Phenomenology of Spirit: Sense Certainty

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.

Sense Certainty

sense-certainty

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.

sense-certainty-ph

sense-certainty-here

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.

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10 thoughts on “Phenomenology of Spirit: Sense Certainty

  1. Good as far as analysis goes. But I think you need to reconsider your position upon the reading. In reading significant philosophers one needs to look at everything that is given: One would be keennot take for granted for example your privileged position as a thinker upon the text. Rather you bring this privilege into the reading, and you might come to a different understanding of what Hegel is really saying.

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    1. Definitely, the reader is part of the performance of consciousness in the Phenomenology, and it is why so much can be extracted from the text by many different perspectives. I, however, am far more interested in seeing and laying out the logical forms in the text for now. I want to see if Hegel’s own claims (for he does make the claim) that the Phenomenology’s movement is a logically necessary one that must end in Absolute Knowing really do cash out.

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      1. But what he saying about SC is not the meaning that you’re gaining from it. I would argue that the very act of you coming up with a rebuttal to what he saying about SC is rooted in your inability to get beyond the description of SC what he saying SC is. There is no getting out of this condition bysome argumentative move. And actually I would say that the view that sees that there’s a way to get out of that situation is it self based on a misunderstanding of what Hagel saying. It is based in, what later 100 years or so Lacan would in fact call a mistake. It’s a perpetual and insistent recurrence a revisiting of this mistake and why it keeps occurring and peoples attempt to correct the mistake that amounts to the continental philosophy of the past two or 300 years. To the extent that we have gotten anywhere that is the extent that the people are invested in the mistake. That’s we have the more recent philosophers attempting various moves to just completely ignore the mistake, basically suggesting that it is a moot phenomenological point.

        I guess what I’m saying is that you are actually not allowing what is given you to involve yourself in the reading; rather I would say that there you are using the given to have an appropriation of the text, which basically I’m calling a mistaken approach, but really one that you find everywhere in the Academy, often enough.

        I do not agree with your appropriation that you exhibit in this post; basically there is no escaping SC especially when you make an argument against it. I guess I’m saying that if you can’t see that Hagel is really describing the situation that you are in when you create a rebuttal to it, then you are missing what he’s really saying. He is describing a true situation; he is not making an argument about how something might be constructed, or might be manifested. He is describing a true situation; from this true situation all the rest of his works fall naturally and obviously.

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      2. I think you misunderstand this post to be my complete commentary on this. I’m well aware that all the forms of consciousness in the Phenomenology >never< go away. Indeed, we point to things all the time as a basic way of sharing a knowing. These 'pure forms' as analyzed, however, are abstractions of experiential forms of consciousness. My anecdote was not a rebuttal of SC, rather it was a rebuttal against Bernstein's incredulity that anyone can believe in pure SC.

        The post is merely an attempted summary explanation of the movements of this chapter in its abstract rather than the completed recall that will come at the end.

        Perhaps I misunderstand you here.

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      3. … and likewise I would say the process that you’re going through in order to find out if Hegel’s ideas really cash out is it self a reinstatement of the truth of Hegel’s claims.

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      4. Well, here, I differ strongly. I am attempting to enter the dialectic myself, to go through the stations of the cross, rather than look at it from its finalized comprehension. As such, I’m not bothered by my incomplete apprehension, indeed, it’s par the course of my own method of learning.

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      5. Interesting…
        One can never entirely trust first impressions from postings. I most often a skeptic first and primarily.

        I hope you will keep us posted of your travels.

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  2. My initial take on who could have ‘sense-certainty’ was a very young infant, or at least a limiting ideal of one. This tripped me up a little when I hit the claim that initially we take the object as independent of knowledge, since an infant wouldn’t know that until they developed object permanence, but in retrospect this turned out to be jumping the gun a little since SC is prior to being able to frame questions like ‘Is this object still here if I look away and back again?’ Just looking away is part of the breakdown of the stance. The example of an adult deliberately adopting it as a stance gives me a better idea of where Hegel seems to be coming from.

    In the end one can try to claim SC, but it proves inadequate for purposes as soon as one performs any action at all, even the bare ‘action’ of having an intentional stance towards ‘this.’ It doesn’t seem sustainable for more than an untethered sense organ, which you have to move toward panpsychicism to ascribe ‘consciousness’ to at all.

    Thanks for this exposition.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. While this is my understanding of it from the Phenomenology alone, I’ve read a bit of secondary literature that claims something that seemingly is only proved in the later Philosophy of Spirit: that the first 4 forms of knowing as sense certainty, perception, understanding, and self-consciousness are >pre-thinking< forms of knowing that in fact require no conceptual content. That seems fitting if we strip these forms of their explicit conceptual structure and reduce them to pure movements of conscious intention, but in the Phenomenology I don't think that is the level at which they are or can be dealt with.

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      1. The Phenomenology itself seems at least implicitly conceptual by the time it reaches Perception, given it talks about universals of ‘now’, ‘here’ and so on, but maybe I have the wrong understanding of the term in Hegel.

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