Substance as Subject

It is obvious that philosophy in our day and age is focused on the problem of subjectivity.  It is interesting to see the various philosophical approaches not only shared this theme, but  that we can discern also a common attitude towards the problem.

One of my teachers wrote in 2000:

It is a fact that our natural interest in philosophy, art and theology is massively progressing toward an immediate approach.1)

Nowadays philosophy has become more interested in the immediate, what can be described in a concrete manner, or attaches itself to the normal identity of the subject. This seems to be a focus on the process of our concrete subjective development in which the social dimension has become of primary importance.  One of the presuppositions of this common approach with its emphasis on the immediate, is the presupposition of a so-called direct and unmediated relation to the objective nature of reality.  The opening chapter of Hegel’s phenomenology, the chapter on sense certainty, has become once again a paradigm of philosophical method, at least as an expression of this metaphysical presupposition.

The Immediate Approach

The immediate approach can be characterized as the attempt to solve the problem of subjectivity by paying attention to whatever can be described, on the basis of this immediate relation to reality.  That does not mean that contemporary philosophy is unaware of the fact that this metaphysical presupposition is exactly what it seems to be.  A presupposition.  The inability to rationally justify this assumption is no longer seen as a deficit, but presented as a triumph of common sense.  By evading a mass of skeptical counter arguments the method can now proceed.  One of the ways in which the metaphysical presupposition is presented, can be summarized in the statement, that the direct relation to objective reality is supposed to be essentially implicit.  Implicit, because there can be no rational justification, and essentially implicit, because there is no way to clarify or ground such a presupposition directly. It is like a necessary hypothesis, the nature of which cannot even be clarified.  It is also obvious that without this presupposition, philosophy doesn’t seem to have anything in reality to talk about.

It is as if first consciousness is considered to be effective in its relating to reality, which it takes as being, and then we shift focus to concern ourselves with the inessential unmediated nature of the subject for which this reality is a given.

Substance Should be Expressed as Subject

Precisely against this contemporary emphasis on immediacy, it is important to remind ourselves of Hegel’s project in the phenomenology.  To contemporary philosophy the truth resides in the real, that is identical to the immediate given within the immediacy of knowledge itself. Such a strategy can have no other implication than this: that the whole of human subjectivity consists in the more or less free interpretation of the real as given within this immediacy. The link between our conceptual understanding and reality as such – expressed by Hegel in the ‘identity’ of reality and thought – is here severed. A free understanding of the given, i.e. a process of hermeneutics, replaces the self-expression of reality in and as the concept. After all, against the background of absolute ‘being’, which is taken as the essence, subjectivity is deployed as the inessential.

Hegel characterizes this definition of the truth with a category that seems to express the whole of the history of philosophy: according to the preface this is what is meant with the word substance. That the object of knowledge is the immediate within the immediacy of knowledge is thereby denounced as a presupposition of contemporary theories of knowledge that follow a particular trend in the history of philosophy going back to Parmenides..

Against that one-sided definition of the truth, Hegel opposes the program of the phenomenology.  It is necessary to understand the truth not just as substance, but equally as subject(-ivity).  In other words, the truth is not only the real, but equally the real just as it exists for knowledge.  Or again in other words, we should never ignore the formal aspects of the concepts of the true.  Even if we were satisfied with the idea that knowledge has an implicit but reliable and at least undeniable relation to reality, the way in which we express this according to Hegel is vital.  Any reference to reality is in itself an act of understanding, a concept, that has a form. Every human understanding posits its object in a specific logical form.

The phenomenology shows, that this logical form is to some extent implicit.  The way we think of something is not itself a thing that is given.  Consciousness within the phenomenology is therefore shown to be focused on its object or contents and as ignorant of the form in which it actually thinks that content.  It is only indirectly aware of possible contradictions between that content and the way in which it thinks that content.  Philosophy therefore has to be an examination of this relationship between the contents and the logical form.  It has to be focused on both the explicit content and the implicit form of reflection.

The primary result of this is, that truth shall be thought exactly like it is for the human subject, or how it is given within knowledge.  But then secondly there is the necessity to make the form of thought explicit.  Within the phenomenology it is obvious that only within the object as it appears, the subject shows itself as a form of knowledge.  It expresses its nature within its object, and therefore hides it as well. In other words, in the object it leaves the traces of its own activity. Any kind of immediate grasp of the subject, any attempt therefore to circumvent the analysis of what is implicit in the object, will ultimately fail.  One of the objectives of the chapter of self-consciousness is to show precisely why such a direct grasp of itself is impossible.  It has to find the traces of subjectivity in the distinction between the independent object as such, the real as it is for knowledge, and the implicit form of the object, the concept.

Abstract Idealism

One of the greatest barriers in understanding Hegel’s philosophy is an interpretation of Hegel’s program that we could call abstract or absolute idealism.  If we take the word substance in the meaning of independent and absolute reality, we are bound to misunderstand Hegel’s goals.  That we should also understand substance as subject, does not mean that reality is something within consciousness only.

This is something that can be demonstrated with reference to sense certainty.  Here Hegel argues that reality can minimally be thought as something concrete and singular that we can point to.  Nothing can be more specific and concrete than this here and now.  That is the substance as it is given.  Within this substance however there is a specific logical form.  There is a need to make explicit how human understanding has already been moving to achieve this logical form.

So what does it mean to apply the program of substance being thought as subject to sense certainty?

The project is the dissolution of a claimed immediacy and a demonstration of the logical form or mediation that is already operative in it. It means that in a philosophical position that has such a positive nature –  I mean by that that it expresses itself in propositions that seemed to directly express the nature of, in this case, reality – there is already a logical distinction at work.  To talk about reality as being implies as a necessary condition a way of thinking that does not want to be anything other than an affirmation of reality pure as such. Such an affirmation is thought of as an immediate unity, that does not require any logical form. When we take notice of precisely this logical form however, it seems self evident that a distinction is equally involved here; the distinction between the logical form in which we talk about being and being as such.

The project of ‘substance being expresses also as subject’ does not involve showing the identity of reality and thought in the way of abstract idealism. It does not mean that we should investigate the subjective conditions of our knowledge of reality, as in Kantianism. It does involve taking notice of the immanent logical structure of our thinking of reality. The necessity of such a logical form does not preclude that our knowledge of reality is true. But that is because reality as such is the true: the logical form is immanent within reality as well.

1) Dr. K.-J. Brons , Hegel en de theorie van de subjectiviteit, in: Metafysica op het scherp van de snede, Leeuwarden, 2000, pp. 188 – 214. I have made use of some of the arguments in this article, especially the notion of the ‘essentially implicit’ that he refers to here.

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