Monday, January 18, 2010

Reading the Phenomenology

For reasons having to do with my dissertation, the time has finally come to acquaint myself a little with Hegel. The place to begin is clearly the Phenomenology. It isn’t the first time I’ve begun this book, but the reason this time is stronger. I have the standard Miller translation, but I have decided to refer to it only secondarily. My intention is to read first from the work-in-progress translation Terry Pinkard has put online. This one has the English and German running alongside one another in facing columns—which is about right given my level of German. Hegel’s Phenomenology is precisely the kind of reading for which I first tried to get into the habit of posting notes publicly. In particular, it is a book so covered over by previous interpretation and reputation that even I, who have no particular investment in it, must work actively to read it honestly. The thought, then, is to provide here sequential reading notes, sometimes simply citations or questions.

Once upon a time, I was cautioned that the preface to this book was written last and should therefore be read last. So I have begun with the introduction. The combination of Hegel’s central position in post-Kantian philosophical modernity and the obscurity of his prose allows me to read him almost entirely out of context, as a contemporary, speaking directly to anyone undertaking philosophical reflection. It is exhilarating, as though the positions he is attacking are the very ones that I myself have moved through. This feeling is on the one hand surely something Hegel sought to evoke from the reader, and therefore makes the reading more entertaining, but is also, on the other hand, probably deceptive. The arguments are no doubt lightly coded attacks on specific doctrines, schools, individuals, texts.

Hegel begins with what will turn out to be the falsely posed problem of the ground of cognition, Erkennen, “whether it is to be viewed either as the instrument [Werkzeug] with which one takes possession of the absolute, or as the means [Mittel] by which one catches a glimpse of it” ($73). Various traps are pointed out and avoided. Among them, in a turn of phrase that one imagines was often directed at postmodernism, is a certain kind of skepticism: “The presupposition which calls itself the fear of errors thus reveals itself to be more likely the fear of truth” ($74). Later, a variety of theoretical pride that is probably, rightly explained, dear to the academic left, “The only difference between abiding by the authority of others or abiding by one’s own convictions in a system of opinions and prejudices lies solely in the vanity inherent in the latter” ($78). I take $73-78 to be essentially a trial and rejection of current and possible ways of entering into philosophy, in particular the bad forms of skepticism.

At the end of $78, then, we have, “in directing itself to the entire range of phenomenal consciousness [den ganzen Umfang des erscheinenden Bewusstseins], skepticism makes spirit for the first time competent to investigate [geschickt zu prüfen] what is the truth.” In the next paragraph, Hegel distinguishes between a skepticism that results in pure nothingness [“reine Nichts”], and one that results in determinate [“bestimmtes”] nothingness, which is to say, “the nothingness which is taken as the nothingness of that from which it emerges” ($79). This determinate nothingness, which I suspect is later on to be recovered by Marxists (Engels’ much-mocked ‘negation of the negation, and then Sartre’s (Kojevian?) rehabilitation of it), makes sense.

I’m lost, though, as to quite what is the point of the next section ($80)—I take it to be part of a polemic with one or another of the other post-Kantians. In particular, I’m mystified by the invocation of physical human finitude and its relation to consciousness, “What is limited to a natural life is not on its own capable of going beyond its immediate existence. However, it is driven out of itself by something other than itself, and this being torn out of itself is its death. However, consciousness is for itself its concept, and as a result it immediately goes beyond the restriction, and, since this restriction belongs to itself, it goes beyond itself too.” Now, here I’m already glad for the German, because both Pinkard and Miller end the sentence there, whereas Hegel breaks the thought with a semicolon, continuing, “In its own eyes, in positing the singular individual, it at the same time posits the other-worldly beyond, even if it is still only posited as it is in spatial intuition, that is, as existing only alongside the restriction.” Two things confuse me here. On the one hand, quite clearly, Hegel is putting consciousness into the physical world. Is this simply a reference to a debased form of the transcendence of consciousness, that is, religion? Consciousness goes beyond itself even in imagining that there is a heaven above, and a hell below? Are we being told here only that simple life is limited by death (which is perhaps not the other, but certainly other), whereas consciousness is sufficient unto itself, in that it contains both its limits and the overcoming of them? Are we simply being told that consciousness is somehow superior to, above, freed from, mere life? That seems simplistic.

Leaving aside the issue of finitude, the point is, “Consciousness distinguishes something from itself and at the same time it relates itself to it” ($82). This section gives us what seem to be crucial formal definitions, “There is something for consciousness; and the determinate aspect of this relating, that is, of the being of something for a consciousness, is knowledge. However, we distinguish being-in-itself from this being for another; what is related to knowledge is likewise distinguished from it and is also posited as existing external to this relation; the aspect of this in-itself is called truth.” All this is, as it were, bracketed, because “our object is phenomenal knowledge” ($82). This is one formulation of a correspondence theory of truth. Being for consciousness is distinguished from being in itself. The former is the realm of knowledge, the latter the realm of truth.

