The phrase negation of the negation is best known from Karl Marx’s work, as when he uses it to describe capitalist production in Capital. It’s an odd phrase that seems simply redundant in the formal logic taught to analytic philosophers and computer scientists. There, the principle of double negation elimination tells you ¬¬P -> P: that is, the negative of the negative is the positive, and nothing more. Russell and Whitehead in Principia Mathematica say simply: “a proposition is equivalent of the falsehood of its negation.” On that account, to “negate the negation” of something just leaves you with its affirmation, the original thing you were negating: all you’re doing is being unnecessarily wordy, by saying not-not-P when you could have just said P.
But in Marx’s inspiration Hegel, there is much more to the phrase than this redundancy. A great deal of Hegel’s thought proceeds in the kind of three-part progression that introductions to Hegel often call thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (though Hegel never used those terms in that way). When thinking through a particular idea we begin in a first, unquestioned or immediate, position – a prejudice. This idea gets challenged by its opposite, the negation or negative moment. The third and final step is in some ways closer to the first than to the second, but it is crucially different: it takes up the truth of the second within it, transcends and includes it. This is negating the negation: negating here is a process, not a simple inversion or opposite but a rational movement forward. That movement is at the heart of Hegel’s thought.
I was startled recently to encounter the phrase “negation of negation” in a rather different place: the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. At first, Eckhart’s only obvious commonality with Hegel and Marx is that they are all German. But the commonalities go deeper, at least with Hegel. Hegel isn’t obviously a mystic: his logocentrism leaves little room for ineffability or mystery, and leaves him to be disdainful of mystical experience. Yet depending on how one defines mysticism, there is a mystical dimension at least in Hegel’s nondualism, where everything comes back to a spirit or mind (Geist) that is both subject and object, both God and self. And Hegel traces that nondualism directly back to Eckhart himself. In the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel describes Eckhart as having “a thorough grasp of the divine depth” in this passage from Eckhart’s sermons:Continue reading