On Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’​: Making Honours of Men’s Impossibilities — Part Seven

Yet all that I have learn’d (hugh toyles now past)

By long experience, and in famous schooles,

Is but to know my ignorance at last.

Who think themselves most wise are greatest fools.

- William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, (1567–1640), ‘Recreation with the Muses’

Is it possible to know before one knows? It is not such a stupid question, see my articles On Plato’s ‘Phaedo’ — Forms of Life and On Plato’s ‘Meno’ — The Paradox of Inquiry.

When does knowing begin?

To continue with Hegel’s critique of critique his grievance is that the most critique is able to offer is knowledge that is ‘subjective’, knowledge, not of objects, but rather of the subjective conditions we bring to them, knowledge of the forms of cognition. Critique leads ‘our cognition from its concern with objects … back to itself, back to the formal aspect [das Formelle]’ and so the most we can hope to gain from critique is insight into the subjective forms that condition our knowledge of things, but critique cannot inform us about the nature of things considered independently of those forms. And further, for Hegel’s objection to critique is even more radical, critique fails to result even in knowledge of the subject, a failure that can be attributed to the fact that critique is not a viable form of knowledge at all. Hegel’s ‘Science of Logic’ opens with ‘With What Must the Science Begin?’ where he states: ‘[T]o want the nature of cognition clarified prior to the science is to demand that it be considered outside the science’. Such a demand cannot be met, indeed it is ‘inept’ to suggest that logic teaches us rules of thought without regard to what is thought. It is inept to claim that ‘what logic is can be stated beforehand’. And in the ‘Encyclopedia Logic’ with specific reference to Kant’s ‘Critical philosophy’ he writes that the investigation of cognition ‘cannot take place in any other way than cognitively’ and it is just as ‘absurd’ to ‘want to have cognition before we know’ as was the ‘resolve of Scholasticus to learn to swim before he ventured into the water’, (see my previous article in this series). A ‘mistaken project of wanting to have cognition before having any cognition’.

And so doubts are raised about the very possibility of a prior investigation of the nature of cognition, an investigation that is supposed to occur ‘outside’ science,it is ‘inept’ or ‘absurd’ to assume that this ‘prior’ investigation can be carried out. Our meta-level investigations into the conditions of cognition ‘cannot take place in any other way than cognitively’, and in case you are wondering precisely where the absurdity lies, well, questions: Is it contained in the suggestion that we can separate out from the actual practice of a science a meta-level examination of the conditions of the possibility of that science? Is there no point in adopting a critical perspective in trying to make explicit the underlying assumptions of a particular science or domain of inquiry? Is he recommending a wholesale rejection of the practice of critique? It could hardly be the case that Hegel wishes to persuade us of the utter futility or absurdity of critical inquiry, for he himself engages in critique of some kind. Perhaps Hegel is just calling into question a certain conception of critique, a conception of a kind of which Kant provides the paradigm.

There is something incoherent in a certain understanding of the nature of critical reflection, of what it can achieve, and of who we are as critical thinkers, and Hegel is apparently calling into question the first step of Kant’s analytic procedure albeit at times he appears to begin in a similar manner, beginning his critical investigations much like Kant by singling out some commonly agreed upon or uncontroversial assumption, some fact that he believes he is entitled to take for granted. In the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, for example, he begins with the assumption that our ‘truest’ cognition of nature relies on the passive reception of sense impressions alone, unmediated by concepts and he represents this assumption as one with which every finite rational nature could agree.

‘The Science of Logic’ has as a starting point the concept of pure Being, a concept that precisely because of its emptiness or abstract indeterminacy can reasonably be thought to serve as the unconditioned or absolute ground of the science. And so if it is not the starting point of Kant’s analytic method that Hegel rejects then perhaps he means to call into question Kant’s reliance upon conceptual analysis, but then Hegel follows Kant in availing himself of this same instrument, indeed the various progressions in the ‘Phenomenology’ would not be possible without his analysis of key concepts whereby each step forward, for example from the standpoint of ‘Sense Certainty’ to that of ‘Perception’ to that of ‘Force and Understanding’, results from his rendering explicit by means of conceptual analysis the condition or conditions of the set of concepts with which he began. This is likewise the case regarding the dialectical progressions of the ‘Logic’, the advance from ‘pure Being’ and ‘Nothing’ to ‘Becoming’ and so forth, requires Hegel’s own employment of an analysis of concepts.

