A Piece Inspired by Cadell Last, FEATURED IN (RE)CONSTRUCTING “A IS A” BY O.G. ROSE

“Hegelian Dialectics” Are Not “Discussion Dialectics”

On the different uses of the term and consequences for misreading Hegel.

Photo by Lucas Benjamin

The term “dialectic” is used throughout philosophy but not always in the same way. Some philosophers by “dialectic” mean merely a “back and forth,” like a democratic debate. People will talk about the “dialectic” between Liberals and Conservatives, Republicans and Conservatives, and so on. In this first sense, a “dialectic” and a “debate” are extremely similar, and the key point is that this kind of “Discussion Dialectic” seeks to end the dialectic. The goal is resolution, for the involved parties to come to an agreement that stabilizes the situation.

Episode #21: “Hegelian Dialectics” Are Not “Discussion Dialectics”

But this is not the only kind of dialectic, and frankly I often wish the term “dialectic” was never used as a simile for “discussion, debate, etc.,” for that has contributed to confusion. The second kind of dialectic is something akin to what Hegel wrote on, as I’ve learned with guidance from Cadell Last. Horrifically, this second understanding of “dialectics” has been almost completely lost to us because of the phrase “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,” which is found nowhere in Hegel. Hegel’s dialectic doesn’t end, let alone end in a synthesis (by which I mean a “Total Unity”): it’s an eternal tension (or “contradiction,” but by this Hegel doesn’t mean “negation,” but instead something more like “paradox,” “tension,” etc.). For me, though there is perhaps “combination” in Hegel, since there isn’t a “final stability,” there isn’t “synthesis” (and though this might just be a “terminology debate,” I think it’s important to critique “synthesis,” because my impression is that most people associate “synthesis” with a “final and stable unity,” though I could be wrong).

Please note that the following is an understanding of “dialectic” that I gleaned from Hegel, but I easily could have misunderstood both him and Dr. Last. However, even if that’s the case, I believe the understanding of “dialectic” that I attribute to Hegel in this work is still useful and very real, but if that understanding is arrived at thanks to a misreading, I ask for your forgiveness. Perhaps there is more “synthesis” in Hegel than I realize (versus just “combination”), and perhaps “gaps” can be closed, but this is not my impression. Admittedly though, reading Hegel is no easy matter.

I

As this work will focus on, the second meaning of “dialectic” is an encounter of differences that doesn’t resolve (but that can nevertheless change). Perhaps we could say it’s a “thesis encountering a(n) (anti)thesis,” but the moment we add “synthesis,” we have made a mistake: to put it simply, this wouldn’t be a “dialectical relationship” but a “synthesis.” This might seem like a simple and silly point, but it’s critical: due to our misunderstanding of Hegel, we tend to understand all uses of the word “dialectic” as “a process toward synthesis.” And basically that means we end up with a single sense of the word, which means we lose the category of “dialectic” which Hegel proposes. And this is a problem, because there are in fact unresolvable tensions in the world (like you and me).

Having only one sense of the word “dialectic” may not seem like a big deal, but if Wittgenstein is right that ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,’ then the loss of the second understanding of the term means my world becomes a place where “eternal tension” doesn’t occur (or at least not in a way that I can “readily” understand). In fact, I’m arguably led to believe that all tensions (can) lead to resolutions and/or unities, that there is no condition or situation which I cannot eventually solve. If I don’t solve it, it must be because one party in the dialectic was unwilling to “come together” (and that person will probably happen not to be me…). Realizing this could make me upset, causing the dialectical relationship to explode into anger, resentment, and worse. However, if I was at least aware of the second type of dialectic, I could adjust my expectations to reality, and that could save me from disillusionment and error. If I know that there are “Hegelian Dialectics” out there that cannot be solved, only managed, then I’ll know what’s instore for me. I’ll adjust my expectations and even thrive.

