Hegel and the Metaphysics of Contingency
Peter Thompson, the director of the Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies at the University of Sheffield, discusses Hegel: the philosopher of contradiction. In this short essay, Thompson draws out the root of Hegel's themes of dialectics, nothingness, contradiction, and contingency.
Nothing proceeds from nothingness, as also nothing passes away into non-existence.
-Shakespeare (Marcus Aurelius)-
Hegel is the philosopher of contradiction. His system is not only full of apparent contradictions but is itself based on the recognition that contradiction is the fundamental starting point of all philosophy, indeed all thought. What Shakespeare has Marcus Aurelius say in the above quote is at the root of Hegel's dialectic of becoming. For although we might agree with Parmenides, Marcus Aurelius and Maria from the Sound of Music that ex nihilo nihil fit (or nothing comes from nothing), the real kernel of Hegel's thought is about the process involved in getting from nowhere to nothing.
Hegel occupies a central position in the Western tradition of metaphysics because his work falls precisely between speculative idealism, in which all matter issues from the idea — in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, as the Bible has it — and speculative materialism, in which the absolute contingency of existence is accepted and yet the radically contingent nature of that existence itself gives rise to further speculation about its own nature. It is the central conundrum of the relationship between the subject and the object of existence, between that which exists and the understanding that we have of that which exists which is at the centre of Hegel's investigations.
God, the Absolute, the World Spirit, teleology, transcendence and matter are all located within Hegel's system of the dialectical working out of a conceptual abstraction. It is precisely Hegel's position as a bridge between idealism and materialism, which makes him such an essential philosopher. For him Becoming (werden in German) was the password that allows us to unlock the secrets of temporal existence as merely stepping stones across Heraclitus's unceasing river. Indeed, what actually happens in Hegel's theories of becoming is that the stepping-stones themselves become the river. The apparent disjuncture between subject and object is melted away in Hegel so that the one becomes conditional upon and constitutive of the other. Equally a false distinction between epistemology and ontology is also wiped away. The limitations on our knowledge of a transcendental noumenal realm beyond our capacity to understand it I replaced by a system in which Being itself becomes, in its universality, an expression of that noumenal realm and not separate from it. The becoming of the universe is both an expression of but also a self working out of the Absolute. Negativity and the negation of negativity are as important as constitutive elements of existence as is the apparent positive spiral ascent towards freedom.
As he famously put it, that which is rational is real because that which is real is rational. In other words, that which has become, that which exists does so precisely because the process of the working out of existence has given rise to it. It is this very process of the development of existence through a series of contradictions and opposing forces which is at the heart of his system. We know this as the dialectic, that mysterious beating heart at the core of Hegel's system that is, in the end, nothing more than the working out of history and the history of existence through contradiction and opposition.
If nothing comes from nothing, then we are still left with the question of how the something that we now are emerged out of the something that has now been left behind. If we can still hear the echoes of the Big Bang every time we listen to the static on the radio, then we can discern within the static of everyday life and our individual existence the echoes of the process of our own becoming. The only real question is whether this whole thing has any purpose to it at all. For those who take the idealist view that at the core of it all there is a supernatural purpose that gives our existence sense, all will be well despite the travails of our existence. For those who believe — as I do — that a purpose has to be created out of the absence of purpose, then the process of emergent existence becomes the central category of our thought. This is also what I mean by the Metaphysics of Contingency. To accept the contingent nature of our existence, to accept the accidental life and death of a species which has arrived on the planet, will say its lines, play its unwritten role and then depart, does not mean that speculation, invention, and fantasy are not needed on the journey.
That, in a nutshell, is what Hegel is all about. His bridging function in determining whether the Absolute actually exists, if so, how it manifests itself and from there how the Absolute functions within the specific subjectivity of our existence remains his lasting legacy.
Hegel's dialectic is nothing more than listening to the static echoes of the history of our own becoming. How did we get here? Is there any reason for our presence here, for the presence of the universe as such? And does the abyss of absolute negativity to which we know we are condemned as the universe continues to accelerate its way into oblivion and we are shaken off our perches along the route not also give rise to its own negation?
Peter Thompson is director of the Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies at the University of Sheffield and writes actively for the Guardian.