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Analysis file

, Grenoble, November 2014

Hegelian Dialectics and Conflict Transformation

The theoretical roots of Conflict Transformation is in this article sought by means of analysis of the (in)famous German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel’s dialectical view of progress. The focal questions for this analysis are: what are the conceptual processes in the workings and transformations of conflicts, how can we understand obstacles to development in a broader theoretical framework, and how do we know that what we are doing is actually creating a positive development?

Keywords: Philosophy for peace |

Working with conflicts it may sometimes be profitable to take a step back and conceive of the overall change that one is trying to forge. What are the conceptual processes in the workings and transformations of conflicts, how can we understand obstacles to development in a broader theoretical framework, and how do we know that what we are doing is actually creating a positive development? This article should be seen as provisional remarks rather than definite answers to these problems. What I hope to convey, however, is an increased reflection on these issues in order to create local answers informed by the fundamental vocabulary on social progress in Hegelian dialectics.

Before addressing in detail the line of analysis for the (in)famous German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel in his “Introduction” to his seminal work Phenomenology of the Spirit, I will with Foucault try to understand better what it means to be the founder of a discourse in the way Hegel is and why we ought to understand Hegel to talk about his followers, explicit or not. The analysis of Hegelian dialectics at its root will lead to a discussion on the dialectical roots of Conflict Transformation as found in Lederach. An effort will be given to trace the approach of Conflict Transformation down to what I consider to be its Hegelian roots and by that invite the reader to reflect on the relevance of Hegelian thought in their work.

Founders of Discursivity

First of all, the central question seems to be: why look to Hegel to approach dialectics and not a newer, more accessible theory of dialectics, which has had the chance to adopt criticisms and thus been made stronger? Many great dialecticians have followed so why study Hegel?

In his short essay “What is an Author”, French philosopher Michel Foucault gives a convincing explanation why. His inquiry takes as a point of departure the post-modern principle “the death of the author”: the idea that one should refer only to the work at hand in the interpretation of this work; the life and personal experiences of the author is not a valid basis to found an interpretation. “As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence”1. This negative singularity is, however, enough to establish the transcendental character of the author in the act of analysis, collecting a body of works under the same umbrella of analysis.

The transcendental role of the author becomes that of guaranteeing a discursive structure: “The author’s name manifests the appearance of a certain discursive set and indicates the status of this discourse within a society and a culture”2. If we broaden the concept of an author, as Foucault invites us to do, we can speak of authors of a discipline, a theory, a tradition, etc. This opens the possibility for Foucault to speak of a certain kind of authors: ‘founders of discursivity’. These authors “have [besides their own works] produced something else: the possibilities and rules for formation of other texts1”3. By that they open up a space both for analogies but also difference, being the difference from that very foundation which is given by a founder of discursivity. Authors that come after these founders of discursivity cannot write within the tradition without referring to the founder. In the discourse of psychoanalysis, Karl Jung and Melanie Klein refer to Sigmund Freud in the same way as within Marxism, Antonio Gramsci and Theodor Adorno refer to Karl Marx. In the case at hand, it is my claim that one cannot fully comprehend the implications of a transformational approach to conflict without referring to what is implicitly its discursive founder and ‘primary coordinates’: Hegel and Hegelian dialectics.

Knowledge, Consciousness and the Dialectical Movement

In order for science to pertain to what essentially is its goal, namely knowledge, it has in history of thought before Hegel been seen necessary to criticize our cognition, with which we ‘take hold of’ [begreifen] the truth. Since our immediate understanding of an object may very well be fallacious it was seen as a philosophical task to critique the workings of our cognizing abilities. Hegel criticizes this criticism of cognition on the ground that this criticism itself presupposes and thus produces the notion of the Absolute (or the truth of the object) as standing on one side and cognition on the other. By virtue of doubt of our means of cognizing the object, the complete, unattainable truth is presupposed. In a sense, this is what is implied by the term “object” as being opposed to the subject (that cognizes): object is in German Gegenstand – something that “stands” towards or against something, something that stands “on the other side”. But what gives us the right to presuppose such an objective truth behind the phenomenon that meets us?

