Jacob McNulty, Hegel’s Logic and Metaphysics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023; 288 pp. ISBN: 9781009067805.

Reviewed by Gregory S. Moss, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Jake McNulty’s Hegel’s Logic and Metaphysics is an excellent work of philosophy that successfully demonstrates the metaphysical import of Hegel’s logic. While it will benefit specialists in Hegel’s logic, its style makes its line of argumentation accessible to non-specialists. Unlike those who render Hegel’s thought intelligible by modeling it on Aristotle or Kant, McNulty reads Hegel on his own terms without sacrificing intelligibility. Without a doubt, the book should be read by any serious student of Hegel’s logic. Despite some points of disagreement, I believe it makes a real contribution to the ongoing conversation about the metaphysical significance of Hegel’s logic. 

In his Preface and Introduction, McNulty approaches German Idealism through a central problem: the logo-centric predicament (10). If truths are justified by laws of formal logic, what justifies these laws themselves? One cannot assume these laws in order to justify them without circularity. Yet they are not self-evident, for they can be challenged by counterexample (11), and so they require a defense. On McNulty’s reading, Hegel solves the logo-centric predicament by grounding formal logic in an ontological theory of categories (20-21). 

This reading has a Heideggerian inspiration (26), whereby ontology grounds formal logic. However, in Hegel’s case, the ontological theory of categories is still logical. What is the character of the ontological-logical ground of formal logic? To avoid circularity, Hegel’s dialectical method of justification is “preformal,” “noninferential,” and “prepredicative” (25). Unlike traditional theories, this method’s basic “unit of analysis” is the concept, such that “the dialectical method operates on individual concepts”, not judgments. One of the books’ highlights is McNulty’s thesis that Hegel’s categories are necessarily instantiated, such that every category is a “new ontological proof.” Accordingly, Hegel’s concepts are “nonempty” and self-instantiating. They operate like the concept of God, for each “vouchsafes its own instantiation” (xiv). Finally, McNulty courageously admits that “Hegel is a critic of the law of non-contradiction” (xv). McNulty convincingly argues that without a direct assault on the principle of non-contradiction, Hegel cannot solve the logo-centric predicament.  Finally, the book successfully demonstrates that Pippin’s Kantian reading of Hegel is fundamentally misguided, for McNulty takes seriously Hegel’s claim that his own philosophy is a departure from subjective idealism (32-38). 

In Chapter One, McNulty explicates one of Hegel’s chief critiques of formal logic: it violates its own standard of justification (54). While formal logic requires that judgments be justified by principles of inference, it cannot itself be justified by such principles without circularity. In general, formal logic is finite: its justificatory powers are inherently limited, for they do not apply to themselves. According to McNulty, traditional approaches (like Aristotle’s) justify logic by presupposing a given object, e.g., thinking or experience, from which it abstracts the categories, forms of judgment, and logical laws (55-56). While formal logic cannot justify its approach through any mediated process, it relies upon some form of immediacy. It presupposes not only an object about which it thinks but also a method (like abstraction) by which it produces the content of the science. Since formal logic cannot ground itself, it must be groundless or have a non-formal ground. Against the formal-logical approach, Hegel’s logic aims to justify its claims without presupposition (57), by privileging neither a given object nor a given method.  

In Chapter Two, McNulty provides a unique reconstruction of Hegel’s “swimming objection” against Kant’s philosophy. Because Kant “wants to know before one knows”, his philosophy falls victim to “vicious circularity” (78). McNulty argues that, like Aristotle, Kant’s logic cannot ground itself, and is problematically grounded in an empirical source. On this reading, Kant’s treatment of the categories is incomplete, for it is grounded in an act of abstraction from the content of experience (81). McNulty underscores Fichte’s insight that the first Critique cannot ground itself, but can be grounded on a higher source than the transcendental. In the rest of the chapter, McNulty reads Fichte and Hegel as providing different accounts of this higher source.  