What Hegel finds mistaken is a certain understanding of the activity we are engaged in when we perform critique, and a certain understanding of the status we believe we are entitled to award the results of our critical reflections. Critique, for Kant, often starts with the identification of some commonly agreed upon assumption, some assumption or set of assumptions with which all rational (or all finite rational) beings could agree. Kant believes that we can be confident in our starting point because we have the ability to abstract out universally and necessarily agreed upon claims, claims that ‘everyone must grant’, from all that is contingent. And furthermore we can be confident that once our initial assumptions are in place we can subject them to analysis and make explicit the conditions upon which they rest, we can rest assured that the conclusions that we draw from our analysis of key concepts will likewise be acceptable to all thinking subjects. Finally, we can be confident in the results of our final justificatory project, for we assume that we have the ability to reveal and ultimately justify the conditions of the possibility of a given realm of inquiry. We can establish that these conditions are ‘absolutely necessary’ in virtue of the fact that they are ‘absolutely independent’ of experience and thereby a priori, they enjoy strict versus merely ‘empirical’ or ‘comparative’ and we are entitled to this confidence because, as Kant puts it, what ‘reason brings forth entirely out of itself cannot be hidden’.

‘Zeichnung’, 1908, Julius Klinger. ‘From now on, my philosophical colleagues, let us be more wary of the dangerous old conceptual fairy-tale which has set up a ‘pure, will-less, painless, timeless, subject of knowledge’, let us be wary of the tentacles of such contradictory concepts as ‘pure reason’, ‘absolute spirituality’, ‘knowledge as such’: — here we are asked to think an eye which cannot be thought at all, an eye turned in no direction at all, an eye where the active and interpretative powers are to be suppressed, absent, but through which seeing still becomes a seeing-something, so it is an absurdity and non-concept of eye that is demanded’. — Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844–1900).

Hegel’s more radical objection to critique, his reason for doubting that critique on Kant’s conception can even result in knowledge of the subject, directs its aim at the level of trust Kant places in his own powers of abstraction. This is what is behind Hegel’s assertion that there can be no ‘knowing before we know’. It is not that he denies the possibility of all varieties of critical reflection, rather, he calls into question the assumption that we can absolutely separate out our meta-level reflections on the conditions of the possibility of some science or realm of inquiry from the norms that govern the actual practice of that science or realm of inquiry. In other words, he doubts that we can undertake critique from an Archimedean point, from a standpoint of absolute ‘independence from common reality’. (Side note: Archimedes, (c. 287 — c. 212 BC),supposedly claimed that he could lift the Earth off its foundation if he were given a place to stand, one solid point, and a long enough lever. Archimedean point: hypothetical viewpoint from which certain objective truths can perfectly be perceived or a reliable starting point from which one may reason. A God’s eye view).

Such suspicions regarding our powers of abstraction give us some insight into Hegel’s own position on the nature of critical reflection and they have implications for his own view of the status we are entitled to award our most basic concepts and principles, and they perhaps explain why in the ‘Science of Logic’ he announces that one of his objectives is to demonstrate the ‘untruth’ of the ‘supposed self-subsistence’ of our thought determinations. How does thinking begin? Hegel objected to the thesis that cognition is a means. Natural consciousness sets out to know the ‘truth’ or ‘in itself’ of things, but it is unable to know the ‘truth’ or ‘in itself’ of things in virtue of treating cognition as a means. In response to this failure natural consciousness turns its attention to cognition itself as it undertakes an examination or critique of the cognitive faculties, but it soon discovers that this undertaking is also unsatisfactory because the most critique is able to provide is knowledge, not of things, but of the subjective forms by means of which we think and know them.

Hegel was convinced that the thesis that cognition is a means undercuts the effort of natural consciousness to know things, on his account,if we treat cognition as a means (either as a passive medium or as an instrument) we effectively take thought and its forms to be ‘empty’ in the sense of ‘external’ or on the ‘other side; of content, we assume that thought is ‘absolutely opposed’ to content and thus not part of an ‘original identity’. In characterizing thought-forms as ‘external’ or ‘absolutely opposed’ to content Hegel means to call into question the assumption that we are in possession of concepts that have a pre-given and fixed nature and such forms are taken to owe nothing of their origin either to the objects to which they get applied or to acts of knowing, and furthermore such forms are not supposed to be knowable by means of either ordinary or scientific empirical inquiry, we become acquainted with them only by undertaking a special meta-level investigation, an investigation into the subjective conditions of the possibility of ordinary as well as scientific inquiry.

Hegel was convinced that Kant’s project of critique relies on the assumption that cognition is a means, critique for Kant is a meta-level investigation, in the context of his theoretical philosophy its objective is to determine the nature and limits of our cognition of nature and in the context of his practical philosophy, it seeks to secure the ground of practical obligation. Kant holds that the fundamental forms of cognition revealed by means of critique are a priori, indeed, he believes critique discovers as well as secures the validity of the pre-given and fixed contributions of human subjectivity at the basis of theoretical and practical as well as aesthetic domains of inquiry. Because Kant discovers at the basis of these domains concepts and principles that are a priori his version of critique is a model of what for Hegel is the commitment to the ‘externality’ and hence ‘emptiness’ of subjective form.

