Okay – time to disabuse Sinthome of the notion that I have a clue when it comes to reading Hegel…
I had promised some time ago to write something on the Introduction to Phenomenology. Many of the points I’ll make here have come up in other ways by now, as the reading group discussion has moved along while my writing has tarried… I write them here to consolidate the points I’ve been making in scattered form – and in the (almost certainly vain) hope that, eventually, I’ll write posts like this on other sections of the text. I should note at the outset that it has grown quite late here while I have been working on this text and, while I’ve commented on the Introduction as a whole, I’ve decided that editing this is beyond the limits of my wakefulness at the moment… ;-P Apologies in advance for the range of detail (and, no doubt, big picture) errors that weren’t caught as a result.
Hegel begins with an argument whose elegance lies, in no small part, in its obviousness – shocking us with the retroactive impact of asking how this point could ever have been overlooked. Hegel first notes the infinite regress involved in trying to ground philosophical investigation on the question of how thinking subjects can know they have accurately grasped objective reality:
It is natural to suppose that, before philosophy enters upon its subject proper – namely, the actual knowledge of what truly is – it is necessary to come first to an understanding concerning knowledge, which is looked upon as the instrument by which to take possession of the Absolute, or the means through which to get a sight of it. The apprehension seems legitimate, on the one hand that there may be many kinds of knowledge, among which one might be better adapted than another for the attainment of our purpose – and thus a wrong choice is possible; on the other hand again that, since knowing is a faculty of a definite kind and with a determinate range, without the more precise determination of its nature and limits we might take hold on clouds of error instead of the heaven of truth.
This apprehensiveness is sure to pass even into the conviction that the whole enterprise which sets out to secure for consciousness by means of knowledge what exists per se, is in its very nature absurd; and that between knowledge and the Absolute there lies a boundary which completely cuts off the one from the other. For if knowledge is the instrument by which to get possession of absolute Reality, the suggestion immediately occurs that the application of an instrument to anything does not leave it as it is for itself, but rather entails in the process, and has in view, a moulding and alteration of it. Or, again, if knowledge is not an instrument which we actively employ, but a kind of passive medium through which the light of truth reaches us, then here, too, we do not receive it as it is in itself, but as it is through and in this medium. In either case we employ a means which immediately brings about the very opposite of its own end; or, rather, the absurdity lies in making use of any means at all. (73)
He then argues that, once we ask ourselves how to bridge the subject-object divide, we have already smuggled in a set of unstated assumptions about the nature of knowledge and its object that themselves are open to contention:
…the fear of falling into error… presupposes something, indeed a great deal, as truth, and supports its scruples and consequences on what should itself be examined beforehand to see whether it is truth. It starts with ideas of knowledge as an instrument, and as a medium; and presupposes a distinction of ourselves from this knowledge. More especially it takes for granted that the Absolute stands on one side and that knowledge on the other side, by itself and cut off from the Absolute, is still something real; in other words, that knowledge, which, by being outside the Absolute, is certainly also outside truth, is nevertheless true – a position which, while calling itself fear of error, makes itself known rather as fear of the truth. (74)
What an extraordinary puzzle! Why, indeed, should we assume that subjects and objects are separated, and that knowledge must therefore be (explicitly or tacitly) visualised as an instrument or a medium bridging a divide? Why start our reflections so late in the piece, with so much already presupposed and thereby left doxic? Is this the only way in which such a thing could be conceptualised? What difference might it make, to conceptualise the issue in a fundamentally different way?