McNulty then discusses Fichte’s account of the origin of the categories (83-90). Fichte grounds logical principles, like the law of identity, A=A, in the self-identity of the I=I. Although Fichte grounds categorial knowledge in intellectual intuition of the “I am,” from the latter he cannot deduce anything further. McNulty reconstructs Hegel’s critique that Fichte fails to give a “compelling reason” why the “I entails not-I” (90). On McNulty’s reading, while Hegel rejects Fichte’s first principle, Hegel grounds logical knowledge in a “different first principle, Being” (91). Both Kant and Fichte presuppose Being. McNulty reasons that because Being is “conceptually primitive” or “immediate” (92) and the most “comprehensive,” (98) it is the ultimate foundation of logical knowledge. All categories are forms of being and would be impossible without it. 

Because Being is “fundamental, comprehensive, and necessarily instantiated” it can “serve as the point of departure.” Following tradition, Hegel conceives of Being as God or the “ens realissimum”.  Moreover, because “Being is a distinctive type of whole whose (proper) parts are the beings” it is “necessarily instantiated” and “necessarily nonempty” (93-5, 98). Unlike traditional versions of the ontological argument, since Being works as the ontological ground of logical cognition, the structure of its self-instantiating character cannot be syllogistic (97). In this way, McNulty defends the view that Hegel’s logic is a reiterative ontological argument that begins from the concept of being. The ontological argument is the true critique of the categories, for it is due to the self-instantiating structure of Hegel’s speculative-ontological logic that he can derive categories without relying upon traditional logic. Kant’s mistake is to treat the concept of God like the representation of 100 dollars: the latter doesn’t imply existence, whereas the former does (105-107). While Being is the necessary object of pure, a priori thinking, in the course of the logic thinking itself appears as one of Being’s necessary forms. As such, Hegel’s logic is a “metaphysics of epistemology” (105). McNulty summarizes his view nicely: Hegel’s logic is divorced from psychology, eschews the transcendental, and operates as post-critical ontology (101).

I agree with McNulty on much of the major interpretive points, especially his recovery of the insight that the ontological argument is already at work in the logic of being. Hegel’s logic certainly is a post-critical metaphysics, that eschews transcendental form. Its categories are existentially implicative (self-instantiating), and do not operate syllogistically. However, there are a number of more contentious points about which one might hold reservations. First, we shouldn’t read McNulty’s book as giving a complete historical account of the development of Hegel’s view. Indeed, one figure is conspicuously absent from it: Schelling. While McNulty is right that Hegel is “redeploying” the concept of being in “the form of Spinozism,” (95) Schelling had already attempted to develop a form of idealism that reanimated Spinoza’s thought into a philosophy of freedom. Not only did Schelling argue in the System of Transcendental Idealism that Fichte’s subjective idealism needed completion by a form of objective idealism, but he also argued that the first principle ought to be both analytic and synthetic—a view Hegel would later adopt in his concept of method and is clearly discernible in his concept of the Absolute Idea. Indeed, Hegel’s realism is deeply indebted to Schelling’s realism. Naturally, this isn’t inconsistent with McNulty’s argument, for his Heideggerian inspiration is very close to the spirit of Schelling’s realism. 

Second, McNulty reads Hegel’s account of the beginning of logics as a “more abstract version” of Fichte (99). On this reading, Hegel doesn’t repudiate first principles. However, if Hegel operates without presuppositions, for “er darf nichts voraussetzen” (Hegel, Logik, 69) it no longer posits (Setzung) any principles in advance (voraus). While Fichte’s first principle is a posit (Setzung), what is presuppositionless (Voraussetzungslos) must repudiate any original posit. Read this way, a presuppositionless logic should repudiate all first principles—it should be foundation-free. Following Richard Dien Winfield’s understanding of presuppositionlessness, it’s unclear how Hegel (on McNulty’s reading) remains presuppositionless. While McNulty acknowledges that Hegel’s logic is without presupposition, it remains unclear how this is compatible with his view that Hegel’s logic is grounded on Being as a first principle. (As Maker argues, Hegel himself appeals to the Phenomenology of Spirit in his account of the presuppositionless beginning. For more see Maker, Philosophy. For Hegel’s discussion of the role of phenomenology in the beginning of logic, see Hegel, Science, 46-47.) 

