Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thinking about This, Here and Now, with G.W.F. Hegel

As I wrote elsewhere, Idealism is the name given to the counter-intuitive thought that every thing is a thought. Usually we go about our days thinking that most of the things we think about are not actually in our heads. Find something ready-to-hand to think about: a desk, a USB key, a word on a page or screen, anything. Are they in your head? Though the thought of the thing may be in your head, your average, everyday self says, the thing itself is not. Which is precisely where the idealist hopes to trip you up. The distinction between thought about the thing and the thing itself is one that you draw. In what sense is the distinction that you draw not in your head? You drew it. And if you drew the distinction, does that not mean by extension the thing itself is also in your head? At the very least, it would seem to imply there is nothing outside of your head, that your head is all there is.

Most of the time, Idealism looks like a fun little game intellectuals play with themselves. All these clever questions, circular arguments, and impossible problems appear nothing more than a frivolous form of auto-intellectual-eroticism. Mere verbal swordplay. Until the game becomes deadly serious, that is, and  other people start drawing the consequences some intellectual has spun out from his intellectual game for the form of community, for the nature of political authority, for answers to questions about good and evil. When that happens, Idealists suddenly looks serious, and for someone like myself, it becomes worth thinking through.

There are very few places in G.W.F. Hegel's influential Phenomenology of Spirit where the text speaks directly to a recognizably human situation. Most of it is shrouded in impenetrably abstract, self-referential prose, of secrets wrapped in enigmas hidden in mysteries, which is standard idealistic Hegelian fare.

Hegel's discussion of the 'master-slave dialectic' is one of those few places where a recognizably human situations comes to the fore. The master steals the labour of his slave, thus 'alienating' the slave from the work of their own hands; the master possesses authority without contributing to its upkeep, while the slave works to maintains authority without possessing the freedom to exercise it. If left on its own long enough, this situation will create such tensions the slave is likely to rebel against the master. These are simple observations, governed by an abiding sense of what constitutes equitable relations between persons, bolstered by a conceptually sophisticated account of the nature of existence as such.

Hegel's analysis of what he calls 'the dialectic of sense-certainty' yields another such recognizably human situation. The discussion also occupies an important place in the first full chapter in the Phenomenology, following a lengthy Preface and a shorter Introduction. The analysis prepares the ground everything else that follows, including the discussion of the master-slave dialectic, true individuality, cultural, morality, religion, etc.

The nature of the dialectic of sense-certainty Hegel makes very easy for readers to grasp. All he asks you to do is to think of something. It helps if you think about something that you can see and touch, to anchor this exercise in something solid and tangible. The act of thinking about something will always have two components: an 'I' which thinks, and a 'this' which is thought about. I am thinking, for example, about this computer monitor.

Now, Hegel observes, knowledge derived from our bodily senses seems the most certain sort of knowledge that we possess. Hence: sense-certainty. The computer monitor in front of me does seem to be what I think of as a computer monitor. But is this true?

When I fix my attention to a 'this', the 'this' is situated both 'here' and 'now'; that is, my attention is fixed to an object occupying a particular spatio-temporal location. Try it, if you don't believe me. When you think about the computer monitor, you will indeed find that it occupies a certain location in space at a specific time. It will also do so when you don't think about it, but I am trying not to confuse things more than necessary by adding layers of complexity.

A number of things can happen to this computer monitor, here and now. Your attention can wander, in which case it's no longer the monitor occupying your attention, or not-this, but that. The location of the monitor might change, in which case it's not-here, but there. The time will also continue to move onwards, which means it's not-now, but then.

Your attention, or I, remains fixed on the this, here and now, but the content of the this, here and now, changes. The this is no longer the same this you were thinking about. In more Hegelian nomenclature, you asserted a this, which turned out to be not-this. The continual conscious movement from a this to not-this is the dialectic of sense certainty. The dialectic is problematic, in the same way the master-slave dialectic was troublesome. There is no obvious order to the movement. Nothing is certain. The dialectic needs resolution.

Still, we are prone to ask, Who cares? My attention shifted; things moved; at least time moved onward. These are banal observations. Well yes, but you probably aren't thinking like an idealist. The movement from a this to a that, or a this to a not-this, is the first negation. Something concrete, substantial, something particular, like a computer monitor, has been negated. The story is not over, though. Your attention will wander, time will move onward, and first negation will itself be negated--a negation of the negation.

The negation of the negation is not so easy to understand as the dialectic of sense-certainty. In a manner of speaking, Hegel is asking you to suspend your belief for a second and follow him. The thing of which you were originally conscious, e.g. the computer monitor, may not have been the thing you were conscious of a moment later, e.g. your phone. Fine. You could keep on negating things with other things as your conscious awareness wandered. After negating the computer with the phone, however, Hegel asks you to abstract yourself from thinking about all particular objects and negate the phone with the this. Because, in fact, the this was always present, either as this computer monitor or this phone, and finally, with the negation of the negation, simply as an abstract universal this.

The basic structure of conscious thought, Hegel says, includes an I which thinks about this, here and now. These are universals: an I containing all Is, a this containing all particular thises (like computer monitors and phones), and a here and now containing all particular heres and nows. You are potentially, though not actually, omniscient, omniscient, and omnipresent.

If you can make the conceptual leap from thinking about particular things to thinking about abstract universals, and if you keep in mind that you are making the conceptual leap, that all particulars and universals are contained within asingle movement of your own thought, then you too can think the thoughts of God. Or can you?

Good question. Saying that the conceptual leap can be made is sort of like saying its possible to resolve the master-slave dialectic in reality.

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