On Hegel’s ‘Science of Logic’​ : A Realm of Shadows — part two.

‘Beginning my studies’

by Walt Whitman, (1819–1892)

Beginning my studies the first step pleas’d me so much,

The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,

The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,

The first step I say awed me and pleas’d me so much,

I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go any farther,

But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s, (1770–1831), ‘Science of Logic’ provides an extensive analysis of the basic categories of thought, those categories that permeate our consciousness and language and give structure to everything that we perceive and transform the stream of our sensations into an intelligible experience of things that exist and that have form and content and that enter into causal relations with one another. Categories are not themselves sensations or perceptions and they do not involve any awareness of green or yellow, rough or smooth, rather they are abstract concepts by means of which we understand the green we see to be something real or the roughness we feel to be the cause of some effect. These categories are not simply terms that grant us the liberty to discourse in a particular way but are forms of thought that grant us the liberty to understand and experience in different ways what we perceive, such concepts such as reality and make-believe, something and nothing, quality and quantity, form and content, existence and non-existence, thing and composite, cause and effect.

It may not be immediately evident that human experience rests upon such concepts for one need only open one’s eyes and observe what one observes be it other people, a busy street, automobiles, dogs, flowers, grey clouds looking ready to burst, but for Hegel experience is not so simple for what that we do observe in fact shapes and colours and all that we do hear are sounds and it is only in virtue of our entertaining the concepts of being real or being a cause that we are able to understand what we observe and and what we hear to be something real or to cause something to happen and in the absence of such concepts or categories we would be incapable of understanding and hence of experiencing what we perceive in either of these ways. And further, we would be incapable of experiencing it as being anything at all, indeed we may very well be totally unaware of it, therefore it is abstract categories that make it possible for us to have concrete experiences of things in the world rather than a mere stream of sensations that would be possibly unconscious anyway and it is such categories inform every aspect of our conscious life, as Hegel explains:

‘The forms of thought are first set out and stored in human language, and one can hardly be reminded often enough nowadays that thought is what differentiates the human being from the beast. In everything that the human being has interiorized, in everything that in some way or other has become for him a representation, in whatever he has made his own, there has language penetrated, and everything that he transforms into language and expresses in it contains a category, whether concealed, mixed, or well defined. So much is logic natural to the human being, is indeed his very nature. If we however contrast nature as such, as the realm of the physical, with the realm of the spiritual, then we must say that logic is the supernatural element that permeates all his natural behaviour, his ways of sensing, intuiting, desiring, his needs and impulses; and it thereby makes them into something truly human, even though only formally human — makes them into representations and purposes. It is to the advantage of a language when it possesses a wealth of logical expressions, that is, distinctive expressions specifically set aside for thought determinations’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’ (I use the George di Giovanni, (1935 — ), translation by the way, rather than the A.V. Miller, (1899–1991), I try and correct the American English spellings but I may miss some).

In the normal course of experience we are not directly aware of the role that the categories of thought play in forming our experience:

‘Enough said to dispel any notion that thought determinations are only for use, are only a means; more important is the related further notion that they are external forms. — The activity of thought at work in us across all representations, interests, and actions is, as we have said, unconsciously busy (the natural logic); explicit consciousness is of the content, the subject matters of representations, all the things that interest us; taken in this relation, thought determinations are generally taken to be forms that only attach to the content without however being this content itself’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

One may indeed find oneself asking whether something really happened or what caused a certain event without thereby reflecting upon the fact that only the possession of the categories of reality and cause allows us to ask such questions, and similarly one may find oneself discoursing upon something one observed in town the other day or about an object beneath the desk without thereby considering whether one properly understands what such concepts actually mean, in fact one does not normally imagine that there might be a proper or indeed improper understanding of terms such as something and object, for are these not just familiar, unproblematic words to us that we employ without thinking? But such unreflective use of categories is more problematical than one might suppose for it leaves one entangled in a network of concepts that are in fact improperly formed and thereby distorts one’s view of the world, which is to say:

‘Confronted by the barrenness of the merely formal categories, healthy common sense instinctively felt that it had the upper hand after all, and it contemptuously relinquished acquaintanceship with them to the domain of school logic and school metaphysics. In this, however, it underestimated the value that the consciousness of these threads already possesses by itself; it also did not perceive that when given over to the instinctive practices of natural logic, especially when all acquaintance and cognition of the thought determinations themselves have deliberately been rejected, it is in bondage to unclarified and therefore unfree thought’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

For instance, consider the concept of something, one may well surmise that to be something is to be quite distinct from and unrelated to something else and that whatever one thinks of as something has its own identity and one that is unaffected by interaction with other things, and one might subsequently apply this concept to human beings who after all must be thought of as at least something and come to think of individual men and women as having a core identity that remains unaffected by their relations to other people. And so an evidently unobjectionable conception of what it is to be something may lead us to conceive of human beings as distinct individuals with a character and free will that is independent of social relations and conditions and we may consequently formulate moral principles or political policies upon the basis of just such a conception and chastise individuals for actions that otherwise would be deemed to have a broader social cause and to be beyond an individual’s control. Which need be of no concern if such is the proper way to understand something. But if this is not the proper way to understand something then our unreflective use of a apparently innocuous category might in fact prove to be profoundly problematical indeed dangerous for it might lead us to a misunderstanding of ourselves and of our world that runs deep and with all the practical, political, as well as theoretical, problems that this can entail.

So, the undertaking of the ‘Science of Logic’ is to liberate us from such potential misunderstandings and to make our theoretical and practical activity more intelligent and more clear-headed by determining in a rigorous and disciplined way how the fundamental categories of thought are to be conceived:

‘As impulses the categories do their work only instinctively; they are brought to consciousness one by one and so are variable and mutually confusing, thus affording to spirit only fragmentary and uncertain actuality. To purify these categories and in them to elevate spirit to truth and freedom, this is therefore the loftier business of logic’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

Philosophy renders us conscious of the manner through which the categories dominate our thoughts and assists in clarifying them so that we can think more clearly and through attaining to this consciousness we thereby free ourselves from the biases and from the predominant preconceived notions of the times albeit Hegel considered that certain domains of experience for instance that of religion already recognize the truths disclosed by philosophy and hence were not so much in need philosophical clarification to quite the same degree as others. Of course the Logic does not take upon itself the infinite task of clarifying all the concepts by which we operate, it does not address empirical concepts, for instance table or chair, that can vary widely in their meaning according to local linguistic usage, neither does it address those concepts that apply specifically to nature, for instance space and time’, nor to history, for instance the state or society. It sets out to examine the simplest and most basic general categories with which we think, such as being, reality, something, limit, form, content, cause, concepts through which one formulates one’s minimal understanding of anything whatsoever. The Logic might well seem a rather abstruse text moving in a rarefied realm of abstraction yet it actually analyzes categories with which we are all even the least philosophically minded of us intimately familiar:

‘But even when logical matters and their expressions are common coin in a culture, still, as I have said elsewhere, what is familiar is for that reason not known, and it can even be a source of irritation to have to occupy oneself with the familiar — and what could be more familiar than just those determinations of thought which we employ everywhere, and are on our lips in every sentence that we utter?’

