Hegel on Being

Being, pure being — without further determination. In its indeterminate immediacy it is equal only to itself and also not unequal with respect to another; it has no difference within it, nor any outwardly. If any determination or content were posited in it as distinct, or if it were posited by this determination or content as distinct from an other, it would thereby fail to hold fast in its purity. It is pure indeterminateness and emptiness. — There is nothing to be intuited in it, if one can speak here of intuiting; or, it is only this pure empty intuiting itself. Just as little is anything to be thought in it, or, it is equally only this empty thinking. Being, the indeterminate immediate is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing” (Hegel, Science of Logic, di Giovanni trans., p. 59).

“[Hegel] begins the book with a sentence fragment, the linguistic representation of a thought that is, can be, no true thought” (Pippin, Hegel’s Logic of Shadows, p. 188).

“[T]he opening as such is the resolve to attempt to think Being as such…. This is what will fail (or more precisely, will prove itself to be incomplete as a possible thought, and through that failure we learn… the essential discursivity of thought and the first determination of being as such, determinacy, articulability. (This lesson is what Aristotle wants us to learn when he argues that being as such cannot be a highest genus…. This is, I want to claim, the same lesson we are to learn at the beginning of Hegel’s Logic)” (p. 185).

“But the attempted thought of immediate indeterminacy… is a failed thought…. Just thereby, thinking is thinking its failure to be thinking” (ibid).

“We begin in effect… with ‘Father Parmenides‘… Hegel accepts the challenge of the hypothesis, the thought of… ‘indeterminate immediacy’, as his beginning” (p. 184).

“Its determinacy simply amounts to a thing’s distinguishability from what it is not…. And herein lies Parmenides’ famous problem. This would, as noted, appear to commit us to the existence of ‘what is not’…. It does not, of course; this all rests on a confusion between not-being as not being anything, not existing, and being as being other than… as Plato demonstrated in The Sophist” (pp. 185-186).

Hegel’s Preface

In Nature, Ends, Normativity I raised the question of what happens to Aristotelian teleology when we look at it through a Kantian critical lens, then made a preliminary gesture toward its resolution by invoking Hegel’s challenge and admonition to us in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit to make ourselves at home in otherness. Just how making ourselves at home in otherness helps with the question about Aristotle and Kant may not be at all clear yet. For now it’s just a thought to keep in mind.

First I want to try to explore Hegel’s larger point in the Preface that I risked reducing to the phrase “make ourselves at home in otherness”, and let that lead where it may. This post won’t get to the point where the phrase is introduced. It’s even possible that I’m remembering it from a paraphrase in H. S. Harris’ outstanding commentary. I’ll walk through the Preface over the course of several posts, using Terry Pinkard’s translation published in 2018.

Hegel’s Preface is an extremely dense text that seems to very deliberately follow a non-linear order. It does have a development, but it doesn’t just proceed from beginning to middle to end. Rather, it seems to repeatedly circle around several key insights, adding a little more each time. Famously, he begins by rejecting the very idea that philosophical truth is the kind of thing that could be “introduced” or made easily digestible by a conventional preface.

He goes on to repeatedly criticize two chief ways in which philosophy is made digestible and shallow — one that treats truth as something merely formal, and one that claims to leap into absolute knowledge by means of intellectual intuition. Especially in some of the later parts, Hegel gives a number of valuable hints at what he thinks serious philosophy ought to look like.

“[C]onventional opinion holds that the opposition between the true and the false is itself fixed and set…. It does not comprehend the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive development of truth as much as it sees only contradiction in that diversity…. However, at the same time their fluid nature makes them into moments of an organic unity in which they are not only not in conflict with each other, but rather, one is equally as necessary as the other” (p. 4).

Hegel is not at all advocating some trite relativism or erasure of distinctions here. He is objecting to the artificially “fixed and set” way in which what he calls formalism sees the truth of propositions taken in isolation. More positively, he seems to be suggesting that we view the great philosophers as participants in a common, mutually enriching dialogue rather than as competitors.

