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Reviewed by:
  • Hegel on Possibility, Dialectics, Contradiction, and Modality by Nahum Brown
  • Kevin Harrelson
Nahum Brown. Hegel on Possibility, Dialectics, Contradiction, and Modality. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. Pp. x + 232. Cloth, £42.08.

Nahum Brown has written a very ambitious book on Hegel's theory of modality. It provides detailed textual analyses of three chapters from the Science of Logic and places Hegel's theory in a highly original classificatory scheme. The volume is well researched and transparently argued. It ought to have considerable influence on how scholars interpret Hegel, as well as on how we construe the history of modal thinking in European traditions.

The introduction presents a series of problems that Brown claims are historically widespread, chief among which is what he calls the "modal indeterminacy problem." There are some infelicities in his initial statements of this problem (1). Sympathetic readers nonetheless should be able to reconstruct the argument, the conclusion of which is that a definite conceptual trouble underlies questions about whether possibilities exist. Brown argues that the two customary ways of addressing this, illustrated respectively by Aristotle and Leibniz, are less edifying than is Hegel's solution.

The indeterminacy problem stems from an ambiguity in references to possible circumstances. What does it mean to say that "it is possible, but not actual, that x"? The first method of qualifying possibility is to assert modal priority in the manner of Aristotle. Possibility, on this kind of theory, is defined by its subordinate relation to actuality. The worry, then, is that such a view borders on actualism by rendering possibility too close to non-existence (n.b. the fact that Aristotle does not have our technical notion of existence presents a problem for this example).

The second and more common option is to interpret 'possible existence' by asserting that x exists in a world that is indexically distinct from this actual world. Brown offers a nice introductory sketch (10–17) of world-separation theories, neatly locating their origins in the ancient atomists. He also draws careful distinctions among the proponents (Leibniz, Lewis, et al.) of these theories. What the analysis lacks is a critical element: if the goal is to defend a more Hegelian theory, then we need a better picture of what is wrong with the conceptual apparatus of possible worlds.

Brown is more successful in locating Hegel's position than he is at adjudicating the relative virtues of the other options. He labels Hegel's theory modal optimism, which is "the thesis that this actual world contains infinite sets of infinite possibilities within it" (3). The key to modal optimism lies in the belief that "actuality and possibility are genuinely transitional concepts" (3). The subsequent chapters execute the detailed exegeses that would explain and justify the argument that the transitional nature of modal concepts leads Hegel to the conclusion that infinite possible circumstances exist within the actual world.

Brown is more successful in locating Hegel's position than he is at adjudicating the relative virtues of the other options. He labels Hegel's theory modal optimism, which is "the thesis that this actual world contains infinite sets of infinite possibilities within it" (3). The key to modal optimism lies in the belief that "actuality and possibility are genuinely transitional concepts" (3). The subsequent chapters execute the detailed exegeses that would explain and justify the argument that the transitional nature of modal concepts leads Hegel to the conclusion that infinite possible circumstances exist within the actual world. [End Page 519]

Brown has an admirable tendency to stay faithful to Hegel's texts and vocabulary, while also expressing his own arguments in a more modern idiom. The first three chapters address a series of overtly Hegelian theses: the categories of the Logic are transitional and form a totality (chapter 1); everything has internal contradictions, and these contradictions are productive (chapter 2); and absolute necessity is also absolute contingency (chapter 3). Brown balances his interpretations of these apparently baroque claims by attending throughout to the progression of his own argument.

Equally impressive is Brown's judicious attention to the extant scholarship on Hegel's Logic. Unlike those Hegel scholars who retreat into citational echo chambers, Brown engages with the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 519-520
Launched on MUSE
2021-07-22
Open Access
No
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