Phenomenology of Spirit: A. Consciousness

This will be the reading for November 16’s meeting.  We will meet at 4:00 at Cafe Boiling Pot.  Directions are here.

Through the first three sections, Hegel complicates what we usual think of as our most basic epistemological tools.  He begins with sense-certainty, which appears to be an obvious source of knowledge but turns out to be totally general and non-specific.  He moves to perception, which grasps at individual things ibut ends up with an unstable relation between objects and their properties, and finally the Understanding, which seeks the law behind all things and ends up with an inverted supersensible world.  Each form supersedes the one before; supersession both negates what is inessential and preserves what is essential.

Comparing Consciousness With Consciousness

Philosophy’s goal is always to know what is, or better yet, the Absolute.  Any goal always requires a method, and philosophy’s method is cognition.  Cognition can be characterized in two different ways: either it is a tool for understanding the Absolute, or it is the medium through which we come to know the absolute.  Both of these views are flawed.  If cognition is a tool, then it reshapes the thing we want to know.  If it is a medium, then we know the thing through the medium, not as it is on its own terms.  One possible solution is to try and subtract out cognition – but if we remove cognition’s reshaping, then the thing is just what it was before, and if we could remove the medium, then cognition is redundant.  Both paths get us just the opposite of what we wanted: the thing as it exists on its own terms, or as it is in-itself.

The way forward is to examine both our knowledge of the thing and the gap between our knowledge of thing as they both appear in consciousness.  Every time we think about something, consciousness carries out two simultaneous actions.  It distinguishes itself from the thing and relates itself to it.  The relation is our knowledge of the thing, the object’s being-for-another.  The gap between consciousness and the object is the object’s being-in-itself, or its truth.  We are talking about knowledge, so of course we wanted knowledge-in-itself – but since it is our object, what we get is knowledge-for-us.  This appears to make our own consciousness the criterion of truth, but the distinction between knowledge-in-itself and knowledge-for-us lies entirely within consciousness.  What we are really trying to get at, then, is a comparison of consciousness with consciousness.  The question is always, is any given consciousness of an object actually what that consciousness claims itself to be?

Sense Certainty

It appears quite obvious that our senses are a rich source of immediate, absolute truth.  Barring flagrant skepticism, it is quite obvious that we are here in this room now.  Our senses not only show us our concrete immediate world, we can stretch them out into space and time, and gain nearly infinite knowledge about the world.  This richness, however, turns out to be a sham; this is the the poorest form of knowledge.  It is our most basic form of knowledge of pure being, but from the very beginning, it begins to divide itself.  I am immediately certain of two things: a pure This, and a pure I.   The pure This – let’s say this table – can of course exist without any conscious input from me.  In any form of sense-certainty, this table is the essential part, and I am in the inessential part.  The table is what it is and exists on its own terms.

Remember the method as described: the idea is to compare consciousness with consciousness.  In this case, Hegel will compare the table as it appears to sense with what sense claims it to be.  In other words, sense needs to be asked what is This?  Right away, the This splits into Here and Now; the table is here and now.  He offers an experiment to explain the significance of this.  If we write down the words “Now it is night,” and then look at the paper at noon, this “truth” has become stale.  The Now that is night is treated as what it says it is, but it is actually something that is not.  The Now preserves itself, but as something that it is not night.  It also preserves itself against what is, day.  What this means is that the Now is preserved as a negative in general; it is not immediate, but mediated: “A simple thing of this kind which is through negation, which is neither This nor That, a not-This, and is with equal indifference This as well as That – such a thing we call a universal.  So it is in fact that the universal is the true [content] of sense-certainty.”  (§96)

The Here is universal, or general, in the same way.  This table is the Here, but soon, a door will be the Here.  What we see here is a contradiction between what we mean and what we say.  Of course I mean that I am sitting at this table here and now, but my actual enunciation refers to a universal This, or being in general.  It is impossible to say a certain thing that we mean.