Hegel next seems to run dismissively through various attempts to overcome the irritation caused by the initial assumption of subject-object dualism, gesturing quickly to the ways in which they reproduce – or simply mystify – the same underlying problem (75-76). Interestingly, though, he uses this series of rapidfire dismissals to develop a contrast between these common styles of criticism, and the form of argument required for scientific thought. In Hegel’s account, scientific thought cannot engage in this kind of dismissive critique, which simply rejects the validity of a competing form of thought. Hegel associates this form of dismissive critique with approaches that assert subject-object dualism – and argues that the movement beyond such a dualism requires the development of a new concept of critique. In Hegel’s words:
For science cannot simply reject a form of knowledge which is not true, and treat this as a common view of things, and then assure us that itself is an entirely different kind of knowledge, and holds the other to be of no account at all; nor can it appeal to the fact that in this other there are presages of a better. By giving that assurance it would declare its force and value to lie in its base existence; but the untrue knowledge appeals likewise to the fact that it is and assures us that to it science is nothing. One barren assurance, however, is of just as much value as another. Still less can science appeal to the presages of a better, which are to be found present in untrue knowledge and are there pointing the way toward science; for it would, on the one hand, be appealing again in the same way to a merely existence fact; and, on the other, it would be appealing to itself, to the way in which it exists in untrue knowledge, i.e., to a bad form of its own existence, to its appearance, rather than to its real and true nature. (76)
The requirement to develop this new form of critique is what drives Hegel toward phenomenology (76).
Hegel flags that his phenomenological account will not seem to be science at all, but instead will resemble a pathway followed by natural consciousness in the movement toward true knowledge (77-78). Hegel makes an interesting distinction here: he notes that he is not reaching for something approximating a conventional notion of a subject progressing through radical doubt and out the other side to certainty; nor, he argues, is he seeking some kind of commitment from the subject’s personal consciousness to examine everything for itself, rather than accepting any claims on authority (78). Hegel’s text suggests here that both of these forms of scepticism are insufficient, because both share an assumption that knowledge could be established at the level of an atomised, individual thinking subject. Hegel argues that science, by contrast, properly directs its scepticism toward an intersubjective universe of knowledge. Again in Hegel’s words:
Scepticism, directed to the whole compass of phenomenal consciousness, on the contrary, makes mind for the first time qualified to test what truth is; since it brings about a despair regarding what are called natural views, thoughts, and opinions, which it is matter of indifference to call personal or belonging to others, and with which the consciousness, that proceeds straight away to criticize and test, is still filled and hampered, thus being, as a matter of fact, incapable of what it wants to undertake. (78 – italics mine)
Thus directed to an intersubjective universe of collectively shared forms of perception and thought, critique takes on a new form: examining the relationships of forms of thought to one another – in Hegel’s terms:
The completeness of the forms of unreal consciousness will be brought about precisely through the necessity of the advance and the necessity of their connection with one another. (79)
Hegel suggests that the styles of dismissive critique he outlined above can be seen, in light of this kind of analysis, as one-sided – as manifestations of the negative dimension of a process that, in its entirety, is not solely negative. Grasping the process as a whole provides a means of understanding the plausibility of specific forms of thought, while also retaining the ability to criticise those forms of thought as incomplete (79). Here Hegel introduces the concept of a determinate negation, as the means through which science, having reached despair by directing scepticism against the intersubjective universe of knowledge, then finds a path beyond scepticism:
For this view is scepticism, which always sees in the result only pure nothingness, and abstracts from the fact that this nothing is determinate, is the nothing of that out of which it comes as a result. Nothing, however, is only, in fact, the true result, when taken as the nothing of what it comes from; it is thus itself a determinate nothing, and has a content. The scepticism which ends with the abstraction “nothing” or “emptiness” can advance from this not a step farther, but must wait and see whether there is possibly anything new offered, and what that is – in order to cast it into the same abysmal void. When once, on the other hand, the result is apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in negation the transition is made by which the progress through the complete succession of forms comes about of itself. (79-80)
Perfectly clear, no? ;-P
Hegel next moves to an intriguing passage that poses the question – a pivotal one, in terms of interpretations of Hegel’s system – of when this process of moving in and through negation would come to a culmination. Hegel’s text here reads ambiguously to me. Initially, the text seems to suggest that such a culmination exists, by proposing:
The terminus is at that point where knowledge is no longer compelled to go beyond itself, where it finds its own self, and the notion corresponds to the object and the object to the notion. The progress towards this goal consequently is without a halt, and at no earlier stage is satisfaction to be found. (80)
The text then goes on to distinguish non-conscious life from consciousness, a distinction that hinges on the intrinsic restlessness of consciousness – the ways in which consciousness intrinsically transcends what is limited, and drives itself beyond various attempts to settle into a static position (80). It is unclear, at this point in the text, whether this restlessness is meant only to drive consciousness to the “terminus”, at which point it can stop. Since the concept of a determinate negation suggests that the “terminus” may itself involve an appreciation of dynamic relationships, this question may not be the right one to ask. In any event, for present purposes, I’ll bracket this issue for future consideration.