Hegel is convinced that the project of critique rests somehow upon a mistake, a mistake that he believes poses a threat especially to paradigmatic versions of critique such as Kant’s. The mistake is connected in some way to a thesis about the externality of thought, so we need to direct our attention away from Hegel’s critical remarks both on the project of critique and on the conception of cognition as a means and focus instead on the account of cognition he urges us to put in its place. Rather than present an extensive treatment of Hegel’s positive view of the nature and conditions of our various forms of cognition we can look more closely at texts wherein Hegel gives us fairly focused discussions of his own alternative account, the opening pages of the ‘Phenomenology’, and the ‘Science of Logic’ and his positive portrayal of the nature of thought and conditions of critique, while remembering that Hegel is convinced that in providing an alternative to the thesis that cognition is a means he can avoid the form of scepticism implied by that thesis, that is to say, he believes he can offer us a description of thought and its relation to content that prevents that sceptical gap from opening up.

In remarks echoing somewhat Kant’s prefaces to the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’Hegel announces in the preface to his ‘Logic’ that metaphysics is in a state of crisis, it has ‘vanished from the ranks of the sciences’. What is needed, he continues, is a ‘completely fresh start’, an ‘altogether new concept of scientific procedure’. One might be tempted to infer that Hegel’s intention is to pay tribute to Kant. Hardly. He soon casts Kant in the role of principal opponent. The crisis into which metaphysics has fallen, Hegel informs us, is a consequence of the ‘renunciation of speculative thinking’. No one is much interested any more in topics treated by rational psychology or cosmology, and Kant is largely to blame for this situation because a central tenet of his Critical philosophy is that objects of speculative metaphysics are inaccessible to our knowledge. Kant is ‘largely’ to blame for the ‘downfall [Untergang]’ of metaphysics in the ‘last twenty-five years’ albeit the practical mindedness of the time must share in the blame, the ‘modern educationists’ are at fault, for instance, for focusing too narrowly upon practical training.

‘Fantasies about a found glove, dedicated to the lady who lost it’, 1893, Max Klinger. ‘As we have taken upon us the task of determining, clearly and certainly, the limits of pure reason in the sphere of transcendentalism, and as the efforts of reason in this direction are persisted in, even after the plainest and most expressive warnings, hope still beckoning us past the limits of experience into the splendours of the intellectual world — it becomes necessary to cut away the last anchor of this fallacious and fantastic hope’. — Immanuel Kant.

Hegel’s charge is that Kant’s philosophy is ultimately a form of scepticism because it denies us knowledge of things themselves. What is Hegel’s explanation for the crisis of metaphysics? He informs us that the crisis is a consequence of the fact that philosophers, including Kant, are insufficiently self-critical. It is the ‘business of logical thinking’ to inquire into our most basic assumptions: ‘[T]horoughness [Gründlichkeit] seems to require that the beginning, as the foundation on which everything is built, should be examined before anything else’. But philosophers typically fall short when it comes to examining their own ‘presuppositions and prejudices’, they simply presuppose, for instance, that ‘infinity is different from finitude, that content is other than form, that the inner is other than the outer, also that mediation is not immediacy’. Hegel mentions in this context the fact that Kant simply borrows his logic from Aristotle, (384–322 BC). Kant assumes that, since the time of Aristotle, general logic has neither lost nor gained ground, it is ‘finished and complete’ and Kant simply borrowed his categories from the ‘common logic’, (and if you know your Aristotle you can hardly argue with Hegel here).

Or, they borrow their methods and fundamental concepts uncritically from ‘a subordinate science such as mathematics’. They presuppose that these sciences are already in perfect order. At first glance, it appears that Hegel’s message is merely that philosophers, including Kant, are at fault for not bringing their dogmatic proclivities under tighter control. They need to insure that, at the start of inquiry, they make their basic assumptions fully explicit and have good reason for supposing that these are assumptions with which all rational natures could agree. But Hegel’s objection is more interesting than this. He is not just asserting that philosophers need to exercise greater care in observing the high standards of critique, he instead means to call into question the standards themselves. The real target of his remarks is a certain understanding of what critical inquiry can be. In the ‘Logic’ he reminds us of the long history of efforts on the part of philosophers to begin with ‘definitions’ ‘imagined’ to express the ‘accepted and familiar’ ‘object and aim’ of a science. Some thinkers have taken as their first principle a ‘particular content’, such as ‘water, the one, nous, idea, substance, the monad’. Others have set out from a claim about the nature of cognition itself. Either way, philosophers typically begin with some assumption or set of assumptions they believe they are entitled to take for granted. They credit themselves with the ability to identify the ‘commonest’ categories and methods, the categories and methods that can be affirmed by every rational or finite rational nature. They, in other words, assume that they can separate out the categories and methods valid for all rational natures from those that reflect mere opinion and have at best a conditional worth. They can make this separation because they possess the ability to leave the realm of appearances or shadows behind.