- ‘The Science of Logic’

And further, the Logic proceeds from the assumption that what is familiar (bekannt) is not thereby truly understood or known (erkannt) and hence the task of the Logic is to furnish us with a proper understanding of our familiar categories so that we can determine whether or not the way we are used to understanding them is indeed correct and proper.


‘as I have said elsewhere’:

‘Quite generally, the familiar, just because it is familiar, is not cognitively understood. The commonest way in which we deceive either ourselves or others about understanding is by assuming something as familiar, and accepting it on that account; with all its pros and cons, such knowing never gets anywhere, and it knows not why. Subject and object, God, Nature, Understanding, sensibility, and so on, are uncritically taken for granted as familiar, established as valid, and made into fixed points for starting and stopping. While these remain unmoved, the knowing activity goes back and forth between them, thus moving only on their surface. Apprehending and testing likewise consist in seeing whether everybody’s impression of the matter coincides with what is asserted about these fixed points, whether it seems that way to him or not’.

- ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’

The ‘Science of Logic’ opens with an essay:

‘With what must the beginning of science be made?’

‘It is only in recent times that there has been a new awareness of the difficulty of finding a beginning in philosophy, and the reason for this difficulty, and so also the possibility of resolving it, have been discussed in a variety of ways. The beginning of philosophy must be either something mediated or something immediate, and it is easy to show that it can be neither the one nor the other; so either way of beginning runs into contradiction. The principle of a philosophy also expresses a beginning, of course, but not so much a subjective as an objective one, the beginning of all things. The principle is a somehow determinate content — ‘water’, ‘the one’, ‘nous’, ‘idea’, or ‘substance’, ‘monad’, etc. — or, if it designates the nature of cognition and is therefore meant simply as a criterion rather than an objective determination, as ‘thinking’, ‘intuition’, ‘sensation’, ‘I’, even ‘subjectivity’, then here too the interest still lies in the content determination. The beginning as such, on the other hand, as something subjective in the sense that it is an accidental way of introducing the exposition, is left unconsidered, a matter of indifference, and consequently also the need to ask with what a beginning should be made remains of no importance in face of the need for the principle in which alone the interest of the fact seems to lie, the interest as to what is the truth, the absolute ground of everything’.

‘But the modern perplexity about a beginning proceeds from a further need which escapes those who are either busy demonstrating their principle dogmatically or skeptically looking for a subjective criterion against dogmatic philosophizing, and is outright denied by those who begin, like a shot from a pistol, from their inner revelation, from faith, intellectual intuition, etc. and who would be exempt from method and logic. If earlier abstract thought is at first interested only in the principle as content, but is driven as philosophical culture advances to the other side to pay attention to the conduct of the cognitive process, then the subjective activity has also been grasped as an essential moment of objective truth, and with this there comes the need to unite the method with the content, the form with the principle. Thus the principle ought to be also the beginning, and that which has priority for thinking ought to be also the first in the process of thinking’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

A principle motivation behind the Logic is a yearning for necessity and following Johann Gottlieb Fichte, (1762–1814), Hegel aspired to discover how it is that the fundamental categories have to be understood and not merely how they have in fact been understood, and he believed that this can only be discovered through demonstrating which categories are inherent in thought as such, and we can only accomplish this if we allow pure thought to determine itself and so to generate its own determinations before our very eyes as Fichte put it:

‘Attend to thyself; turn thine eye away from all that surrounds thee and into thine own inner self! Such is the first task imposed upon the student by Philosophy. We speak of nothing that is without thee, but merely of thyself. … postulated Laws of Thinking are really Laws of Thinking, are really nothing but immanent laws of the Intelligence. The Dogmatist asserts in opposition, that they are not, but that they are general qualities of Things, founded on the nature of Things, and there is no reason why we should place more faith in the unproved assertion of the one than in the unproved assertion of the other. This course of proceeding, indeed, furnishes no understanding that and why the Intelligence should act just in this particular manner. To produce such an understanding, it would be necessary to premise something which can only appertain to the Intelligence, and from those premises to deduce before our eyes the laws of Thinking’.

- ‘Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre’

The study of thought will inevitably lack such necessity if it does not take as its starting point thought as such but instead what we simply assume, find, or assert thought to be, because as Fichte said ‘there is no reason why we should place more faith in the unproved assertion of the one than in the unproved assertion of the other’, or as Hegel himself put it:

‘… when confronted with a knowledge that is without truth, Science can neither merely reject it as an ordinary way of looking at things, while assuring us that its Science is a quite different sort of cognition for which that ordinary know1edge is of no account whatever; nor can it appeal to the vulgar view for the intimations it gives us of something better to come. By the former assurance, Science would be declaring its power to lie simply in its being; but the untrue knowledge likewise appeals to the fact that it is, and assures us that for it Science is of no account. One bare assurance is worth just as much as another’.

- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’

An account of the categories — such as those of Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), or those of Fichte, that is grounded upon unproven assumptions can therefore never demonstrate how the categories have to be understood schlechthin or par excellence but merely how they are to be understood given those assumptions, and so we can determine the necessary character of the categories only if we eschew all such unproven assumptions about thought and derive the categories from what thought itself minimally is, and Hegel’s concern to begin the Logic by suspending all our familiar views about thought is hence a direct consequence of his search for an account of the categories that is completely necessary albeit it is in addition the consequence of his desire to be utterly self-critical. The conviction that only the suspension of one’’s most valued assumptions will lead to what is necessary and true is of course a central pillar of René Descartes’, (1596–1650), philosophy and Hegel traces the imperative for a thoroughly critical study of the categories back to Kant however rather than to the father of modern philosophy, informing us the prior to Kant metaphysical and empiricist philosophers employed categories such as substance and causality to understand the world but they did not prove that it was actually legitimate to do so. This is so of Aristotle, (384 –322 BC), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, (1646–1716), John Locke, (1632–1704), and Descartes never mind his pledge to demolish all his previous opinions.

