Sense Certainty (SC) is the first form of consciousness in the Phenomenology, and it’s relatively easy to understand. Sense Certainty posits itself as a completely passive I which immediately, without the mediation of thought, relates to its objects of knowledge by way of pointing either linguistically or literally. In this manner SC seems to circumvent the problem of knowing as a medium or instrument, for it has rejected all mediation and places its knowing in the immediacy of the object it knows. From the perspective of SC, it captures the purest knowledge in its activity of pointing to the concrete object itself without further additions. All who want to know the truths which SC wishes to convey must merely look towards the object which SC points out and immediately absorb the rich experiential manifold that is the object itself.
Who believes in Sense Certainty?
Before we engage the issue, I’d just like to make a tangent concerning just who in the world actually has ever believed knowledge is what is known in the manner of SC. Listening to Bernstein’s lectures on the chapter, he does not believe anyone has nor can possibly function with knowledge in the way that SC does, and that it is simply a primitive logical form for the sake of completeness of argument. While indeed, I don’t think anyone can function with knowledge and language like SC, I do think there is a surprisingly large minority that at least believes that knowledge functions like this, and here I’ll use myself as a fine anecdotal example. During my short lived year dipping into eastern philosophy and mysticism a few years back (hadn’t yet read Hegel directly) I reached a philosophical skepticism of the mediation of thoughts that is very much SC’s, and I even used similar language to argue for it: the truths which we wished to convey were not our concepts of things but the thing to which words pointed to. For example, I once actually did have a conversation with a friend regarding meaning and truth regarding a dinner table. Regarding meaning, I argued, we use the word table to point to the object which we really mean to draw to attention, and if one were to consider the question of what true was, the concept or the thing (this), it clearly was the thing which was before us here and now. I wasn’t alone in that kind of thinking, many a mystic and intuitionist at least believes that truth is ultimately like this, an immediate experiential encounter with the this which is only here and now. Anecdote aside, it just goes to show that yes, humanity does hold some strange ideas sometimes. While SC is part of what Hegel deems natural consciousness, and it logically is first for it is simplest, it isn’t common sense, indeed, it rests on a very intellectual basis and requires a rational and abstract thinking process to be convincing.
The problems of SC arise from its obstinate commitment to hold fast to what it believes is immediacy and concreteness in its knowing. It holds that it performs its act of pointing and knowing in the now, the here, and the this. For it these basic and seemingly singular and concrete categories guarantee it indeed does know the concrete object itself without the errors of thought. Hegel shortly introduces the common idea that truth is what it is forever, thus SC’s claims to truth shall be challenged on this account which it as well must agree to.
Despite SC’s beliefs, since knowledge is something the knower in SC has in their mind, we must question SC’s claim to knowing the objects. With the meager conceptual tools which it has limited itself to, SC cannot but hold the bare conceptual knowledge of this, a category merely pointing out a being before it here and now. What specific being is before SC, at what specific time, and at what specific place, it cannot say; it can only point to it. Different I’s in different places and times all claim the same: this is here now. The this is a plurality of the many things which the I’s have before them. The here is a plurality of places where they point. The now is a plurality of nows as the day goes by. The truths which SC claims to know seem to be ever changing and contradicting experiences. Now here is an apple; now here is a tree; now here is a cloud; now here is day; now here is night. The now and here are nothing and everything, changeless in abstraction, changing in every utterance repeated. SC’s knowledge claims seem to contradict themselves, to invert the truth it intends. Its truths change moment to moment and I to I because it refuses to acknowledge memory and conceptual specificity.
The knowledge of SC thus turns out to be bare and pure abstraction, not just of its object, but even of itself. To SC, the I and its object are not even conceptually differentiated in kind, both are mere thises here and now. It is so committed to this immediacy of knowing that it refuses to even acknowledge the past and its memory. All SC can truly know and communicate is that there is a being before it now and here, nothing else. One may retort, “But SC doesn’t care about conceptual knowledge, it cares about knowing the object in its pure manifold of experience.” Very well, what object is it that SC can know in its mere experience of the here and now? As was shown earlier, a changeless abstract universality with en ever changing experiential content. In what it utters, SC cannot capture the content to which it points.
Not only is SC’s knowledge poor and abstract, but its claim to immediacy is questionable. The following is what SC does when it makes a knowledge claim:
1) It points to the object before it now
2) It claims “This is here now”
In § 107 Hegel lays out formally what is implicitly wrong with SC’s own claim to immediacy. First, the I points out the now, but in the very pointing the now has moved. Second, the I claims the now which it pointed out but which has already passed; it sublates the now within itself for it unites the now which has been with the now that is. Third, in the very claiming that “this is now” the now has yet again moved and the now pointed to as well as the now claimed have passed away and been within the now as it keeps moving. What has been shown is that every now is not actually immediately apprehensible, that the now apprehended is always a plurality of nows, thus every claim made by SC is a now mediated by other nows. The this and here too are a plurality along with the now, as such they too are mediated.
SC has been shown to be unable to speak the truths it wishes to speak, it cannot convey the objects it wishes to know and communicate, for its meager concepts invert the object into abstractions. The analysis of SC ends with the realization by it that the truth of its knowing is its pointing to the objects of knowledge and attempting to conceive it in thought and express it in language, hence it has realized it perceives its object and that its mental content and its expression in language can err in conveying the object perceived.