Finally, although McNulty is absolutely right that being instantiates itself, one might ask how the concept instantiates itself. McNulty argues that being is self-particularizing because it’s a whole whose proper parts are beings. Because the concept of the whole and its parts first arises within the Doctrine of Essence, McNulty is right that “to call it a whole would be premature” (104). Given that it is premature to consider being a whole, we cannot appeal to the concept of the whole to understand its self-particularizing character. At best, such an explanation must be retroactive, and cannot explain being’s self-instantiating character as a member of the Doctrine of Being. Here Hegel provides a clue: empirical predicates such as ‘one hundred dollars’ fail to exhibit self-referential structure (Hegel, Science, 64–65). Because Being itself has being, it must be an instance of itself. While the concept of one hundred dollars is not one hundred dollars, the category of Being is itself a being. In short, self-reference appears to play a more significant role in Hegel’s ontological argument than McNulty acknowledges. While McNulty will acknowledge the importance of self-reference in Chapter Five (180-185), its connection with the ontological argument remains opaque. While McNulty’s approach to Hegel’s logic as a reiterative ontological argument is unequivocally correct, the account should be supplemented by an account of how self-reference is reiteratively applied to successive categories (See Moss, Hegel’s, 260-265.) 

Chapter Three further motivates and elucidates the structure of Hegel’s speculative logic by considering his critique of pre-critical metaphysics. McNulty observes that this metaphysics takes judgment as the bearer of truth and syllogism as the method for proving a judgment to be true (199). Ultimately, these features of pre-critical metaphysics originate in Aristotle’s logic, not Scholastic metaphysics (114), and are uncritically adopted by Kant. Although Kant evaded Scholasticism’s religious dogmatism, he succumbed to a form of logical dogmatism (118). Because judgment connects two concepts, its truth presupposes one has accurately identified the meaning of the concept in the subject position. Thus, any logic operating with judgment as its ultimate truth-bearer presupposes the truth of a concept, for which it cannot account (112). Against tradition, Hegel’s logic takes the concept as the fundamental truth-bearer. On his account, truth is the agreement of a concept with itself (121). The truth of judgments depend upon more fundamental truths: the truths of concepts.  

Because the ultimate truth-bearer is the concept, Hegel’s method for establishing truth cannot remain unchanged. Indeed, because syllogisms are composed of judgments, not merely concepts, his method cannot remain syllogistic. Such a method must be both a priori and non-inferential. Accordingly, Hegel must develop a novel method—dialectic—for establishing truth. Since dialectic operates on concepts whose truth is presupposed by judgment, the logic operates on truths that are “pre-predicative.” Although truths such as “The Absolute is Being” appear predicative, and appear to exhibit judgmental form, the subject in such cases is an “empty placeholder” (126).

Hegel’s dialectical method is constituted by the “twin strategies” of “immanent critique” and “determinate negation” (122). The former establishes that the concept is self-contradictory; the latter frees the concept from contradictory form. Consequently, a new category arises, and the process begins anew and a new contradiction arises. The language of “strategies” may misleadingly imply that Hegel applies a separate method to a content that is given independently of the method. Again, we might suggest introducing the self-referential feature of the concept as a helpful remedy. Through self-referential predication, the concept applies to itself, and needn’t be conceived as a method which is applied to independent content.    

