As earlier noted, Hegel divides his treatment of Heraclitus into three parts: the logical principle; the way of reality; and the general process and its relationship to consciousness.
In the section on the logical principle, he presents Heraclitus, first of all, as having achieved the speculative synthesis that characterizes the first part of Hegel’s logic. In the passage of the logic of which Hegel speaks, he argues that both being and nothingness are completely empty categories, neither concept possessing any determinations or distinctions within itself. They are non-determinate sets. Because they are both characterized this way, Hegel views them as identical. Yet, as the mind passes from one to the other (from the empty set of being to the empty set of nothingness), there is a movement. This passage from one to the other thus results in “becoming” as a category that synthesizes “being” and “nothingness.” If you are bothered by Hegel’s logic here, you are not alone. Bertrand Russell is said to have laid Hegel aside at the point where he was translating this and not wanted to pursue his work. He did return at some point to learn more (though never with a great appreciation of the riches of Hegel’s thought).
In any case, in Hegel’s view Heraclitus has achieved an understanding precisely of this unity of being and nothingness in becoming. As Hegel sees it “This lies in the expression ‘Being is so little as nonbeing; becoming is and also is not'” (Hegel, Vol. 18, 324). Hegel highlights what in his view is Aristotle’s correct assessment that in Heraclitus “becoming” is the one thing that remains.
Hegel thinks that Heraclitus is important to dialectical logic not just for seeing the unity in the opposition of these most abstract categories, but also for seeing it in particulars. One of the particular examples of such oppositions is Heraclitus’ statement that “Honey is sweet and bitter” (325). As Hegel notes, it is sweet for the healthy; bitter for the jaundiced.
More generally, in Hegel’s view Heraclitus gives expression to the “infinite as such,” that is, to the infinite as expressed in the second part of Hegel’s logic, on “the essence.” As Hegel explains “The infinite in-and-for itself existent (Seiende) is the unity of opposites” (325). Hegel draws attention to the process character of Heraclitus’ view: The whole or one (das Eine) is not an abstract thing but is an act of overcoming itself, equaling itself out, or even annulling itself (“die Taetigkeit, sich zu dirimieren”) (326). Hegel views this as the process of life or of living wholes. In references from Hegel’s Encyclopedia, he explains, for example, how a living being transgresses its own boundaries and assimilates what is external to (and opposite) itself in the natural world, making that one with itself in the process of reproducing itself. An animal has to move beyond what it is to sustain itself–for example, eating a plant and becoming one with what had been outside of it (and in Hegel’s perhaps somewhat willful translation, standing in opposition to it). It is only through this process of becoming something different than it was that it can sustain itself as an organism. In this process it negates not only what it earlier was but also what is opposite itself, making it part of itself. It eats the plant. Hegel reads Heraclitus as having captured that this “moment of negativity is immanent” (326) to being in general and to particular beings or entities. In Hegel’s general comments on Heraclitus in this section of his lectures he states another way of getting at the general idea of Heraclitus’ unity of opposites in a particular case is found is the relationship of consciousness to the external world: “The Mind, in consciousness, refers to the sensuous, and the sensuous is it’s other.” The mind does not only draw on internal thoughts. It draws its thought from the external world through sensory experience. It makes what is external to itself (and standing in opposition to it) one with itself. The unification of the external world through sensory experience in the thought of the individual serves as example for unity of opposites in particular cases.
In his treatment of Heraclitus Hegel also refers to musical analogies in Heraclitus to highlight the importance of unity with difference. Hegel notes: “harmony entails difference” (327). For harmony in musical tones, “the tones must be different, but such that they can also be unified…for harmony a certain contrast is required” (327). In sum: Hegel sees Heraclitus’ achievement in dialectical logic in his having understood that there is a unity of such oppositions in the process of becoming; this is seen to be occurring at the general abstract level and at the level of particulars. Further, this is not just something that occurs in the individual mind. Such a process of the unification of divisions is key to the process of the world, or of Logos, itself. In the processes of the human mind and in nature, being is divided into particular beings. Further, the division between the opposites is overcome in the process of assimilation, both of material bodies (the individual body and the external food) and of ideas (the subjective thought and the external world that is perceived).
An evaluation of Hegel’s interpretation will follow after a short presentation of the other two sections in which Hegel explicates his views of Heraclitus.