$83, then, is a statement on epistemology. In investigating the truth of knowledge, Hegel says, we do not investigate the thing in itself, but rather the nature of its being for us, “what we would assert to be its essence [that is, of knowledge] would not be its truth but rather merely our knowledge of it.” We look for a standard for the truth of knowledge, but this standard can only ever be in us, and not in the truth as it is for itself. There must be, again, layers of post-Kantian conflict here that escape me.

Consciousness does not have this problem, “Consciousness in itself provides its own standard...consciousness has the determinateness of the moments of knowledge in itself” ($84). This much, I believe makes sense to me. There then follow some sentences outlining a possible reversal of the normal scheme of knowledge-truth relations. Usually, knowledge is the concept that one seeks to make correspond to truth as an object. That is, I have a conceptual knowledge of a microwave oven, say, which either corresponds or does not to how a microwave oven in truth functions. Except Hegel is talking now not about this sort of object, but rather about consciousness; so that he is able to make a reversal—what if we take the essence of the object as the concept, and then take the concept as it is for another to be the object—“then the examination consists in our seeing whether the object corresponds to its concept.” Then, frustratingly, “one clearly sees that both are the same,” but are also both “fall within the knowledge which we are investigating” ($84).

The point of this, I understand, is that consciousness has within itself both these moments. The in-itself and the for-itself are both in consciousness. Consciousness does not need, this is to say, any kind of access to the in-itself of an object to know that the object for-consciousness is incomplete, “since it therefore finds in the object itself that its knowledge of the object is not in correspondence with it, the object itself does not persist” ($85). I take the point of this passage and those following to be that any act of knowing contains already within itself implicit criticisms of the standards and means by which one knows, of the limits of knowing. I understand this as a broadly Kantian point.

The crucial move, then, is really in $86, with the introduction of two terms, dialectic, and experience [Erfahrung – as opposed to Erlebnis]. The dissolution of the object described previously is now re-described,

“This dialectical movement is what consciousness practices on itself as well as on its knowledge and its object, and, insofar as, to consciousness, the new, true object arises out of this movement, this dialectical movement is what is genuinely called experience.”

This sentence is rendered in Miller as, “Inasmuch as the new true object issues from it, this dialectical movement which consciousness exercises on itself and which affects both its knowledge and its object, is precisely what is called experience.”

For completeness, here is the German: “Diese dialektische Bewegung, welche das Bewusststein an ihm selbst, sowohl an seinem Wissen als an seinem Gegenstande ausübt, insofern ihm der neue wahre Gegenstand daraus entspringt, ist eigentlich dasjenige, was Erfahrung gennant wird.”

I reproduce all three here because this is a pretty good example of how Pinkard’s translation seems to me to be closer to the German. The grammar is more elaborate (but so is Hegel’s), and so perhaps less easily readable than Miller’s, but it is also significantly more accurate. Here, for instance, ‘ausübt’ clearly takes ‘Bewusstein’ as subject and object, along with ‘Wissen’ and ‘Gegenstand.’ Miller’s translation is simply inaccurate, introducing the original verb ‘affects.’ Pinkard might be faulted for filling in Hegel’s referents, that is, replacing ‘it’ with ‘movement’ and so forth. The choice of translation for ‘ausübt’ between ‘practice’ and ‘exercise’ might be said to be purely ideological.

In the next section, this dialectical experience is distinguished from normal experience. If I understand this correctly, the point is that one’s knowledge of an object through experience is proved false normally through the addition of another object. This usually happens, in fact, fortuitously. The fortuitous nature of the normal path of consciousness is going to be abstracted from the exposition in this book, in order to give us a scientific understanding (rather than, perhaps, a novelistic one) of the development of consciousness. We get, I think, a sketch of the formal method of the book,

“In each and every case of a non-truthful knowledge, all the results which come about may not simply converge into some kind of empty nothingness; rather, each result must necessarily be apprehended as the nullity of that of which it is the result, a result which contains whatever truth the proceeding knowledge has in itself. Here it presents itself as follows. Since what at first appeared as the object for consciousness descends into a knowledge of the object, and the in-itself becomes a being-for-consciousness of the in-itself, this latter is the new object. As a result a new shape of consciousness also emerges for which the essence is something different from what was the essence for the proceeding shape. It is this circumstance which guides the whole succession of the shapes of consciousness in their necessity...For consciousness, what has emerged exists merely as the object, whereas for us, what has emerged exists at the same time as a movement and a coming-to-be.” ($87).

We might understand this as the formalization, or the becoming-science, of consciousness itself, “this path to science is itself already science” ($88). The book, which will be the exposition of the stations of consciousness, will therefore also be the essence of consciousness itself, “Finally, when consciousness itself grasps its essence, consciousness will indicate the nature of absolute knowledge itself” ($89). There’s the end of the introduction.

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