Yesterday I posted a few reflections on an early reading group discussion of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Today my cold exacted its revenge for this burst of productivity, and I have found myself half-dozing, in a fog of a less-than-Hegelian kind, for much of the day. I had intended to write one unified reflection on the entire section on Consciousness, but instead find myself reduced to a few brief thoughts on sense-certainty. Somehow this seems oddly appropriate.
There’s something delightfully playful about this section. On its face, sense-certainty would seem to offer a problem for Hegel’s approach, which seeks a form of philosophy that can grasp things in their determinate specificity: sense-certainty, flushed with the details provided by the immediate encounter of specific subjects with particular objects, would seem to provide access to the richest and most concrete form of knowledge. Surely moving beyond this form of subjectivity could only ever entail a loss of determinate specificity? How does Hegel tackle this problem?
Hegel begins by reminding us that we must engage with this problem immanently, invoking only what is available to sense-certainty itself, unfolding the ways in which sense-certainty is not itself adequate to its own notion, and thus points toward the possibility for a more adequate form of knowledge. His argument takes the form of demonstrating that the true content of sense-certainty is not the immediate experience of boundless qualitative specificity, but instead a particularly impoverished form of mediation and abstraction.
Hegel presents the core of his argument, and explains his presentational strategy, at the outset:
A concrete actual certainty of sense is not merely this pure immediacy, but an example, an instance, of that immediacy. Amongst the innumerable distinctions that here come to light, we find in all cases the fundamental difference–viz. that in sense-experience pure being at once breaks up into the two “thises”, as we have called them, one this as I, and one as object. When we reflect on this distinction, it is seen that neither the one nor the other is merely immediate, merely is in sense-certainty, but is at the same time mediated: I have the certainty through the other, viz. through the actual fact; and this, again, exists in that certainty through an other, viz. through the I.
It is not only we who make this distinction of essential truth and particular example, of essence and instance, immediacy and mediation; we find it in sense-certainty itself, and it has to be taken up in the form in which it exists there, not as we have just determined it. (92-93)
The first sentence already presents the structure of the argument, by drawing a distinction between individual moments of sense-certainty, and “pure immediacy” – a distinction between essence and example. In the final sentence, Hegel defends his argumentative strategy, explaining that, while we could certainly “cut to chase” and conclude that the essence-example distinction should be rejected in favour of a concept of mediation, such a move would breach the immanent frame of the analysis. What is needed is not a critique for us, from our perspective, but instead a critique unfolded from what is given within sense-certainty, which unpacks the elements of sense-certainty to show how this form of subjectivity points immanently to its recognition of the necessity for mediation and negation.
Hegel then moves into his critique, arguing that the essence-example distinction arises immanently within sense-certainty, initially specified as the perception that the object is essential, and exists indifferent to the existence of any perceiving ego. Hegel warns once again that we must not leap directly to judgment as to whether the object exists in this form “in truth”, but must instead explore whether sense-certainty contains any immanent tensions that undermine this perception of the object (94).
What follows is a beautiful, playful series of passages exploring the nature of the object – the This of sense-certainty. Hegel breaks the This into the Now and the Here, and initially unfolds an argument predicated on a distinction between what we mean and what we can say – what language allows us to express. Like a good analytic philosopher, Hegel demands: tell me – precisely – what you mean! When is this Now? Where is this Here? Hegel argues that we will always fail to meet this challenge. No doubt we mean something determinate, but language fails us utterly when we try to capture and communicate this determinacy. Instead, what we are able to communicate is not being, but negation, not immediacy, but meditation, not specificity and concreteness, but Universality – this, Hegel argues, is the truth of sense-certainty:
To the question, What is the Now? we reply, for example, the Now is night-time. To test the truth of this certainty of sense, a simple experiment is all we need: write that truth down. A truth cannot lose anything by being written down, and just as little by our preserving and keeping it. If we look again at the truth we have written down, look at it now, at this noon-time, we shall have to say it has turned stale and become out of date.