A chief objective of each of Hegel’s major works, however, is to challenge this portrayal of the nature of critical inquiry. In his ‘Logic’ he contrasts his own understanding of the science of ‘thinking in general’ with what he tells us is the standard account. The standard account assumes, he says, that ‘thinking constitutes the mere form of a cognition, that logic abstracts from all content’. It assumes, in other words, that thinking on its own is empty and comes as an external form to the said material, fills itself with it and only thus acquires a content and so becomes a real knowing. In opposition to this description, Hegel insists that thought is not an ‘empty’ or ‘external’ form that ‘abstracts from all content’. At no point in the articulation or development of the science of logic are its concepts or laws empty of content, not even at the foundation of the science. Hegel’s claim here is not that, at every stage in the development and articulation of the science, the laws and concepts of logic are empty until they are actually applied in our thinking about objects. His claim is rather that, at no point in the science, are the laws and concepts of logic empty in the sense of external. At no point are its laws and concepts products of a special act of reflection whereby all that is contingent and of merely conditional validity is abstracted away. One of the mistakes Hegel attributes to those engaged in critique is that of attributing to the critical thinker extraordinary abstractive powers, powers to separate out, at the start of inquiry, the concepts and methods that can be affirmed by all rational natures from those that are merely contingently valid and he finds evidence of this mistake in Kant’s critical method, regardless of whether Kant employs analytic or synthetic argumentative strategies. Both analytic and synthetic methods are at fault for ‘starting from something that is externally presupposed’.

Furthermore Hegel is suspicious of the assumption that we can, when engaging in critical inquiry, achieve a perfect grasp of our presuppositions, that we can make them fully transparent to ourselves. We make the mistake of thinking that, at the start of inquiry, we have perfect knowledge of where we are. We overestimate the extent of our self-knowledge. Hegel’s starting point does appear to share much in common with Kant’s whereby he characterizes the concepts and methods with which he begins much as Kant often does, as those which are the most familiar and commonly accepted, as those which he is therefore most warranted in taking for granted. And like Kant, Hegel enlists the method of analysis in the service of making the conditions of those concepts and methods explicit. He follows Kant, furthermore, in that he ultimately aims to rationally justify his sciences of logic, of consciousness, and of right. But in Hegel’s case the advance from the initial commonly accepted assumptions through the procedure of analysis to the point of rational justification proceeds quite differently than it does for Kant. For both philosophers, analysis reflects upon the common concepts and methods with which we begin, and makes explicit the conditions upon they rest, but while in Kant’s case analysis serves the interest of justifying or securing the common assumptions with which we set out, in Hegel’s case analysis reveals that the assumptions with which our inquiry set out are not what we initially took them to be. Analysis in other words reveals that we were mistaken in our initial self-understanding, and furthermore, in making explicit what we failed to initially grasp about our original assumptions analysis awakens in us the need to revise them. Instead of aiding the ultimate justification of the assumptions with which we started, analysis has the effect of undercutting or ‘sublating’ them.

‘The Science of Logic’, for instance, begins with a concept that is supposed to be suitable as the absolute ground of the science, the concept of pure Being. We take the concept of pure Being to qualify as the absolute ground because we assume that it expresses abstract indeterminacy and that, as such, it rests on no prior ground or condition. But once we subject the concept of pure Being to analysis we discover that we were wrong to suppose that we meant by ‘pure Being’ something wholly indeterminate. For upon reflection we discover that we in fact take the concept ‘pure Being’ to have at least this determination, we mean by ‘pure Being’ something other than ‘Nothing’. As Hegel puts it, analysis reveals that the concept ‘pure Being’ is ‘itself an expression of reflection’. So looking back we learn that we were mistaken in our original understanding of our starting point, we did not have the self-understanding we thought we did, we assumed that ‘pure Being’ could serve as the ground of our science because of its abstract indeterminacy. We learn, however, that ‘pure Being’ is not absolutely indeterminate after all. We thus have to give up the expectation that we can ground our science on an abstract indeterminacy. We have to move on in search of a more adequate ground. The ‘Phenomenology’ conveys this kind of lesson as well as consciousness begins its search for the conditions of knowledge with an assumption it believes it may take for granted, namely, that our most reliable cognitive access to nature is achieved by means of ‘sense certainty’, by the passive reception of sense impressions, unmediated by concepts. Consciousness assumes that this direct or immediate access to things is the ‘truest’, the best means of getting at the things themselves, but upon reflection consciousness discovers that its starting point, a starting point that at first seemed self-evident and secure, is not what consciousness initially took it to be.

‘’A Love’: At the Gate’, 1903, Max Klinger. ‘We may be sure, therefore, whatever contempt may be thrown upon metaphysics by those who judge a science not by its own nature, but according to the accidental effects it may have produced, that it can never be completely abandoned, that we must always return to it as to a beloved one who has been for a time estranged, because the questions with which it is engaged relate to the highest aims of humanity, and reason must always labour either to attain to settled views in regard to these, or to destroy those which others have already established’. — Immanuel Kant.