In his ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ (see my articles On Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: Making Honours of Men’s Impossibilities, parts one to seven), Kant put a stop to such naive thinking, as Hegel explains:

‘… the Critical Philosophy set itself the task of investigating just how far the forms of thinking are in general capable of helping us reach the cognition of truth. More precisely, the faculty of cognition was to be investigated before cognition began. This certainly involves the correct insight that the forms of thinking themselves must be made the object of cognition; but there soon creeps in, too, the mistaken project of wanting to have cognition before we have any cognition, or of not wanting to go into the water before we have learned to swim’.

- ‘The Encyclopedia Logic’

[Note: Scholasticus, a fictional creation of Stoic philosopher Hierocles, (fl. 2nd century AD), wanted to learn to swim before venturing into the water].

‘Kant’s subjection of knowing to examination in this way was a great and important step’, said Hegel, albeit he also claims that Kant himself did not take his critical investigation of the legitimacy of the categories anything like far enough. For Hegel Kant’s concern was to determine the epistemic status of the categories which is to say whether categories such as substance or causality can justifiably be employed to understand objects in the world and Kant’s conclusion was that such categories can be employed to understand objects as they are given to us in spatio/temporal intuition but that they cannot be employed to determine objects as they might be in themselves, that is to say apart from the way they appear to intuition. And Hegel rejects the idea that the categories do not apply to things themselves and furthermore he pointed out that in undertaking this critical examination of the epistemic status of the categories Kant neglects to carry out a similar critical investigation of the logical meaning of the categories themselves:

‘… the Critical Philosophy subjects to investigation the validity of the concepts of the understanding that are used in metaphysics, but also in the other sciences and in ordinary representation. This critique does not involve itself with the content, however, or with the determinate mutual relationship of these thought-determinations to each other; instead, it considers them according to the antithesis of subjectivity and objectivity in general’.

- ‘The Encyclopedia Logic’

Rather, Kant merely grounds his understanding of the categories upon the functions of judgment traditionally assumed in formal logic, and Hegel was attune to the fact that Kant insists against some of his predecessors that the categories have to be understood in temporal terms, that is, schematized, in order to be fully meaningful and yet this does not affect Kant’s understanding of the purely logical meaning of the categories which remains governed by the accepted functions of judgment, hence Kant does not subject the categories themselves to critical examination but retains, without proving that it is necessary to do so, what Hegel considers to be a quite traditional one might say Aristotelian understanding of them, and considered thus Kant’s critique of pure reason remains for Hegel just like the thought of the older metaphysicians such as Leibniz and Christian Wolff, (1679–1754):

‘The very first [task] in the Kantian philosophy, therefore, is for thinking to investigate how far it is capable of cognition. Nowadays we have gone beyond the Kantian philosophy, and everyone wants to go further. There are two ways of going further, however: one can go forward or backward. Looked at in the clear light of day, many of our philosophical endeavours are nothing but the (mistaken) procedure of the older metaphysics, an uncritical thinking on and on, of the kind that anyone can do’.

- ‘The Encyclopedia Logic’

A properly critical thinking on the other hand would suspend the traditional conception of the categories and determine anew how the categories are to be understood, and in the Logic Hegel demonstrates that the traditional understanding of the categories discovered in both pre-Kantian metaphysics and ordinary consciousness does not in fact correspond entirely to the way those categories should be understood. And the Logic, or at least the first part, entitled the ‘Objective Logic’, thereby provides a genuine critique of the categories of metaphysics and of ordinary thought:

‘… objective logic comprises within itself also the rest of metaphysics, the metaphysics which sought to comprehend with the pure forms of thought such particular substrata, originally drawn from the imagination, as the soul, the world, and God, and in this type of consideration the determinations of thought constituted the essential factor. Logic, however, considers these forms free of those substrata, which are the subjects of figurative representation, considers their nature and value in and for themselves. That metaphysics neglected to do this, and it therefore incurred the just reproach that it employed the pure forms of thought uncritically, without previously investigating whether and how they could be the determinations of the thing-in-itself, to use Kant’s expression — or more precisely, of the rational. — The objective logic is therefore the true critique of such determinations — a critique that considers them, not according to the abstract form of the a priori as contrasted with the a posteriori, but in themselves according to their particular content’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

Kant’s critique, on the other hand, has not produced any alteration in the categories they are deemed to be applicable only to what is given in sensuous experience and not to things in themselves but they are left in the same shape for the subject knower as they formerly possessed for the object:

‘Directly connected with this is the issue of how to view the concept and the character of logic generally, the issue namely of the relation of the concept and its science to truth itself. This is an issue on which the Kantian philosophy holds the same position as is commonly taken. We cited earlier from Kant’s deduction of the categories to the effect that, according to it, the object in which the manifold of intuition is unified is this unity only by virtue of the unity of self-consciousness. The objectivity of thought is here, therefore, specifically defined: it is an identity of concept and thing which is the truth. In the same way it is also commonly accepted that, as thought appropriates a given subject matter, this subject matter thereby undergoes an alteration and is made from something sensuous into something thought. But nothing is changed in this alteration in so far as the essentiality of the object goes; on the contrary, it is accepted that the object is in its truth only in its concept, whereas in the immediacy in which it is given it is only appearance and accidentality; that the cognition conceptualizing the subject matter is a cognition of it as it is in and for itself, and the concept is its very objectivity’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

Hegel’s Logic therefore shows itself to be an even more thoroughly critical text than Kant’s own ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ and it is evident that Hegel regards his Logic as a refinement of Kant’s theoretical philosophy in two ways, first the Logic perfects the genetic derivation of the categories that according to Fichte is made necessary by Kant’s insight that the categories have their source in the understanding alone, and second the Logic presents the thorough critique of the traditional conception of the categories that Hegel believes is demanded by Kant’s critical turn albeit never delivered by Kant himself. These two projects interlock in virtue of Hegel being able to derive the proper conception of the categories from thought as such only after he has critically suspended all that thought has traditionally been found to be.

A thoroughly critical derivation of the categories is all very well but does Kant’s own emphasis upon critique itself implies such a demand? The word critique for Kant has a rather narrow and restricted meaning, for if metaphysics is the body of synthetic a priori principles that constitutes knowledge through pure reason, the task of critique for Kant is simply to display the sources and conditions of its possibility:

‘Nothing can escape our notice; for what reason produces from itself cannot lie concealed, but must be brought to the light by reason itself, so soon as we have discovered the common principle of the ideas we seek. The perfect unity of this kind of cognitions, which are based upon pure conceptions, and uninfluenced by any empirical element, or any peculiar intuition leading to determinate experience, renders this completeness not only practicable, but also necessary.

