The Phenomenology of Spirit: B. Reason, Observing Reason (To §255)

In the Introduction, Hegel stated that The Phenomenology of Spirit is a theory of knowledge.  After passing through the traditionally epistemological topics of sense-certainty, perception, and understanding, we were treated to an account of the historical genesis of the thinking individual.  Now we have returned to an explicitly epistemological topic, that of Reason.

A brief account of why the detour was necessary can serve as an introduction to Hegel’s concerns here.  A direct empirical connection to the world has served as the guiding principle of many philosophies, from Locke to Anglo sense-data theorists.  More over, it is the most obvious defense against being devoured by the Scylla of idealism or the Charybdis of skepticism.  Hegel undercut sense-certainty by pointing out its dissolution into useless generalities.  If we can not simply being thinking, an account of its origin in practical and therefore historical life was necessary.

Rather than grounding the empirical observation of science in direct sense contact, Hegel grounds it in the shaky results (conceptual rather than empirical) of a historical process.  In this early stage of Reason, which is now recognizable as what we mean by the English word science, consciousness is still suffering from a sense-certainty hangover.  Certainly, science is unconcerned with basic, every day observations – “my coffee is brown” is not a scientific observation, per se – yet the necessity of conceptual thought as opposed to pure empirical observation remains opaque to scientific consciousness.  In short, this is the concern of a. Observation of Nature; to show how the scientific observation of the world, apparently a rigidly empirical distinguishing of entity from entity,  remains reliant upon historically-developed concepts.

 Navel-gazing Reason

Initially, self-consciousness found the world to be a place to be negated, either through battle or consumption.  Now, consciousness sees “being as its own,” a world which is to be known and matched up with various categories and taxonomies.  As a recognizably scientific consciousness, it makes use of perception and understanding, but with a twist.  Before, these things “just happened” to consciousness; now consciousness actively develops its own, more systematic observations and experiments.  This consciousness, reason, searches for the truth of things and has a universal (i.e. general) interest in the world.  It has this universal interest “because it is certain of its presence in the world, or that the world present to it is rational.” (§240)

Reason wants to understand everything.  It demands that being’s manifold differences become its own; the world must be presented as an “outer shape,” full of categorizable differences between things.  However, no matter how hard it works at this, it won’t find satisfaction until it completes itself inwardly, i.e with self-reflective concepts.

Reason wants to learn not about itself, but about things.  The problem with this naively realist instinct is that reason is not only the essence of consciousness, but also of things; in order to get a handle one what things exist, reason needs to understand itself.  Consciousness needs to look within itself, because that is where it will find reason in its own proper shape.  And if reason found itself there, then “it would be directed to the actual world outside again, in order to behold therein Reason’s sensuous expression, but at the same time to take it essentially as Notion.” (§242)  What we will see is that reason takes things to be sensuous objects opposed to the I, but inevitably contradicts itself by turning objects into concepts.  Consciousness, in observation, comes to know what things are – but we (Hegel and his trusty readers) come to know what consciousness is.

 Dividing the World Up

Unthinkingly, consciousness makes observation the source of truth, so apparently only the senses are involved.  Reason immediately complicates its relation to the senses, however.  The senses and perception are not the point; as Hegel says, “this penknife is beside this snuff-box” is not an observation.  What observation searches for are universals, which in this case means that which remains identical with itself.  In short, that which repeats, an idea familiar to contemporary philosophy of science.  Yet in this apparently empiricism, Reason forgets “to say that it has no less essentially determined the object of this sensuous apprehension, and this determination is at least as valid for the object as is the sensuous apprehension.” (§244)  Reason chooses and determines its objects, and as we shall see, it does this by turning objects of observation into concepts.

So far, consciousness has only found in the object the abstract “it is mine;” it must “take upon itself the movement proper to the subject, must at least be the remembrance of it, which express in a universal way what is in actuality is only present as single term.”  It is a superficial raising out of singularity; the act of describing things “is not yet a movement in the object itself.”  (§245)  In other words: I take this object to be just a thing that I stare at and learn about; but I need to recognize in the object a rational structure that also applies to other objects, a recognition that goes beyond mere description and into (I think) induction.

