Understanding the Concept of the “Negation of the Negation”

By Steve McIntosh

In exploring Hegel’s concept of the “negation of the negation,” we came across this fascinating interpretation of his model in an out-of-print Marxist encyclopedia, which if nothing else, gets Hegel right. Its description of the dialectical process of development, and particularly how this process is best represented visually by a spiral, should be very familiar to us as Developmentalists:

One of the basic laws of the dialectic, which characterizes the direction of development, the unity of progress and continuity in development, the emergence of the new, and the relative recurrence of some elements of the old.

The law of the negation of the negation was first formulated by G. Hegel, but particular features of it had previously been established in philosophy (the dialectical character of negation, the role of continuity in development, and the nonlinear character of the direction of development). In Hegel’s dialectical system, development is the emergence of a logical contradiction and its subsequent sublation. In this sense, development is the birth of the internal negation of the previous stage, followed by the negation of this negation. To the extent that the negation of the previous negation proceeds by sublation, it is always, in a certain sense, the restoration of that which was negated, a return to a past stage of development. However, this is not a simple return to the starting point, but “a new concept, a higher, richer concept than the previous one, for it has been enriched by its negation or opposite; it contains in itself the old concept, but it contains more than this concept alone, and it is the unity of this and its opposite”. Thus, the law of the negation of the negation is the universal form of the splitting of a single whole and the transition of opposites into each other— that is, the universal manifestation of the law of the unity and struggle of opposites. Hegel exaggerated the significance of the triad as the operative form of the law of the negation of the negation and attempted to “subsume” under it all processes of change and development.

In materialist dialectics, the law of the negation of the negation is considered a law of the development of nature, society, and thought. If the law of the unity and struggle of opposites discloses the source of development, and the law of the transition of quantitative changes into qualitative changes reveals the mechanism of development, the law of the negation of the negation expresses the direction, form, and result of development. The effect of the law of the negation of the negation is fully revealed only in an integral, relatively complete process of development through a chain of interconnected transitions when it is possible to specify a more or less finished result of the process (from the point of view of the direction of development). At each particular stage, the law of the negation of the negation is usually revealed only as a tendency.

The concept of dialectical negation plays a primary role in disclosing the content of the law of the negation of the negation. If the old is not negated, the birth and maturation of the new and, consequently, the process of development, are impossible. According to the law of the negation of the negation, development takes place in cycles, each of which consists of three stages: the original state of the object, its transformation into its opposite (that is, its negation), and the transformation of the opposite into its own opposite.

Philosophers who think in metaphysical terms view negation as a discarding, as an absolute annihilation of the old. Development takes place when the new does not simply cut off the existence of the old but takes from it all that is positive and viable. This is “continuity in the discontinuous,” or successiveness within development. In the law of the negation of the negation, this is stated as the “repetition at a higher stage of certain features … of the lower stage andthe apparent return of the old”, but is actually the repetition of some of the essential elements of the old on a different, considerably more developed foundation. It also meant the transition to a new cycle with essentially different internal contradictions and laws of motion.

The succession of cycles that makes up the chain of development can be represented as a spiral. “A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (‘the negation of the negation’), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in a spiral, not in a straight line”. In such a representation, each cycle is one turn, one twist, in the spiral of development, and the spiral itself is a chain of cycles. Although the spiral is only an image representing the connection between two or more points in the process of development, it captures the general direction of development that takes place in accordance with the law of the negation of the negation. A return to that which has already been gone through is not a complete return: development does not repeat the paths already taken but seeks out new ones that conform to changed external and internal conditions. The more complex the process of development, the more relative is the repetition of certain features or properties encountered in previous stages.

The spiral characterizes not only the form but also the tempo of development. With each new turn, or twist, of the spiral, an even more significant path is left behind. Thus, it is possible to say that the process of development is linked with an acceleration of tempo and with continuous change in the internal time scale of a developing system. This regularity is found in the development of scientific knowledge, as well as in the development of society and of nature.

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