Absolute Knowing

This will be the reading for January 17th.  Directions are in the sidebar.

In the Introduction, Hegel described the basic problem of the book, the relation between the subject and the object.  Recall the quandary he set up: if (something like) reason is the tool we use to understand the world, then the tool mediates between us and the world.  How are we to know the world as it is in itself?  If we abstract away the tool, then either we lose the appearances (i.e. the for-us), or the tool was never needed in the first place.  Either option seems to leave us blind.

The Phenomenology of Spirit is the long story of how the subject and object can be reconciled, or in other words, how we can have genuine knowledge of the object in-itself, apart from our partial, mediated perspective.  One part of the key has been that different forms of consciousness have concerned themselves with different objects: one form of consciousness was concerned with the immediate empirical world, another with the natural sciences, another with the workings of culture.  Each time, there has been a different subjective view on a different object.

Another part of the key is that each form of consciousness initially prefers to see its object in an immediate way; it concerns itself with the way the thing appears.  This is always carried out in a contradictory way; not a contradiction between subject and object, as if the subject were simply confused, but a contradiction in the way that the subject relates to the object.  For example, the ethical form of consciousness saw its world as a harmonious relation between the family and the state, but at the same time required the two elements to be in conflict with one another.  That contradiction is what forces the acceptance of a mediated perspective on the object; consciousness has to accept that the initial harmony and the conflict are both of its own doing, a result of its perspective on the object.

Taken together, we can catch a glimpse of what absolute knowing is.  Absolute knowing has a new object and a new relation to the object.  The object is the mediated relation between the subject and the object itself, and the new relation is the self-conscious awareness of this mediated relationship.  So in short: absolute knowing is knowing that the relation between the subject and the object is mediated, and knowing that one knows this.

The path to absolute knowing

Absolute knowing made its appearance at the end of the religion chapter, but it remained a matter of picture thinking, or representations.  The content was absolute spirit, and now all that remains is to leave behind the form of representation.

Each object of consciousness has been superseded.  This partly means that the object becomes an externalization of the self, and partly that the externalization of self-consciousness that posited the thing has not only a meaning for we the phenomenologists, but also for self-consciousness itself.  Throughout the book, Hegel has made statements that take the form of “We know the case is such and such, but for consciousness, it appears this way.”  Now, consciousness itself knows what “we know.”

Consciousness knows this in two ways. First, consciousness knows the object is its own externalization or positing; consciousness posited the cultural world, it posited the moral worldview, and so on.  Second, that positing also involves the moment of taking the object back into itself, the supersession of the externalization.  Consciousness knows it has taken it back into itself so that “it is in communion with itself in its otherness as such.” (§788)  In other words, consciousness knows it posits its own object, and that it takes that object back into itself as its own other.

[Conscious knows what we know because it is now aware that it projects concepts onto the outside world, in a vaguely Kantian way.  This is the first step, the externalization.  The second step is the recognition of the failure of the projection, that the outside world remains other, but it is now a correlate of consciousness, not just an unknown or a brute fact.]

Consciousness is the totality of all these positings and supersessions, and “This totality of its determinations establishes the object as an implicitly spiritual being, and it does truly become a spiritual being for consciousness when each of its individual determinations is grasped as a determination of the Self, or through the spiritual relationship to them that was just mentioned.” (§788) 

[Keeping in mind that the new object is the mediated relation itself, the object is “an implicitly spiritual being” because it is the result of a reflective knowledge of consciousness about its relation to the world.  Consciousness as a relating of externalization and internalization is a spiritual movement, and since the object is born of this movement, the object is implicitly spiritual].

Each moment was not itself a pure comprehension—they were only in a process of coming-to-be.  For example, observing reason sought and found itself in an indifferent thing.  Reason saw itself as being external to the object, and was conscious of the object only as immediate.  At its peak, reason expressed “its specific character in the infinite judgment that the being of the ‘I’ is a Thing, and, moreover, a sensuous immediate thing.” (§790)

But when the Thing is the I, the thing is superseded and seen in its nothingness; “it has meaning only in the relation, only through the ‘I’ and its connection with it.” (§791)  This was manifest in the Enlightenment; things are simply considered as useful.  The cultivated self which traversed the world of self-alienated spirit produced the Thing as itself, but it still lacked substance, it was only for-an-other.  The object picked up an “inner being” in moral self-consciousness: “This is aware that its knowledge is a knowledge of what is absolutely essential, it knows that being is simply and solely pure willing and knowing; it is nothing else but this willing and knowing; anything else has only unessential being, i.e. not intrinsic being, but only its empty husk.” (§792) 

[Observing reason was basically empiricism or modern science, concerned with an “objective world.”  As it began to realize that it had to project concepts (like taxonomies) onto the world in order to understand it, the pure empirical status of natural fell to the recognition that humans use historically-bound concepts in order to understand things, not just sense data.  That historicism, or maybe subjectivism, hit its height in the moral worldview, which was a shift from the “objective world” as primary to the “internal” sense of duty as primary.]

