The Phenomenology of Spirit: B. Reason, The Certainty and Truth of Reason

C. (AA.) Reason

V. The Certainty and Truth of Reason

The title of this section indicates both that we will be dealing with two opposed ideas as well as their combined unity. “Certainty” was among the earliest terms in The Phenomenology, and it indicated an experience of (seemingly) immediate knowledge. In sense-certainty, I am sure of what is here and now without explanation. On the other hand, truth is always the unfolded inner contradiction of what consciousness experiences as any given stage. That is, at any given stage, what consciousness experiences is not the truth of that experience. It is only when consciousness passes to the next stage that it can look back on the previous one and realize that what had seemed to be the case was not, in fact, true. In other words, certainty is opposed to truth just as present is opposed to non-present (past and future).

On the other hand, these two opposites are united in Reason. In fact, with this one term “reason” Hegel sometimes means a kind of naive reason, or reason as it is experienced; at other times “reason” indicates the truth of reason, or reason as it is understood by the philosopher. Sometimes it is difficult to know when he switches from one to the other.

¶ 231. Recall that the Unhappy Consciousness found itself split between a transcendental beyond (thought to be unchanging) and an imminent, changeable ‘here and now.’ By the end of the sections on Unhappy Consciousness, the two poles had been united by the “single individual.” The single individual appears as the mediator between seemingly finite consciousness and the Unchangeable. To the Unchangeable the single individual proclaims “that the single individual has renounced itself” as finite individual. To the individual it announces “that the Unchangeable is for it no longer an extreme.” The single individual is the unity “directly aware of both [extremes] and connecting them, and is consciousness of their unity.” The conclusion of self-consciousness is the realisation that the consciousness is both subject and object of experience—that the two extremes are not fundamentally separate.

¶ 232. With this uniting of the two extremes, Reason is a turning point in the way that consciousness relates to the world. More accurately, it is with Reason that the world comes into existence. In all the previous stages, the other of consciousness is merely “an alien reality to be set aside.” In the three stages of “A. Consciousness,” consciousness finds an other which turns out to be an externalised aspect of itself. In self-consciousness, consciousness discovers the “I” and “Life” at the same time, but the latter is significant only inasmuch as by negating it the “I” can persist. In other words, the other of consciousness does not get a self-sufficient identity; instead, it is just a sort of fuel for the consciousness to maintain itself. “Up till now [self-consciousness] has been concerned only with its independence and freedom, concerned to save itself for itself at the expense of the world.”

As Reason, (self-)consciousness is “at peace with” its others. It endures them, enjoys them in their positivity. In this openness to the persistence and independence of its other, (self-)consciousness finds the world as a positive otherness: “it is as if the world had for it only now come into being.” Moreover, this new relationship of consciousness to the World is accompanied by a shift away from the practical toward the theoretical: “previously it [self-consciousness] did not understand the world; it desired it and work on it, withdrew from it into itself and abolished it.” Sustaining this new peace between Reason and the world is the faith that the two are at base the same thing; “the existence of the world becomes for self-consciousness its own truth and presence; it is certain of experiencing only itself therein.”

¶ 233. “Reason is the certainty of consciousness that it is all reality; thus does idealism express its Notion.” Uniting all idealist philosophy is the idea that existence is inseparable from perception of existence. (This characterization of idealism leaves a lot of room for the various internal disagreements of various idealist schools). The sentence “I am I” is not merely an empty tautology: “the ‘I’ which is an object for me is the sole object, is all reality and all that is present.” The maxim can be understood by considering the historical reference Hegel had in mind.

Idealism, as Hegel describes it, begins roughly with Renaissance humanism up to Hegel’s most immediate philosophical predecessors, Kant and Fichte. That is, just as the Unhappy Consciousness has its historical expression in medieval Christianity, so Reason finds its historical expression in the “new science” from the 16th Century onward. For example, consider Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon. The two are often put in opposition to each other (one is a rationalist; the other is an empiricist), but what unites them is a belief that that which is can be understood by people. Countless other examples are available, but perhaps the most the succinct formulation is the frequent invocation of Protagoras’s maxim during the Renaissance: “Man is the measure of all things.” By the same token, what cannot be comprehended does not exist, is illusory, etc.. As Hegel puts it, the ‘I’ “is for self-consciousness an object such that any other object whatever is a non-being.” Note that in the German original, the term translated as “non-being” is “Nichtseins,” which can also be translated as “not its” (that is, “not mine”). (As we will see, there are a number of puns at work in this short chapter that do not translate easily into English.)