Throughout these sections on determinate negation, Hegel has stressed the conflict between the form and the content of his argument – pointing out that his text operates “by way of preliminary” (79) or “provisionally and in general” (81). He next moves on to more explicit reflections on methodology – first addressing the objection that, in fact, L Magee did raise quite strenuously when we met to discuss the early sections of this text: that philosophical exposition must necessarily require the very sort of a priori standards that this exposition claims it has set out to criticise. Hegel first notes this objection – and then argues, as he did at the beginning to the Introduction, that this stance ultimately drives back into radical scepticism:
This exposition, viewed as a process of relating science to phenomenal knowledge, and as an inquiry and critical examination into the reality of knowing, does not seem able to be effected without some presupposition which is laid down as an ultimate criterion. For an examination consists in applying an accepted standard, and, on the final agreement or disagreement therewith of what is tested, deciding whether the latter is right or wrong; and the standard in general, and so science, were this the criterion, is thereby accepted as the essence or inherently real. But here, where science first appears on the scene, neither science nor any sort of standard has justified itself as the essence or ultimate reality; and without this no examination seems able to be instituted.
He then tacitly suggests that the sceptical dilemma that many take to be inherent in the nature of philosophical argument, itself appears to presuppose consciousness as the act of an atomised, individual thinking subject. Against this tacit position, he points to consciousness as a phenomenon that always already presents itself as a dynamic movement through a series of relationships. In Hegel’s words:
Consciousness, we find, distinguishes from itself something, to which at the same time it relates itself; or, to use the current expression, there is something for consciousness; and the determinate form of this process of relating, or of there being something for a consciousness, is knowledge. (82)
Hegel then offers just a glimpse of how he will use this relational concept of consciousness to make sense of the competing form of perception expressed in the notion of a subject-object dualism. He suggests:
But from this being for another we distinguish being in itself or per se; what is related to knowledge is likewise distinguished from it, and posited as something outside this relation; the aspect of being per se or in itself is called Truth. (82)
So, in a very preliminary way, Hegel has suggested that forms of perception and thought can arise that mistake aspects or dimensions of a dynamic procession of relationships for the entirety. These forms of perception and thought can be criticised with reference to the more comprehensive perspective grounded in awareness of the overarching relationships – a form of critique that, nevertheless, does not abstractly reject the forms of thought being criticised, but simply demonstrates them to be plausible, but incomplete, attempts at truth.
Hegel then moves through a beautiful, fluid, rapidfire sketch of one example of how the same moment within a dynamic procession of relationships might plausibly be characterised in different ways, depending on the perspective from which those experiences are viewed, which plausibly brings into view different dimensions of the overarching dynamic context (83-85). This kind of analysis – involving rapid shifts of perspective that require thorough and precise attention from the reader at all moments, in order to track which viewpoint Hegel has identified as the current perspective from which the relevant relationship within the dynamic process is being viewed – recurs throughout Phenomenology, and is a major factor in making the text so difficult to read, in spite of the fact that Hegel is rigorously specific in flagging the perspective whose viewpoint he is expressing at any given point in the text. At this point in the presentation, Hegel uses his analysis to suggest that subjects and objects are moments in an overarching dynamic relationship – ways in which that relationship can be perceived, when viewed from specific perspectives. He then concludes his response to those who suggest that philosophy must take the form of an examination of a priori standards:
Consequently we do not require to bring standards with us, nor to apply our fancies and thoughts in the inquiry; and just by leaving these aside we are enabled to treat and discuss the subject as it actually is in itself and for itself, as it is in its complete reality. (84)
Next follows a wickedly dense series of passages on self-reflexivity and experience that reads to me as delightfully corrosive (85-89). As I read them (and I should note that these passages stretch the limits of my understanding of this text – I find them extraordinarily difficult to parse, so I would greatly appreciate corrective readings here), these passages attempt to provide an alternative to the conventional notion that our experience of the objective world causes consciousness to correct its understanding of that world – to reject falsehoods as new truths are discovered. Hegel here seems to be suggesting that the conventional view behaves as though our current perception of objectivity is always brought into being – caused – by objectivity itself, while at the same time behaving as though all of our old perceptions of objectivity – the ones that we claim to have overcome through experience – are “mere” falsehoods. In a passage that reminds me of Marx’s criticism that the political economists always speak as though “there has been history, but there no longer is any” – or, for that matter, of the “strong programme” in the sociology of scientific knowledge – Hegel argues that the ability to have new experiences, and to interpret those experiences in specific ways, itself already implies a prior transformation of consciousness:
But it usually seems that we learn by experience the untruth of our first notion by appealing to some other object which we may happen to find casually and externally; so that, in general, what we have is merely the bare and simple apprehension of what is in and for itself. On the view given above, however, the new object is seen to have come about by a transformation or conversion of consciousness itself. This way of looking at the matter is our doing, what we contribute… (87)
I find this passage quite extraordinary – not least because the position it seems to express remains so controversial in the present. At the same time, however, Hegel’s text here contains echoes of a strong developmental understanding of how such a transformation of consciousness must unfold – as though such transformations have a necessary directionality to them, and build always in a cumulative fashion. He thus continues the passage quoted above:
…by its means the series of experiences through which consciousness passes is lifted into a scientifically-constituted sequence, but this does not exist for the consciousness we contemplate and consider. We have here, however, the same sort of circumstance, again, of which we spoke a short time ago when dealing with the relation of this opposition to scepticism, viz. that the result which at any time comes about in the case of an untrue mode of knowledge cannot possibly collapse into an empty nothing, but must necessarily be taken as the negation of that of which it is a result – a result which contains what truth the preceeding mode of knowledge has in it. In the present instance the position takes this form: since what at first appeared as object is reduced, when it passes into consciousness, to what knowledge takes it to be, and the implicit nature, the real in itself, becomes what this entity per se, is for consciousness; this latter is the new object, whereupon there appears also a new mode or embodiment of consciousness, of which the essence is something other than that of the preceeding mode. It is this circumstance which carries forward the whole succession of the modes or attitudes of consciousness in their own necessity. It is only this necessity, this origination of the new object – which offers itself to consciousness without consciousness itself knowing how it comes by it – that to us, who watch the process, is to be seen going on, so to say, behind its back. Thereby there enters into its process a moment of being per se, or of being for us, which is not expressly presented to that consciousness which is in the grip of experience itself. (87)
What to do with such a passage? There is so much within it – particularly the emphasis on the way in which “discoveries” (scientific, social theoretic, etc.) present themselves as “obvious” and “commonsensical” to those caught up within them – that resonates so strongly with how I would approach such things. But how strongly does Hegel intend his developmental language? How does he understand the concept of “necessity”? These questions are recurrent in the reading group discussion of this text, and I have no settled answer for such questions myself – I have no choice for the moment but to bracket them for later consideration.
Getting late on my end, so I’ll bring this discussion to a close by just quoting Hegel’s concluding passage, which provides an overview vision of Hegel’s critical standpoint – a standpoint grounded in the perspective provided by the awareness of the dynamic relational process in which consciousness is embedded:
In pressing forward to its true form of existence, consciousness will come to a point at which it lays aside its semblance of being hampered with what is foreign to it, with what is only for it and exists as an other; it will reach a position where appearance becomes identified with essence, where, in consequence, its exposition coincides with just this very point, this very stage of the science proper of mind. And, finally, when it grasps this its own essence, it will connote the nature of absolute knowledge itself. (89)
LM has been pressing me on the issue of what such a critical standpoint means, whether this specific kind of standpoint is intrinsic to an immanent approach, and whether I can sever a notion of an immanent critical standpoint from the implied notions of totality and developmental process implied in some parts of Hegel’s text. The issue of what Hegel means will, I think, have to wait close readings of later sections of this text – and the issue of whether anyone can make good on the notion of articulating immanent critical standpoints that do not rely on a totality-eye view will likely have to await my own and others’ later theoretical work. I pose these questions here, though, as important issues to bracket and return to, as we continue moving forward through this text.