McNulty notes that Hegel’s dialectic, as a unity of synthesis and analysis (128), must engender contradictions, but these dialectical contradictions are not incompatible judgments. While formal-logical contradictions “pertain to judgments of the form ‘S is P,’” dialectical contradictions (or “proto-contradictions”) (127) differ in kind. A dialectical contradiction obtains when a concept contradicts itself. Since the PNC governs judgments and precludes the truth of contradictory judgments, the PNC doesn’t govern dialectical thought. More generally, since dialectic is the form of speculative logic that undergirds all formal-logical thinking, dialectic doesn’t presuppose the PNC or any other formal principles. 

Chapter Four primarily focuses on how Hegel re-thinks the categories as infinite. McNulty specifies two kinds of finitude: the finitude of categories towards each other and towards the world (133). A category is finite vis-à-vis the others if it’s not semantically comprehensive, thereby excluding other categories. A category is finite vis-à-vis the world “if it is possible that it should fail to be instantiated” (138). Hegel’s categories are infinite in both senses. Thus, Being applies to all categories, for all categories are beings, and so is semantically comprehensive. And, since Being is self-particularizing, it cannot fail to be instantiated. McNulty explicates the role of semantic finitude in Kant and shows how the sense of finitude vis-à-vis the world informs Kant’s critique of our knowledge of the transcendental ideal (140-163). 

However, there’s another sense of finitude implied by McNulty’s account. Hegel defines the finite as what is internally limited, i.e., as what contains its own negation (Hegel, Science, 101). Formal logic is finite in this sense, for although it contains rules for justification, it cannot be logically justified by them. Formal logic thus isn’t logical—it contains its own negation. Finite categories are concepts that cease to be in virtue of their own internal limitations. Although this sense of finitude isn’t incompatible with McNulty’s account, his account should be further supplemented with Hegel’s treatment of finitude in the Science of Logic.      

McNulty astutely observes that if a category is infinite, it can overcome Kant’s antinomies, for there are no antithetical categories with which it can conflict. Because Kant conceives of categories as finite, his reflections on the unconditioned produce unresolved antinomies. McNulty is right that the impasses of traditional metaphysics depends upon assuming that concepts are finite. On Hegel’s view, Kant’s critique of the ontological argument begs the question. While the concept of one hundred dollars doesn’t imply its existence, the concept of “the whole of existence” does imply its existence (158).  While “Being is the foundation of everything that follows” (163), each new category reformulates the ontological argument.

In Chapter Five, McNulty explains how Hegel grounds formal logical laws on his ontological theory of the categories (166). Since logical laws should apply regardless of their subject matter, and Hegel’s ontological categories apply to all beings, he can ground the generality of logical laws on the corresponding generality of ontological categories (174). For instance, the law of identity is grounded on the category of identity. Because Hegel thinks the law of identity can be converted into the PNC, Hegel grounds the PNC in the category of identity (190). Just as identity is self-relation, e.g. A=A, so is the PNC expressed as self-relation: A cannot be A and not A (177). Hegel grounds such laws in his Doctrine of Essence, which recasts non-relational categories of Being into relational forms. Since the categories are self-developing, just as each category gives rise to the next, so too will each law (176). 

