Hegel's Phenomenological Method

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Karl Marx called [the Phenomenology of Spirit1] ‘the true birthplace and secret of Hegel’s philosophy’. Others, defeated by its 750 pages of bewildering and tortuous prose, have been content to let whatever secrets it might contain rest undisturbed. No account of Hegel, however, can decently overlook it.2 (Peter Singer)

Hegel claims in the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit that the book has phenomenal knowledge as the object of its exposition. What Hegel means by phenomenal knowledge, and in what sense his work is a phenomenology, are controversial questions about the nature of his whole project. This article will address these questions in an attempt to show how the Hegelian reasoning is rigorously aimed at the attainment of certainty in philosophy (or, in Hegel’s terms, at the coming-to-being of Science as such). By explaining this aim in more detail, we will find the main problems and Hegel’s solution to them. There are two types of problems addressed by Hegel in his Phenomenology: the problem of the beginning of philosophy and the problem of carrying it out. The first part of this article will be devoted to the former problem. Then, by way of a detailed explanation of phenomenal knowledge, the latter problem, by far more subtle, will be addressed. It is in this last part that we will find a greater disagreement between commentators. The main source of controversy can be stated here: it is difficult explain why each form of consciousness will necessarily give birth to the next, the latter being completely determined by the former. Hegel suggests that there is nothing arbitrary in the process. However, although the forms of consciousness form a chain in the different approaches to his method (mentioned below), it is not clear if another such chain, with different individual links, would be equally possible.

The aim of philosophy[edit | edit source]

What is the aim of the Phenomenology of Spirit? In the preface to his work, Hegel describes the aim of his project as a search for valid knowing. In other words, his intention is to achieve genuine certainty in knowing.3

To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title of ‘love of knowing’ and become actual knowing- that is what I have set myself to do.4

Hegel is not satisfied with traditional philosophical enterprises (like the Humean and Kantian projects) that seek to secure knowledge of a certain kind and are sceptical about the results of any other claim to knowledge.5 Hegel doubts the possibility of such a limited way of knowing, and analyses in the introduction to the Phenomenology the claim ‘that there is a type of cognition which, though it does not cognise the Absolute as Science aims to, is still true and that cognition in general, though it be incapable of grasping the Absolute, is still capable of grasping other kinds of truth’.6 He explains that this conception is based on hazy distinctions between ‘an absolute truth and some other kind of truth’ and the unwarranted presupposition of the meaning of terms like ‘absolute’, ‘cognition’, etc.7

The Phenomenology will therefore be a reconstruction of the ‘coming-to-be of Science as such’ in the form of a description of the ‘long way’ which knowledge ‘must travel’ in order to become ‘genuine knowledge’. In the following sections, we will examine the direction that consciousness must take in order to achieve this absolute knowing.8

The beginning of philosophy[edit | edit source]

If one is to achieve genuine certainty, then the beginning of one’s project becomes a problem. The reason is that it is apparently impossible to establish a criterion by which to decide what is true and what is not. For what criterion will be used to establish the criterion to use? This Problem is known as the Dilemma of Criterion. It was posed by the ancient sceptics and described by Sextus Empiricus in the following terms:

In order to decide the dispute which has arisen about the criterion [of truth], we must possess an accepted criterion by which we shall be able to judge the dispute; and in order to possess an accepted criterion, the dispute about the criterion must first be decided. And when the argument thus reduces itself to a form of circular reasoning the discovery of the criterion becomes impracticable, since we do not allow [those who make knowledge claims] to adopt a criterion by assumption, while if they offer to judge the criterion by a criterion we force them to regress ad infinitum. And furthermore, since demonstration requires a demonstrated criterion, while the criterion requires an approved demonstration, they are forced into circular reasoning.9

It would seem that any attempt to establish certainty would be condemned beforehand to an infinite regress. Hegel’s method is a responsible and rigorous attempt to resolve the Dilemma of Criterion without begging the question or falling into an infinite regress or a vicious circle.

However, in addition to the aforementioned dilemma, there are problems concerning the relation of Hegel’s investigation to history, to the philosophical tradition and to everyday consciousness.10

Firstly, a departure from the historical tradition would seem arbitrary and unwarranted. Hegel realizes that his view seems to contradict the view that is prevalent in his time,11 but he defends that his investigation is in historical continuity with what has come before and that the departure from previous views is due to a historical change by virtue of which the achievement of absolute knowing is due.12

Secondly, regarding his relation to the philosophical tradition, he explains that, while the ‘conventional opinion’ sees in the history of philosophy only ‘simple disagreements’, with one system refuting and replacing the next, the tradition should be regarded as a process in which each philosopher finds the shortcomings of the previous systems and sets out to correct them.13 Hegel compares the history of philosophy with the different forms in the organic development of a plant.