Now, Reason is not immediately the unity of self-consciousness and the world; rather, it must demonstrate or prove itself to be such by proceeding on the path through meaning, perceiving, and understanding, desire, lordship and bondage, stoicism, skepticism, and the unhappy consciousness. In all those movements, the same formal gesture was repeated in which (a) the essential or true was posited as both foreign and in itself, and then (b) it revealed itself to be in itself only for consciousness. Both sides are united in Reason, but the consciousness that thus unites them forgets that it has gone through these stages. That is, as certainty Reason affirms Idealism as obvious and not needing of further explanation. As Hegel writes, Reason “merely asserts [Versichert] that it is all reality, but does not itself comprehend this; for it is along that forgotten path that this immediately expressed assertion [Behauptung] is comprehended.” Notice the original German terms. Both, in fact, translate as “assert/assertion,” but the first one has the root “sich,” which is a reflexive pronoun meaning “itself.” Moreover, the prefix “ver-” can be translated into English as “mis-.” Thus, Versichert could also be taken to mean something like “mis-self” or “mistakes itself” as well as “assert.”

It’s important to keep in mind that Idealism was the leading philosophy of Hegel’s day, so by historicising it he is making an original contribution to it. For example, Descartes certainty “I think therefore I am” forgets the whole path of thought that led up to the ability to make such a statement (such as the development of the “I” and the development of “think”). Another example that is probably closer to what Hegel actually intended in this paragraph is Kant, who formulates his own Ideal philosophy as a method—roughly speaking, Kant’s starting point is that our experience of things is conditioned by our own abilities to experience them, so in a sense our experience actively creates the world. Hegel does not merely disagree with Kant’s conclusions (though he does disagree); rather, he disagrees by way of historicising Kant and showing that Kant’s philosophy was both a necessary step in the development of Spirit but also a forgetting of the stages of its own development.

¶ 234. It is on these grounds of historicising what Kant and Fichte took to be a pure method that Hegel can say, “The idealism that does not demonstrate that path but starts off with this assertion [Behauptung] is therefore, too, a pure assertion [Versicherung] which does not comprehend its own self [sich selbst], nor can it make itself comprehensible to others.” Most commentators agree that this paragraph is largely targeting Fichte’s philosophy, which starts with the assertion that “I am I” and derives an ontology from that assertion. Hegel’s critique is that the two sides Is are not the same thing; that is, the “I” before the verb expresses a subject but the “I” after it is a kind of otherness (whether object or subject complement). In other words, the starting point “I am I” accomplishes just the opposite of what it sets out to do: “in that I am object and essence to myself, I am only so by drawing back from the ‘other’ altogether, and taking my place as an actuality alongside it.” Reason will only attain its truth when it becomes “a reflection from this opposite certainty”

¶ 235. In this paragraph, Hegel makes faults Kant on two accounts. First, Kant does not follow through on the consequences of his idealism because after asserting that are experience is conditioned by our mind, he retreats and by adding a “thing in itself” that is independent of all cognition. Hegel calls this a “spurious idealism that lets this unity [of thought and reality] again come on the scene as consciousness, on one side, confronted by an in-itself, on the other.” Second, Hegel faults Kant for not explaining where the categories of thought come from. By “category,” Hegel does not mean simply “classification” or “group.” Rather, he is drawing on a long philosophical use of the word by which “category” indicates that which can be predicated of a thing. Thus, Aristotle claims there are 10 categories that can be predicated of anything (such as its substance, quality, place, time, and so on.) In Kant, the categories are not found in things but in the mind. That is, the categories are the means by which the mind “creates” its object. For example, the mind is hardwired to experience causation, so when A bumps B, then B moves, our minds must understand it as a cause-effect relationship, even though we cannot literally see a cause lying on the table between A and B.

Kant was criticised by his followers (almost immediately after publishing the first Critique) for not explaining how we get all these categories of experience. They thought he cheated by just claiming they exist rather than deriving them. Hegel follows this criticism when he writes “to pick up the plurality of categories again in some way or other as a welcome find, taking them, e.g., from the various judgements, and complacently accepting them so, is in fact to be regarded as an outrage to Science.” What Hegel and other critics of Kant call for is a derivation of all the categories of thought from a single starting point. In this case, from the starting point that Reason is all reality.

Hegel instead calls the “I” of Reason the “einfache Kategorie”: the simple or primitive category. What can be predicated of being is that it is “I.” From this starting point, the rich manifold of existence can be derived from difference because “this simple unity of self-consciousness and being possesses difference in itself; for its essence is just this, to be immediately one and selfsame in otherness, or in absolute difference.” Recall that earlier Hegel wrote that “the ‘different’ is just this, not to be in possession of itself, but to have its essential being only in an other.” By being united with all reality, the “I” is throughly permeated by otherness, so Hegel finds the materials for building a system of categories.