Realizing that his criticism of the mentioned criticism leaves him with an unspecified criterion, or standard, on which to measure knowledge, Hegel faces the problem of ascertaining the truth of anything that claims to be true. If there is no longer an objective, hidden truth of a given phenomenon then how do we decide if we are getting closer to the truth? As he notes, “Science must liberate itself from this semblance [to other kinds of knowledge, i.e. without truth], and it can do so only by turning against it”4. The question is how to rely on one kind of knowledge and reject others when they are all just appearances, when science takes the criterion on which it judges from itself5.

Searching for a criterion of knowledge, Hegel sets out an analysis of the ground of cognition: consciousness itself. It must be in consciousness itself that we get a criterion to ascribe knowledge6. Consciousness, always being consciousness about something, must be said to have two “destinations” or intentions: a given object and consciousness itself7. From this the duality of object and notion of that object arises, creating in turn two possibilities of a standard for knowledge: either knowledge occurs when the notion fits the object or when the object fits the notion. It is, however, exactly this separation that has created an unknowable truth, which Hegel wants to move away from. Instead Hegel argues that we are facing two sides of the same process. Viewing the concept of truth, which knowledge attains to, as something in the object to which our notion can respond, or viewing the essence or in-itself of the object as our notion which has been “objectified” or “made an object” and then in turn judging the object on whether it corresponds with it, we realize that these processes are in fact the same movement. We see that notion and object “match” each other and ought to (and in fact will) strive to correspond to each other. Whether one sees it one way or the other, since both are for the same consciousness the process is the same. Consciousness thus being the comparison, and it, by itself, knowing whether object corresponds to notion and the other way around, it itself creates a process of developing knowledge with itself as a standard.

This development happens whenever object-notion correspondence is “asymmetrical”. “[C]onsciousness must alter its knowledge to make it conform to its object”8, but the knowledge being of the object considered and belonging to it, the object itself must change. The Hegel scholar C. Taylor describes it as such: “we move from seeing the concept as a descriptive term correctly applied by us to seeing it as the underlying necessity which brought what it applies to being”9. Object changes notion and notion changes object - no concept is prior to the other.10

This is the dialectical movement: the harmony of a state of affairs is destroyed by an asymmetry, which calls for consciousness to create a new harmonious state of affairs where notion and object correspond. Hegel gives the example of the loss of natural or non-reflected consciousness. This consciousness has the criterion its constitution, its appearance of knowledge, so stubbornly possessed that it tries to defy all asymmetries and exclude them from the knowledge corpus as ‘mere appearances’. The moment these asymmetries become too great for the natural consciousness to handle, it will loose itself and start the reflection. Since a reflection is dangerous to the stability and stubbornness of the natural consciousness, it will experience this turn away from its self-claimed knowledge as a “pathway of doubt, or more precisely as the way of despair”11. This loss is not a trying-out of borders or entertaining the thought that things could be differently, it is a fundamental insight that the self-acclaimed knowledge was fallacious, that the whole basis of existence of the natural consciousness is cast into doubt. The result is not just a particular doubt, but a radical scepticism as to what one can know and if one can know anything at all – or at least so it seems from the viewpoint of the consciousness that is loosing itself. The more it looks into the asymmetry that forced it on the way of despair, the more it sees the nothingness of its own ground. As long as it stays in the abstraction of nothingness (negation of its world view) it “cannot get any further from there, but must wait to see whether something new comes along and what it is, in order to throw it into the same empty abyss”12. It rejects anything and everything as knowledge. It happens, however, that the consciousness realizes that the nothingness it poses is a particular nothingness. It is a determinate negation that creates the sense of nothingness. The moment the subject realizes that what is negated can be determined or defined a new form has thereby immediately arisen which is the sublation [Aufhebung] of the first movement (natural consciousness) and the second, its negation (scepticism, nothingness). Since both previous forms are subsumed into this third movement, it indicates a progression. The subject of knowledge has reached a higher level.

The completion of this serial progression is where “[the subject of] knowledge no longer needs to go beyond itself, where knowledge finds itself, where Notion corresponds to object and object to Notion”13. The death of the natural consciousness gives rise to knowledge, whose criterion becomes this movement itself. There is in fact no need of importing an external criterion or standard for measuring knowledge. This allows us to dismiss the idea of the before mentioned dichotomy between cognition and the absolute as two distinct domains. The in-itself is no longer an object in the German translation of it, gegenstand – it is only so for consciousness. The criterion for truth and knowledge, which before was the object for us14, is itself changing. Instead we must rely on the process of consciousness to do its work when it by contemplation “in and for itself”15 acknowledges the truth: “the being-for-consciosusness of this in-itself”16, which is experience – the first movement of the natural consciousness – and which is knowledge17.