Please do not mistake me as saying that “Discussion Dialectics” can never resolve, that agreement is never possible, that every type of unity is an illusion — that would be a ridiculous claim. If resolution was never possible, democratic societies would have never even gotten off the ground. Rather, my claim is that we need to understand the category of “dialectic” which we find in Hegel (and also note that, in my own work, that is usually what I mean when I use the term). Yes, I would like it if we only used the term “dialectic” to mean it this way, but I understand that’s probably impractical — I’m really to settle on a compromise.

Incredible Lectures on Hegel

Why is it critical to understand that “Hegelian Dialectics” exist in the world? Well, countless reasons can be found in the work of Cadell Last (such as his paper with Pauline Ezan, “Self Development with Dialectics — Nature of One and the Other”), and hopefully the series on “The Philosophy of Lack” also sheds light on the necessity of expecting “Hegelian Dialectics.” To put the point simply: if we only have a category of “problems” that suggests “all problems are solvable,” then when we encounter “unsolvable problems,” we will try solving them versus try to manage them, and that will likely make “the unsolvable problems” worse (both in that it could complexify the problem and that it could emotionally devastate us).

As Dr. Last teaches, psychoanalysis is a field that often employ “Hegelian Dialectics” to describe the human condition. Freud, Lacan, Žižek — all of these employ terms and ideas that cannot be properly understand through an understanding of “dialectics as difference into unity” (“disagreement into resolution,” “theses into synthesis,” etc.). Rather, to grasp their thinking, we must understand “Hegelian Dialectics,” which are differences that never resolve from out of tension. For example, Lacan teaches that we are constituted by a “lack” that we cannot fill that we nevertheless try to fill, a “lack” which didn’t result from any real or original loss. There is “lack without loss,” and since there was no “loss,” we cannot “fill” that “lack”; instead, we must learn to live with it. But this doesn’t mean we can’t grow and improve. To say there is no resolution doesn’t mean there is no progress — it seems to be an obsession of the (“technocratic”) Western Mind to make this mistake. “Unity or nothing” ends us in nothing (and for no reason).

II

Hegel wants us to live with tension, and — bringing to mind the work of Harold Bloom on “misreading” and “Freudian influence”the fact we often misinterpreted Hegel as seeking “synthesis” just suggests how strongly we dislike this doctrine (our “frenemy brains” want stability, after all). But failing to accept the doctrine has caused us incredible trouble (Freud, Lacan, Žižek, and Last all describe neurosis that result from this error): we need to accept what we don’t want to accept. We may not want to go to the gym, but that “want” alone won’t stop our muscles from breaking down.

Alluding to my own work, a reason we cannot resolve “Hegelian Dialectics” is because we cannot achieve certainty. When for example I discuss in my work “the dialectic between thinking and perceiving,” I can never be certain that my “idea of a cat” is actually the same as “that cat there”; when I discuss “Dialectical Ethics,” I can never be certain that I am rightly applying “The Absolute Category of Murder” to x circumstance; and so on. And even if I did “happen to get it right” this time, there’s no guarantee I’ll get it right next time: “Hegelian Dialectics” are never a “once and done” affair; they must be re-practiced and re-practiced again. “Hegelian Dialects” are always lifelong, whereas “Discussion Dialectics” can end anytime (and perhaps “ought” to end, suggesting that we can think that “there’s something wrong” when a dialectic doesn’t resolve, which suggests there will be major problems if we encounter a “Hegelian Dialectic” without the apply to identify it).

If I take Hegel seriously, I must always live in tension and be actively thinking, both because I can never be certain that I applied x to y rightly, and because applying x to y once doesn’t mean I’ll never have to do it again (in fact, I might have to do it every day). There are things in life that can never be “settled,” and if we take Freud, Lacan, and the like seriously, the more important the entity, the higher the likelihood I should apply a “Hegelian Dialectic” versus a “dialectic which leads to unity.” My identify, my relationships, my aspirations — a “Hegelian Dialectic” seems to be the correct lens through which to understand these entities. Seeking stability, we misunderstand them at our own peril.