If the object – the table – is inessential to sense-certainty, then perhaps the I can fill in the gap; we might be able to say that the object’s truth is that it is my object.  Sense-certainty would be my certainty.  The I faces the same problems that Here and Now did, however.  One I knows it is day, another knows it is night; one I sees a table, another sees a door.  The I is just as universal as the This.  When I say “this house,” I say all Thises, all Nows.  And when I say this I, I say all Is.  Here, sense-certainty has learned that neither the object nor the I is the essence of sense-certainty.  It has to be the whole of sense-certainty as the essence of sense-certainty.  This is a whole which excludes all previous oppositions.

Hegel offers a brief summary of the foregoing moments in §107. 1) I point out the Now, which turns out to be has-been; it is superceded.  2) Now I assert the truth that it has been. 3) But what has been, is not – the negation of the now is negated, and we return to the first assertion – that the Now is.  Pointing to the Now (and the Here as well) contains all these moments.  The Now is, finally, a plurality of Nows, and the Here is a plurality of Heres (the table is above, and below, and beside…)  This acceptance of the universality of the Here and Now moves us into perception.

Perception: Or the Thing and Deception

The present is the universal; this is the initial principle of perception.  Perception is consciousness’s attempt to grasp a particular thing as opposed to a universality, to succeed where sense-certainty failed.  The rock that perception falters upon is the contradiction between the One Thing and it’s relations with its many properties and other Ones. In the end, we will see that any attempt to grasp an individual over and against a universal is bound to fail, since an individuality opposed to universality is an empty abstraction.

With the emergence of that principle, we get a new split: the act of perceiving and the thing perceived.   Since the object is a mediated universal, that mediation has to be present in the thing itself.  It does this by showing itself to be a thing with many properties.  Perception contains negation – that is, difference or manifoldness – within itself.  Perception is, ultimately, the beginning of the attempt to grapple with the fact that this one table has many properties.  Here and Now are a togetherness of plurality.  The salt is a Here, but also a manifold – its color, taste, shape, etc.  All these properties are in a single Here, connected by an indifferent Also; the salt is white, also tart, also cubical.  The Also is the thinghood which holds the multiplicity of properties together.

This Also is the positive side of universality; the One is the negative side.  If all the properties were really indifferent, they would not actually be determinate, because they are only determinate insofar as they differentiate themselves from one another, and that is a relation – a relation of opposites.  Because they are opposed to each other, they can’t just be together in a simple medium.  So the Also is not just a medium, but also a One, which excludes other Ones.  The One is a moment of negation – it is a relation of itself to itself as it excludes other things.  That is how thinghood is determined as a Thing.  As a One, the thing is free from its unity from its opposite – it exists in and for itself.  It is this clear distinction between the Also and the One – or in other words, a Thing’s being-for-itself and being-for-others, that will be undermined.

By §125, Hegel has established that the “essential character” of the Thing is to be in opposition to other things, and to maintain its independence.  But that relation of opposition is a relation, so it establishes a continuity – and for this Thing (with its simple determinateness) to be connected with others is to lose its independence.  It is only by relating to other things is it itself, and by relating to them, it loses itself.  What was supposed to be the essential property of the Thing is actually its own undoing.  That self-undermining is conceptually necessary: “The Thing is posited as being for itself, or as the absolute negation of all otherness, therefore as purely self-related negation; but the negation that is self-related is the suspension of itself; in other words, the Thing has its essential being in another Thing.” (§126).  Rather, “the object is in one and the same respond the opposite of itself: it is for itself, so far as it is for another, and it is for another, so far as it is for itself.” (§128)  It is only itself in relation to what was supposed to be unessential, the relation to another.

So the perceived determinateness of the object is overcome just as much as the Thisness of the sense object was.  The sense object is conditioned by sense, and so splits into the One and the Also.  Because the One and the Also are a single unity, we now have unconditioned absolute universality, and enter the realm of the understanding. The sense object vanished in sensuous universality, and perception takes the object to be universal as such.  Thingness emerges as a One, but it appears alongside another being-for-itself; so perception’s universality is conditioned by otherness.  Perception tries to save the contradiction between being-for-itself and for-others by making a distinction between essential (e.g., the object as for-itself or substance) and unessential aspects (e.g., for-others, or secondary qualities), but these are empty.  Ideas like singleness and a universality opposed to it are empty abstractions.