“[T]he subject matter [of philosophy] is not exhausted in its aims; rather, it is exhaustively treated when it is worked out. Nor is the result which is reached the actual whole itself; rather, the whole is the result together with the way the result comes to be…. [T]he unadorned result is just the corpse that has left the tendency behind…. The easiest thing of all is to pass judgment on what is substantial and meaningful. It is much more difficult to get a real grip on it, and what is the most difficult of all is both to grasp what unites each of them and to give a full exposition of what that is” (p. 5).

Here Hegel makes a very Aristotelian point about the essential role of actualization. What he is directly applying it to is philosophical accounts of things. We should be interested not just in philosophy’s ostensible conclusions, but in how they were arrived at. (But an analogous point could be made about the actual working out of Aristotelian teleology in the world. What is relevant to this is not just pure ends by themselves, but the whole process by which ends are actualized by means of concrete tendencies.)

“In positing that the true shape of truth lies in its scientific rigor — or, what is the same thing, in asserting that truth has the element of its existence solely in concepts — I do know that this seems to contradict an idea (along with all that follows from it), whose pretentiousness is matched only by its pervasiveness in the convictions of the present age. It thus does not seem completely gratuitous to offer an explanation of this contradiction even though at this stage such an explanation can amount to little more than the same kind of dogmatic assurance which it opposes” (p. 6).

By “scientific” he basically means rational. Hegel here aligns himself with Kant’s emphasis on the conceptual and discursive character of rationality, and with Kant’s closely related rejection of claims to immediate knowledge by intellectual intuition. He is particularly alluding to claims of intellectual intuition in the philosophy of nature by followers of Schelling, as well as to the religiosity of immediate feeling promoted by followers of the German literary figure F. H. Jacobi, from whom Kierkegaard borrowed the image of the leap of faith.

The “true shape of truth” Hegel contrasts these with lies in conceptual elaboration — interpretation and explanation, not just asserted conclusions. The measure of truth is the insight and understanding it gives us. He also notes a difficulty that I often feel in attempting to summarize the results of a substantial development: summaries always run the risk of shallowness and dogmatism.

Hegel continues ironically that for his contemporary opponents, “The absolute is not supposed to be conceptually grasped but rather to be felt and intuited” (ibid).

“There was a time when people had a heaven adorned with a comprehensive wealth of thoughts and images. The meaning of all existence lay in the thread of light by which it was bound to heaven and instead of lingering in this present, people’s view followed that thread upwards towards the divine essence; their view directed itself, if one may put it this way, to an other-worldly present. It was only under duress that spirit’s eyes had to be turned back to what is earthly and kept fixed there, and a long time was needed to introduce clarity into the dullness and confusion lying in the meaning of things in this world, a kind of clarity which only heavenly things used to have; a long time was needed both to draw attention to the present as such, an attention that was called experience, and to make it interesting and to make it matter. — Now it seems that there is the need for the opposite, that our sense of things is so deeply rooted in the earthly that an equal power is required to elevate it above all that. Spirit has shown itself to be so impoverished that it seems to yearn for its refreshment only in the meager feeling of divinity, very much like the wanderer in the desert who longs for a simple drink of water. That it now takes so little to satisfy spirit’s needs is the full measure of the magnitude of its loss” (pp. 7-8).

Hegel was critical of traditional Augustinian other-worldliness, but saved his special disdain for followers of Schelling and Jacobi.

“The force of spirit is only as great as its expression, and its depth goes only as deep as it trusts itself to disperse itself and to lose itself in its explication of itself. — At the same time, if this substantial knowing, itself so totally devoid of the concept, pretends to have immersed the very ownness of the self in the essence and to philosophize in all holiness and truth, then what it is really doing is just concealing from itself the fact that instead of devoting itself to God, it has, by spurning all moderation and determinateness, instead simply given itself free rein within itself to the contingency of that content and then, within that content, given free rein to its own arbitrariness” (ibid).