Because the category of identity negates itself, so too must the PNC. Consequently, McNulty appears to endorse a dialetheic reading of Hegel’s logic. McNulty is right that Hegel rejects the PNC, for it is “incompatible with what he takes to be the correct metaphysical theory of the nature of reality” (169). Indeed, the PNC conflicts with “the metaphysical principle that there is real opposition in the world” (172). McNulty clearly reconstructs the dialectics of identity. First he shows that for any identity, A=A, A must be distinct from itself to express the identity relation. Thus, self-identity presupposes non-identity. Second, McNulty argues by self-reference: given that identity is not difference, it excludes difference.  However, identity must be different from difference (183), and is characterized by difference. Insofar as identity is different, it is not distinct from difference. Thus, identity falls into self-contradiction, for it both excludes difference and is defined by it. Hegel’s dialetheic logic of self-reference concerns the relation of the concept to itself, forming a class of self-referential paradoxes distinct from typical examples employed by dialetheists, like the liar paradox (184). Because identity differs from itself, the Absolute is re-defined as self-opposition, which is inherently contradictory: McNulty argues that: “As we saw, each category (pair) can be reformulated as a definition of the Absolute. In this case, ‘the Absolute is opposition’. Once we recall that the Absolute is an empty placeholder, and that opposites are (inter)defined as negations of one another, however, we get a contradiction. The contradiction: X is F and not-F” (189). Through the self-negation of the category of identity, McNulty demonstrates how the dialectics of identity undermines the PNC. Consequently, Hegel’s grounding of formal logic entails the transformation of formal logic. Although McNulty doesn’t explicitly discuss this, Hegel grounds a new law of self-contradiction on the inherently self-oppositional character of the Absolute. Because the Absolute is self-contradictory, one can establish the formal law that “All things are in themselves contradictory” (Hegel, Science, 11). 

Although the PNC ultimately cedes to the principle of self-contradiction, we should note an ambiguity in McNulty’s treatment of contradiction. In Chapter Four, McNulty claims that, for Hegel, philosophy’s task consists in an “attempt to identity an infinite category whose definition is coherent” (139-140). In Chapter Three, after presenting truth as the concept’s self-agreement, he argues that a category is untrue when self-contradictory (122). 

While McNulty apparently favour a dialetheic treatment of Hegel’s logic, other passages indicate otherwise. McNulty cites EL §33 to defend the reading of untruth as inconsistency. However, the passage’s context informs us that Hegel is discussing metaphysics qua “Dogmatismus” (Hegel, Enzyklopädie, §32, 98). More specifically, he is addressing “den ersten Teil dieser Metaphysik” (Hegel, Enzyklopädie, §33, 99) as ontology. Here Hegel doesn’t endorse the view that truth is consistency. Rather, he considers what the concept’s self-agreement would be if we adhered to the understanding. Consequently, the sentence appears in the subjunctive: “Wenn die Wahrheit also weiter nichts wäre [my emphasis] als der Mangel des Wiederspruchs” (Hegel, Enzyklopädie, §33, 100). Indeed, for the understanding, which advances a one-sided view of truth, the concept must eschew all contradiction, but this passage says nothing about truth for reason.

In Chapter Five, McNulty demonstrates how speculative truth requires transcending the truth of the understanding. Nevertheless, we’re left wondering whether McNulty thinks Hegel “ultimately arrives at an infinite category whose definition is coherent.” Is the absolute idea such a category? Or does McNulty hold that Hegel fails in his attempt to find an infinite category whose definition is consistent, such that absolute truth must be dialetheic in form? This is a question every reader of Hegel must ask themselves, and it’s natural that it arises while reading Hegel’s Logic and Metaphysics. By my lights, the latter option is preferable, for Hegel himself declares that every concept ultimately gives way to contradiction: “every determination, anything concrete, every concept, …, pass over into elements which are contradictory” (Hegel, Science, 384).

Indeed, the dialetheic reading offered in Chapter Five enables Hegel to account for absolute determinacy. The Absolute’s absolute determinacy requires the truth of self-contradiction. Since the Absolute is determinate, it must be determinately related to what it is not. To be determinate, it must be other to what it is not—relativity. However, since there’s nothing other to the Absolute, it cannot be determinately related to anything but itself. It is only determinate if it is its own other—if it is other than itself. It must exclude itself. Only via self-negation and self-contradiction can the Absolute be true to itself as absolutely determinate. As I read McNulty, the true self-correspondence of an absolute category is only achieved in self-contradiction. Indeed, reading McNulty we learn not to equivocate on self-correspondence in the cases of the understanding and of reason. 