Force and the Understanding: Appearance and the Supersensible World

Let’s try and nutshell this incredibly difficult section.  An object is a One and and Also; it constantly moves back and forth between these two terms without rest; it breaks into many qualities and then is unified into a single object, and then the process repeats.  This movement is what Hegel calls Force.  Force itself breaks into two: the force which causes the oscillation between the One and the Also, and then Force proper, which is this movement itself.  Force perpetually alternates between these two functions; this is the law of Force, which  is the supersensible; it is the unified background against which the sensible world exists.  The process of breaking apart is repeated: law is divided into its many instantiations and law-as-such – for example, there are the laws of motion, and then there are the circumstances governing my cup as it falls to the ground.  In the play between laws and law-as-such, an even deeper unity is found, one in which everything is its opposite.  The supersensible world, or “inner being” of things, turns out to be a realm which includes all differences and oppositions in the world of sense: north is south, punishment is honor.  This supersensible world is an infinite process of change which includes the difference between itself and the “real” world within itself.

Hegel says “the ‘matters’ posited as independent directly pass over into their unity, and their unity directly unfolds their diversity, and this once again reduces itself to unity.  But this movement is what is called Force.” (§136) The dispersal movement is the expression of Force; but their collapse into each other is Force proper.  But the Force in which things are driven into each other must express itself, and it is still Force remaining within itself in the expression. We [Hegel and us, I think?] preserve plurality and unity in their unity, it is the Understanding which maintains them as different moments.  The difference only exists in thought.  This means that so far, we only have the Notion of Force, not the reality of it.

In order for Force to have actual existence, “it must be completely set free from thought, it must be posited as the substance of these differences, i.e. first the substance, as this whole Force, remaining essentially in and for itself, and then its differences as possessing substantial being, or as moments existing on their own account.”  (§136) But Force is the whole, in which the unity and plurality are superficial vanishing moments.  But Force would have no existence if they were not independent moments.  That movement is the movement of perception.  This movement is the movement of perception – percipient and perceived are one in the apprehension of the true, yet each side has a being of its own.  The two sides are moments of Force, in a unity which is the middle term over the extremes, constantly tearing itself into these extremes: this is the inner being of things.  It is the insight of the understanding:

 “The true essence of Things has now the character of not being immediately for consciousness; on the contrary, consciousness has a mediated relation to the inner being and, as the Understanding, looks through this mediating play of forces into the true background of things.  The middle term which units the two extremes, the Understanding and the inner world, is the developed being of Force which, for the Understanding itself, is henceforth only a vanishing.  This ‘being’ is therefore called appearance; for we call being that is directly and in its own self a non-being surface show.  But is is not merely a surface show; it is appearance, a totality of show.  This totality, as totality or as a universal, is what constitutes the inner [of Things], the play of Forces as a reflection of the inner into itself.”  (§143)

In totality, the Things of perception are present for consciousness as they are in themselves, i.e. as things which go back and forth between opposites.  Consciousness qua consciousness reflects itself out of this, and appearance remains an inert object.  It is not yet being-for-itself.  Yet, this inner truth, as the absolute universal, purged of the antithesis between individual and universal, opens up into the supersensible world – above the vanishing present, a permanent beyond.  It’s the first, impure appearance of Reason.

The supersensible, at this point, is a pure empty beyond, at least for consciousness, because consicousness does not yet see itself in it.  We don’t have insight into it because reason is limited, but because it is the beyond of consciousness.  It’s just like if a blind man were present in the supersensible world, or a sighted man finding only pure light or pure darkness.  It is a void. If there were nothing more to the supersensible, then we would have to stop at appearance and believe something we know not to be true. We can try to fill that void up with imaginings, because even that is better than void. But the inner world has indeed come into being; “… it comes from the world of appearance which has mediated it; in other words, appearance is its essence and, in fact, its filling.” (§147) The supersensible is the perceived world posited in its truth.  It is appearance qua appearance. But that does not mean appearance is the supersensible – the supersensible is appearance posited as superseded.  It is not that the supersensible is not an appearance – in that phrase, appearance is not actually appearance, but merely sense-certainty.

