Mystical Triads


I publish this here in the vain hope that it will help squash the myth that Hegel's method can be summarised by the crude formula: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis:


"The most vexing and devastating Hegel legend is that everything is thought in 'thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.' [...] The actual texts of Hegel not only occasionally deviate from 'thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,' but show nothing of the sort. 'Dialectic' does not for Hegel mean 'thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.' Dialectic means that any 'ism' -- which has a polar opposite, or is a special viewpoint leaving 'the rest' to itself -- must be criticized by the logic of philosophical thought, whose problem is reality as such, the 'World-itself.'


"Hermann Glockner's reliable Hegel Lexikon (4 volumes, Stuttgart, 1935) does not list the Fichtean terms 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis' together. In all the twenty volumes of Hegel's 'complete works' he does not use this 'triad' once; nor does it occur in the eight volumes of Hegel texts, published for the first time in the twentieth Century. He refers to 'thesis, antithesis, and synthesis' in the Preface of the Phenomenology of Mind, where he considers the possibility of this 'triplicity' as a method or logic of philosophy. According to the Hegel-legend one would expect Hegel to recommend this 'triplicity.' But, after saying that it was derived from Kant, he calls it a 'lifeless schema,' 'mere shadow' and concludes: 'The trick of wisdom of that sort is as quickly acquired as it is easy to practice. Its repetition, when once it is familiar, becomes as boring as the repetition of any bit of sleigh-of-hand once we see through it. The instrument for producing this monotonous formalism is no more difficult to handle than the palette of a painter, on which lie only two colours....' (Preface, Werke, II, 48-49).


"In the student notes, edited and published as History of Philosophy, Hegel mentions in the Kant chapter, the 'spiritless scheme of the triplicity of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis' (geistloses Schema) by which the rhythm and movement of philosophic knowledge is artificially pre-scribed (vorgezeichnet).


"In the first important book about Hegel by his student, intimate friend and first biographer, Karl Rosenkranz (Hegels Leben, 1844), 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis' are conspicuous by their absence. It seems Hegel was quite successful in hiding his alleged 'method' from one of his best students.


"The very important new Hegel literature of this century has altogether abandoned the legend. Theodor Haering's Hegels Wollen und Werk (2 vol., Teubner, 1929 and 1938) makes a careful study of Hegel's terminology and language and finds not a trace of 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis.' In the second volume there are a few lines (pp.118, 126) in which he repeats what Hegel in the above quotation had said himself, i.e., that this 'conventional slogan' is particularly unfortunate because it impedes the understanding of Hegelian texts. As long as readers think that they have to find 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis' in Hegel they must find him obscure -- but what is obscure is not Hegel but their coloured glasses. Iwan Iljin's Hegel's Philosophie als kontemplative Gotteslehre (Bern, 1946) dismisses the 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis' legend in the Preface as a childish game (Spielerei), which does not even reach the front-porch of Hegel's philosophy.


"Other significant works, like Hermann Glockner, Hegel (2 vols., Stuttgart, 1929), Theodor Steinbüchel, Das Grundproblem der Hegelschen Philosophie (Bonn, 1933), and Theodor Litt, Hegel: Eine Kritische Erneuerung (Heidelberg, 1953), Emerich Coreth, S.J., Das Dialektische Sein in Hegels Logik (Wien, 1952), and many others have simply disregarded the legend. In my own monographs on Hegel über Offenbarung, Kirche und Philosophie (Munich, 1939) and Hegel über Sittlichkeit und Geschichte (Reinhardt, 1940), I never found any 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis.' Richard Kroner, in his introduction to the English edition of selections from Hegel's Early Theological Writings, puts it mildly when he says: 'This new Logic is of necessity as dialectical as the movement of thinking itself.... But it is by no means the mere application of a monotonous trick that could be learned and repeated. It is not the mere imposition of an ever recurring pattern. It may appear so in the mind of some historians who catalogue the living trend of thought, but in reality it is ever changing, ever growing development; Hegel is nowhere pedantic in pressing concepts into a ready-made mold (sic). The theme of thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis, like the motif of a musical composition, has many modulations and modifications. It is never "applied"; it is itself only a poor and not even helpful abstraction of what is really going on in Hegel's Logic.'


"Well, shall we keep this 'poor and not helpful abstraction' in our attic because 'some historians' have used it as their rocking-horse? We rather agree with the conclusion of Johannes Flügge: 'Dialectic is not the scheme of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis imputed to Hegel.'


"In an essay by Nicolai Hartmann on Aristoteles und Hegel, I find the following additional confirmation of all the other witnesses to the misinterpretation of Hegel's dialectic: 'It is a basically perverse opinion (grundverkehrte Ansicht) which sees the essence of dialectic in the triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.' The legend was spread by Karl Marx whose interpretation of Hegel is distorted. It is Marxism superimposed on Hegel. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, Marx says in Das Elend der Philosophie, is Hegel's purely logical formula for the movement of pure reason, and the whole system is engendered by this dialectical movement of thesis, antithesis, synthesis of all categories. This pure reason, he continues, is Mr. Hegel's own reason, and history becomes the history of his own philosophy, whereas in reality, thesis, antithesis, synthesis are the categories of economic movements. (Summary of Chapter II, Paragraph 1.) The few passages in Marx's writings that resemble philosophy are not his own. He practices the communistic habit of expropriation without compensation. Knowing this in general, I was also convinced that there must be a source for this 'thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,' and I finally discovered it.