¶ 236. It is because reality and thought are unified that “we can, strictly speaking, no longer talk of things at all” as that which is the opposite of thought. If we want to talk about the kinds of ‘things’ in the world, what we are really doing is saying that all these qualities are species under the genus of the pure category, “I.” The relationship between genus and species is not just one of containment, however. More fundamentally it is one of difference. For example, my pet Tubie is a dog, but he is not some ideal of Dogness. Thus, he differs from the label applied to him (the same could be said of any labelling at all). When discussing the plurality of qualities that ‘things’ can have, Hegel writes “they contradict the pure category by such plurality, and the pure unity must supersede them in itself, thereby constituting a negative unity of the differences.” In other words, the negative unity is that which many things are despite their difference. Again, consider the film genre “romantic comedy.” There is no film called Romantic Comedy that somehow unites all the movies we might describe as “romantic comedies.” Nonetheless, there are such things as “romantic comedy” films. In other words, the various films that we might label that way are united by their difference.

A negative unity is alienated from its species, but equally it is alienated from its own immediate unity (that is, the pure or simple category). Instead, it finds a middle ground (as we saw at the end of Unhappy Consciousness) as a singular individual:  “a new category which is consciousness as exclusive, i.e. consciousness for which there is an ‘other.’ The other now is both that original unity as well as the plurality of categories: “The pure category points to the species, which pass over into the negative category or singular individual; this latter, however, points back to them.”

¶ 237. Reason now finds itself divided between the pure category and the plurality. At one moment it is “the restless movement to and fro through all its moments” at another moment it is a “tranquil unity.” Each side is other to the other. The essence of consciousness in Reason “is this whole process itself, of passing out of itself as simple category into a single individual, into the object, and of contemplating this process in the object, nullifying the object as distinct [. . .], appropriating it as its own, and proclaiming itself as this certainty of being all reality, of being both itself and its object.” However, as we have already seen, the essence or truth is not known at first.

¶ 238. Reason’s “first declaration is only this abstract empty phrase that everything it its own.” The German sentence in Hegel is, “alles sein ist.” Properly speaking, “sein” means “its own,” but Sein (with a capital S) means being. Thus, the first declaration of reason is also “everything is being.” This first appearance of Reason is not the truth of reason yet. Rather, it is just the inverse of skepticism. Whereas skepticism was negative because it found consciousness’s freedom to deny its other (that is, to doubt everything), the first appearance of idealism is positive because it affirms all being. However, both this general denial and general affirmation have the same weakness—they deny or affirm an otherness that is not understood to be fundamentally united to consciousness. They are, against their own intentions, still a one-sided view of the unity; what they lack is the element of reciprocation or reflexion between consciousness and reality.

¶ 239. Idealism in its first, false form fails because it cannot get to a deeper understanding of thinking and reality. Instead, it is stuck in a separation of subject and object such that subject is constantly searching the object. In ¶ 238 Hegel calls this a “spurious, i.e. the sensuous, infinite.” This infinite is spurious because consciousness keeps moving form one observation to another without deepening its interpretation of what is found. Consider Kant’s “antinomies of reason.” According to Kant’s analysis, the nature of our minds leads us to affirm two opposite ideas at the same time. For example, on the one hand we are find it necessary to affirm that the universe is limited in space and time because we cannot imagine limitlessness. Moreover, everything must have an origin. On the other hand, whenever we find a limit, we are able to affirm something that is just beyond that limit. (Thus, somebody might say, “the universe ends with our galaxy,” but one could ask, “what’s after our galaxy?,” and so on ad infinitum). The point is that trying to find some conclusion to within sense experience is an unending task. “This Reason remains a restless searching and in its very searching declares that the satisfaction of finding is a sheer impossibility.” What is needed, then, is not more searching, but rather a deeper insight into the unity of thought and being: in other words, Actual Reason. Actual Reason is first the “certainty that it is all reality, [but] it is aware in this Notion that qua certainty, qua ‘I’, it is not yet in truth reality.”

Jean Hyppolite summarizes the main the difference between idealism and the actual reason of the Phenomenology thus:

In the Phenomenology, reason seeks its truth, whereas idealism proclaims that truth without having tested it out and without having justified it historically. Thus idealism is abstract; it remains at the stage of the category—the unit of being and the I—and does not know development. It does not transcend the opposition between the a priori and the a posteriori, and it does not know genuine synthesis, which is the synthesis of the a posteriori and the a priori itself. But reason that is actually engaged in knowing nature and action will be able to discover itself and to substitute for formal idealism a concrete idealism in which the I and the universe are adequate to each other in a monism of spirit.


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