What it learns is that existence is this pure certainty of self.  The objective content is Self’s pure knowledge of itself, but still split into knowledge and action. “These are the moments of which the reconciliation of Spirit with its own consciousness proper is composed; by themselves they are single and separate, and it is solely their spiritual unity that constitutes the power of this reconciliation.” (§793)  The last moment is this unity itself, and binds them all into itself, which is carried out when religion becomes self-reflective. As Findlay puts it, Spirit certain of its objective existence takes as the element of its existence nothing but the knowledge of itself – i.e. its duty.  But there is still an opposition between duty and action; it is resolved in forgiveness, and the last opposition vanishes.  The I only encounters the I.

[Saying the internal sense of duty is the primary concern of consciousness amounts to saying that consciousness’ primary object is itself.  However, this splits consciousness into an internal knowledge of duty and the external world in which duty is performed.  This split is resolved in religion, in which the internal and external are reconciled in a community of forgiveness.  This is the reconciliation of inner and outer.]

Through the movement of action, Spirit is really there, when it raises its existence into a thought and thereby into an absolute antithesis, “and returns out of this antithesis, in and through the antithesis itself.” (§796)  Or in other words, that knowledge has to unite representational religion with the moral spirit, which is the self in action.  The religious and the moral have to abandon their rigid distinction; representation must blend with inwardness.  They have to lose themselves in a new spirit.

What in religion was the content or form for presenting an other, becomes the self’s own act, because the concept requires the content to be the Self’s act.  The concept is “the knowledge of the Self’s act within itself as all essentiality and all existence, the knowledge of this subject as substance and of the substance as this knowledge of the act.  Our own act here has been simply to gather together the separate moments, each of which in principle exhibits the life of Spirit in its entirety, and also to stick to the Notion in the form of the Notion, the content of which would already have yielded itself in those moments and in the form of a shape of consciousness.” (§797)  In this new spirit, the content of religion becomes the action of the self, and has to be seen by the self as expressing phases of its own interior drama.

[Religious rituals, as much as they resolved the split in a practical way through forgiveness, are not yet reflective enough.  They continue to unknowingly project a concept onto the external world.  We need to reconsider the high-point of internalizing, the naval-gazing beautiful soul, and find a way to externalize that.  The split described in this paragraph seems to recapitulate the split between the paralyzed beautiful soul and the person who actually does things, inevitably implicating themselves in evil.  But this time, the reconciliation is carried out “intentionally,” for lack of a better term.  The actor’s concrete universality and the beautiful soul’s abstract are combined into the “universality which is self.”  This new externalization of morality and internalization of religion is reflexively recognized as an act of consciousness.]

Spirit reduces all its objective materials to pure concepts which are specifications of its own conceptual activity.  Purely conceptual knowledge of knowledge in the form of self is Systematic Science.  “The nature, moments and movements of this knowing have, then, shown themselves to be such that this knowing is a pure being-for-self of self-consciousness; it is ‘I’, that is this and no other ‘I’, and which is no less immediately a mediated or superseded universal ‘I’.”  (§799)  It has a content which it differentiates from itself; for it is pure negativity or the dividing of itself; it is consciousness.  That content is, in its difference, itself the I; the I is pure negativity.  It is only when the ‘I’ communes with itself in its otherness that the content is apprehended as concept.  The content is the movement; that is, the content is Spirit that traverses itself and does so for itself as Spirit by the fact that it takes the shape of the concept in its objectivity.  In other words, what we have now is pure knowledge of self, even of an individual self, which is also the knowledge of all the moments of content which self distinguishes from self, and in comprehending back into itself.

With regards to the existence of the concept, Science does not appear in time and the actual world before Spirit has attained to this consciousness about itself.  Spirit that knows what it is did not exist before, until after after it has equated its self-consciousness with its consciousness.  “Spirit that is in and for itself and differentiated into its moments is a knowing that is for itself, a comprehension in general that, as such, substance has not yet reached, i.e. substance is not in its own self an absolute knowing.” (§800)  Systematic Science only appears which Spirit has achieved a pure conceptual self-consciousness and can reduce all objectivity to concepts, in order to see itself in them.

Substance that knows did exist earlier than its concept-determined shape; it is the ground of everything that came before.  What is there exists as the still undeveloped simple and immediate, i.e. representations.  Cognition begins with this meagre object.  At first, only the abstract moments of substance belong to self-consciousness, but these moments propel themselves onward, and self-consciousness enriches itself until it has absorbed into itself the structure of the essentialities of substance.  Since the negative attitude towards objectivity is just as much a positivity, it is a positing, and and has produced them out of itself, and so has restored them for consciousness.  “In the Notion that knows itself as Notion, the moments thus appear earlier than the filled whole whose coming-to-be is the movement of these moments.” (§801) In consciousness, on the other hand, the whole, though uncomprehended, is prior to the moments.

