to set up the doctrine of immediateness as the only true.

The "hundred dollar" illustration does not relate to the discussion, for the reason, that the question is not that of the identity of existence and non-existence, but of pure Being and Nought, as before explained.]


2. You say, in effect,

Being has no determination;
Ergo, It is nothing.


Now, it certainly appears that the contrary conclusion follows from this premise, namely: that it is not nothingness. I suppose that you have suppressed one of your premises, and that you mean to argue thus:


Indetermination in respect to any character, is the negation

of that character;
Being is indeterminate in respect to every character;
Ergo, Being is negative of every character.


In short, you seem to imply that to abstract from a character, is to deny it. Is this the manner in which your argument is to be completed, or how else?

3. This suggests another question. You say that nothing has no determination. It is plain that it would not follow from this that Being is nothing, but only that Nothing is being, or rather that Any non-being is a being, thus reducing non-being (nicht-seiende) to an absurdity. This would be nothing new (for Albertus Magnus quotes Avicenna to this effect), and in my opinion would be perfectly true. Non-ens, or "the not being," is a self-contradictory expression. Still, though I thus see no monstrous consequences of saying that nothing has no determination, I see no proof at all that it is so. It might be said, indeed, that the things which are not have no characters in common, and that therefore what is not has no logical comprehension and Being-not no determination. I would ask, then, have you proved that nothing has no determination? Do not suppose that I am endeavoring to drive you into contradiction; for I understand Hegelians profess to be self-contradictory. I only wish to ascertain whether they have an equal disregard for those logical maxims which relate to ambiguities.

4. You say, in effect,


Difference is determination,
Being has no determination;
Ergo, Being has no difference from nothing;
Ergo, Being is nothing.


It is incontestable that difference from anything is determination in respect to being or not being that thing. A monkey, in differing from a man, is determined (negatively) in respect to humanity. Difference, then, in any respect, is determination in that respect. This, I take it, is what you mean. Now let us parallel the above argument:


Difference in any respect is determination in that respect;
Animality, in general, is not determined in respect to
Ergo, Animality, in general, has no difference from humanity;
Ergo, Animality, in general, is humanity.


This is plainly sophistical. For to say that an abstraction, in general, is undetermined, has two different senses; one resulting from a strict analysis of the language, and the other reposing upon the ordinary use of language. Strictly, to say that an abstraction is undetermined, would mean that it may be this or may be that abstraction; that is, that the abstract word by which it is expressed may have any one of a variety of meanings. What is ordinarily meant by the phrase, however, is that the object of the corresponding concrete term is undetermined, so that neither of a certain pair of mutually contradictory predicates are universally true of that concrete. Now, it is true to say that animality is undetermined in respect to humanity, or that being is not determined at all, only in the latter of these senses, to-wit: that not every animal is a man, and not every animal is not a man, and (in the other case) that there is no predicate which can be truly affirmed or denied of all beings. For in the other sense, we should imply that the abstractions themselves were vague, and that being, for example, has no precise meaning. In the only true sense, therefore, the premise is, in the one case, that "Animal, simply, is undetermined," and in the other, that "Ens (seiende) is undetermined"; and what follows is, in the one case, that "not every animal differs from a man," and in the other, that "not every being differs from any nothing." This latter amounts merely to saying that there is nothing from which every being differs, or that a nothing is an absurdity. These correct conclusions do not in the least imply that animality is humanity, or that being is nothingness. To reach the latter conclusions, it would be necessary (in the first place) to use the premises in the other and false sense; but even then, all that would be legitimately inferable would be that "humanity, in some sense, is animality," and that "being, in some sense, is nothing." Only by a second fallacy could it be concluded that animality, in the sense intended, is humanity, or that being, in the sense intended, is nothing. Now, I would inquire whether you inadvertently fell into these ambiguities, or, if not, wherein the force of your argumentation lies?