For upon reflection consciousness comes to acknowledge that we cannot say what it is we know, we cannot even pick out the object of our knowledge by ostension without the aid of concepts. Consciousness discovers by means of analysis therefore that sense certainty is not a form of knowledge at all, and upon discovering its mistake consciousness moves on in search of more adequate ground. The methodological similarities in the critical methods of Kant and Hegel are superficial at best for as Hegel employs it analysis does not serve the purpose of finally grounding the supposedly universally and necessarily valid assumptions with which we begin, it instead makes their contingency explicit. It thereby sets reason in motion in search of a new ground. In exposing our ignorance, analysis in addition awakens in us a new self-understanding, we initially thought we knew our starting point, we thought our presuppositions were fully transparent, we thought that since we were relying on nothing more than what reason brings forth ‘entirely out of itself’ nothing could ‘escape’ or ‘remain hidden’ but we discover that this self-conception was also mistaken and that we were not entitled to the self-confidence that we had at the beginning.

So there you have two respects in which Hegel’s conception of critique differs from Kant’s. First, critique as Hegel employs it does not result in the ultimate justification of the common, familiar assumptions with which our inquiries begin, rather critique undercuts them, it reveals them to be unstable and in need of revision. Second, critique for Hegel deflates our claims to know ourselves at the start of inquiry, we thought that in beginning our logic with the concept of pure Being we were beginning with an abstract indeterminacy, upon reflection, however, we discover that we in fact mean by [pure Being something determinate, something other than ‘Nnothing’. We thought that in beginning with sense certainty we were describing the truest means of knowing things but we eventually learn that we are in fact committed to the view that knowledge requires the employment of concepts, and that sense certainty is not a form of knowledge at all.

The ‘Science of Logic’ and the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ tells the story of a series of beginnings whereby each records a history of false starts in the efforts of philosophers to ground their sciences, and the message is that the lesson to be learnt from a careful study of the history of philosophy is that the efforts of philosophers to begin with what is common and familiar, with assumptions every rational nature must grant, have so far suffered the same fate. The assumptions we thought we could take for granted at the start of inquiry, the assumptions we took to accurately capture the universal and necessary conditions of our science, turn out to be contingent. Critique Hegelian style exposes the need to move beyond them. And this is equally the case regarding our claims to self-knowledge. The history of philosophy records a series of self-conceptions, each initially presuming to capture the truth about who we are as thinking or knowing or willing subjects, but again and again history instructs us that the self-knowledge that we took ourselves to possess at the start was in some way deficient and that we did not know ourselves as well as we thought we did.

Hegel’s discussions of the history of the science of logic and of consciousness in its search for the ground of knowledge thereby incorporate a message not just about the failure of reason at some particular moment in its journey, these histories reveal a quite debilitating condition. What we learn from the history of philosophy (and yes I know Hegel famously said: ‘What experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it’. But this is different), is that human reason is incapable of carrying out the Cartesian, (René Descartes (1596–1650)), experiment of identifying at the start of inquiry the universal and necessary concepts and methods of a science, the concepts and methods that ground that science once and for all. Human reason cannot succeed in this endeavour, because the task of identifying the truly universal and necessary ground of a science requires powers of abstraction we do not possess, human reason is incapable of total detachment, it cannot free itself of the presuppositions that tie it to ‘common reality’.

In ‘Faith and Knowledge’ Hegel writes of the ‘programmatic principle of those (such as Kant, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, (1743–1819), and Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814)), who adhere to the ‘metaphysics of subjectivity’. The programmatic principle is to rise above the ‘subjective and empirical’ and ‘justify the absoluteness of reason, its independence from common reality’. It would appear that Hegel holds that human reason cannot achieve total detachment and entirely free itself from the presuppositions that tie it to common reality, but according to Stephen Houlgate, (1954 — ), Hegel demanded of philosophy that it be ‘utterly self-critical’ which is a demand for ‘radical pre-suppositionlessness’ but what does ‘radical pre-suppositionlessness’ amounts to? Houlgate is ambiguous, at times he attributes to Hegel the position that it is possible for us to begin inquiry without presuppositions: ‘Hegel’s Logic begins … with the radical suspension of all our presuppositions about thought and being’. Elsewhere he informs us that Hegel’s demand that philosophy be pre-suppositionless requires of us ‘the readiness to suspend or let go of what we have assumed to be true of thought and being and the readiness … to be moved by … the minimal thought of pure being that results from letting go of all our assumptions’. And elsewhere he describes the ‘pre-suppositionless’ starting point of the ‘Logic’ thus: ‘pre-suppositionless thought … begins with sheer indeterminacy and immediacy, then draws itself out, as it were, as the various categories are unfolded, and finally comes to be the whole circle — the unity of all the categories — of which sheer indeterminacy is retrospectively understood to be the necessary, but mere, beginning’. Spot the difference. Now the beginning is not pre-suppositionless, rather, we begin in ignorance of all that we are presupposing (or alternatively, we begin in ignorance of all that we mean by pure being), our presuppositions are revealed to us retrospectively.