These forms are not just distinguished from one another, they also supplant one another as mutually incompatible. Yet at the same time their fluid nature makes them moments of an organic unity in which they not only do not conflict, but in which each is as necessary as the other; and this mutual necessity alone constitutes the life of the whole. But he who rejects a philosophical system [i.e. the new philosopher] does not usually comprehend what he is doing in this way; and he who grasps the contradiction between them [i.e. the historian of philosophy] does not, as a general rule, know how to free it from its one-sidedness, or maintain it in its freedom by recognizing the reciprocally necessary moments that take shape as a conflict and seeming incompatibility.14

This explanation legitimises the Phenomenology of Spirit as a continuation of previous philosophy, instead of an arbitrary departure from the previous ideas. Thirdly, we encounter the problem of the relation between natural consciousness (the unscientific, uneducated standpoint of everyday life) and the project of the Phenomenology. Science appears to the natural consciousness as the ‘esoteric possession of a few individuals’.15 Why should we give more credit to Science than to the certainty of the natural attitude?.16

But Science, just because it comes on the scene, is itself an appearance: in coming on the scene it is not yet Science in its developed and unfolded truth. [...] For, when confronted with a knowledge that is without truth, Science can neither merely reject it as an ordinary way of looking at things, while assuring us that its Science is a quite different sort of cognition for which that ordinary knowledge is of no account whatever; nor can it appeal to the vulgar view for the intimations it gives us of something better to come. By the former assurance, Science would be declaring its power to lie simply in its being; but the untrue knowledge likewise appeals to the fact that it is, and assures us that for it Science is of no account. One bare assurance is worth just as much as another.17

The natural attitude has a right to ask for a justification of Science. Hegel states this explicitly in the Preface.

[T]he individual has the right to demand that Science should at least provide him with the ladder to this standpoint [achieved at the end of the Phenomenology of Spirit], should show him this standpoint within himself.18

Critique of Kantian Metaphysics[edit | edit source]

‘It is a natural assumption’, writes Hegel at the beginning of his introduction to the Phenomenology that ‘before we deal with its proper subject-matter, viz. the actual cognition of what truly is, one must first come to an understanding about cognition’.27 Taking cognition for granted might lead to a choice of inadequate means that will render us unable to grasp the truth. The introduction criticizes this approach to the problem because of its conception of knowledge as ‘an instrument to get hold of the absolute, or as a medium through which one discovers it’.28 This conception amounts to the unjustified assumption that we are separated from what is to be known and, furthermore, that so is knowledge.29 It would seem that the traditional view of the subject is prompting us to know what knowledge is before we start to know. This is obviously absurd.

We ought, says Kant, to become acquainted with the instrument before we undertake the work for which it is to be employed; for if the instrument be insufficient, all our trouble will be spent in vain... But the examination of knowledge can only be carried out by an act of knowledge. To examine this so-called instrument is the same thing as to know it. But to seek to know before we know is as absurd as the wise resolution of Scholasticus, not to venture into the water until he had learned to swim.30

It might seem, though, that there is no possible escape if one is to establish what will count as genuine knowledge, and that we must either accept the criterion of truth of some epistemological position dogmatically or doubt the validity of any knowledge claim because of our inability to justify epistemological claims.31

The method of enquiry of the Phenomenology is based on an immanent critique that brings nothing external into the subject matter. Put in simplistic terms, the internal contradictions of one way of knowing (or form of consciousness) will lead to the next, in a series that will eventually lead to Absolute Knowing.

It is necessary to explain at this point what Hegel means by consciousness being infinite, because he distinguishes two different types of infinity.

The false infinite is the popular conception of the infinite, as the constant repetition of the finite. It is the infinite as the unending series, or the indefinitely extended straight line. According to Hegel (and Bradley) this kind of infinite is ‘false’ because it forms no real contrast with the finite, it simply repeats the finite. [...] What then is the true infinite? It is that which is unlimited, unbounded, because it incorporates everything else within itself. It does not stand over against something else which would thereby limit it. An example would be the infinite character of consciousness. In some sense, perhaps, there is a contrast between consciousness and its objects, but these objects do not limit it, they exist within consciousness, as the content of consciousness, and in that sense consciousness is infinite.32

Therefore, consciousness cannot ever ‘come up against’ anything external to it, because ‘if it were external to consciousness, consciousness could never encounter it’.33

Hegel makes the same point in the preface to the Phenomenology.

