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Hegel's Phenomenology

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Merold Westphal is a remarkable philosopher. Extremely well-informed and careful, he is also remarkably lucid, even when he writes about philosophers that, to put it delicately, are far less so. In his dauntingly titled 1979 History and Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology, a commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, he places Hegel in his post-Kantian setting, and also shows how Hegel set the terms for postmodernism. I was particularly intrigued by the following points:

1) Westphal describes Derrida as a Hegelian without eschatology. For Hegel, all knowledge is mediated, but Hegel also believes that this mediation can be completed in “Absolute Knowing.E Hegel thus alternates between historical analyses, which by the nature of the case of penultimate, and structural analyses, which point toward the eschatological vision of “completed knowledge.E Knowledge, Derrida and other postmoderns claim, is always mediated through relative cultural forms, through structures of difference, and therefore knowledge is infinitely deferred. Hegel agrees with the first part of this claim, but denies the second. Yet to mediation; but for Hegel, Yes to eschatology too.

2) For Hegel, Kantian philosophy is not in fact philosophy. Philosophy is about the knowing of the Absolute, in which all oppositions are overcome. Kantian “critique of knowingEis actually the death of philosophy, since it confines knowledge to finite reality, excluding the Absolute that is the object of philosophical investigation and contemplation. Hegel is hostile to the notion that knowledge is an “instrument,Ea hostility that manifests itself in hostility to the notion that knowledge is designed for control. If the object of philosophical knowledge is the Absolute, then philosophical knowledge is not about power. He claims that utility, the equation of knowledge with manipulative or technical power, is a great idol of the modern age. When knowledge is conceived of as instrumental, moreover, there is necessarily a distance between the knower and the object of knowledge, rather than the object being involved with the knower.

3) At the heart of Kantian “critical finitism,EHegel claims, is an affective issue, an emotional problem: the fear of error. (Westphal calls Hegel’s approach here “psychoanalytical.E The whole Enlightenment project is an attempt to arrive at a method for knowing that will preclude the possibility of error. But this fear must be overcome: “Is not this fear of erring already the error itself?EHegel asks.

4) Hegel opts for what he describes as an ancient skepticism over against the modern skepticism of Kant. Modern skepticism takes “as fixed and unshakeable the finite objects of common sense and natural science and consequently doubt[s] anything which cannot be reduced to these spheresE(Westphal’s summary). Ancient skepticism, Hegel says, attacks “this dogmatism of common senseEand stands “against the finite and knowledge of the finite.E In short, “through that skepticism which directs itself to the whole compass of phenomenal consciousness, Spirit becomes suited for the first time to examine what truth is. For this skepticism brings about a despair over the so-called natural ideas, thoughts, and opinions.E

5) Westphal says that the heart of Hegel’s phenomenology is “total mediationErather than “immediacy,Eand a basic step in his argument is his critique of the notion of “Sense Certainty.E According to this construct, knowledge occurs at three levels: First, there is an immediate enjoyment of “the rich, concrete, sensory content given in perception,Eand this is Sense Certainty; when judgment intervenes to discriminate among sensory experiences, the knower takes on an active role in knowing, and this process is called “PerceptionE but to truly know one must be able to give grounds for one’s judgments, and to see the connections between one truth and another, a kind of knowledge that Hegel calls “Understanding.E Thought moves “from original immediacy to the knowledge which grasps its object through the mediation of universals, i.e., in judgment, and then goes on to support its judgments with reasons.E The process of knowing is a process of increasing abstraction from concrete and rich sensory experience. Such “rationalistEmovements always provoke a “romanticEreaction, however, a responding appeal to experience, immediacy, intuition.

Hegel spots a contradiction in this conception of knowledge. One the one hand, “Sense Certainty claims to be the ‘truestEknowledge and not only the ‘richest.E For as immediate knowledge it has its object complete and unadulterated. Nothing has been added to it or taken from it by the knowing subject, to whom it is simply given.E Further, Sense Certainty is the “unshakable foundation of all other knowledge.E Yet, the criterion of immediacy puts this knowledge in contradiction with the “richness of the actual knowledge which it takes to be its own.E That is, the criterion of immediacy is in fact not the richest and most concrete knowledge but the most abstract, because from mere sense experience all one can say is “It isEbut one cannot say “What it is.E I see a tree; but unless I see it AS a tree, I know only that “something isE but seeing it AS a tree depends on something that is outside my sense experience. Or, to stay at the purely sensory level: I know a tree only by its difference from other things Eits difference from a telephone pole and from the ground in which the tree is planted; but once I say I know a tree through a negative relation to what-is-not-a-tree, those things that are “not-treeEmediate the knowledge of the tree. Thus, immediate knowledge is not the richest but the thinnest knowledge possible; and the only way to thicken it is to move away from immediacy.

Hegel thus blurs the distinction between Sense and Perception (in the senses above). “In relation to space and time,EWestphal writes, “the logical principle that every determination is a negation becomes the explicitly perceptual principle Ethe object is always distinguished within perception as a foreground against a background. In both cases the result is the same. It is only by means of the judgmental act of the perceiving subject which takes the object as here and not there, now and not then, and, e.g., tree and not computer or igloo, that the object can be determinately given in perception.E

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, November 01, 2004 at 09:00 PM

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