The Now that is night is kept fixed, i.e. it is treated as what it is given out to be, as something which is; but it proves to be rather a something which is not. The Now itself no doubt maintains itself, but as what is not night; similarly in its relation to the day which the Now is at present, it maintains itself as something that is also not day, or as altogether something negative. This self -maintaining Now is therefore not something immediate but something mediated; for, qua something that remains and preserves itself, it is determined through and by means of the fact that something else, namely day and night, is not. Thereby it is just as much as ever it was before, Now, and in being this simple fact, it is indifferent to what is still associated with it; just as little as night or day is its being, it is just as truly also day and night; it is not in the least affected by this otherness through which it is what it is. A simple entity of this sort, which is by and through negation, which is neither this nor that, which is a not-this, and with equal indifference this as well as that–a thing of this kind we call a Universal. The Universal is therefore in point of fact the truth of sense-certainty, the true content of sense-experience.
It is as a universal, too, that we give utterance to sensuous fact. What we say is: “This”, i.e. the universal this; or we say: “it is”, i.e. being in general. Of course we do not present before our mind in saying, so the universal this, or being in general, but we utter what is universal; in other words, we do not actually and absolutely say what in this sense-certainty we really mean. Language, however, as we see, is the more truthful; in it we ourselves refute directly and at once our own “meaning”; and since universality is the real truth of sense-certainty, and language merely expresses this truth, it is not possible at all for us even to express in words any sensuous existence which we “mean”. (95-97)
Hegel runs through a parallel argument with reference to the Here (98). He then explores the attempt to resolve this problem through a flight from the object – which has now come to be regarded as inessential – to the ego, now regarded as the ground of sense-certainty (100-101). Here again, Hegel argues that the “I” of sense-certainty is the universal, rather than the particular, I – and illustrates how language renders it impossible for us to pick out the specific I that we mean:
The force of its truth thus lies now in the I, in the immediate fact of my seeing, hearing, and so on; the disappearance of the particular Now and Here that we “mean” is prevented by the fact that I keep hold on them. The Now is daytime, because I see it; the Here is a tree for a similar reason. Sense-certainty, however, goes through, in this connection, the same dialectic process as in the former case. I, this I, see the tree, and assert the tree to be the Here; another I, however, sees the house and maintains the Here is not a tree but a house. Both truths have the same authenticity–the immediacy of seeing and the certainty and assurance both have as to their specific way of knowing; but the one certainty disappears in the other.
In all this, what does not disappear is the I qua universal, whose seeing is neither the seeing of this tree nor of this house, but just seeing simpliciter, which is mediated through the negation of this house, etc., and, in being so, is all the same simple and indifferent to what is associated with it, the house, the tree, and so on. I is merely universal, like Now, Here, or This in general. No doubt I “mean” an individual I, but just something as little as I am able to say what I “mean” by Now, Here, so it is impossible in the case of the I too. By saying “this Here”, “this Now”, “an individual thing”, I say all Thises, Heres, Nows, or Individuals. In the same way when I say “I”, “this individual I”, I say quite generally “all I’s”, every one is “I”, this individual I. When philosophy is requested, by way of putting it to a crucial test–a test which it could not possibly sustain–to “deduce”, to “construe”, “to find a priori”, or however it is put, a so-called this thing, or this particular man, it is reasonable that the person making this demand should say what “this thing”, or what “this I”, he means: but to say this is quite impossible. (101-102)
One final step remains for sense-certainty, after this experience that positing either the subject or the object as essential undermines immediacy: the attempt to suspend the distinction between subject and object, to posit the immediate identity of both, and to view the resultant exclusionary whole as essential (103-104). To address this form of sense-certainty immanently, Hegel accepts the limitation of moving beyond language, to gestures – to pointing:
Since, then, this certainty wholly refuses to come out if we direct its attention to a Now that is night or an I to whom it is night, we will go to it and let ourselves point out the Now that is asserted. We must let ourselves point it out for the truth of this immediate relation is the truth of this ego which restricts itself to a Now or a Here. Were we to examine this truth afterwards, or stand at a distance from it, it would have no meaning at all; for that would do away with the immediacy, which is of its essence. We have therefore to enter the same point of time or of space, indicate them, point them out to ourselves, i.e. we must let ourselves take the place of the very same I, the very same This, which is the subject knowing with certainty. Let us, then, see how that immediate is constituted, which is shown to us. (105)
Yet even this, Hegel argues, will not capture the immediacy that is meant: as soon as the Now has been pointed out, it is past – and therefore revealed as situated in its relationship with other Nows; the Here when pointed out shows itself necessarily in its spatial relationship with other Heres. The point therefore does not transcend the limitations of language to pick out an immediate experience of a specific Now and a particular Here. Instead, pointing reveals itself to be a process, and sense-certainty the history of this process – and the process selects, not the immediacy that is meant, but mediation, negation and universality (106-109).