Tecum habita, et nôris quam sit tibi curta supellex.

- Persius. Satirae iv. 52.

Such a system of pure speculative reason I hope to be able to publish under the title of Metaphysic of Nature. The content of this work (which will not be half so long) will be very much richer than that of the present Critique, which has to discover the sources of this cognition and expose the conditions of its possibility, and at the same time to clear and level a fit foundation for the scientific edifice. In the present work, I look for the patient hearing and the impartiality of a judge; in the other, for the good-will and assistance of a co-labourer. For, however complete the list of principles for this system may be in the Critique, the correctness of the system requires that no deduced conceptions should be absent. These cannot be presented à priori, but must be gradually discovered; and, while the synthesis of conceptions has been fully exhausted in the Critique, it is necessary that, in the proposed work, the same should be the case with their analysis. But this will be rather an amusement than a labour’.

- ‘The Critique of Pure Reason’


The ‘Metaphysics of Nature’ was never published.

‘Tecum habita, et nôris quam sit tibi curta supellex’, ‘live with yourself, and you’ll find how badly you’re furnished’:

Satire No. 4 (excerpt)

by Aulus Persius Flaccus, (34–62 AD)

Fool about, as you will, and deceive your flesh

If you can. ‘If the whole neighbourhood proclaims me

As wonderful, should I not believe it?’ Shameless wretch,

If you itch at the sight of a coin, if you follow your prick,

If, with wealth secure, you whip up the rates at the well

Of bitter waters, leaving a host of scars; no point lending

Your eager ears to the public. Spit out what’s not yours;

And let the tradesman recover his interest. Learn to live

With yourself, and you’ll find how badly you’re furnished.

Hence the Critique demonstrates how metaphysics is possible without thereby calling for anything remotely resembling a thoroughgoing self-criticism be it explicit or implicit for that is a Cartesian and not a Kantian objective and yet Hegel interprets it as implicit in Kant’s critical project and hence interprets his own critique of Kant as an immanent critique insofar as he views his own philosophy as fulfilling the demand for radical self-criticism implicit in Kant’s critical philosophy better than Kant himself yet Hegel’s critique of Kant evidently is not immanent in that sense. However, in another somewhat extended sense Hegel’s critique of Kant may be interpreted as immanent for it is certainly the case as Hegel and Fichte recognised that a rigorous derivation of the categories of the kind Kant fails to provide is rendered necessary by Kant’s own assertion that the categories spring pure and unmixed from the understanding:

‘When we call into play a faculty of cognition, different conceptions manifest themselves according to the different circumstances, and make known this faculty, and assemble themselves into a more or less extensive collection, according to the time or penetration that has been applied to the consideration of them. Where this process, conducted as it is mechanically, so to speak, will end, cannot be determined with certainty. Besides, the conceptions which we discover in this haphazard manner present themselves by no means in order and systematic unity, but are at last coupled together only according to resemblances to each other, and arranged in series, according to the quantity of their content, from the simpler to the more complex — series which are anything but systematic, though not altogether without a certain kind of method in their construction’.

‘Transcendental philosophy has the advantage, and moreover the duty, of searching for its conceptions according to a principle; because these conceptions spring pure and unmixed out of the understanding as an absolute unity, and therefore must be connected with each other according to one conception or idea. A connection of this kind, however, furnishes us with a ready prepared rule, by which its proper place may be assigned to every pure conception of the understanding, and the completeness of the system of all be determined à priori — both which would otherwise have been dependent on mere choice or chance’.

- ‘A Critique of Pure Reason’

Such a derivation has to demonstrate that the categories follow necessarily from what thought itself is and not merely from what thought has been found to be and yet this means that the philosopher must first suspend all unproven assumptions about thought and so be thoroughly self-critical. The demand for a thoroughgoing Cartesian critique or suspension of the traditional conception of the categories can thereby be claimed to be implicit in Kant’s philosophy after all as indeed Hegel suggested, but it is implicit not in Kant’s own conception of critique as such but in the demand for a rigorous derivation of the categories that is itself implicit in Kant’s recognition that they have their source in the intellect.

The requirement that philosophy make no unwarranted assumptions about thought in its derivation of the categories is the requirement that philosophy be presuppositionless for philosophy in Hegel’s view should not presuppose that thought is judgment or that it is self-conscious intellectual activity, indeed it should not presuppose anything about thought at all, and such a demand for radical presuppositionlessness is open to misunderstanding albeit we must take such a demand in earnest even if at the beginning we are inclined to the view that it is an impossible demand to fulfil, for if we do not take it in earnest we will be unable to understand exactly what Hegel is up to in the Logic and we will in effect be excusing ourselves from participating in the great adventure.

But what does presuppositionless thinking entail for Hegel exactly? Not everyone agrees that he really meant his philosophy to be presuppositionless but we can easily locate passages in his texts and testimonies of his earliest critics that he certainly did:

‘The antithesis between an independent immediacy of the content or of knowing, and, on the other side, an equally independent mediation that is irreconcilable with it, must be put aside, first of all, because it is a mere presupposition and an arbitrary assurance. All other presuppositions or assumptions must equally be given up when we enter into the Science, whether they are taken from representation or from thinking; for it is this Science, in which all determinations of this sort must first be investigated, and in which their meaning and validity like that of their antitheses must be recognised’.

‘Being a negative science that has gone through all forms of cognition, scepticism might offer itself as an introduction in which the nullity of such presuppositions would be exposed. But it would not only be a sad way, but also a redundant one, because, as we shall soon see, the dialectical moment itself is an essential one in the affirmative Science. Besides, scepticism would only have to find the finite forms empirically and unscientifically, and to take them up as given. To require a consummate scepticism of this kind, is the same as the demand that the Science should be preceded by universal doubt, i. e., by total presuppositionlessness. Strictly speaking, this requirement is fulfilled by the freedom that abstracts fro m everything, and grasps its own pure abstraction, the simplicity of thinking-in the resolve of the will to think purely’.

