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?

Jacques Maritain’s Habitus

In my last post I spoke about the problem as posed by Aristotle in the Posterior Analytics. I’d like to expound on this problem as posed elsewhere by Aristotle, this time in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics:

“If, then, the states of mind by which we have truth and are never deceived about things invariable or even variable are scientific knowledge, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, and intuitive reason, and it cannot be any of the three (i.e. practical wisdom, scientific knowledge, or philosophic wisdom), the remaining alternative is that it is intuitive reason that grasps the first principles.”

Nicomachean Ethics, 1141a 5 ff.

Here we find that intuitive reason that we saw before. The greek used here is nous, one of the watchwords for our current endeavor. What does Aristotle mean by nous? While I am not by any means ready to venture a global definition of the term at this point (indeed, a life spent solely in attempting to understand what nous is would not be ill spent), in De Anima we find Aristotle describing it in a limited way regarding its role in “intuitive reasoning” as follows:

“I call nous that faculty by which the soul reasons (dianoeitai) and
comes thereby to belief.”

De Anima, 429a 23

While there is some controversy over the issue, it seems clear to me that, based on the way Aristotle frames the role played by nous in Posterior Analytics, it must be this sort of faculty rather than just a deeper level of induction as Bolton argues in the paper cited above.

So we again return to the question from the last post: what kind of intuition could this be? One possible answer is to be found in Jacques Maritain’s Preface to Metaphysics. In the 3rd lecture of the book, Maritain describes a sort of intuitional or mystical experience that can provide one knowledge of the first principles. Maritain calls it an experience of the ens in quantum ens, or “being as such.” (p. 27)

Before proceeding, we must explain the role habitus plays in fertilizing the garden from which this moment of intuition can spring. Maritain thinks that, required for any such experience, one must attain to a certain capability or readiness in order to access the real. The section is worth quoting at length:

“As you know, to each science there belongs a distinctive intellectual virtue. There is, therefore an intellectual virtue proper to the metaphysician. And this virtue, or habitus, corresponds to being as the object of the intuition just mentioned. We must therefore distinguish two “Lights” in scholastic parlance, one pertaining to the object, the other to the habitus, or intellectual virtue. The characteristic mode of intellectual apprehension or eidetic visualisation — the degree of immateriality, of spirituality in the manner in which the mind grasps the object and conforms to it, demanded by the very nature of trans-objective reality as it presents to the mind as its object a particular intelligible facet — constitutes what the ancients termed the ratio formalis sub qua, the objective light in which at a given degree of knowledge objects are knowable by the intellect. At the same time proportionate to this objective light there is a subjective light perfecting the subjective activity of the intellect, by which the intellect itself is proportioned to a given object, fitted to apprehend it. That is why Thomists say that the habitus is a lumen, a light, not in the objective but in the effective order. For it is concerned with the production or effectuation of the act of knowing.” 

Jacques Maritain, Preface to Metaphysics (p. 26-27)

One possible way of conceiving the role of habitus is brought out nicely in Professor David Walsh’s magisterial book The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence. Walsh ingeniously teases out a grand narrative from a litany of modern thinkers which all point to the absolutely essential role that the luminosity or mystery of the self plays in understanding the basis and proper limits of philosophy. Without a certain openness to the unutterable profundity of personal existence, philosophy becomes a useless academic exercise (or worse, a tool for justifying evil) rather than a means for understanding reality.

Habitus consists in a growing-toward this realization, an “opening up” to the contents of what is there for us in philosophy as a properly lifelong practice. Yet while the habitus paves the way in a sense for the moment of access to being itself, the experience of intuition is ontologically prior to the habitus. This flash of insight, made possible by habitus, is in a way kept alive after the fact as the metaphysician undergoing this process perceives the nature of reality with more and more clarity.

Proceeding to the actual experience itself, I again quote Maritain at length:

“We are confronted here with a genuine intuition, a perception direct and immediate, an intuition not in the technical sense which the ancients attached to the term, but in the sense we may accept from modern philosophy. It is a very simple sight, superior to any discursive reasoning or demonstration, because it is the source of demonstration. It is a sight whose content and implications no words of human speech can exhaust or adequately express and in which in a moment of decisive emotion, as it were, of spiritual conflagration, the soul is in contact, a living, penetrating and illuminating contact, with a reality which it touches and which takes hold of it.”

Maritain describes an experience in which one is able to apprehend being itself in one gargantuan and overflowing, sublime, yet fleeting moment. This sudden stroke of inexpressible knowledge, a flash “pregnant with ontological realism,” to use Maritain’s phrase, is akin to a mystical experience. It cannot be accessed through any technique or process. It comes not from superior technical knowledge of philosophy or any other subject. It is a stroke of genius, a moment of insight, a singular instance of absolute knowledge that allows one to know for the rest of his life that “I am a self… [and that I have access to] the reality of my being, the profound first principle which makes me exist outside nonentity.” (p. 28)  According to Maritain, from this foundation we can continue to cultivate the habitus into higher levels of knowledge through the continued practice of philosophy as a way of life.