The Dialectic of the Object

It’s been around eight years since I first attempted Hegel’s Phenomenology, and it never ceases to amaze me how one can yet gain better comprehension of works such as this, devise better ways to re-articulate the arguments in one’s own language, each time one goes back and wrestles again with the challenging problems presented therein. Perhaps this is true of any literary work, but it seems especially true of philosophy whose abstract language demands–by design–an intense degree of interpretive thinking to grasp its far-reaching implications.

The most recent example of this for me is a fairly compact re-articulation of Hegel’s dialectic of object-consciousness in the first chapter of the Phenomenology.

In Hegel’s Introduction, he explains to us that in the Phenomenology we will observe consciousness struggling to overcome its own limitations. The idea is to observe how thinking develops and forms itself out of its own struggle to understand the world. The method is thus an immanent critique, that is, we will merely observe and see how a form of consciousness fails in itself–on its own terms–to make sense of its problems, and then observe how this forces it to develop into a more comprehensive shape.

In the opening chapter, Hegel asks: What is there for consciousness? An object. Some object. Any object. Consciousness at first takes the object simply as a matter of sense-certainty. The grey color and the rough texture of the sidewalk are what is really there for consciousness simply because those qualities seem the most immediate out of what is there. But in fact consciousness must eventually discover that the color and texture are not inherently intelligible apart from belonging to the sidewalk. And further, to perceive the sidewalk as sidewalk is only possible on the condition that there is an organized, practical situation in which sidewalks make any sense, e.g. by serving some functional role in the situation. Consciousness believes it can see the grey color and rough texture apart from the sidewalk to which they belong, but actually their being taken apart is a willed act of negation or abstraction by analysis of what is there. The (abstracted) sense qualities are not what is ‘naturally given’, as tends to be assumed by analytic empiricism.

What is actually there at the very first, from the beginning for consciousness, is not a sense-perception simply, nor an object simply. What is there is a definite organization, a configuration, a situation which makes objects intelligible in the first place. Hegel’s compelling argument here (against Kant’s notion of the unknowable ding-un-sich) is that it is simply not possible to genuinely conceive an object in abstraction from a definite organization with which it can be defined. At first consciousness does not recognize the situation it is in as the background which makes possible the appearance of intelligible objects. The reason for this is that consciousness at first does not exist apart from this organizational context of the object. In order to grasp that this being so, there will have to be a radical questioning of consciousness itself (its identification with the situation). This question ‘changes the subject’, it sets aside the seemingly inexhaustible problem of the object, or rather, it puts the problem into a larger context which now includes object-consciousness itself. This negation of its whole situation moves thought toward a freer existence. Reflective self-consciousness now forms a new stage wherein thought must wrestle with the problem of how to identity itself, rather than how to identify objects.

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