- ‘The Encyclopedia Logic’

In the ‘Science of Logic’ the same point is presented:

‘Being is what makes the beginning here; it is presented indeed as originating through mediation, but a mediation which at the same time sublates itself, and the presupposition is of a pure knowledge which is the result of finite knowledge, of consciousness. But if no presupposition is to be made, if the beginning is itself to be taken immediately, then the only determination of this beginning is that it is to be the beginning of logic, of thought as such. There is only present the resolve, which can also be viewed as arbitrary, of considering thinking as such. The beginning must then be absolute or, what means the same here, must be an abstract beginning; and so there is nothing that it may presuppose, must not be mediated by anything or have a ground, ought to be rather itself the ground of the entire science. It must therefore be simply an immediacy, or rather only immediacy itself. Just as it cannot have any determination with respect to an other, so too it cannot have any within; it cannot have any content, for any content would entail distinction and the reference of distinct moments to each other, and hence a mediation. The beginning is therefore pure being’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

The immense significance of this notion to Hegel was also clearly acknowledged by his most important nineteenth-century critics. ‘Hegelian philosophy boasts of being a philosophy which presupposes nothing, absolutely nothing’, said Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, (1775–1854). Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg, (1802–1872), makes reference in to Hegel’s ‘proud doctrine of the presuppositionless pure thinking’. And Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, (1813–1855), introduces his discussion of Hegel in his ‘Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs’ thus:

‘The speculative view grasps Christianity as a historical phenomenon. The question of its truth therefore means penetrating it with thought in such a way that, in the end, Christianity is itself the eternal thought. The speculative view does of course have the virtue of being without presuppositions. It proceeds from nothing, assumes nothing as given, does not begin ‘bittweise’. So here we can be sure not to encounter presuppositions like those we met in the preceding. One thing though is assumed: Christianity as given … The dialectic of the beginning must be made clear. What is the almost amusing thing about it — that the beginning is and again is not, because it is the beginning — this true dialectical observation has for some time now been a kind of game played in good Hegelian society. The system begins, so it is said, with the immediate; some people, delinquent in the dialectical, are even oratorical enough to speak of the most immediate of all, although the very notion of a comparison implied here could prove hazardous for the beginning. The system begins with the immediate and therefore without any presuppositions and therefore absolutely; i.e., the system’s beginning is an absolute beginning. This is quite correct and has also been sufficiently admired’.

- ‘Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs’


bittweise (Vorausgesetztes): by the provisional begging of certain questions, temporarily accepted: ‘The method, which thus coils in a circle, cannot however anticipate in a temporal development that the beginning is as such already something derived; sufficient for an immediate beginning is that it be simple universality. Inasmuch as this is what it is, it has its complete condition; and there is no need to deprecate the fact that it may be accepted only provisionally and hypothetically’. — ‘The Science of Logic’

None of these thinkers believed that Hegel’s philosophy actually was presuppositionless or even that presuppositionlessness is desirable but they took in earnest his assertion that he avoids taking anything for granted, indeed that is precisely why they are so eager to refute it. But what exactly does it mean to philosophize without presuppositions? It means that we do not take for granted any particular conception of thought and its categories at the outset of philosophy or assume as Kant did that concepts are predicates of possible judgments:

‘Now thought is cognition by means of conceptions. But conceptions, as predicates of possible judgements, relate to some representation of a yet undetermined object. Thus the conception of body indicates something — for example, metal — which can be cognized by means of that conception. It is therefore a conception, for the reason alone that other representations are contained under it, by means of which it can relate to objects. It is therefore the predicate to a possible judgement; for example: ‘Every metal is a body’. All the functions of the understanding therefore can be discovered, when we can completely exhibit the functions of unity in judgements’.

- ‘Critique of Pure Reason’

It also means however that we do not assume that thought should be governed by the rules of Aristotelian logic or that the law of noncontradiction holds or that thought is regulated by any principles or laws whatsoever. In brief it means that we relinquish everything we have learned about thought from Plato, (428/427 or 424/423–348/347 BC), Aristotle, Leibniz, or Kant or twentieth-century symbolic logic and that we abstract from everything:

‘The antithesis between an independent immediacy of the content or of knowing, and, on the other side, an equally independent mediation that is irreconcilable with it, must be put aside, first of all, because it is a mere presupposition and an arbitrary assurance. All other presuppositions or assumptions must equally be given up when we enter into the Science, whether they are taken from representation or from thinking; for it is this Science, in which all determinations of this sort must first be investigated, and in which their meaning and validity like that of their antitheses must be recognised. Being a negative science that has gone through all forms of cognition, scepticism might offer itself as an introduction in which the nullity of such presuppositions would be exposed. But it would not only be a sad way, but also a redundant one, because, as we shall soon see, the dialectical moment itself is an essential one in the affirmative Science. Besides, scepticism would only have to find the finite forms empirically and unscientifically, and to take them up as given. To require a consummate scepticism of this kind, is the same as the demand that the Science should be preceded by universal doubt, i. e., by total presuppositionlessness. Strictly speaking, this requirement is fulfilled by the freedom that abstracts fro m everything, and grasps its own pure abstraction, the simplicity of thinking-in the resolve of the will to think purely’.

- ‘The Encyclopedia Logic’

This is not to say that we ourselves assume that the principles of Aristotelian or post- Fregean, (Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege, (1848–1925)), formal logic are simply wrong, Hegel maintains that the rules of syllogizing will eventually be shown in the Logic to be valid albeit for a limited range of thought that excludes philosophy), it is to say that we may not assume at the outset that such principles are clearly correct and determine in advance what is to count as rational. We should therefore not look to formal logic to provide a standard by which to establish whether Hegel’s arguments in the Logic are rational or, more likely by which to judge that they are sophistical). ‘To exempt a principle from criticism and presuppose it as a criterion by which to condemn a logical method is grossly and barbarously to beg the question’ observed Geoffrey Reginald Gilchrist Mure, (1893–1979), and a truly critical philosopher should never beg the question in Hegel’s view and ‘to evaluate Hegel’s logic against the conventional standards of formal logic begs the question. For Hegel is asking about the grounds of all logical validity’.

