“Not the Flag Flying”: Negations, or, Note on Hegel’s “Absolute Knowledge”


Sketch, Léon Cogniet, 1870

by M. Munro

No agreement exists as to the possibility of defining negation, as to its logical status, function, and meaning, as to its field of applicability.[1]

“The mystery of negation: This is not how things are, and yet we can say how things are not.”[2] To Wittgenstein’s “mystery” of negation it is perhaps apposite to juxtapose an observation of Goethe’s: “We’re only really thinking when we can’t think out fully what we are thinking about.”[3] Goethe’s use of negation, in other words, illuminates negation’s mystery: Might it not be the case that we cannot, in fact, say how things are not when, in its midst, how things are not is precisely what’s not there to say? Or, more simply, what we can (perhaps) say: What might “the mystery of negation” give us to think, “fully”?

Kōan number twenty-nine of the Wu-men Kuan, “Not Wind Not Flag,” unfolds under the sign—a sign—not uncomplicated—of negation.

The Sixth Patriarch came because the dharma-talk flag was up at the monastery gate, beating there in the wind. He found two monks arguing. One said: “It’s the flag flying.” And the other said: “It’s the wind flying.” They argued back and forth, but couldn’t find an inner principle to agree on.

“It’s not the wind flying,” observed the Sixth Patriarch, “and it’s not the flag flying. It’s mind flying.”

The two monks grew silent, and a little fearful.[4]

Whatever else might be said about this kōan, one thing is certain: everything transpires under the dharma-flag. The flag not only sets the scene, summoning Huineng, the sixth patriarch, but as David Hinton observes, an unsettling implication unfurls with it: the flag’s use in or for the monastery, and so no less in or for the kōan, is “to indicate that a dharma-talk is imminent. Hence, an image for enlightened talk and ideas, which are not to be trusted.”[5] Perhaps then it would be prudent not to take the kōan at face value, nor the Sixth Patriarch at his word. In other words, perhaps “mind flying” should be understood not for what it appears to be—an attempt to settle the conflict between the monks—but for what it does: definitively unsettle it. If the problem appears to be that the monks “couldn’t find an inner principle to agree on,” in other words, perhaps this suggests that the real problem arises there where they were, in fact, in accord: in seeking one. If an “inner” “principle” can be said to be “found” at all—and can be said to be “one”—this is not how things are: The Sixth Patriarch, standing beneath the dharma-flag’s steady flutter, can perhaps therefore be understood not to have said this is not how things are when how things are not is elusively, if precisely, what is there—is there, unfolding, unremarked—to say. Between the fabric and the wind, overshadowing them, curiously, a mysterious standard can thus be thought to recast the flap between the monks.



[1] F. H. Heinemann, quoted in Laurence R. Horn, A Natural History of Negation (Stanford: CLSI Publications, 2001), 1.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, quoted in Irad Kimhi, Thinking and Being (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2018), 9.

[3] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, quoted in James Geary, Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 277.

[4] No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-men Kuan, trans. David Hinton (Boulder, CO.: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2018), 70.

[5] No-Gate Gateway, 119.

About the Author:

M. Munro is author of the open access chapbook, Philosophy for Militants (punctum books, 2017).