When an object is described, one loses interest in it and moves on to the next object.  When one cannot find a new object, previous ones are divided up into new layers of thinghood.  Reason has an insatiable instinct for description which will never run out of material.  There will always be another species, or another planet, or another element, and so on.  Discovering and describing things requires finding the distinctive traits of things, “[b]ut the demarcation of what is distinctive of, say, elephant, oak, gold, of what is genus and what is species, passes through many stages into the endless particularization of the chaos of animals and plants, of rocks, or the metals, earths, etc., that only force and skill can bring into view.”  (§245)  For description, for which the universal is undetermined and the particular is basically singleness, there is an inexhaustible supply for description.

The factor which allows things to be intelligently comprehended, or divided into species and genera, is more important to description than the rest of the sense properties.  A tiger has essential properties which make it a tiger; it also has the inessential trait of a blemish in its coat.   Description needs those inessential properties, but consciousness can do without them.  This distinction is what allows the concepts to rise above the sensuous, and so shows that cognition, as the force which analyzes or develops the list of essential traits – is just as concerned with itself as with things.

The differentiae, the differences, are thought to have a connection with both cognition and things themselves; our artificial system is supposed to accord with nature’s.  Reason’s instinct is to see objects as beings for themselves, not mere accidents, or in other words to know why things are the way they are.  So the distinguishing marks of animals – e.g. claws – are not only how we distinguish them, but also how they distinguish themselves – a tiger’s claws are the tools it uses to maintain its individuality.  On the other hand, a plant “merely touches the borderline of individuality.  It is at this boundary, therefore, where there is a show of division into sexes, that plants have been studied and distinguished from one another.”  (§246)  I’m baffled by that line – is the division into sexes supposed to be the borderline of individuality?

What is even “lower” than plants, like particles, cannot distinguish themselves at all, and get lost in any contrast.  “Being that is at rest, and being that is in a relation, come into conflict with each other; a Thing in the latter case is something different from what it is in the former state, whereas the single individual maintains itself in its relation to something else.  What, however, is unable to do this, and qua chemical object, becomes something else than it is empirically, confuses cognition, and gives rise to the same conflicting views as to whether it ought to keep to one side to the other, since the thing itself does not remain identical with itself, and in it the two sides fall apart.”  (§246)  As Findlay rephrases this passage, observation is driven to decide between essential and inessential traits, and to see the essential traits as the way beings distinguish themselves.  This is done well in taxonomy, less well in botany, and poorly with inorganic substances, “whose description changes in changed circumstances.”

 Hunting for Laws

For systems that try to remain fixed, both the cognitive side and the objects remain self-same.  But as this self-sameness expands, it eventually turns into its opposite – the differentiae have to function as both the determinate and the universal, and so it splits up into this antithesis.    “Observation, which kept them properly apart and believed that in them it had something firm and settled, sees principles overlapping one another, transitions and confusions developing; what it at first took to be absolutely separate, it sees combined with something else, and what it reckoned to be in combination, it sees apart and separate.”  (§247)  Some distinctions collapse, and others are created.  Observation tries to stick to an unbroken chain of being, but these confusions invalidate the attempt at universality, and observation is reduced to staring.

When observation tries to stick to what is simple, it ends up confused, because what is determinate must lose itself in its opposite.  Reason has to move on from simple differences; “What are called differentiae are passive determinatenesses which, when expressed and apprehended as simple, do not represent their nature, which is to be vanishing movements of a movement which looks back into itself.  Since Reason now reaches the stage of looking for the determinateness as something which essentially is not for itself, but which passes over into its opposite, it seeks for the law and the Notion of the determinateness.”  (§248)  Instead of staring at things, reason starts looking for the laws behind things.  Reason hunts for laws in the form of determinate being (so an attempt to get back to empiricism) but laws are fundamentally conceptual.

For observation, the law is found in experience, just like sense objects are objects for consciousness.  Its truth is not in the concept, so it is contingent – and not a law.  “But the fact that it is essentially in the form of Notion, not only does not conflict with its being accessible to observation, but rather for that very reason gives it a necessary existence, and makes it [an object] for observation.”  (§249)  Observation wants to do away with concepts, but if it does, it also loses laws.  It gets laws because laws are conceptual.

