On the Introduction to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s early opus (1807), featuring Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth.
This is the first of three episodes on this very challenging book. It’s a book that demands slow, close reading, and in fact we only had time to talk about just the Introduction (X pages) even though we also read the Preface (X pages).
So what is this project? It’s a series of treatments of various theories in epistemology, and eventually philosophy of science, political philosophy, and philosophy of religion. The “phenomenology” part involves describing our experiences, but Hegel’s is an immersive, imaginative phenomenology whereby we try to put ourselves in the shoes of someone accurately described by the theory, and through how the world would seem to us from that perspective, we can then see what’s wrong with the theory.
In ep. 276, we’ll get into the simplest theories of perception, but in this part of the book, he’s just explaining why this is a reasonable method. If he were going to just tell you his epistemological views as doctrines or slogans (and you might think that spelling out such views would be a prerequisite of actually doing philosophy), then these would just be abstract. Instead, Hegel thought we need to consider the range of views from the most logically simplistic to the most complex to see how each level of complexity is a reaction to problems in the next-simplest theory. The more complicated theories in this way still contain the traces of their predecessors. The later ones are definitely more adequate, but can’t understand them concretely without going through the progression.
This stance means that he’s for one against romanticism, which thinks it can leap in one bound to the Absolute (God or whatever the ultimate ground of being is), maybe just by closing one’s eyes and feeling very passionately. So Fichte’s thought that we can experience ourselves as our eternal selves is ruled out. Also, Hegel rules out global skepticism as an incoherent non-starter, so his account is going to differ from those philosophers who are concerned at every point with the doubt that our faculties are adequate to capture experience.
Still, this doesn’t mean that Hegel was a “direct realist” a la Searle. In fact, the idea that we just directly perceive objects in an unmediated way is the first position he’s going to consider (and which we’ll talk through at length in ep. 276) and declare inadequate. The goal of all knowledge-seeking activity is to get at the world as it underlyingly, really is (the Absolute), and we’ll find throughout this journey frustration that what seemed to be knowledge has fallen short of this goal. The solution, though, is to bring in more complex considerations, not to just shrug in skepticism. Eventually (by the point of the part of the text that we treated in our long-ago episodes 35 and 36 on this book) we find that to make sense of our experience of the world, we have to bring in social considerations, that no solitary Cartesian project will work where knowledge is just judged based on how clear it looks to me or how confident I am about a causal chain between me and an objective thing in the world. (For a much more quickly delivered synthesis of Descartes’ and Hegel’s projects, listen to our episode 31 on Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, which likewise ends with consideration of the “lifeworld,” i.e. experience as in part socially constructed.)
Buy the A.V. Miller translation that all of us read or try this online copy. Some helpful secondary sources included A Hegel Dictionary, Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason, and In the Spirit of Hegel. For an even more step-by-step approach, try Gregory B. Sadler’s Half-Hour Hegel YouTube series.
Don’t miss Mark’s new podcast Philosophy vs. Improv.