Hegel’s Journey

Hegel’s work sheds some light on the structure of the journey from Erlebnisse to Nous. In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel devotes an entire chapter to the nature of sense-certainty that lays out the problem quite nicely. For this article, I cite the standard Miller translation with its immensely tasteful cover design (see below).

Sense-certainty, the knowledge that “I see a cup,” or “It is night,” Hegel calls the “concrete content,” of our sense perceptions. He admits that these perceptions seem like the richest and truest kind of knowledge, for sence-certainty seems to take in the entirety of its object in one fell swoop. If I see the cup, I know the cup in some capacity. Yet, upon further reflection, Hegel asserts that “…this certainty proves itself to be the most abstract and poorest truth… its truth contains nothing but the sheer being of the thing.” (p. 58).

Why is this so? Why is it that when I see the cup I know nothing about it other than that it is?

There is a sense here that Hegel is interested in establishing the difficulty of what I call the long road from the this to the what. Hegel calls the data of sense experience a “simple immediacy,” as in it lacks any sort of mediation of consciousness: “…here neither I nor the thing has the significance of a complex process of mediation; the ‘I’ does not have the significance of a manifold imagining or thinking [i.e., the mind has not yet put it into any context or named it, etc.]; nor does the ‘thing’ signify something that has a host of qualities…. the thing is… merely because it is… this is the essential point for sense-knowledge.”

The next assertion, following in the footsteps of Descartes, is the key assertion for modern philosophy. According to Hegel, sense-certainty necessarily splits the pure being into two mediated “thises.” The this I sense, and the “this as object.” (p. 59) This mediation comes through the thing and through myself. If, for example, I have bad eyesight, the apple might appear as a red blob. Mediation through the thing is a key ground assumption for Hegel, as the manifold (raw data) of sense-experience must come from something.

This is what Hegel terms the difference between essence and instance. It is that age-old problem of the one and the many, the problem of universals. Expressed in terms of language, what makes it possible for me to predicate something about the object and to be understood by someone else?

For his part, Hegel does admit that the object exists whether it is known or not. Conversely, he also admits that “there is no knowledge if the object is not there.” This is a key distinction to make in the light of modern impatience with idealist philosophy. The essence, the thing-in-itself is still there in an important way regardless of our knowledge of it.

Now we must ask whether the object must be as we know it through sense certainty. What do our senses actually tell us about reality? Hegel uses the example of the term “now.” If it is 11:00 PM and I say that “now it is night,” write down this truth, then reread it the next day at 11:00 AM, is the thing that I wrote untrue? When I wrote it, it was true using the methods of sense-certainty, yet at 11:00 AM the following day, it is not true to say “now is night.” But the truth of my written proclamation is not thereby negated. Hegel calls this type of assertion a universal.

The this of sense experience is another such universal. Hegel calls it “…the universal this; or… Being in general.” (p. 60) The manifold of sense experiences that constitute the event of perception come in the form of a collection of sense data, what Kant called pure intuition. But this collection of data comes from a “this,” a universal similar to the assertion of a “now.” The same exercise above can be done with the assertion of a “here.” “I” is a universal in this Hegelian sense as well. Each assertion of “I” is an individual instance that varies depending on who utters it.

Hegel’s crucial next step:

“Sense-certainty thus comes to know by experience that its essence is neither in the object nor in the ‘I’, and that its immediacy is neither an immediacy of the one nor of the other; for in both, what I mean is rather something unessential, and the object and the ‘I’ are universals in which that ‘Now’ and ‘Here’ and ‘I’ which I mean do not have a continuing being…” (p. 62)

While I do not continue on with Hegel to assert the whole of sense experience as its own essence. This is the jumping-off point for so many who end their philosophical journey in an unmoored relativism. The essence of experience must come from something other than itself. The ground for truth must exist, the question is whether and how we access it. Yet Hegel nicely outlines the problem I termed in the last post “From Erlebnisse to Nous.” How do we get from these manifold experiences of thises, heres, and nows to predication in language, or more importantly, the truth?

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