If we believe “all dialectics are resolvable (and the same),” then when I resolve a “Discussion Dialectic” say over a political issue (like tax rates), then I can use this as evidence that I can resolve the dialectic between “my idea of myself” and “my real self.” Although this isn’t actually possible (as we learn from the psychoanalytical thinkers), it’s very possible for me to “self-deceive” myself into thinking I’ve achieved this goal, which functions as evidence that I should be able to resolve the dialectic between myself and “The Other.”¹ And this is where the trouble starts, because I cannot “self-deceive” myself into thinking there is no unresolvable tension between myself and others. To list out these points (of what I’ll call “The Erroneous Chain of Dialectics,” a “chain” that wouldn’t occur if he didn’t misread Hegel):

“Discussion Dialectics”

Resolvable (but arguably not “meaningfully” a “dialectic” at all, seeing as “dialectic” here is a mere simile for “debate”).

“Self Dialectics”

Not resolvable but possible to make me think they are (self-deception), and I’ll likely think it “ought” to be resolvable because “Discussion Dialectics” can be resolved.

“Other Dialectics”

Not resolvable, but I’m likely to think they should be based on prior experiences (and misinterpretation regarding the resolvability of my “self dialectic”). When “Other Dialectics” don’t resolve, I’ll probably blame others.

To sum up the point, since we tend to think all dialectics are the same, we “work from” the possibility of resolving “Discussion Dialectics” to assuming we can resolve “Self Dialectics” (which is something we’re able to “plausible” believe due to all the cognitive biases our brain can use for “self-deception”), and it’s not until we encounter “The Other” that we’re forced to face the reality that “unresolvable dialectics” exist. So, what do we do?

Blame others for not having their stuff together.

And so we go about continuing to believe “all dialectics are resolvable” — no trouble.

Yea, no trouble…

III

Anyway, I want to return to the point that progress and improvement are possible in “Hegelian Dialectics,” and in fact, if x situation is a “Hegelian Dialectic,” then the only way to improve, fix, etc. x situation is through Hegel. If “Hegelian Dialectics” do in fact exist, then knowing about “Hegelian Dialectics” and accepting them is the only way to live “a real life.” Yes, it sounds like a defeat to accept that “two people can never become fully one,” for example, but if this is in fact true, accepting this is easily the only way for two people to live better lives (we can’t know how to get somewhere if we don’t know where we are). If two people want to become one and believe they can, then when they try and fail, untold frustrations will eventually emerge. It will be like a force encountering an unmovable object, but the forces we can generate are not unstoppable. We are human.

To close, inspired by Cadell Last, the following hopefully depicts the key difference between “Resolvable Dialectics” and “Hegelian Dialectics”:

Hegel forces us to live with tension, but that does not mean Hegel forces us to live with stagnancy. We can improve dialectically (according to however we define “improvement”), but only insomuch as we don’t try to escape dialectics. Also, the “gap” depicted above is not devoid of potential, and in fact can be a source of creativity. Because there is a “gap” between my wife and I, it is possible for us to produce a child, as it is possible for us to arise to a third entity, “O.G. Rose” (that doesn’t exist “in of itself” but that nevertheless couldn’t exist without “the gap”). Critically though, children are possible because of the “gap” between parents, but children don’t fill it. “Gaps” can be generative, but they can’t be “filled.” We can only respond to “gaps,” which makes it tempting (as if they aren’t there) to talk over them.

Perhaps this suggests why the “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” notion became popular, for “gaps” can be creative sources, but what emerges from “gaps” are not syntheses of the entities which made the “gap” possible. It is an entirely “new entity,” and though children share resemblances with their parents (and so seem like a “synthesis” and I suppose are in a “combinational” sense), children are their own people and cannot be reduced to their parents. Yes, “O.G. Rose” is a kind of combination of Michelle and Daniel, but O.G. Rose is also an “emergence” that is not readily reducible to Michelle and Daniel (it’s a kind of “network effect”). And most obviously: parents don’t cease to exist once they have children and “become” their children. When a child is born, the parents are not “absorbed” into the child where they find a long-sought “Primordial Unity” (which sounds like something out of a Science Fiction novel): the parents continue to exist as themselves and with a “gap” between them (and do note that a new “gap” emerges between the parents and the child that must be managed too, suggesting that childbirth doesn’t reduce “gaps” but increases them). Yes, the “gap” between parents made a “new being” possible, but that “new being” doesn’t fill the “gap” (even if the child brings the parents “closer together” in other ways, though please note that “closer together” isn’t the same as “totally unified with,” as we see with apostrophe lines).² ³