Consciousness knows and comprehends only what falls within its experience.34

Hence, what is called for is a systematic account of the experience of consciousness, ‘the Science of this pathway is the Science of the experience which consciousness goes through’.35

Phenomenal knowledge[edit | edit source]

Endnotes[edit | edit source]

1 Hegel, G.W.F.: Phenomenology of Spirit. (From now on referred to as PS). Translated by A.V. Miller, with analysis of the text by J.N. Findlay. Oxford University Press (1977). All quotes of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit refer to this edition unless otherwise stated.
2 Singer, P.: Hegel. Oxford University Press (1983).
3 Joseph C. Flay and Kenneth R. Westphal both emphasize the importance of Hegel’s claim to have found a way to achieve certainty in philosophy. Their description of the method, however, is significantly different, as we shall see below. Flay’s account of the method in the Phenomenology can be found in Flay, J.C.: Hegel’s Quest for Certainty. State University of New York Press (1984). A compressed version of Westphal’s discussion is available in Westphal, K.R.: Hegel’s Solution to the Dilemma of the Criterion. Published in Stewart, J. (ed.): The Phenomenology of Spirit Reader. Critical and Interpretive Essays. State University of New York Press (1988).
4 PS §5, p.3.
5 Hume denied the validity of non-empirical claims in An enquiry concerning human understanding and Kant tried to prove that there cannot be any knowledge of transcendent objects in his famous Critique of Pure Reason.
6 PS §78, pp.47-48.
7 Ibid.
8 PS §27, p.15.
9 Sextus Empiricus: Outlines of Pyrrhonism, trans. R.G. Bury (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933). Cited in Westphal, K.R.: Hegel’s Solution to the Dilemma of the Criterion, published in Stewart, J. (ed.): The phenomenology of Spirit Reader. Critical and Interpretive Essays. State University of New York Press (1988). pp.76-101.
10 A very good description of these problems and of Hegel’s solutions to them can be found in Flay (1984).
11 PS §6, p.4.

12 In his analysis of PS §11, J.N. Findlay writes:

Our own time is ripe for a major intellectual and spiritual advance. This has been ‘in the womb’ for a long time, and is now about to achieve birth. (PS, analysis p. 496)

13 PS §2, p.2.
14 Ibid.
15 PS §13, p.7. Hegel understands by Science the system of knowledge.

16 Flay (1984) p.(ix) describes the certainty of natural consciousness in the following terms:

The certainty which putatively belongs to common-sense, i.e., to a natural attitude which considers philosophy and its quest for certainty perverse (verkehrt).

17 PS §76, pp.48-49.
18 PS §26, pp.14-15.
27 PS §73, p.46.
28 Ibid.
29 PS §74, p.47.
30 Hegel, G.W.F.: Lesser Logic. Quoted in Singer (1983).
31 The latter position is adopted by Sextus Empiricus.
32 Norman (1998), p.121.
33 Ibid.
34 PS §36, p.21.
35 Ibid. This way of describing the content gives support to Werner Marx’s claim that the original title of the Phenomenology (Science of the Experience of Consciousness) does not mean ‘science carried out by the experience of consciousness’ but rather ‘the experience of consciousness studied by science’. He correctly points this out in Marx (1975), p.1, by referring to PS §87, pp.55-56.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

[1] Dove, K.R.: Hegel’s Phenomenological Method. Published in Stewart, J. (ed.): The Phenomenology of Spirit Reader. Critical and Interpretive Essays. State University of New York Press (1988). pp.52-75.
[2] Flay, J.C.: Hegel’s Quest for Certainty. State University of New York Press (1984).
[3] Hegel, G.W.F.: Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller, with analysis of the text by J.N. Findlay. Oxford University Press (1977).
[4] Heidegger, M.: Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Indiana University Press (1994).
[5] Hume, D.: An enquiry concerning human understanding.
[6] Hyppolite, J.: Genesis and structure of Hegel's Phenomenology of spirit. Northwestern University Press (1974).
[7] Kant, I.: Critique of Pure Reason.
[8] Marx, W.: Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. It’s point and purpose- A commentary on the Preface and Introduction. Harper & Row Publishers (1975).
[9] Norman, R.J.: Hegel’s Phenomenology. A Philosophical Introduction. Sussex University Press (1976).
[10] Norman, R.: The Moral Philosophers. An Introduction to Ethics. Second Edition. Oxford University Press (1998).
[11] Plant, R.: Hegel. On Religion and Philosophy. Phoenix (1998).
[12] Rosen, M.: Hegel's dialectic and its criticism. Cambridge University Press (1982).
[13] Singer, P.: Hegel. Oxford University Press (1983).
[14] Solomon, R.C.: In the Spirit of Hegel. A study of G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford University Press (1983).
[15] Stewart, J.: The Architectonic of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Published in Stewart, J. (ed.): The Phenomenology of Spirit Reader. Critical and Interpretive Essays. State University of New York Press (1988). pp.444-477.
[16] Westphal, K.R.: Hegel’s Solution to the Dilemma of the Criterion. Published in Stewart, J. (ed.): The Phenomenology of Spirit Reader. Critical and Interpretive Essays. State University of New York Press (1988). pp.76-101.

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