Spirit has to go through a long process of enriching its initial object, and then appropriating and conceptually reabsorbing all of that content.  The pure concept presupposed all the stages that led up to it, but consciousness embraces them in a non-conceptual form.  Time is the concept itself when presented to consciousness in an empty intuition, and Spirit appears to itself in time until it achieves its full conceptual grasp and thereby abolishes time.

This would appear to be the final reconciliation between subject and object: “For this reason it must be said that nothing is known that is not in experience, or, as it is also expressed, that is not felt to be true, not given as an inwardly revealed eternal verity, as something sacred that is believed, or whatever other expressions have been used.” (§802)  Experience is just the content of Spirit – substance, and the object of consciousness.

But this substance which is Spirit is the process in which Spirit becomes what it is in itself, and it is only in this process of reflecting back into itself that it is truly spirit: “It is in itself the movement which is cognition—the transforming of that in-itself into that which is for itself, of Substance into subject, or of the object of consciousness into an object of self-consciousness, i.e. into an object that is just as much superseded, or into the Notion. The movement is the circle that returns into itself, the circle that presupposes its beginning and reaches it only at the end.” (§802)

Insofar as spirit is this immanent differentiation, its intuited whole appears over against its simple self-consciousness; since the whole is what is differentiated, it is differentiated into its intuited pure Notion, into Time and into the content.  Substance as subject initially appears as an objective presentation in the form of religion, so that comes first, but what spirit really is is Science’s knowledge of itself.  In other words, everything we know must come before us as a living phase of experience.  The substantial, the solidly out there, must be transmuted into the conceptual.  Time is the form of this self-realizing process.  Until spirit reaches the end of this process, it does not have complete self-consciousness.

He says, “The movement of carrying forward the form of its self-knowledge is the labour which it accomplishes as actual History.”  With this in mind, he offers a quick summary of that history.  The religious community was the first substance of absolute Spirit, but was filled with an alien content.  When consciousness gave up that alien content, it came out of the “intellectual world,” or rather “quickened the abstract element of that world with the actual Self.”  Through observation it finds existence in the shape of thought and comprehends it, and conversely, in its thinking comprehends existence.  So initially it saw the immediate unity of thought and being, the unity of abstract essence and self.  Then it expressed a unity of extension and being (Spinoza?).  Then it recoiled from this abstract unity and reaffirmed individuality.

But this affirmation of individuality led to cultural alienation and the reduction of all to utility.  In this absolute freedom it grasped existence as its will, and turned outward to express existence as I=I.  But this I=I is a movement which reflects back into itself.  This identity, being absolute negativity, is also absolute difference.  The absolute identity of the I stands over this pure difference, which as objective to the self-knowing self, has to be expressed as Time.  Why, I am not sure.

So, while before being was the unity of Thought and Extension, the world is now the unity of Thought and Time.  But the difference left to itself, that is, unresting Time, collapses back into itself; “it is the objective repose of extension”, extension is pure identity within itself, the “I”.  The “I” is not merely the Self, but the identity of the self with itself; the identity is complete and immediate oneness with Self, or this Subject is just as much Substance.

Substance, by itself, would be intuition devoid of content, or rather the intuition of a content which would only be accidental and lack necessity.  Substance would only pass for the absolute only insofar as it was thought or intuited as absolute unity; all content would have to fall outside of it into reflection, and reflection does not pertain to substance, because substance would not be subject; it would not be grasped as reflecting on itself and into itself, and hence would not be spirit:

“If a content were to be spoken of anyway, it would, on the one hand, only be spoken of in order to cast it into the empty abyss of the Absolute, and on the other, it would be a content picked up in external fashion from sense-perception.  Knowledge would seem to have to come by things, by what is different from itself, and by the difference of a variety of things, without comprehending how and whence they came.” (§803)

Spirit is not only the withdrawal of self-consciousness into pure inwardness, nor only the submergence of self-consciousness into substance and the non-being of the moments of its difference.  Rather, it is the movement of the Self which empties itself of itself and sinks into substance, and as subject, has gone out of that substance into itself, making the substance into an object and a content and the same time as it cancels this difference between objectivity and content.

The first reflection out of immediacy is the Subject’s differentiation of itself from its substance, or the concept’s separation of itself from itself, the withdrawal into itself and the becoming of the pure “I”.  Since that difference is the pure act of the I=I, the concept is the necessity and the uprising of existence, which has substance for its essence and subsists on its own account.

