Sense Certainty?

The first chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology is devoted to “sense certainty”. In spite of his polemic against those who want to ground human knowledge in immediacy, it seems to me Hegel is actually very charitable here, in conceding that there is already a truth to which “certainty” could apply.

Again with apologies for my use of the old Baillie translation, Hegel says “This bare fact of certainty, however, is really and admittedly the abstractest and the poorest kind of truth. It merely says regarding what it knows: it is; and its truth contains solely the being of the fact it knows. Consciousness, on its part, in the case of this form of certainty, takes the shape merely of pure Ego. In other words, I in such a case am merely qua pure This, and the object likewise is merely qua pure This. I, this particular conscious I, am certain of this fact before me, not because I qua consciousness have developed myself in connection with it and in manifold ways set thought to work about it: and not, again, because the fact, the thing, of which I am certain, in virtue of its having a multitude of distinct qualities, was replete with possible modes of relation and a variety of connections with other things. Neither has anything to do with the truth sensuous certainty contains: neither the I nor the thing has here the meaning of a manifold relation with a variety of other things, of mediation in a variety of ways. The I does not contain or imply a manifold of ideas, the I here does not think: nor does the thing mean what has a multiplicity of qualities. Rather, the thing, the fact, is; and it is merely because it is. It is — that is the essential point for sense-knowledge, and that bare fact of being, that simple immediacy, constitutes its truth” (pp. 149-150).

Hegel goes on to point out that this otherwise completely indeterminate “bare fact of being” implicitly presupposes a distinction between “I” and “object”. “When we reflect on this distinction, it is seen that neither the one nor the other is merely immediate, merely is in sense-certainty, but is at the same time mediated: I have the certainty through the other, viz. through the actual fact; and this, again, exists in that certainty through an other, viz. through the I” (p. 150). And so begins the dialectical path that Hegel claims can eventually lead to a knowledge free of the kind of transcendental illusion Kant had said was inevitable for us humans.

So Hegel is saying even the standpoint that takes itself to be grounded in pure immediacy actually turns out not to be purely immediate. But he generously nonetheless allows it its “truth” of “this is“.

What immediate sensation gives us is only something we can point at as “this”, but Hegel is also accepting the very general and minimal claim that whenever we sense something — even if we are totally ignorant or mistaken about what it is — we can still be certain that we are sensing “something”. Completely without prejudice as to what it is, he is generously counting our impression that it in some way is as a minimal kind of knowledge. A “this” by itself can be neither true nor false, but “that this is” is arguably a kind of minimal proposition to which truth and certainty could apply.

Referring to Hegel’s contemporary notebooks, H. S. Harris in his commentary says that “The real paradigm of sense certainty is the consciousness of Hegel’s [peasant woman] who is comfortably at home in her world of singular things, each with its proper name” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 212). He quotes Hegel “The peasant-wife lives within the circle of her Lisa, her best cow; then the black one, the spotted one, and so on; also of Martin, her lad, and Ursula, her lass, etc.” (ibid).

Harris goes on to emphasize that “The Hegelian philosopher is like the peasant woman in that everything she does is part of actual living, part of the integral awareness of her own life…. We do not ever leave Sense-Certainty behind — though, of course we do leave some philosophical views that are founded upon it behind” (p. 213).

Hegel does not ask us to leave “natural consciousness” behind, but invites us to broaden its circle. It is philosophical views purporting to ground themselves in pure immediacy that will be conclusively left behind.

Each of the standpoints or shapes of experience successively described in the Phenomenology is discussed by Hegel from multiple perspectives. He tries to describe the way each standpoint sees itself; he may allude to ways in which he thinks other philosophers have misappropriated it; and he tries to clarify how he wants us to come to see it. What eventually happens with each of the standpoints thus has a certain ambiguity, depending on which perspective is under consideration.

In real life we don’t abstractly say to ourselves “this… is“, but are more like the peasant woman recognizing Lisa, her cow. We “immediately” experience Lisa the cow, not abstract sense data. Our “immediate” recognition of Lisa the cow involves a preconscious Kantian synthesis of a sensible manifold in light of many past experiences.

I am somewhat in doubt myself about counting a bare “this is” as a meaningful truth. It has the syntactic form of a proposition, but it seems totally unclear what is being asserted. It is applying an indeterminate to an indeterminate. “This is Lisa the cow” on the other hand I would count as a meaningful proposition of ordinary life. I think saying “this is“, though admittedly not the same as just saying “this”, is more like just saying “this” than it is like saying “this is Lisa the cow”. Lisa the cow at least is distinguishable from many other things even if “this” is not, so it means something to say “this is Lisa the cow”.

But Hegel and Harris are being deliberately generous here, and my earlier point about multiple perspectives on each “standpoint” applies. Technically I would want to say that in recognizing Lisa the cow we must have already reached beyond sense-certainty to what Hegel will call Perception, but it is nonetheless true that common sense elides this sort of distinction, and experiences itself as immediately seeing Lisa the cow. The Hegelian philosopher too as a living being will still “immediately see” Lisa the cow and many other already differentiated things; she just won’t build dogmatic theories that take this experienced immediacy as the last word.

Passive Synthesis, Active Sense

Husserl suggested an intriguing notion of passive synthesis, which I believe in his view would be the source of what Hegel calls mediated immediacy. Something like this could help round out the Kantian account of synthesis, which is strongly tilted toward active synthesis associated with deliberate conscious acts. Language is straining here; passive synthesis is just short of paradox. I think the idea here is that “passive” synthesis is synthesis that comes to us more or less ready-made, based on previous syntheses we have formed or socially assimilated.

Something related to this is also involved in the Aristotelian notion of a “common” sense, which in effect synthesizes our experience of sensible things into a unified whole. Aristotle’s remarks are in a very minimalist style, but were developed in a little more detail by the commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias. Kant and Aristotle both generally treat sense perception in passive terms, but Aristotle’s common sense clearly cannot be entirely passive. Many medieval authors working in the broadly Aristotelian tradition developed more detailed accounts of sense perception in general as also involving an active component.

These various efforts to describe such processes in terms that are neither purely active nor purely passive seem very important to me as laying the ground for a reasonable account of human agency, free of both voluntarism and simplistic determinism.