"In the winter of 1835-36, a group of Kantians in Dresden called on Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus, professor of philosophy at the University of Kiel, to lecture to them on the new philosophical movement after Kant. They were older, professional men who in their youth had been Kantians, and now wanted an orientation in a development which they distrusted; but they also wanted a confirmation of their own Kantianism. Professor Chalybäus did just those two things. His lectures appeared in 1837 under the title Historische Entwicklung der speculativen Philosophie von Kant bis Hegel, Zu näherer Verständigung des wissenschaftlichen Publikums mit der neuesten Schule. The book was very popular and appeared in three editions. In my copy of the third edition of 1843, Professor Chalybäus says (p. 354): 'This is the first trilogy: the unity of Being, Nothing and Becoming...we have in this first methodical thesis, antithesis, and example or schema for all that follows.' This was for Chalybäus a brilliant hunch which he had not used previously and did not pursue afterwards in any way at all. But Karl Marx was at, that time a student at the university of Berlin and a member of the Hegel Club where the famous book was discussed. He took the hunch and spread it into a deadly, abstract machinery. Other left Hegelians, such as Arnold Ruge, Ludwig Feuerbach, Max Stirner, use 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis' just as little as Hegel.


"{Quote from the article of Gustav E. Müller: The Hegel Legend of 'Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis', in 'Journal of the History of Ideas', Volume XIX, June 1958, Number 3, Page 411. The article is still as valid today as it was in 1958.}"


[This can be found here. Bold emphasis added. Quotation marks have been altered to conform to the conventions adopted here; US spelling also altered to conform to UK English. The full article is Müller (1958).]


This  suggests that  Marx, and  all  subsequent Marxists who  use this 'schema', are not in fact reliable interpreters of Hegel. If so, then according to Lenin, that must mean that Marx could not have understood Das Kapital!


"It is impossible to understand Marx's Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!" [Lenin (1961), p.180. Emphases added.]


Which further suggests that understanding Hegel (even if that were possible) is not integral to Marxism, or we would be faced with the ridiculous conclusion that Marx did not understand Das Kapital!


Glenn Magee has tried to blunt the conclusions of the above article, arguing:


" often distorted by well-meaning commentators who see Hegel's apparent obsession with triadic form as an embarrassing superstition. For instance, Gustav Müller treats the passage as follows: 'According to the Hegel legend one would expect Hegel to recommend this 'triplicity'. But, after saying that it was derived from Kant, he calls this a "lifeless schema"...'.... Müller, however, completely distorts what Hegel has said. As I have pointed out, Hegel says that Kant rediscovered triadic form, not that it derives from Kant. Further, Hegel says...that triadic form is unscientific 'when it is reduced to a lifeless schema'.... He does not say that it is always a 'lifeless schema'. A cursory glance at the structure of Hegel's system shows that he thought that there was some life in the old schema yet." [Magee (2001), p.100. Italic emphases in the original.]


However, as far as I can see, Müller is merely making a point about the wooden formula, "Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis", not about triplicity itself. As Hegel scholar Terry Pinkard notes:


"This myth was started by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus. It appears in a history he wrote of recent German philosophy (published in the 1840s), in which he said, roughly, that Fichte's philosophy followed the model of thesis/antithesis/synthesis, but Hegel went further and cosmologized that notion, extending it to the entire universe. The book was widely read (apparently the young Marx was one of its readers), and the idea stuck. It's still touted in a lot of short encyclopedia entries about Hegel. Like many little encapsulations of thought, it has the virtue of being easy to understand and easy to summarize. It's just not very helpful in understanding Hegel's thought. It has also contributed to the lack of appreciation of Hegel in Anglophone philosophy. It's not too hard to point out all the places where it doesn't apply, dismiss it as a kind of dialectical trick, and then just go on to conclude that Hegel isn't worth reading at all.


"Both ideas (Hegel as cosmological idealist, Hegel as seeing the development of this Great Mind as progressing from thesis to antithesis to synthesis) represent a falsification of Hegel's thought, and their ongoing popularity surely has to do with their sound bite quality. You can sum up Hegel quickly, get the impression you understand him, and also dismiss him just as quickly. Looking at the real Hegel is harder but more rewarding...." [Extract from an interview posted here.]





Lenin, V. (1961), Philosophical Notebooks, Collected Works, Volume 38 (Progress Publishers).


Magee, G. (2001), Hegel And The Hermetic Tradition (Cornell University Press). The Introduction is available here.


Müller, G. (1958), 'The Hegel Legend Of "Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis"', Journal of the History of Ideas 19, pp.411-14; reprinted in Stewart (1996), pp.301-05. Much of this article can be found here.


Stewart, J. (1996) (ed.), The Hegel Myths And Legends (Northwestern University Press).


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© Rosa Lichtenstein 2008


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