This substance of existence on its own account is the concept posited in its determinateness and is thus also its immanent movement, that of going down into the simple substance, which is Subject only has this negativity and movement. 

The I should not be afraid of the substantial world of objective nature; this is its foil and therefore itself.  The power of spirit is in remaining itself while it externalizes itself in nature, and it does that without paring down the elaborate distinction of nature.  It must understand nature in all its variety as necessary to itself.

In knowing this, spirit concludes the movement in which it has shaped itself.  The shaping was burdened with the difference of the object and the subject, but this difference is now overcome.  Spirit has won the pure element of its existence, the concept: “The content, in accordance with the freedom of its being, is the self-alienating Self, or the immediate unity of self-knowledge.  The pure movement of this alienation, considered in connection with the content, constitutes the necessity of the content.” (§805)  The distinct content, as determinate, is in relation, not in itself, so it is its own process of superseding itself; it is negativity.  Negativity or diversity, like free being, is also the self; and in this self-like form in which existence is immediately thought, the content is conceptual.

In science, the moments of spirit’s movements no longer exhibit themselves as specific shapes of consciousness, since consciousness’s difference has returned into the self, but as specific concepts and as their organic self-grounded movement.  He says, “Whereas in the phenomenology of Spirit each movement is the difference of knowledge and Truth, and is the movement in which that difference is cancelled, Science on the other hand does not contain this difference and is the cancelling of it.” (§805)

Since the movement is conceptual, it unites the objective form of truth and of the knowing self in an immediate unity.  The moment does not appear as this movement of passing back and forth from consciousness or representation into self-consciousness; rather, in its pure conceptual shape, freed from its appearance in consciousness, depends solely on its pure determinateness.  Conversely, to each abstract movement of science corresponds a shape of manifest spirit.

Spirit in its existence is not richer than science, but it is not poorer in content.  From Findlay, “Spirit is all the phrases of content in which it externalizes itself, and the process of leading those phases back to a full consciousness of self.  It unfolds its existence and develops its processes in the pure ether of its life and is Systematic Science.”  In science, the distinction between subjective knowledge and objective truth is eliminated; each phase always has its place.

Science contains within itself this necessity of externalizing the form of the concept, and contains the passage of the concept into consciousness.  Self-knowing spirit, which grasps its concept, is the immediate identity with itself, which in its difference, is the certainty of immediacy, or sense-consciousness—what we started with.  “This release of itself from the form of its Self is the supreme freedom and assurance of its self-knowledge.” (§806)  But that externalization is incomplete; it expresses the connection of its self-certainty with the object, but has not yet won complete freedom.  The self-knowing spirit knows itself and also the negative of itself, or its limit: “to know one’s limit is to know how to sacrifice oneself.  This sacrifice is the externalization in which Spirit displays the process of its becoming Spirit in the form of free contingent happening, intuiting its pure Self as Time outside of it, and equally its Being as Space.  This last becoming of Spirit, Nature, is its living immediate Becoming; Nature, the externalized Spirit, is in its existence but this eternal externalization of its continuing existence and the movement which reinstates the Subject.” (§807)

The other side of its becoming, history, is a conscious, self-mediating process.  It is spirit emptied out into Time.  This externalization is equally an externalization of itself; the negative is the negative of itself.  This becoming is a succession of spirits, each of which is endowed with all the riches of spirit:  “As its fulfillment consists in perfectly knowing what it is, in knowing its substance, this knowing is its withdrawal into itself in which it abandons its outer existence and gives its existential shape over to recollection.  Thus absorbed in itself, it is sunk in the night of its self-consciousness; but in that night its vanished outer existence is preserved, and this transformed existence—the former one, but now reborn of the Spirit’s knowledge—is the new existence, a new world and a new shape of spirit.” (§808)

In the immediacy of that new existence, Spirit has to start afresh to bring itself to maturity as if all that preceded it were lost and as if it learned nothing from previous forms of spirit.  “But recollection, the inwardizing, of that experience, has preserved it and is the inner being, and in fact the higher form of the substance.”  So although it starts afresh, it is starting higher than before.  There is a progression; “Their goal is the revelation of the depth of Spirit, and this is the absolute notion.” (808)  That revelation is “the raising-up of its depth,” or its extension.  The negativity of the withdrawn I, a negativity which is its externalization.

Absolute knowing is the goal, that is, spirit that knows itself as spirit, and the path is the recollection of the forms of spirits as they are in themselves and how they actually organized the world.  “Their preservation, regarded from the side of their free existence appearing in the form of contingency, is History; but regarded from the side of their [philosophically] comprehended organization, it is the Science of Knowing in the sphere of appearance: the two together, comprehended History, form alike the inwardizing and the Calvary of absolute Spirit, the actuality, truth, and certainty of his throne, without which he would be lifeless and alone.” (§808)


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