If parents think children will “fill” their “gaps,” if college friends think starting a company can bring them “closer together,” if artists think a new painting will help them “connect with the world” — all of these notions of “unity” and “overcoming divides” will likely lead to disillusionment and disappointment. Sure, children can bring parents closer together, as a critically acclaimed painting can help an artist feel appreciated, but these experiences don’t make “gaps” disappear. The “gaps” are still there, as the potential for weeds is still present in the garden after a long session of weeding. If we think we can weed the garden once and it will forever be taken care of, we are in for a rude awakening; likewise, if we think landing our novel on The New York Times bestseller list will make it easy to live with ourselves, we too will end up disturbed, as will the parents who think children will fix their marriage. Gardens cannot be solved.

Why this point matters so much to grasp is that no matter what “gaps” may generate or make possible, “the gap” remains. Parents do not solve their neuroses or differences by having a child; worse yet, the child can hide the “gap” temporarily, which means the neuroses could be left unattended and get worse, like weeds in a garden that are hidden out of sight behind a shed. One day, we finally walk behind the shed and see a horrific jungle; one day, our child leaves home, and we find ourselves a mess. This doesn’t have to be the case, for parents can “do the work” of progressing and improving “shoulder-to-shoulder” with one another all while having children: the problem is that it’s easy to lose sight of the need to do this work once we have kids, as it’s easy to think such work isn’t needed when we don’t even have a category of “Hegelian Dialectic” in our thinking.

Just knowing “total unities are impossible” isn’t enough: we also have to do the work of trying to be “more harmonized than not” even if ultimately “Absolute Unity” isn’t an option. A violin can never be a cello, but the violin and cello can still learn to play together, if only they’ll learn to listen to one another and “put in the work” (and so make possible music that couldn’t exist if there weren’t differences between cellos and violins). Once we accept Hegel and “integrate ourselves” with inescapable and essential “lacks” (due to the uncrossable “gaps” we find characterizing our lives), then we will know the “work of our lives” — to “manage gaps” versus “fill gaps” — and so we won’t be tricked into thinking “gaps” are filled by the entities which the “gaps” make possible and generate.⁴ We can move forward with others, shoulder-to-shoulder, and harmonize. Otherwise, we’ll walk toward others and bump heads. Then, we’ll step back, look at one another, and hurt.

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Notes

¹I as Homo Egeo can believe I am Homo Ego, to use language from “Homo Egeo” by O.G. Rose.

²Now, what can happen is that the birth of children radically changes the parents, to the point where the parents “practically” become entirely new people. Whether this is a good or bad thing is another topic (in my view, essentially changing versus only accidentally changing could be a sign that certain “self-work” wasn’t done), but even if the parents do “entirely change,” a “gap” remains between them. Nothing produced thanks to a “gap” can ever “absolutely unify” parents even if that child changes the parents: there is no “synthesis,” only “transformation” (and, at best, “resemblance”).

Sticking to the parenting example, we can say that Hegel believes the “gaps” between “differences/beings” can generate a “new difference/being” which “reaches back” and transforms the “original differences/beings” into “new differences/beings,” making it seem “as if” the “original differences/beings” were never there in the first place. A “total loss” seems to occur, which the parents can experience as notably traumatic, for just when they thought “totally unity” would occur with childbirth, they experience both a “multiplication of gaps” and the vanishing of their “original identities” as if those “original identities” were never there at all (a “flip moment” which can make them feel crazy and delusional, which could also unveil to them the very real possibility that they can be crazy and delusional).

