Hegel 2: The Way of Rationality


Section 2 of Hegel’s chapter on Heraclitus is entitled “The Way (Weise) of Rationality.” “Weise” can be translated as method, manner, mode, or even “melody.” In an older usage it means “sage” or “wise man.” Hegel in any case views Heraclitus as wise for having elevated Ionian natural philosophy to speculative philosophy. Like Aristotle and Sextus Empiricus Hegel accepts that Heraclitus contributes to the Ionian teaching on the elements. However, he argues that he exceeds the other Ionians by thinking of being and nonbeing as parts of the process of becoming. He is not focusing only on a teaching of proto-science, but is making a fundamental contribution to metaphysics.

The three main subsections of this section include writing on a) abstract process, time; b) real form as process, fire; and c) a closer determination of fire. The latter section is the most detailed.

Time as an abstract process: Time is depicted as the true sensuous being or the essence of sensuousness, the sensuous view of the process. Hegel calls it bodily “abstract sensuousness” (18.329). In sensuous experience, we are subjected to things as changing. In sensuous experience the future, nonexistent, comes into existence, then slips into the past, ceases to exist. In time, neither the past nor the future exists, only the present. But nonbeing of the future changes into the being of the present, which changes into the nonbeing of the past. Heraclitus underlines this interaction between being and nonbeing in the process of becoming. These, he sees, as two moments of the process of becoming. Time he views as the first form of becoming.

Fire as the real form, as process: “In time the moments being and nonbeing are only positioned as negative or instantaneously vanishing” (18.330). Heraclitus however does not only speak of such processes in the abstract. He grasps these as natural processes, arguing that fire is primal concept or notion. As in movement, in the natural process there are three fundamental moments: “a) a pure negative moment, b) the moments of co-existing opposition, water and air, and c) the stationary totality, earth” (28.330). Heraclitus understands fire to be the “essence of this process.” It is to be understood as time, expressed in physical world processes. “The life of nature” unfolds as movement through the mentioned processes: “the separation of stationary totality, earth, into its opposites, the positioning of the opposites of these moments–and the negative unity, the return into unity, the burning of the stationary totality” (18.330). Fire is time, expressed physically. In it all things change, including itself.

The closer determination of fire: More clearly articulated, fire is a real process in the world. It is a process of metamorphosis, of change, of the transformation of the physical. It is flux. It is thus expressive of Herclitus’ foundational principle, of becoming. It destroys other things in its process or sublates them in that it transforms them into something else. It is expressive of “the antagonism of hate, of conflict, and the bonds or friendship, harmony” (qtd. 18.331). Hegel sees Heraclitus as in principle understanding the unity of opposites. It is expressive of the eternal transformation of things as they change from one element to the other as the world is continually recreated (18.332). As Fragment 37 has it: “The ordering, the same for all, no god nor man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures and in measures going out” (quoted on 18.333).

But Hegel views Heraclitus as being flawed or even contradictory in the way he expresses the change that occurs. Hegel refers to Fragment 38: “the reversals of fire: first to sea; but of the sea half is earth, half lightening storm.” Similarly, he refers to Fragment 41: “The death of fire is birth for air, and the death of air is birth for water.” Fire undergoes changes to other elements, namely air and water. Hegel sees Heraclitus as trying to get at something important with these thoughts of the transformation of elements but not as quite carrying it off.

Parts of Heraclitus’ view however are viewed as fanciful, such as Heraclitus’ view that world eventually perishes in fire. Such an idea runs counter to other ideas Heraclitus expresses, for example, that would lead us to see the discussion of the world perishing as metaphorical–that there is a constant perishing.

Hegel ends this subsection by again highlighting Heraclitus’ accomplishments: He is the first to express the nature of the unlimited and the first to express that nature is unlimited. He’s the first to comprehend the essence of nature as intrisically a process. In Hegel’s view, because he moves beyond the mere proto-scientific perspective of the Ionians to speculative thought, Heraclitus is to be viewed as the first philosopher (18.336).

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