To philosophize without presuppositions is therefore not to reject in advance all that traditionally counts as thought, concept, or rationality but it is simply to suspend our familiar assumptions about thought and to look to discover in the course of the science of logic whether or not they will prove to be correct, a science of logic has to set our familiar assumptions to one side at the beginning because it is to be the very discipline that determines what it is to think and which categories and laws if any are inherent in thought as such. Critics of Hegel including Arthur Schopenhauer, (1788–1860), and Karl Popper, (1902–1994) can lament all they like over his allegedly deliberately violating the law of noncontradiction and scrambling young minds in the process but Hegel does not have it in mind deliberately to reject any of the traditional laws of thought, indeed he himself is very critical of what he sees to be the ‘crude rejection of all method’ in the work of Romantics such as Friedrich Schlegel, (1772–1829):

‘Hitherto philosophy had yet to find its method but looked with envy at the systematic edifice of mathematics and, as we have said, borrowed it from it or helped itself with the method of sciences which are only an admixture of given material, propositions of experience and thoughts — or it even resorted to the crude rejection of all method. But the exposition of that which alone can be the true method of philosophical science falls within the treatment of logic itself; for method is the consciousness of the form of the inner self-movement of the content of logic’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

Hegel’s point is simply that:

‘Logic, on the contrary, cannot presuppose any of these forms of reflection, these rules and laws of thinking, for they are part of its content and they first have to be established within it. And it is not just the declaration of scientific method but the concept itself of science as such that belongs to its content and even makes up its final result. Logic, therefore, cannot say what it is in advance, rather does this knowledge of itself only emerge as the final result and completion of its whole treatment. Likewise its subject matter, thinking or more specifically conceptual thinking, is essentially elaborated within it; its concept is generated in the course of this elaboration and cannot therefore be given in advance’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

Consequently Hegel has to be open at the start of the Logic to the possibility that the traditional laws of thought may or may not govern though properly understood, and if the Logic does turn out to violate the law of noncontradiction it will be because thought proves not to be completely governed by that law and not because Hegel has simply decided to abandon it. A question: If we are to examine thought without presupposing that it has any particular structure, operates with any particular concepts, or is governed by any particular rules, what are we to understand thought to be? What is to be the object of our inquiry? What is thought at the very least? As quoted above ‘freedom that abstracts from everything . . . grasps its own pure abstraction, the simplicity of thinking’, from which we may infer that free, self-critical thought that suspends all its presuppositions about itself is left with nothing to think but itself, its own simple being. In other words thought that sets aside all its assumptions about what it is is left with nothing to think but the simple thought that it is and hence Hegel’s presuppositionless science of logic begins with the thought of thought itself as simply being, not being anything in particular but simply be-ing as such, and as a consequence the first category considered by Hegel in the Logic is simply that of sheer indeterminate being and at the beginning Hegel says:

‘Being is what makes the beginning here; it is presented indeed as originating through mediation, but a mediation which at the same time sublates itself, and the presupposition is of a pure knowledge which is the result of finite knowledge, of consciousness. But if no presupposition is to be made, if the beginning is itself to be taken immediately, then the only determination of this beginning is that it is to be the beginning of logic, of thought as such (das Denken als solches). There is only present the resolve, which can also be viewed as arbitrary, of considering thinking as such. The beginning must then be absolute or, what means the same here, must be an abstract beginning; and so there is nothing that it may presuppose, must not be mediated by anything or have a ground, ought to be rather itself the ground of the entire science. It must therefore be simply an immediacy, or rather only immediacy itself. Just as it cannot have any determination with respect to an other, so too it cannot have any within; it cannot have any content, for any content would entail distinction and the reference of distinct moments to each other, and hence a mediation. The beginning is therefore pure being (das reine Sein).

- ‘The Science of Logic’

The path of universal doubt that leads into Hegel’s science of logic is clearly very similar to that taken by Descartes but Hegel’s conclusion is not I think, therefore I am but rather thinking, therefore is and from this pure being of thought the necessary categories of thought have to be derived.

‘Being, pure being — without further determination. In its indeterminate immediacy it is equal only to itself and also not unequal with respect to another; it has no difference within it, nor any outwardly. If any determination or content were posited in it as distinct, or if it were posited by this determination or content as distinct from an other, it would thereby fail to hold fast to its purity. It is pure indeterminateness and emptiness. — There is nothing to be intuited in it, if one can speak here of intuiting; or, it is only this pure empty intuiting itself. Just as little is anything to be thought in it, or, it is equally only this empty thinking. Being, the indeterminate immediate is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

The adventure kicks off with the simplest of simples pure Being: Being, pure being, without further determination… an anacoluthon (a sentence whereby the expected grammatical sequence has absented itself), lacking a verb, for one cannot even say that being is, it is too simple for something so active as a verb, pure Being is immediacy as such, taken on its own terms without reference to anything else, a radical immediacy (unmittelbarkeit). The opening anacoluthon ‘tries with Hegelian cunning to find a way out of the predicament, that indeterminate immediacy … would thereby receive a definition through which the sentence would contradict itself’, observed Theodor W. Adorno, (1903–1969). In Hegelian vocabulary Being almost always implicates immediacy. Recall too that the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ began with consciousness immediately perceiving an object. Immediacy means that consciousness is aware of nothing that comes between the object and knowledge of the object, the object and knowledge of it are taken to be the same thing, but such an immediacy is not purely immediate but rather is covertly mediated by its parts, and by the end of the Phenomenology consciousness abolishes itself in favour of absolute or pure knowing whereby absolute knowing is the truth of every mode of consciousness because as the course of the Phenomenology demonstrated it is only in absolute knowing that the separation of the object from the certainty of itself is completely eliminated and truth is now equated with certainty and this certainty with truth.

Consciousness then reveals itself to be nothing else but impure knowing and therefore no adequate foundation for philosophy. Pure knowing, in contrast, ceases itself to be knowledge in virtue of knowledge insisting upon a distinction between the knower and the known. The Logic takes up where the Phenomenology left off, with a purer immediacy than consciousness comprehends:

‘The concept of pure science and its deduction is therefore presupposed in the present work in so far as the Phenomenology of Spirit is nothing other than that deduction. Absolute knowledge is the truth of all the modes of consciousness because, as the course of the Phenomenology brought out, it is only in absolute knowledge that the separation of the subject matter from the certainty of itself is completely resolved: truth has become equal to certainty and this certainty to truth. Pure science thus presupposes the liberation from the opposition of consciousness. It contains thought in so far as this thought is equally the fact as it is in itself; or the fact in itself in so far as this is equally pure thought. As science, truth is pure self-consciousness as it develops itself and has the shape of the self, so that that which exists in and for itself is the conscious concept and the concept as such is that which exists in and for itself’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

Pure Being is no unity of distinguishable parts, it is immediacy before there are any parts to break it up. Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, (1818–1883), et al. overlook a crucial element in the story of the Phenomenology, whereby rather than of properly regarding absolute knowing as the collapse of the posited structure of consciousness they have commonly interpreted it as a determinate cognition that somehow unites subject and object such that its knowing both comprehends and constitutes things as they are in themselves. ‘In the Logic the identity of being and self is implicit or presupposed at the beginning and progressively becomes explicit, whereas in the Phenomenology, this identity is the problem which must be resolved’, observed Jean Hyppolite, (1907–1968). Dieter Henrich, (1927 -), objected that immediacy is not immediate because it is the negation of mediation and negations are never immediate, but William Maker, (1949–2021), retorted that it was the function of the Phenomenology to refute the givenness of objects as presented to consciousness. Nonetheless Hegel did say:

‘Simple immediacy is itself an expression of reflection; it refers to the distinction from what is mediated. The true expression of this simple immediacy is therefore pure being. Just as pure knowledge should mean nothing but knowledge as such, so also pure being should mean nothing but being in general; being, and nothing else, without further determination and filling’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

Henrich’s objection that by negating mediation Hegel implicitly appeals to the logic of consciousness, that is to say, reflection), is of a kind that dates back to 1812 when the Logic first appeared, and of such critiques Clark Butler writes: ‘hermeneutic self-alienation into a transcended definition of the absolute does not require that we abstract from all we know. It requires only that we project ourselves out of our own definition (or non-definition) of the absolute . . . and that we allow that definition to analyze and critique itself’. Hegel understands well enough that pure Being is a failure and is ultimately a reference to determinacy and he contends that beginnings are by their nature failures otherwise they would be results not beginnings. ‘Given what consciousness instantiates, we can see that its suspension is specifically, indeed, preeminently relevant to the beginning of presuppositionless science’, said Maker.

In the pure light of Being, (see above diagram), nothing can be distinguished, some shade or some lines are required in order to make anything out. As Hegel explains:

‘For being which is mediated, we shall reserve the expression concrete existence. But the common practice is to imagine being, as if it were a picture of pure light, the clarity of unclouded seeing, and then nothing as the pure night — and the distinction between the two is then enshrined into this well known sensuous difference. But in fact, if this very seeing is more accurately imagined, one can readily perceive that in absolute light one sees just as much and just as little as in absolute darkness; that the one seeing is just as good as the other; that pure seeing is a seeing of nothing. Pure light and pure darkness are two voids that amount to the same thing. Only in determinate light (and light is determined through darkness: in clouded light therefore), just as only in determinate darkness (and darkness is determined through light: in illuminated darkness therefore), can something be distinguished, since only clouded light and illuminated darkness have distinction in them and hence are determinate being, existence’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’


‘concrete existence’: Existenz and Dasein are distinguishable, both terms signify Being as determinate and therefore as mediated but the difference is whether the mediation is explicitly expressed within the structure of the logical object itself as it is the case with Existenz, which explicitly refers to essence or is only immediately present there as it is the case with Dasein. Existenz is here translated as concrete existence because of the immediately preceding mention of possibility that definitely situates it within the realm of essence which is the realm of explicit mediation.

Just as one requires a contrast between light and dark to see anything so it is with pure Being, pure Being will require the darkness of pure Nothing before it can be thought at all. So far, everything is indeterminate, indeed pure Being is indeterminacy as such, in pure Being we think nothing but this is what we would perceive in a world of pure Nothing, hence we might as well say that pure Being is pure Nothing, they are identical. ‘Being, the indeterminate immediate, is in fact nothing… Being, the indeterminate immediate is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing’.

‘Nothing, pure nothingness; it is simple equality with itself, complete emptiness, complete absence of determination and content; lack of all distinction within. — In so far as mention can be made here of intuiting and thinking, it makes a difference whether something or nothing is being intuited or thought. To intuit or to think nothing has therefore a meaning; the two are distinguished and so nothing is (concretely exists) in our intuiting or thinking; or rather it is the empty intuiting and thinking itself, like pure being. — Nothing is therefore the same determination or rather absence of determination, and thus altogether the same as what pure being is’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

If pure Being and pure Nothing are the same from whence does their difference derive? Most assuredly there is a belief that Being and Nothing are different but belief counts for naught in logic, difference is to be inferred if it is to count. Does pure Being, the starting point, create difference? Of course not, for pure Being has no diversity within itself … It would not be held fast in its purity if it contained any determination’. The origin of difference precedes pure Being, pure Being is ‘equal only to itself’, it is not equal to another, which makes sense, so far there is nothing but pure Being, nothing else is allowed to be distinguished, otherwise we have smuggled in foreign determinateness which is not yet permitted. But to be equal to oneself, is it not always true by definition, as in A = A? Here A is not equal to itself, rather, it is equal to another A, with different time/space coordinates than the first A, one cannot even express true self equality using an equal sign in virtue of an equal sign being a mediating term between two other terms and thus far we have only one term, pure Being, which is self-identical, and as such an anomaly in Hegelian Logic albeit in the end it is Spirit’s victory that it becomes authentically self-identical. (Spirit is Hegel’s name for the entire system of thought thinking itself). Pure Being is ‘also not unequal with respect to another’, a double negative meaning that there is no other, not that there is an other to which pure Being is ‘not unequal’. Being is nothing more than simple self-relation.

‘When thinking is to begin, we have nothing but thought in its pure lack of determination, for determination requires both one and another; but at the beginning we have as yet no other. That which lacks determination, as we have it here, is the immediate, not a mediated lack of determination, not the sublation of all determinacy, but the lack of determination in all its immediacy, what lacks determination prior to all determinacy, what lacks determinacy because it stands at the very beginning. But this is what we call ‘being’. Being cannot be felt, it cannot be directly perceived nor can it be represented; instead, it is pure thought, and as such it constitutes the starting point. Essence lacks determination too, but, because it has already passed through mediation, it already contains determination as sublated within itself’.

- ‘The Encyclopedia Logic’

Hegel implies that pure Being cannot be thought by concrete human intellect: ‘Being is simple as an immediate; for this reason we can only intend it without being able to say what it is; therefore, it is immediately one with its other, non-being’. Whatever is conceivable is complex, and yet here I am thinking about pure Being and getting you to think about pure being. How so if such things cannot be thought? After all Hegel was critical of Kant’s putative discovery that we can know nothing of the thing in itself, the object beyond phenomenal experience of it, yet Kant knows all about the thing in itself because he is naming it and describing its properties and given that we can think the thing-in-itself we are entitled to know why we cannot think pure Being. Well, here you are thinking, but this is inconsistent with the rules of pure Being. Absolute knowing ‘has sublated [i.e., erased] all reference to an other’ and since it is without distinction it has ceased to be knowledge. ‘What is present is only simple immediacy … being and nothing else, without any further specification and filling’.

