Georg "Shifty Eyes" Hegel, portrait by Schlesinger (1831)

A Man of His Time, and Not

Georg "Shifty Eyes" Hegel, portrait by Schlesinger (1831)
Georg “Shifty Eyes” Hegel, portrait by Schlesinger (1831)

I read Roger Scruton’s brilliant short section on Hegel’s theory of being in Scruton’s Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey (Allen Lane Penguin, 2004). Which led me back to a very challenging work by David Gray Carlson, A Commentary to Hegel’s Science of Logic (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007). Between Scruton’s worthy short analysis and Carlson’s ambitious and stylistic project to illuminate the peak of Hegel’s philosophy, I came to a new epiphany. That’s what good philosophy reading is all about — sparking an intellectual epiphany and the inspiration that comes with it. Scruton and Carlson each highlight the importance of the concept of immediacy for Hegel. What is immediacy? In the Phenomenology of Mind, immediacy is a determination or state of consciousness in which consciousness does not yet differentiate itself from its immediate object of thought. For example, one sees a color immediately, an object of sense-certainty, and takes it as a being immediately of itself. But this already begs the dialectical question, does the color object have immediate being in itself, or does the color rather characterize and belong to the consciousness apprehending it, so that one would have to know open up a logical gap or mediation of the color being predicated by consciousness of the object? The entire Phenomenology explores the ground tread by modern philosophers-of-consciousness from Descartes to Hume, who have much in common despite the tradition usually neatly putting them into rationalist versus empiricist schools. For Hegel the whole movement of modern philosophy can be seen as subjectivist (not necessarily in a pejorative sense), that is, they investigate and define the world through the mediation of the human subject, her sense-impressions and her reasoning, while ‘bracketing’ the ancient and ordinary assumption of the world in itself. Positively, this leads to sophisticated developments of human cognition and self-hood, but negatively the world itself — realism — is lost. The purpose of Hegel’s Phenomenology then has a traditional meaning, to study ‘mere appearances’ for the ultimate sake of breaking through them to the real, being, as Aristotle assumed we could. The Phenomenology ends where the Logic begins, with the Hegelian philosopher grasping the immediacy of being (again), but now more sure-footed, after having traversed a long ‘path of despair’ in the development of a sophisticated human consciousness of appearances. When the Logic begins with the concept of Pure Being, pure immediacy, Hegel is indeed concerned with purity – what really is? what is the innermost identity of being? What and who are we, really? At the very least we have the primitive concept of Pure Being now. And indeed I would argue, Hegel is after the inner reality of the world, of nature, the unmediated being of things, and we are to see how there is a logical necessity in moving from the indeterminacy of Pure Being to a concept of Determinate Being, i.e., that being only comes to make sense when defined or mediated in terms of a limit. This chair being in this place can not be in another place. The negativity or not-being in another place positively limits and defines the chair to be in this place. The conceptual sequence of Being, Nothing, Becoming follows a necessary order in determining our conceptual grasp of the world. Hegel is arguing a way back to the real world from the subjective shadow world of consciousness in which modern philosophy found itself reflecting on experience alone. That Hegel’s philosophy takes on such an abstract character reflects the task given him in his own time to address the problems of modern philosophy, and that philosophy was fascinated and trapped within a hall of mirrors called consciousness. Hegel’s philosophy proceeds on the conviction that for modern thinkers the way to grasping the real requires a sophisticated conceptual deconstruction of subjectivity which reaffirms the use of general terms like Being and Becoming as grasping the real when sufficient philosophical rigor is applied.

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