In Chapter Six, McNulty proceeds to explicate the concept’s structure in Hegel’s logic of subjectivity. While Kant accounts for the categories by appealing to formal logic, Hegel inverts the order, deriving formal logic from the categories (202). While the logic of being concerns non-relational categories, the logic of essence concerns relational categories. Finally, the logic of the concept synthesizes these forms, for it has the structure of mediated immediacy (205). The concept is a self-mediated totality. Here McNulty draws upon the metaphor of growth and maturation to illustrate the structure of Hegel’s concept. Unlike traditional accounts, the concept isn’t only a universal, but is constituted by universal, particular, and individual (226). McNulty illustrates this structure with an empirical concept. The concept of a horse is a universal, but also a particular concept falling under the concept of mammal. Since the individual is the unity of universal and particular, the concept of the horse is also an individual. 

While McNulty takes this example from Hegel, it has significant limitations. Since every categorial form following being is a form of the ontological argument, so must the logic of the concept. (Hegel explicitly identifies the transition from the concept to objectivity as an ontological argument. See Hegel, Science, 325.) For Hegel identifies the concept with God, who is self-particularizing. (See Hegel: “The concept of God realizes itself most fully as this universal that determines and particularizes itself—it is this activity of dividing, of particularizing and determining itself […]. This is the concept as such, the concept of God” (Hegel, Lectures, 324).) Since the concept of God is self-instantiating, and the concept as such is the concept of God, the concept instantiates itself. As Hegel tirelessly re-iterates, the concept is an instance of itself: “Jeder der Momente im Begriff ist aber zugleich das Ganze, der ganze Begriff…Hier ist der Begriff an und für sich, jedes ist Totalität” (Hegel, Vorlesung, 177, 160).  For Hegel, “each of the moments of the concept is as much the whole concept as it is a determinate concept and a determination of the concept” (Hegel, Science, 601). Because the concept is an instance of itself, it is both universal and particular. Since the singular is the unity of both, the concept is singular. 

However, ‘horse’ isn’t self-instantiating. Like ‘one hundred dollars’, ‘horse’ is a false concept, for it lacks self-reference. Thus, while McNulty is right that ‘horse’ exemplifies the threefold structure of universal, particular, and singular, it’s the concept in self-alienated form, for it doesn’t self-particularize. It’s worth noting that the doctrine of concept is not a doctrine of formal conceptuality. Although Hegel’s ontological categories ground the formal-logical, the concept isn’t merely formal-logical. Ultimately, I think McNulty’s account can accommodate the ontological argument in the logic of the concept, for it starts from the insight that being—in all its forms (including the concept)—is a self-realizing, self-particularizing totality. 

  McNulty concludes by reminding us that neither Aristotle’s nor Kant’s philosophies are self-comprehending (237). Hegel’s logic is self-comprehending, for it self-divides (245) and completes itself with the Absolute Idea, an Absolute subjectivity that knows itself, that corresponds with the God of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. (245) While one can argue that Hegel’s logic retrospectively relies upon formal logic, this wouldn’t nullify the prospective account according to which the non-formal ontological categories ground formal-logical structures (246-248).

To summarize, Hegel’s Logic and Metaphysics successfully defends a dialetheic vision of Hegel. McNulty’s dialetheic vision shows us Hegel is a post-critical metaphysician—a critical realist whose idealism isn’t opposed to being but is constituted by being’s own self-development. McNulty’s Hegel is the real Hegel: a dialetheic monist who isn’t afraid to tell hard truths to an unwilling world. 

Hegel, G.W.F. (1984). Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, trs. R.F. Brown, P.C. Hodgson, and J.M. Stewart. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1986a). Wissenschaft der Logik I. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1986b). Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Band Wissenschaften I. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Hegel, G.W.F. (2001). Vorlesung Über die Logik. Hamburg: Meiner.

Hegel, G.W.F. (2015). The Science of Logic, trs. George Di Giovanni. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Maker, William (1994). Philosophy Without Foundations. Albany: SUNY Press. 

Moss, Gregory S. (2020). Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics: The Logic of Singularity. New York: Routledge.