Human reason to repeat is incapable of total detachment, it cannot free itself of the presuppositions that tie it to ‘common reality’, and it is in this sense not an ‘empty’ or ‘external’ form that ‘abstracts from all content’. Thought is not ‘external’ and its forms are not ‘ready made’. A second general lesson of Hegel’s histories concerns self-knowledge. Since it is not possible for us to transport ourselves in thought to a wholly external vantage point we also cannot at the start of inquiry be fully aware of our presuppositions. In a passage in the ‘Logic’ in which Hegel characterizes his own starting point in that text he writes that the beginning ‘is not yet truly known at the beginning’. This passage appears in the section of the ‘Logic’ entitled ‘With What Must the Science Begin?’ In his ‘Encyclopaedia Logic’ Hegel explains why he did not begin his ‘Science of Logic’ with the ‘Concept [Begriff]’ (which he says is the ‘truth’ of ‘Being’ and ‘Essence’). He writes: ‘we cannot begin with the truth, because truth, when it forms the beginning, rests on bald assurance, whereas the truth that is thought has to prove itself to be the truth at the bar of thinking’. Instead of beginning the Logic with the ‘Begriff’ he considered ‘Being’ and ‘Essence’ in their own dialectical development, and he recognized how they sublate themselves into the unity of the Concept. .

‘Akt, Rückenansicht’, 1927, Heinrich Hoerle. ‘The world around us opens before our view so magnificent a spectacle of order, variety, beauty, and conformity to ends, that whether we pursue our observations into the infinity of space in the one direction, or into its illimitable divisions in the other, whether we regard the world in its greatest or its least manifestations — even after we have attained to the highest summit of knowledge which our weak minds can reach, we find that language in the presence of wonders so inconceivable has lost its force, and number its power to reckon, nay, even thought fails to conceive adequately, and our conception of the whole dissolves into an astonishment without power of expression — all the more eloquent that it is dumb’. — Immanuel Kant.

Hegel is not declaring the limits of his own knowledge nor of his own grasp of the fundamental laws and concepts of his science but rather directs his remarks at any claim to make fully transparent the assumptions with which we begin our science. As he says in the ‘Phenomenology’ the ‘commonly known or familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not well-known’ and in the ‘Logic’: ‘while logical objects and their expressions may be thoroughly familiar to educated people, it does not follow … that they are intelligently apprehended’. We learn from the history of philosophy that not just our scientific investigations but also our meta-level efforts to perform critique are invariably accompanied by a certain blindness that results not only from the fact that, at the start of inquiry, we have not yet subjected our common and familiar assumptions to careful analysis. In drawing our attention to the partial blindness that accompanies critique Hegel has more than the need for analysis in mind for the blindness or ignorance with which he is chiefly concerned is in his view a necessary consequence of our limited powers of abstraction. Precisely because critique proceeds always from ‘within’ some ‘shape of consciousness’, we cannot at the start of inquiry be fully aware of our presuppositions. The meaning of Hegel’s idea of ‘shapes [Gestalten] of consciousness’ requires its own article).

Hegel not once encourages us to ditch our efforts to think critically or identify the internal structure and necessary conditions of our sciences, he means something else by there can be no ‘knowing before we know’, no critique of cognition that is not itself a cognition. Nor does he recommend that in undertaking critique we start with something other than the common and familiar assumptions we judge to be universally and necessarily valid, for he portrays the history of philosophy as a series of efforts to begin with ‘accepted’ and ‘familiar’ assumptions, and he at no time suggests that we could start in any other way, indeed, he writes in the ‘Logic’ that the definition with which any science makes an absolute beginning cannot contain anything other than the precise and correct expression of what is imagined to be the accepted and familiar object and aim of the science. So his point about the fact that we cannot ‘know before we know’ is neither that we should abandon critical inquiry nor that we should begin with assumptions other than those we believe we are warranted in taking for granted. We need rather to adjust our understanding of what critique can achieve, and given that critical reflection occurs always ‘within’ some ‘shape of consciousness’ and given that critique for that reason is invariably carried out in partial darkness we need to modify our expectation that critique can fulfill Kant’s promise of providing us ‘completeness’ as well as ‘certainty’.

Hegel does of course make his own claims to completeness as well, in the glorious final section of the ‘Phenomenology’ for instance he announces that Spirit has achieved ‘complete self-consciousness’. But recall that in the ‘Philosophy of Right’ he declares that since no philosophy can ‘transcend its contemporary world’ our expectations about what will or will not come next invariably reflect our ties to a particular age and set of philosophical commitments. Our views about completeness therefore are always relative to some particular set of aims and expectations that reveal our debt to actual historical conditions. Kant’s assumption that in performing critique ‘nothing can escape us’ requires a re-think. The is a double dependence of concepts upon intuitions. Hegel of course did not rejecting all of the features Kant attributes to human discursivity, he allows that our mode of cognition, because discursive, is, as Kant says, a ‘dependent’ mode of cognition. With Kant he allows that in cognizing nature our concepts or thought-forms must be applied to a sense content that is independently given. Our concepts must be applied to an independently given sense content because we cannot from our concepts produce or generate sensible intuitions, and in this respect our concepts are empty and furthermore Hegel’s account of human cognition retains Kant’s dualism of concepts and intuitions.