It is not enough just to have a concept like the absolute Idea.

“However, just as little of a building is finished when the foundation is laid, so too reaching the concept of the whole is equally as little the whole itself. When we wish to see an oak tree with its powerful trunk, its spreading branches, and its mass of foliage, we are not satisfied if instead we are shown an acorn. In the same way, science, the crowning glory of a spiritual world, is not completed in its initial stages. The beginning of a new spirit is the outcome of a widespread revolution in the diversity of forms of cultural formation; it is both the prize at the end of a winding path as it is the prize won through much struggle and effort” (p. 9).

He implicitly recalls Aristotle’s argument that the oak tree is logically prior to the acorn, and cautions against assuming perfection in beginnings.

“Only what is completely determinate is at the same time exoteric, comprehensible, and capable of being learned and possessed by everybody. The intelligible form of science is the path offered to everyone and equally available to all” (p. 10).

When the Idea is kept vague, it becomes the province of claims of esoteric knowledge and special genius. Here he links the idea of rational “science” to a democratic tendency. But we should also beware of premature claims.

“At its debut, where science has been wrought neither to completeness of detail nor to perfection of form, it is open to reproach” (ibid).

He goes on at length about the formalism of the Schellingians’ insistence that all is one. The rhetoric is strong, but he is standing up for the importance of difference and distinction, which I completely support.

To condense a good deal, “when what is demanded is for the shapes to originate their richness and determine their differences from out of themselves, this other view instead consists in only a monochrome formalism which only arrives at the differences in its material because the material itself has already been prepared for it and is something well known…. [N]owadays we see the universal Idea in this form of non-actuality get all value attributed to it, and we see that what counts as the speculative way of considering things turns out to be the dissolution of the distinct and determinate, or, instead turns out to be simply the casting of what is distinct and determinate into the abyss of the void…. To oppose this one bit of knowledge, namely, that in the absolute everything is the same, to the knowing which makes distinctions… that is, to pass off its absolute as the night in which all cows are black — is an utterly vacuous naivete in cognition” (pp. 11-12).

(Remaining parts of this walk-through of the Preface are, in order, Substance and Subject; At Home in Otherness; Otherness; and Foreshadowing the Concept.)

Enticing Possibilities?

After the interesting discussion of the “crossing out” of previous beliefs, Husserl continues his lectures on passive synthesis with a discussion of doubt and possibility.

In contrast to the “crossing out” that implements negation in lived experience — where a previous expectation is definitively refuted by a new apprehension — the mode of doubt represents a condition in which we experience conflicting apprehensions side by side in a modally weakened state, and the conflict remains as yet unresolved.

The mode of open possibility involves a different kind of modal weakening in which some more general frame has the status of “normal” perception and the associated subjective “certainty”, but unlike the simple case of normal perception, the associated halo of additional expectation does not converge on a single outcome, but rather diverges into alternatives, and nothing motivates us to preferentially expect one alternative rather than another.

What Husserl calls an enticing possibility, on the other hand, is one that we feel drawn to believe in. It is still only a possibility, and we may end up in doubt because conflicting alternative possibilities each entice us to some degree. I find this notion of “enticing possibility” highly intriguing.

“Motivation prefigures something positively, and yet does so in the mode of uncertainty” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 81). “Let us look back to the phenomenon of doubt. Whenever we speak of doubt, we also speak of propensities to believe. What occurs in the front side that is seen, together with its apprehended sense for the back side, may prefigure something determinate. But it does so ambiguously and not unequivocally. This happens when we become unsure whether what we see is a complete thing or a piece of scenery, for example…. In this way the normal egoic act of perception is modalized into acts we call enticements to believe. From the side of the objective senses, from the side of the objects given to consciousness, we also speak here of enticements to be, which is to say that affection issues from the side of the object, that the object exerts on the ego an enticing demand to be…. The sense itself has the propensity to be” (p. 82).