[The second point we are requested to answer is involved in the third and fourth, which charges to our account the following syllogism:

Difference is determination; being has no determination; ergo, being has no difference from nothing; ergo, being is nothing.

This is then paralleled with one in which animality and humanity are confounded; the cause of which is the following oversight: In the article under criticism (p. 141), we said, "Thus, if Being is posited as having validity in and by itself, without determination, it becomes a pure void, in nowise different from nought, for difference is determination, and [N.B.] neither Being nor nought possess it." The ground of their identity is stated to be the lack of determinations in nought as well as in Being.

Again, determination may be quantitative as well as qualitative, and, in the former respect, animality is distinguished from humanity; for to have more extension and less comprehension, certainly distinguishes one concept from another. Two is distinct from three, although contained in the latter. Hence, it is not quite correct to say that "animality, in general, is not determined in respect to humanity." Moreover, if it were correct, its converse "humanity is not determined in respect to animality," would also have to be true to make a case parallel to the one in which Being is asserted to be identical with nothing for the reason that neither is determined in any respect. Were animality and humanity neither determined in respect to the other, they certainly must be identical.

For these reasons, we cannot acknowledge that we "inadvertently fell into these ambiguities," or that we fell into them at all.

And we cannot see the basis of the assertion that "Hegelians profess to be self-contradictory." For they hold that finite things contradict themselves, but that the total preserves itself in its negation. They therefore would consider every one who stakes his faith on the immediate to contradict himself, but that the philosopher who holds only to the absolute mediation, escapes self-contradiction by not attempting to set up non-contradiction as the first principle of things. Hegelians may understand this as they please--to us it seems that the principle of identity is abstract, and only one side of the true principle. If we would comprehend the true principle of the universe, we must be able to seize identity and contradiction in one, and hence to annul both of them. He who comprehends self-determination must be able to do this. The self negates itself, and yet, for the reason that it is the self that does this, the deed is affirmative, and hence identity is the result. "The self says to itself, 'thus far shalt thou go, and no farther'; its reply is, 'I am already there, limiting myself'." "When me they fly, I am the wings," says Brahma, and every true Infinite involves this negation, which is at the same time negation of negation or affirmation.

Hence, it seems to us improper to charge self-contradiction upon those who merely assert it of finite things.]


5. Finally, I would inquire whether, in your opinion, the maxims of (ordinary) logic relating to contradictions lack even a prima facie presumption in their favor? Whether the burden of proof is or is not upon the Hegelians to show that the assumption of their falsity is a more tenable position than the assumption of their truth? For in the present state of the question, it seems to me more probable that subtle fallacies lurk in the Hegelian reasoning than that such fallacies lurk in all other reasoning whatsoever.


[In answer to the fifth query, we will state that we think the maxims of formal logic are prima facie true, for the prima facie mode of viewing always gives validity to the immediate phase of things. But Reflection discovers the insufficiency of abstract identity and difference, and comes to their assistance with manifold saving clauses. The speculative insight holds, too, like reflection, that mediation belongs to things, but sees, further, that all mediation is circular, and hence, that self-mediation is the "constant" under all variables.

The whole question of the validity of formal logic and of common sense vs. speculative philosophy, can be reduced to this: Do you believe that there are any finite or dependent beings? In other words, Are you a nominalist or a realist?

This is the gist of all philosophizing: If one holds that things are not interdependent, but that each is for itself, he will hold that general terms correspond to no object, and may get along with formal logic; and if he holds that he knows things directly in their essence, he needs no philosophy--common sense is sufficient.

But if he holds that any particular thing is dependent upon what lies beyond its immediate limits, he holds, virtually, that its true being lies beyond it, or, more precisely, that its immediate being is not identical with its total being, and hence, that it is in contradiction with itself, and is therefore changeable, transitory, and evanescent, regarded from the immediate point of view. But regarding the entire or total being (The Generic), we cannot call it changeable or contradictory, for that perpetually abides. It is the "Form of Eternity."]