Hegel nonetheless calls into question some of the features Kant associates with our discursivity. He calls into question the features he believes have sceptical implications for Kant’s idealism and thereby condemn it to ‘subjectivity’. In particular Hegel rejects the Kantian assumption that since we bring conceptual forms to cognition, we have to contend with ‘contingency’ in their relation to given sensible intuitions. We can have no justification, that is to say, for claiming to know objects wholly on the other side of cognition. Hegel is convinced that the key to avoiding this version of scepticism rests in rejecting Kant’s view of the nature of conceptual form and he wishes to persuade us that conceptual form is not empty in the sense of ‘external’, it is neither settled in advance nor fixed and a careful study of the history of philosophy reveals that even those concepts or categories that seem to us the most stable and secure exhibit what he calls ‘immanent plasticity’ and he explicitly states ‘that a central objective of his ‘Science of Logic’ is to persuade us of this fact. He informs us that he intends his discussion in that work to demonstrate the ‘untruth’ of the ‘supposed independent self-subsistence’ of our thought-determinations.

At the basis of the thesis that we have concepts or categories that are ‘external’ in the sense of pre-given and fixed is what Hegel judges to be an equally implausible conception of the nature of critical reflection. For the claim that critique affords us access to the universal and necessary conditions of the possibility of a given realm of inquiry rests upon the assumption that we are in possession of extraordinary powers of abstraction. It presupposes that, in thinking, we can overleap or transcend our time, we can access a vantage point that is absolutely independent from ‘common reality’. Hegel doubts that human reason is capable of this degree of detachment, for it is not possible for us to abstract to a meta-level form of inquiry that in no way reflects our debt to the ordinary as well as scientific practices of our day, and this is why he frequently characterizes the starting point of inquiry as invariably resting upon a ‘presupposition’. As he writes: ‘a beginning … does make a presupposition, or, rather, it is itself just that’. Rather than beginning from an Archimedean point, every starting point is a ‘result’. Philosophy establishes nothing new.

It is not just that thought depends upon an independently given content as a condition of cognition, thought depends upon that content for its nature as well. So how is Hegelian critique to be represented? It is a mistake to suppose that Hegel’s prescription for avoiding an idealism that is subjective is to attribute to human cognition literally all the productive powers of an intuitive intellect, for such an intellect has no reason for concern that its ideas or concepts may be only contingently connected to its objects, it can rest assured that the relation between its concepts and objects is one of perfect harmony, and yt can be absolutely confident of this because it possesses the God-like ability to bring its objects into being in the very act of thinking and knowing them. Nor should we suppose that Hegel believes he can avoid the contingency problem by fully attending to the implications of Kant’s insight regarding the role of concepts in our conscious awareness and experience of objects. The Kantian insight is that there can be no object for thought that is not a conceptually mediated or determined object, a wholly extra-conceptual content (the ‘thing in itself’) is neither a possible object of our cognition nor even thinkable. Such a content therefore has no cognitive significance for us and Hegel contends that if we adequately appreciate this fact about the role of concept, we will cease to measure the worth of our knowledge by the standard of representationalism, ee will no longer set out to determine whether the objects of our knowledge conform to the ‘things themselves’, if we fully appreciate the Kantian insight about the role of concepts we will give up representationalism in favour of internalist coherentism, (whether a belief is justified hinges solely on what the subject is like mentally).

A problem with this second interpretation of Hegel is that it leaves us no way to explain his repeated gripes about an idealism that is merely subjective. Internalism does not close the gap between concepts and objects, it judges the effort to close that gap to be in vain, it abandons the aim of natural consciousness to know objects on the ‘other side’ of consciousness, but satisfies itself instead with the ‘metaphysic of subjectivity’, the metaphysic that on Hegel’s description condemns us as knowing subjects to grief and longing a sceptical outcome that Hegel resists. Closing the concept-intuition gap requires us to reject the assumption that conceptual form is ‘external’ and to radicalize Kant;s commitment therefore to the dependent nature of thought. And not only must our concepts depend upon an independently given sensible content if they are to serve as conditions of cognition, they depend upon that content for their nature as well, even our most basic and general concepts emerge from a faculty that is an ‘original identity’, a faculty that is not a pure spontaneity but also in part receptive. Our concepts emerge from an intellect that is ‘at the same time a posteriori’, an intellect whose freedom from nature and history is conditioned rather than wholly unfettered or absolute’.