I was a bit surprised by the sudden introduction of an “egoic act of perception” out of the blue here. At minimum, any such reference takes us outside the sphere of passive synthesis. But Husserl means to discuss not only passive synthesis but also how it is interleaved with active synthesis, and he has already implicitly broadened the scope in speaking of belief, doubt, and judgment.

My lingering concern is that I consider anything like an ego to be a teleological tendency, and I don’t take a teleological tendency to be the kind of thing that could exercise simple agency. Perhaps the agency implied here is not really meant to be simple. I do think that all real-world agency is non-simple (i.e., involves a mixture of activity and passivity), but Husserl hasn’t discussed the nature of agency, and his references here seem to suggest the simple kind that I consider suspect. I hope this will be clarified later.

Similarly, I was surprised by the reference to “objects given to consciousness”. Perhaps I am being too literal here, but his earlier discussion of “adumbration” in perception seems to me to rule out any simple givenness of objects as objects. The best connection I can make for a givenness of objects is to the earlier discussion’s mention of the object “in the flesh” that we always have, but that discussion makes clear that the “object” we have in the flesh is far from completely determinate. But what exerts an enticing demand was first of all a determinate possibility.

I think he is saying “object” in more than one way here. The object that exerts an enticing demand to be is not the “object” given in the flesh.

His statement that “The sense itself has the propensity to be” is also intriguing, and seems less problematic to me. If we substitute “sense” for “object”, it makes good sense to me that “the sense exerts… an enticing demand to be” (see Ideas Are Not Inert).

“Let us call these new possibilities problematic possibilities or questionable possibilities. We do this because the intention to make a decision arising in doubt between one of the enticing factions of doubt is called a questioning intention. We speak of questionableness only where enticements and contraposing enticements play off of each other” (p. 83).

“It is now clear that we have determined a closed and exactly limited group of modalities from a primordial mode of straightforward naive certainty” (p. 84).

Here he seems to be claiming it is “clear” that the modalities discussed so far are the only possible ones that could modify naive perceptual certainty. I don’t immediately have any other candidates, but “closed and exactly limited” is a strong claim that seems to come out of the blue.

“We can continue our exposition of problematic possibilities by noting that they and only they appear with a different weight. The enticement is more or less enticing; and that also holds particularly when comparing all potentially diverse problematic possibilities that belong to one and the same conflict and that are bound synthetically through this conflict.” (ibid).

I generally like the analogy of comparing weights here, though it is not clear to me that the intrinsic “weights” of all enticements would be commensurable.

“Such opposing enticements, opposing possibilities, can have differing weight; they exercise a stronger or weaker pull, but they do not determine me. Determining me in belief is just the one possibility for which I am resolved, for which I have decided earlier, perhaps in a process of passing through doubt” (ibid). “Different witnesses speak and present their testimonies, having different weight. I weigh them and decide for the one witness and his testimony. I reject the other testimonies” (p. 85).

“Yet I can potentially mark the differing weights without deciding in favor of one of the enticements…. For example, a cloudy sky together with humidity speak in favor of a thunderstorm, but not ‘for sure'” (ibid).

“[T]he fact that I let myself ‘willingly’ be drawn in, that I am about to follow it, is still something new phenomenologically. However, here this ‘following’ can be inhibited by opposing propensities, or not be ‘efficacious’ at all…. It is not merely the case that the one testimony whose enticement is privileged is stronger: We lend it validity, believing in it in our subjective certainty…. We can then speak of presumption or of a presumptuous certainty in a specific sense…. In itself, in its own phenomenological character, this presumptuous certainty is characterized as an impure certainty…. Obviously, this impurity, this murkiness, has its degrees” (p. 86).

An anticipation of this new dimension of our weighing, willingness, lending of validity, and “presumptuous certainty” is probably what underlay the earlier sudden reference to “egoic acts”. I have no issue with this more concrete development. The fact that he refers to presumption, impurity, and murkiness here provides a reassuring weakening of what earlier seemed overly strong.