Hegel returns at the end to the issue of language, and to the gap between what we “mean” when we try to capture our experience of particular, individual, unique things, and what language allows us to say:
Those who put forward such assertions really themselves say, if we bear in mind what we remarked before, the direct opposite of what they mean: a fact which is perhaps best able to bring them to reflect on the nature of the certainty of sense-experience. They speak of the “existence” of external objects, which can be more precisely characterized as actual, absolutely particular, wholly personal, individual things, each of them not like anything or anyone else; this is the existence which they say has absolute certainty and truty. They “mean” this bit of paper I am writing on, or rather have written on: but they do not say what they “mean”. If they really wanted to say this bit of paper which they “mean”, and they wanted to say so, that is impossible, because the This of sense, which is “meant”, cannot be reached by language, which belongs to consciousness, i.e. to what is inherently universal. In the very attempt to say it, it would, therefore, crumble in their hands; those who have begun to describe it would not be able to finish doing so: they would have to hand it over to others, who would themselves in the last resort have to confess to speaking about a thing that has no being. They mean, then, doubtless this bit of paper here, which is quite different from that bit over there; but they speak of actual things, external or sensible objects, absolutely individual, real, and so on; that is, they say about them what is simply universal. Consequently what is called unspeakable is nothing else than what is untrue, irrational, something barely and simply meant.
If nothing is said of a thing except that it is an actual thing, an external object, this only makes it the most universal of all possible things, and thereby we express its likeness, its identity, with everything, rather than its difference from everything else. When I say “an individual thing”, I at once state it to be really quite a universal, for everything is an individual thing: and in the same way “this thing” is everything and anything we like. More precisely, as this bit of paper, each and every paper is a “this bit of paper”, and I have thus said all the while what is universal. If I want, however, to help out speech-which has the divine nature of directly turning the mere “meaning” right round about, making it into something else, and so not letting it ever come the length of words at all-by pointing out this bit of paper, then I get the experience of what is, in point of fact, the real truth of sense-certainty. I point it out as a Here, which is a Here of other Heres, or is in itself simply many Heres together, i.e. is a universal. I take it up then, as in truth it is; and instead of knowing something immediate, I “take” something “truly”, I per-ceive (wahrnehme, per-cipio). (110)
The final sentence is particularly important – and expresses a principle that will guide Hegel’s approach throughout: “I take it up then, as in truth it is”. Another way to express the same concept: things appear as what they are. A central implication of Hegel’s approach – this would also hold true for elements of my own theoretical work – is the contention that, searching for some essential truth behind appearance, constantly striving to penetrate the veil, we miss the opportunity to explore and unfold the significance of the qualitative character of appearance itself – and thus to capture a kind of knowledge that becomes visible only once we stop trying to overcome appearance and begin to ask, instead, why things should appear in their specific, determinate form.