Unfortunately, if childbirth causes parents to suffer “negation-into-newness,” I’m not of the opinion that the neuroses, traumas, etc. of the parents are lost in the change, but rather tend to be “carried over” into the new identity (the “new identities” are made in “the image and likeness” of our “old identities,” but if the “old identities” are gone, we lose the standard against which we can tell how). Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but I believe it’s safe to say that we’re in trouble if we assume “having a child” will fix us (and so it goes with “publishing a book,” winning a promotion, etc.). Without a framework of “Hegelian Dialectics,” it certainly will not (though perhaps the busyness and demands of child-rearing will distract us for a time), and worse yet trauma will stack upon trauma as we “totally lose” our “old identity” (which perhaps contained or “kept at bay” some neuroses that our “new identity” isn’t so able to contain), discover “gaps” multiply versus “be filled” as we expected — and that’s not even to mention the “rush” of responsibilities that come flooding in to add pressure (bills, late nights, work drama, etc.).

When they have children, parents can face greater challenges then they anticipated: they must cope with now being “new people” while dealing with “a new person.” There’s a “double transformation” that occurs which isn’t aided by any “increased unity”; if anything, “a multiplication of gaps” adds to the difficulty. And the culture at large, drunk on “myths of unity,” seems to do little to prepare us for this extraordinary change: when we undergo it, we’re made to feel as if we are alone, that everyone else is “doing something right” that we are not. And so we all suffer silently, lacking a “Hegelian Dialectic” to help us adjust our expectations. We live lives of quiet desperation on the outside, while inside the desperation is loud.

³For Hegel, there is a(n) (essential, unfillable) “gap” between beings that can generate “a new being” which “reaches back” and transforms “the original beings” into “new beings” in a manner that makes it seem as if “the original beings” never existed in the first place. Hence, when “gaps” generate, there is also a “total split” from what came before to make it seem as if what’s new “is original” and not new at all, but “always already,” per se. Since “gaps” always exist, this “totally new generation” is always possible and can happen anytime, and when it happens, it’s as if “the totally new generation” is “the (only) generation” (and so isn’t “totally new” to itself, but simply “what is”). When “the ground of being” changes, the “new ground” presents itself as unchanging; when we become “new people,” we still see ourselves as ourselves.

⁴Please note that “gaps,” in generating “new entities,” thus generate new “gaps” which themselves can generate “new entities,” which thus generates even newer “gaps” — on and on (note the emphasis in Hegel is “on the gaps” as the source of creation and “newness” as opposed to the entities themselves). The following may help depict the point:

From an “original difference,” a new entity is created that then creates new “gaps” between entities that can arise to new creative possibilities in those “gaps,” on and on infinitely (where arrows point off into space, imagine new circles, new “gaps,” etc.). In this way, it is “gaps” which drive Hegel’s “march (of difference) through history,” per se, as is commonly discussed (with may or may not be “progressive” according to some standard we select). It is not so much that a thesis combines with an antithesis that gives us a synthesis and thus new thesis to restart the process (even though this can in some circumstances be a useful “mental model”), but rather that an encounter of “differences” realizes a “gap” out of which a new “difference” emerges, which generates new “gaps” out of which even newer “differences” can emerge, on and on (but do note none of the differences are “absorbed” into one another — no “gap” is fillable).

Imagine that a person encounters the world and is thus inspired to write a book (which is possible thanks to the “gap” between the writer and the world). This book is then read by readers, and because there is a “gap” between the readers and the writer, they themselves can write their own books and live different lives inspired by the text, which may result in them having encounters with people and events they otherwise wouldn’t have had. From these “encounters,” new creative possibilities can emerge — on and on. (Do note that readers don’t have to be inspired by a book to write a book: the way “new differences” emergence manifest can be multifaceted. Whereas one reader might be inspired to write a book, another reader might be inspired to become a nurse, to fix his relationship with his children, etc.)

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