 Hegel vs Hume

The universality of reason is seen as being in the world; concepts are displayed in things.  What ought to be, is; the world is rational.  Reason rightly ignores what only “might be,” since “what might be” is not met with in experience.  Reason is precisely “just this certainty of possessing reality; and what is not present for consciousness as something existing in its own right, i.e. what does not appear, is for consciousness nothing at all.”  (§249)

Reason, as an attempt at non-conceptual empiricism, wants to make a distinction between laws of nature and concepts (which sound vaguely like a slide into idealism).  Universal laws are seen as external to Reason, as “not having its nature.”  But it contradicts itself: it doesn’t take its universality to mean that everything has to conform to a law in order for the law to be asserted.  “The assertion that stones fall when raised above the ground and dropped certainly does not require us to make this experiment with every stone.”  Maybe we have to do that with a large number of stones, and then by analogy draw an inference about the rest with probability or right.   But inference does not bring certainty.  The difference between greater and lesser probability is irrelevant in the face of truth.  However, Reason’s instinct does take these laws for truth, and because it can’t find necessity in them, reduces them to probability, in order to indicate the imperfect way in which truth presents itself to consciousness which has not yet attained the pure concept.  The problem is that the universality attained is only a simple immediate universality – yet, on account of this universality, the law has truth for consciousness:

 “That a stone falls, is true for consciousness because in its heaviness the stone has in and for itself that essential relation to the earth which is expressed in falling.  Consciousness thus has in experience the being of the law, but it has, too, the law in the form of a Notion; and it is only because of the two aspects together that the law is true for consciousness.  The law is valid as a law because it is manifested in the world of appearance, and is also in its own self a Notion.”  (§250)

Because the law is in itself a concept, the instinct of reason refines the law into its concept, and it does this necessarily, without knowing what it is trying to do.  It puts the law to the test of experiment.  The law first appears as a single event, and the concept is immersed in the empirical.  Reason sets out to find what happens in various circumstances, with the result that the law looks all the more immersed in sensual being.  The goal – even if the scientist thinks differently – is to find the pure conditions of the law, i.e. to raise the law to a concept which is free from being tied to any particular being.  For example:

“. . . the relationship of acid and base and their reaction constitute a law in which this opposite sides appear as bodies.  But these separated detached things have no actuality; the power which forces them apart cannot prevent them from at once entering again into a process, for they are only this relation.  They cannot, like a tooth or a claw, remain apart on their own and as such be pointed out.  This essential nature of theirs, to pass over immediately into a neutral product, makes their being into a being which is implicitly superceded or universal; and acid and based have truth only as universals.”  (§251)

Pure Law

Things are not absolutely acid and base, but only relative to one another.  The result of the experiments cancels acid and base as properties of specific things, to free the predicates from their subjects.  These predicates become universals – this kind of self-subsistence gets called “matters,” neither bodies nor properties.  The matters are not existent things; rather they are universal concepts.  Reason instinctively makes this correct distinction, without being aware that by testing the law on sensuous being, it gets rid of the merely sensuous side, turning them into universals.  Matter is “expressed as a non-sensuous thing of sense, as an incorporeal and yet objective being.”  (§252)  This point inaugurates new shape of observational activity, pure law on a conceptual level.  It is freed of the sensuous, but still immersed in it.

The relation of consciousness to law is another kind of observation because the law becomes an object: “Such  an object, in which the process is present in the simplicity of the Notion, is the organism.”  It is an absolute fluidity in which the determinate thing – and qua determinate, it would only be for an other – is dissolved.  An inorganic thing has determinateness as its nature, and is lost in process.  The organic being, on the other hand, has a determinateness which is a relation to the other in a simple organic unity.  The organic maintains itself in relation.

Reason observes organic and inorganic nature in their relation to one another.  For organic nature, the inorganic is “no more than the freedom – a freedom opposed to the simple Notion of organic Nature – of the loosely connected determinatenesses in which the individual forms of Nature are dissolved and which, at the same time, breaking away from their continuity, exist on their own account.”  He goes onto say, “Air, water, earth, zones, and climate universal elements of this sort, which constitute the indeterminate simple essence of [natural] individualities, and in which these are at the same time reflected into themselves.”  (§255)

Neither the individual nor the element are absolutely for themselves; while they appear to observation as free and independent, they behave as essentially connected, but in such a way that their independence is their primary feature.

So here we have law as the connection of an element with the formative process of an organism – really what this means is that animals belong to the air have the nature of birds, animals in the north have thick, hairy pelts.  But this does not do justice to the manifold of nature.  These “laws” are superficial, and only tell us about the influence of the environment, and does not tell us what does and what does not belong to this environment.  So the relation of organisms to their elements cannot be called laws: the content does not exhaust the range of organisms concerned, and the two sides are mutually indifferent, without necessity.  While base implies acid, “north” does not imply thick pelt.  Because of the freedom in the relationship, there are, for example, land animals which have fishy characteristics.  The alleged necessity is an external teleology, and therefore the opposite of a law.


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