Saturday, 16 February 2008

Hegel and Phenomenology

From page 50 of Peter Singer's book, Hegel:
So our instrument cannot guarantee us an image of undisturbed reality, nor can we come closer to reality by making allowances for the disturbance caused by our instrument. Should we therefore embrace the sceptical position that there is nothing we can truly know? But such scepticism, Hegel says, is self-refuting. If we are to doubt everything, why not doubt the claim that we can know nothing? Moreover the sceptical argument we have been considering has its own presuppositions, which it claims to know. It starts with the idea that there is such a thing as reality, and that knowledge is some kind of instrument or medium by which we grasp reality. In so doing, it presupposes a distinction between ourselves and reality, or the absolute. Worse still, it takes for granted that our knowledge and reality are cut off from one another, but at the same time still treats our knowledge as something real, that is, as a part of reality. This scepticism will not do either.

Hegel has neatly set up a certain view of knowing, and then shown that it leads into a hole from which we cannot escape, and in which we cannot remain. We must, he now says, abandon all these 'useless ideas and expressions' about knowledge as an instrument or medium, all of which divide knowledge from reality as it is.

In all this argument there is no mention of any philosopher who has held the view of knowledge that Hegel now says we must reject. To some extent he is criticising assumptions common to the whole school of empiricist philosophers -- Locke, Berkeley, Hume and many others. It would, however, have been obvious to all his readers that his main target is Kant. Kant argued that we can never see reality as it is; for we can only comprehend our experiences within the frameworks of space, time and causation. Space, time and causation are not part of reality, but the necessary forms in which we grasp it; therefore we can never know things as they are independently of our knowledge.

In another work, the Lesser Logic, Hegel does name his opponent and mounts a similar attack against him (though as if to display his intellectual fertility, he presses home his point with a slightly different argument), The passage is worth quoting, because it concludes with an analogy that suggest the way forward:
We ought, says Kant, to become acquainted with the instrument, before we undertake the work for which it is to be employed; for if the instrument be insufficient, all our trouble will be spent in vain ... But the examination of knowledge can only be carried out by an act of knowledge. To examine this so-called instrument is the same thing as to know it. But to seek to know before we know is as absurd as the wise resolution of Scholasticus, not to venture into the water until he had learned to swim.
The lesson taught by the folly of Scholasticus is clear. To learn to swim we must plunge boldly into the stream; and to obtain knowledge of reality, we must plunge boldly into the stream of consciousness that is the starting-point of all we know. The only possible approach to knowledge is an examination of consciousness from the inside as it appears to itself -- in other words, a phenomenology of mind. We shall not start with sophisticated doubts, but with a simple form of consciousness that takes itself to be genuine knowledge. This simple form of consciousness will, however, prove itself to be something less than genuine knowledge, and so will develop into another form of consciousness; and this in turn will also prove inadequate, and develop into something else, and so the process will continue until we reach true knowledge.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Kierkegaard Stripped Down

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.