The connection of the Understanding with the inner world is the movement which will fill it out. What is immediate for the Understanding is the play of Forces; that play is the determinateness which constitutes the sole content of what appears – sometimes as one, sometimes as plurality. But the two are the same; form (solicited, soliciting) and content (unity, plurality).  So the distinction of mutually contrasting Forces pass away – so there is not so much Force, but rather a flux.  “… what there is in this absolute flux is only difference as a universal difference, or as a difference into which the many antitheses have been resolved.  This difference, as a universal difference, is consequently the simple element in the play of Force itself and what is true in it.  It is the law of Force.”  (§148) Absolute difference is the law of Force – what is true in Force. Negation is an essential moment of the universal, so negation (or mediation) is universal difference.  That difference is expressed in the law, which is the stable image of unstable appearances.  So the supersensible is an inert realm of laws, which is present in the world of constant change.

The law is present, but is not the entirety of appearance – appearance retains an aspect which is not in the inner world, so appearance is not yet appearance.  That defect in the law is: while the law contains difference, that difference is indeterminate.  But in so far as it is not law in general, but a law, there is determinateness-  hence there are many laws.  But that contradicts the understanding, for which the True is a unity.  So all the laws collapse into one law.  That universal law is only the notion of law – all it is saying that reality is conformable to law.  Any differences between laws are, in the inner world, a simple unity.  Perhaps an illustration of this would be to say that in the supersensible world, there is no conflict between relativity and quantum physics.

In Findlay’s note for §§156-157, he says that the nature of the intelligible world is to draw distinctions which turn out to be no distinctions at all.  The selfsame repels itself, and what is repelled is attracted to it, because both at bottom are the same.  Since the selfsame repels itself, a second law appears; more specifically, there is a second supersensible world which embodies all the distinctions and exclusions we find in the sensible world. That 2nd law is the second supersensible world, because it is its opposite.  The first supersensible world only made perception universal; the second supersensible world adds change. Everything becomes reversed, e.g. revenge becomes self-destruction.

Findlay goes on to say that the second supersensible world is indistinguishable from the sense-world of which it is supposed to be the essence; everything in the sense world is there, with just a shade of difference that really amounts to nothing.  It embodies the oppositions of the sense and first supersensible worlds. The inner and outer worlds are not two separate actualities.  Hegel says of inversion,

“From the idea, then, of inversion, which constitutes the essential nature of one aspect of the supersensible world, we must eliminate the sensuous idea of fixing the differences in a different sustaining element; and this absolute Notion of the difference must be represented and understood purely as inner difference, a repulsion of the self-same, as selfsame, from itself, and likeness of the unlike as unlike.  We have to think pure change, or think antithesis within the antithesis itself, or contradiction.” (§160)

The 2 worlds can’t be sensuous; it is an inner difference.  An inner contradiction.  The sense world and the supersensible are not 2 separate things.  Each is present in the other: “Thus the supersensible world, which is the inverted world, has at the same time overarched the other world and has it within it; for is for itself the inverted world, i.e. the inversion of itself; it is itself and its opposite in one unity.  Only thus is it difference as inner difference, or difference in its own self, or difference as an infinity.” (§160)

Through infinity, law completes itself into an immanent necessity, and all previous moments are taken up into it: “We see that in the inner world of appearance, the Understanding in truth comes to know nothing else but appearance, but not in the shape of a play of Forces, but rather that play of Forces in its absolutely universal moments and in their movement; in fact, the Understanding experiences only itself.” (§165) Raise above perception, consciousness is in a closed unity with the supersensible world through the mediating term of appearance – and in this closed unity, they vanish.


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