Pure Being precludes an other that thinks. This means you. If pure Being were actually before us and not simply in our thoughts we would sink into the void of pure Being and the very fact that we are thinking at all is evidence that pure Being is not before us but rather it is evident that pure Being is never before us and not being but having been (Gewordensein) is to be apprehended as a becoming. I think therefore pure Being/Nothing relinquishes its part and much further down the road from pure Being is a self-conscious entity such as my self. But the unfolding of Logic has its audience including myself and now you for we are advanced, thinking beings engaged in the excavation of our own being. ‘The whole is likewise in the form or determinateness of being, since in becoming being has likewise shown itself to be only a moment — something sublated, negatively determined. It is such, however, for us, in our reflection; not yet as posited in it’. He speaks ‘for us’, for us pure Being can be thought for we do it now but ‘for itself’ pure Being will not suffer us to contemplate it. In the presence of pure Being there can be no determinate thing that thinks and any endeavour to smuggle in thought or any other determinate being is thus far illegitimate.

‘Pure being and pure nothing are therefore the same. The truth is neither being nor nothing, but rather that being has passed over into nothing and nothing into being — ‘has passed over’, not passes over. But the truth is just as much that they are not without distinction; it is rather that they are not the same, that they are absolutely distinct yet equally unseparated and inseparable, and that each immediately vanishes in its opposite. Their truth is therefore this movement of the immediate vanishing of the one into the other: becoming, a movement in which the two are distinguished, but by a distinction which has just as immediately dissolved itself’.

- ‘The Science of Logic’

‘In representation, or for the understanding, the proposition: ‘Being and nothing is the same’, appears to be such a paradoxical proposition that it may perhaps be taken as not seriously meant. And it really is one of the hardest propositions that thinking dares to formulate, for being and nothing are the antithesis in all its immediacy, i. e., without the prior positing of any determination in one of the two which would contain its relation to the other. But as was shown in the preceding paragraph, they do contain this determination; i. e., the one that is precisely the same in both. The deduction of their unity is to this extent entirely analytic; just as, quite generally, the whole course of philosophising, being methodical, i. e., necessary, is nothing else but the mere positing of what is already contained in a concept.-But correct as it is to affirm the unity of being and nothing, it is equally correct to say that they are absolutely diverse too-that the one is not what the other is. But because this distinction has here not yet determined itself, precisely because being and nothing are still the immediate-it is, as belonging to them, what cannot be said, what is merely meant’.

‘No great expense of wit is needed to ridicule the proposition that being and nothing are the same, or rather to produce absurdities which are falsely asserted to be consequences and applications of this proposition; e. g., that, on that view, it is all the same whether my house, my fortune, the air to breathe, this city, the sun, the law, the spirit, God, are or are not. In examples of this kind, it is partly a matter of particular purposes, the utility that something has for me, being sneaked in. One then asks whether it matters to me that the useful thing is or that it is not. But philosophy is in fact the very discipline that aims at liberating man from an infinite crowd of finite purposes and intentions and at making him indifferent with regard to them, so that it is all the same to him whether such matters are the case or not’.

- ‘The Encyclopedia Logic’

Pure Being is pure Nothing and since pure Being is self-identical then so is pure Nothing. Of pure Nothing Hegel remarks: ‘In so far as intuiting or thinking can be mentioned here, it counts as a distinction whether something or nothing is intuited’. But thinking cannot be mentioned here for thinking stands opposed both to pure Being and pure Nothing, if you have a thought you have already trafficked in distinction contrary to the premises of pure Being. How we can proceed beyond pure Being if in it we are erased? Indubitably our relation to pure Being is characterised by ambiguity for we are thinking the unthinkable, and moreover we can merely borrow on advanced concepts such as human beings who think and who stand over against pure Being in violation of pure Being’s rules to move the process along. Hegel concedes as much while speaking for us to remind us that we probably believe that something is different from nothing for indeed what could be more radically different from pure Being than pure Nothing? But they are the same, nothing is, after all, something, nothing is paradoxical: ‘To intuit or think nothing has, therefore, a meaning; both [being and nothing] are distinguished and thus nothing is (exists) in our intuiting or thinking’, and that Nothing is is a paradox reflecting the contention that there is no difference between pure Being and pure Nothing.

Satire No. 3 (excerpt)

by Aulus Persius Flaccus, (34–62 AD)

… Learn, you wretched creatures,

Discover the causes of things: what we are and what we

Are born for; what our station in life is; how and where

Navigating the turning-post is easy; what the limits to

Wealth should be; what it’s right to pray for; the use of

New-minted coins; how much to spend on your country;

Or your nearest and dearest; what the gods command

You to be; and where in the human world is your place.

Learn, and don’t begrudge doing so; ignore the smell

Of the pots in your larder, richly-stocked from defending

Fat Umbrians, of pepper and hams, mementoes of your

Marsian client; ignore the sprats still left in that first tub.

Here one of the goatish tribe of centurions may well say:

‘What I know is good enough for me. I’ve no wish to be

Like Arcesilas, or wretched Solon, with head bent and eyes

Fixed on the ground, chewing over their murmurings and

Rabid silences, weighing their words with protruding lips,

Reflecting on the fantasies of some clapped-out invalid:

That nothing is born of nothing, nor can return to nothing.

Is that what makes so you pale? Is that why you’re missing


Coming up next:

The unity of Being and Nothing: Becoming


They shall be satisfied: I’ll read enough,

When I do see the very book indeed

Where all my sins are writ, and that’s myself.

Re-enter Attendant, with a glass

Give me the glass, and therein will I read.

No deeper wrinkles yet? hath sorrow struck

So many blows upon this face of mine,

And made no deeper wounds? O flattering glass,

Like to my followers in prosperity,

Thou dost beguile me! Was this face the face

That every day under his household roof

Did keep ten thousand men? was this the face

That, like the sun, did make beholders wink?

Was this the face that faced so many follies,

And was at last out-faced by Bolingbroke?

A brittle glory shineth in this face:

As brittle as the glory is the face;

Dashes the glass against the ground

For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers.

Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport,

How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face.


The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy’d

The shadow or your face.


Say that again.

The shadow of my sorrow! ha! let’s see:

’Tis very true, my grief lies all within;

And these external manners of laments

Are merely shadows to the unseen grief

That swells with silence in the tortured soul;

There lies the substance: and I thank thee, king,

For thy great bounty, that not only givest

Me cause to wail but teachest me the way

How to lament the cause.

- William Shakespeare, (1564–1616), ‘Richard II’, Act 4, Scene 1

To be continued …



David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.