Mourning the Past Beliefs

The following analysis will break down the Hegelian dialectics as described above into three core elements that are preserved as ideals of Conflict Transformation: the obstacle of inner resistance to change, asymmetry as precursor of development and search for a criterion for conventional knowledge.

First aspect of Hegelian dialectics that is preserved in Conflict Transformation theory is the idea of the loss of the natural consciousness as difficult for the consciousness itself. For Conflict Transformation holding on to what one has can at times be a great obstacle for progress. Analytically separable are here holding on to the past and holding on to one view as obstacles to peace. In order to overcome the former, recognition that the post-conflict state of affairs cannot be the same as those of the pre-conflict has to be made on all parts of the conflict. A process of ‘mourning’ gives way to creativity and imagination to render other social relations possible. Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire calls this obstacle the “fear of freedom”: “Critical consciousness, they say, is anarchic. Others add that critical consciousness may lead to disorder. Some, however, confess: Why deny it? I was afraid of freedom. I am no longer afraid!”18. The impulsive move of the accusers of (self-)critical consciousness shows itself as inherently conservative. They are afraid of a post-conflict state since they don’t know what that will entail. However, since the sublimation contains within it the previous steps as Hegel shows, this critical change is a progression.

The latter, holding on to one view, occurs when one is so focused on the problem that it starts becoming the only important thing in the relation. Or better, the particular problem is not conceived in its particularity but is made representative of the whole conflict situation. Lederach addresses the issue very much in this way. He writes: “If someone uninvited in the situation asks what the conflict is about, our initial explanations will typically be framed in terms of the specific issues the parties are dealing with”19 and elsewhere he writes that “[p]eople, communities, and most specifically choices about ways they will respond to situations and express views of the conflict are forced into either-or categories: We are right. They are wrong”20. Framing the situation in either-or categories enlarges the particular problem. What Conflict Transformation invites the conflicting partners to do is to apply different pairs of glasses to view the situation (stepping back, viewing the conflict in a broader perspective) and imagine a shared future where the particular problem has been superseded21.

Both the obstacle of the ruling past and the obstacle of one own view dominating can be traced back to Hegelian dialectics. As described above, the natural consciousness will try to defy all objections to its view as mere appearances of opinion, thus excluding them from adaptation in the knowledge frame that makes out the natural consciousness. It counts for both the obstacle of the past and ones own view that there is an inherent conservative impulse whose main task is to exclude opinions as appearances. As Hegel’s picturesque analysis states, the threat to the subject is a pathway of despair where the subject looses itself because it realizes the incoherency and incompleteness of its worldview. The learning process for the subject occurs when it realizes that the nothingness that occurs is the result of a determinate negation on which the conflicts rests. The moment the subject understands that the conflict is due to a particular issue it will realize that the rest of the world still exists, that the particular issue takes up a non-proportionate space in the relation, and that the whole can be used to redefine the terms of the conflict issue. This changes not only the issue at hand but the whole structural basis of possible action must too be revised in an process result that is the sublation of all moments in the conflicts situation.

The Positive Energy of Conflicts

The second aspect of Hegelian dialectics that is preserved in Conflict Transformation theory is the view of conflict as possibility for positive change rather than as an obstacle. If we see the Hegelian asymmetry between notion and object as the ideal case for development, and if we see conflict as a kind of asymmetry on a societal level, it becomes clear that conflict draws forward development. It seems to be such reasoning that lies behind Lederach’s thesis that “conflict is normal in human relationships and conflict is a motor of change”22. Mitchel, who writes on the differences between conflict resolution and conflict transformation approaches, too takes this part of the transformational approach to be decisive23. We often have the tendency to conceive of conflicts as problems to be solved, but Conflict Transformation invites us to greet conflicts as energy that can be used for moral growth.

