Is Hegel a Dialetheist?

One of the most scandalous aspects of Hegel’s Science of Logic is the way he thinks of contradiction. In a Remark in the Doctrine of Essence Hegel claims:

Everything is inherently contradictory, and in the sense that this law in contrast to the others expresses rather the truth and the essential nature of things[1].

Since Hegel claims that contradiction is the truth of everything there is, one could wonder whether he can be said to be a dialetheist. Dialetheism is the view that there are true contradictions[2]. Graham Priest is the most important advocate of the dialetheist thesis, and even if his work cannot be considered an interpretation of Hegel’s notion of contradiction, it refers to Hegel’s thought as one of the most important antecedents of dialetheism in the history of philosophy. In the manifesto of Dialetheism, that is In Contradiction, namely the book Priest published in 1987, he is quite explicit about this: «It is the main claim of this book that Hegel was right: our concepts, or some of them anyway, are inconsistent»[3].

Actually, Hegel’s and Priest’s conception of contradiction share different points, such as:

1. The ontological value of contradiction

Priest refers to examples of ontological contradiction that are explicitly Hegelian. We need only to recall the structure of limit. In Hegel’s analysis of the determination of the limit in the Doctrine of Being, the limit is defined both as the locus within which a thing, A, begins to be what it is and as the locus within which a thing, A, ends, namely the locus where its non-being begins. Actually, in What is so bad about Contradiction? Priest analyses an example of ontological contradiction that specifically mirrors Hegel’s thematization of the determination of the limit. Priest characterizes the ontological structure of the limit of the room by saying where I am when I am exactly in this limit. The results is the same of Hegel’s Logic: when I am in this limit I am both in the room and not in the room. Therefore the ontological structure of the limit is inherently contradictory, because it involves both being and not-being in the room at the same time and in the same respect.

2. The self-referential structure of negation

Priest argues for the thesis of the truth of contradiction on the epistemological level through the analysis of a logical-semantic phenomenon that involves a self-referential negative dynamic, namely the self-reference paradoxes[4]. Priest tries «to defend the view that the semantic paradoxes are bona fide sound arguments»[5]. Therefore, the contradictions entailed by them are true contradictions. A structural analogy with Hegel’s dialectic can be outlined on the basis of this self-negating dynamic. If we consider the logical determination of the finite this is quite clear. On the one hand, the finite is itself insofar as it ends and it is no more itself. On the other hand, the finite, by stopping being itself, realizes its very nature, that is to say in its coming to an end and not being itself anymore it is properly itself because it realizes its own finitude: «The finite in its ceasing-to-be, in this negation of itself has attained its being-in-itself, in united with itself»[6].

3. The rejection of trivialism

Both Hegel and Priest reject trivialism, that is, the thesis that every contradiction is true. Trivialism implies that in a system every sentence and the negation of every sentence are at the same time true and false, which means the complete loss of information in the system itself.

Are these points sufficient in order to claim that Hegel is a dialetheist? It is true that both conceive of contradiction as true in a determinate (and not absurd or irrational) sense. Yet, what does it mean for each of them that contradictions are true?

by Michela Bordignon


[1] G.W.F. Hegel, Science of Logic, transl. A.V. Miller, Humanity Books, New York 1998 (from now on SL), p. 439.

[2] Dialetheism is «the view that the LNC fails, that some contradictions are true» (G. Priest, What is so bad about Contradiction?, «The Journal of Philosophy», XCV (8), 1998, p. 416).

[3] G. Priest, In Contradiction,  Oxford University Press, Oxford 2006, p. 4.

[4] «The paradoxes are all arguments starting with apparently analytic principles concerning truth, membership, etc., and proceeding via apparently valid reasoning to a conclusion of the form ‘a and not-a’» (ibid., p. 11).

[5] Ibid., p. 10.

[6] SL, p. 136.
Printable Version