Given Hegel’s commitment to the dependent nature of human thought it may appear he held a purely causal account of the origin of our concepts and norms according to which they derive from nothing but our passive reception of sensory input, but such an account would give us no way to explain how our perceptual beliefs are answerable to experience. That is to say, it would give us no way to explain how nature exercises a rational constraint upon those beliefs, but Hegel did not so much hold that our concepts are products of mere receptivity, rather he held that our concepts are not products of pure spontaneity. And how can this explain how our concepts or norms can be answerable to experience? Well, we adhere to a false standard of what is needed to secure the normativity of perceptual belief, we cling to the myth of the given. The myth of the given, as explained by Wilfrid Sellars, (1912–1989) the view that knowledge of what we perceive can be independent of the conceptual processes which result in perception. (John McDowell, (1942 — ), refers to itas the myth of the ‘endogenous given’, that is, an internal cause, thus, internalism).

Normativity or justification may be secured for according to this myth we possess a form of spontaneity whose freedom or independence from nature is absolute, as Hegelian might put it: the myth of the absolute ‘externality’ of thought. In the ‘Logic’ Hegel explains the basis of his rejection of the treatment of cognition as a means through drawing our intention to a common mistake about the nature of thought, that is, our ignoring or overlooking a feature thought shares with our faculties of feeling, interest, and passion. We typically assume that our thought-forms or categories are wholly subject to our control and that when we apply them in thinking about things we can ‘stand above’ as well as dominate them, we can manipulate them to serve our purposes, we can treat them as tools or means, and we thereby fall into the error of supposing that our faculty of thought is in this respect wholly unlike our faculties of feeling. In the case of feelings and passions we correctly acknowledge that although we can guide and control them to some extent we also have to accommodate ourselves to them, we correctly recognize, that is to say, that our feelings and passions are not entirely at our disposal, we acknowledge that feelings, interests, and passions do not merely serve us, but that we also have to serve them, we are to an extent ‘caught up’ in them. they ‘have us in their possession’ as ‘independent forces and powers’, our feelings and passions set constraints that we can neither thoroughly control nor completely grasp.

In these remarks Hegel once again tries to persuade us of the artificiality of the thesis of absolute heterogeneity, for if thought shares with feelings and passions the features he outlines here it cannot simply be an expression of spontaneity, it is not just the giver and author of law, it must be governed and acted upon as well. It must, that is to say, be partly receptive. If thought is like feeling its rules and laws are neither perfectly transparent to us nor wholly under our control and the choices we make in employing them are not supported by perfect knowledge and are not expressions of an unfettered freedom. There is no thinking or application of our forms of thought that is not conditioned by and thus responsive to actual natural and historical forces and the activity of critique as well as its outcome is not entirely up to us.

And so where does that leave us? Well, there is much more to be said, the intimate relation discovered by Hegel between thinking, apperceptive self-consciousness, and feeling, in particular, desire. Hegel’s identification of self-consciousness with ‘desire itself [Begierde überhaupt] from which we may suppose that Hegel wishes to stress that self-consciousness is a task of self-constitution (an act of spontaneity) rather than a passive product of self-observation or introspection. Or Hegel’s identification of self-consciousness with desire. As desiring natures we are also highly dependent natures and this fact about ourselves is something over which we do not have complete control. Our acts of spontaneity or self-constitution are conditioned rather than absolute, our reason or rationality is impure rather than pure. Yirmiyahu Yovel, (1935–2018), goes so far as to say that Hegelian rationality ‘contains unreason, contingency, and negativity as integral ingredients’. Paul Redding has emphasised the ‘radically fallibilist’ nature of Hegel’s philosophy stating that ‘we should not even think of something like Kant’s normative transcendental unity of apperception as perfect and free from the problems of the causal embeddedness of ‘incarnation’ and individuation’.

It may stop but it never ends …

Speaking of desire:

‘Drinking song’


Sparkling in the glass

So bright, so beauteous,

It gleams as the bubbles fly high,

The gold gleams as it fizzes,

The gold of the sweet, valuable grape.

It shines clearly on us too,

So friendly, so beauteous;

As bright as the grape,

The refreshing gold of the grape,

Is majestic, surging life.

Therefore, joyful boozers,

Raise your glasses,

The wine is sparkling

And equally friendly, just as beauteous,

Sparkles this surging

Life, like gold!

Drink! Drink!

‘Der Zecher und der Tod’, (‘The Drinker and Death’), from ‘Ein moderner Totentanz’, 1894, Joseph Sattler


Funkelnd im Becher

So helle so hold,

Blinket hochschäumend,

Blinkt perlend das Gold

Der süssen, der köstlichen Reben.

Es glänzet auch uns wohl

So freundlich, so hold,

Hell wie der Reben

Erquickendes Gold

Das wogende herrliche Leben.

Drum, freudiger Zecher,

Erhebet die Becher,

Es funkelt der Wein

Wohl so freundlich, so hold,

Es funkelt das wogende

Leben wie Gold!

Trinket! Trinket!

‘He knew what’s what, and that’s as high

As metaphysic wit can fly’.

- Samuel Butler, (1613–1680), ‘Hudibras’




David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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