Here, however, Hegel seems to be more radical, inviting followers of Conflict Transformation to reconsider their approach. For Hegel, this approach would mean a mere psychologisation of conflict situations where the subject has to change his valuation of the situation. Such a change of mind-set runs the risk of paralysing the developing potential by abstraction to a talk about what we are doing and hence a concealing of apparent phenomena. In other words, if I am in a conflict I don’t care whether my being in that conflict is good for the whole community, I don’t want to be happy about my being in a conflict situation, I want to make my voice heard and I want to work on the conflict to the point where arguments and ways of being explode into a new proposition. It is not progressive for the natural consciousness to positivise the path of despair – it will simply not listen – only through work on the problem can it realize the determinate negation.

Sustained Social Progress

A third aspect is reliance on a criterion for knowledge/development. For both Hegel and Conflict Transformation the development is secured by the reliance on the dialectical movement where the outcome is a sublation of the initial phase and the conflictual phase. The image of this process is not a line since the development keeps negating itself, and it is not a circle since we don’t return to the same point in the pre-conflict as in the post-conflict space. The development is thus often pictured as a spiral: “Transformational change processes must (…) be both linear and circular” in order to be short-term responsive, i.e. possibly negating itself, and long-term strategic, i.e. a process of development24. This entail not only that the conflict situation is avoided, but as Mitchell emphasises the change is, too, a change in the people involved25. Hegel would say that notion changes when the object does. Indeed it is difficult to say what comes first: the conflicting parties’ view of the conflict or the conflict itself, underlining the Hegelian insight that notion-congelation and object-abstraction are two sides of the same process.

In a sense, the dialectics of Conflict Transformation is a way to do away with appearances. Through continuous breakdown and incorporations of the opposite view, a system is prepared for combatting states of affairs (appearance) that are not socially just. The suggestions for systems of thought and states of affairs in society that are unjust automatically create asymmetries that render the system as a whole unstable, and which thus call for revision. The criterion for social progress is in this way sustained without relying on external criteria but by working on the inner dynamics of the conflicting parties.

An important critique has been raised from researcher of non-violence, Veronique Dudouet. Seeing the conflict as a positive imperative for social change, many conflict transformers by this very reference seem to refer to the solving of the conflict. The energy is positive insofar as it can help solving the underlying conflicting structures. But who says that conflicts should be de-escalated?26 Indeed, the Hegelian thesis is that history doesn’t have an end, there is no telos of history, but there is a continuous redefinition and development of concepts and situations, which is a history of progress.

In his 2005 book The Moral Imagination, Lederach seems to have developed his theory and listened to the critique developed by Dudouet and others. After emphasising his originally dialectic approach to conflict, he seems to make an effort to answer the critique here mentioned: “We move away from an image of a single rising bell curve, the line in time with an agreement as its product. We move toward the image of a transformative platform: ongoing social and relational spaces”27. The social transformation is a continuous transformation of the social space. It is this open-endedness which Hegel makes us insist upon.


In order to better comprehend the theoretical basis for Conflict Transformation, I have proposed the importance of understanding Hegelian dialectics as discursive founder in this approach to conflict. The dialectics have been examined by an inquiry into the development of notion and object in the search for a standard of knowledge and in the fall of the natural consciousness as a progression in the self-relation of the subject. Further, elements of letting go of the past, conceiving conflict as positive energy, and the search for progression through addressing conflicts structurally, are retraced in the Hegelian framework and connected to the contemporary Conflict Transformation approach as found primarily in Lederach. This, in turn, gives rise not only to a more structured understanding of the wider theoretical picture but also to a requalification of certain aspects of the approach.


1Foucault 1969: p. 2

2Foucault 1969: p. 5

3Foucault 1969: p. 10

4Hegel 1977: p. 48

5Hegel 1977: p. 49

6Hegel 1977: p. 53

7Hegel 1977: p. 54

8Hegel 1977: p. 54

9Taylor 1975: pp. 110-111

10Hegel 1977: pp. 53-54

10Hegel 1977: p. 49

12Hegel 1977: p. 51

13Hegel 1977: p. 51

14Für uns in Kantian terms

15Hegel 1977: p. 54

16Hegel 1977: p. 55

17Hegel 1997: p. 55 and p. 51

18Freire 1970: p. 17

19Lederach 2003: p. 2

20Lederach 2003: p. 35

21Lederach 2003: p. 3 and Lederach 2005: p. 36ff

22Lederach 2003: p. 2

23Mitchell 2002: p. 14

24Lederach 2003: p. 10, p. 12

25Mitchell 2002: p. 11

26Dudouet 2008: p. 4

27Lederach 2005: p. 47

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