The Certainty of Philosophical Understanding

Especially in connection with Hegel there is, it seems, a widespread misunderstanding about the nature of our philosophical knowledge. Many have been tempted to assume that the ‘absolute knowing’ that is the goal of the Phenomenology of Spirit and the ‘necessity’ of the dialectic method, implies an absolute perfect evidence and certainty that can withstand any and all objections.

That would assume that Hegel’s philosophy is aimed at elucidating or constructing an intellectual activity that is perfectly closed in itself, pure speculative intellectual understanding would then imply a pure and perfect evidence and clarity and certainty. Such a certainty would then not only be required at the end of the phenomenology of Spirit, but precisely before that, in every step that leads up to this divine goal. After all, didn’t Hegel himself stress the fact that in this work philosophy finally became true science, that is a form of knowledge that is perfectly demonstrated from its premises, that can ground even its most basic axioms, presume nothing therefore and through that be ‘absolute’ knowledge? Our ‘natural consciousness’ of course has to be overcome, a higher stage has to be reached where we drop our previous misunderstandings and now become perfect in our knowledge. The Phenomenology after all is the road on which this natural consciousness, our every day knowledge, goes through its various stages in order to reach this lofty goal.

For Hegel however, the human intellectual activity, even when she takes on a scientific shape, is not simply autonomous and never purely speculative. Even in its highest form, the human mind is being driven and determined to some extent by our human desires. The human intellect is part of the whole of the natural desires and urges that articulate themselves in the most humble of biological faculties as eating, drinking and sex, as well as in the loftiest cultural enterprises.

Our conscious urges and desires, that are solicited by our intellect itself and determined by it, are not completely dependent upon this ‘lower’ sphere and so to speak ‘instinctual’ being. The whole of our nature comes to light within our consciousness and becomes transparent and is equally transcended toward goals that as such are beyond our natural instincts.

To this one must add that our natural biological urges are constantly focusing our intellect towards those goals and task that are relevant for survival or for the continuation of the life we lead. Our philosophical endeavors, even though they as such reach for a truth that transcends the relative and personal truth of every day life, is still very much enclosed in the whole of our natural life. Even though these natural desires do not directly determine the object and truth of our understanding, they do drive our intellect forward and motivate it to operate in a certain fashion. The direct determination of the intellect is received from its object because that is precisely what differentiates the intellect from all other faculties: the orientation towards the truth as such in distinction to relative truths and ideas and concepts that are simply functional for survival.

Still we are prone to focus on those objects and ideas that conform to the present state of our desires and needs and will disregard to some extent those objects and ideas that seem to have no function to that end. Nevertheless, ultimately, even this complex of desires and urges will be under the control of the intellect – normally – and we are able to prevent them for determining our thoughts. There is the attitude of the quiet observer, or of contemplation, that will hold our desires at bay and foster a ‘disinterested’ view of the object. The intellect will train the life of desiring in order for it to become focused on the more than personal truth. Our affective life will become more or less rational. Objectivity will be the standard of our intellectual judgment.

To find and accept the truth is therefore not a matter of the procedure of a pure intellect alone. There is something like a ‘mental balance’ involved, that needs to be acquired and practiced. We are always ‘becoming’ spirit, we are never a finished product.

Now my second point is, that the kind of pure necessity and perfect demonstration of truths that we envision, guided by the notion of ‘absolute knowledge’, looks more like that of the mathematician. Only a purely formal knowledge, like that of mathematics, can provide such absolute certainty and transparency. That is so for the simple reason that mathematics has a pure axiomatic starting point and all of its contents are defined and construed by the intellect itself. Therefore in principle, no mathematical object can have an insurmountable obscurity.

Philosophy deals however with the True, that is, the Truth of the real, and the reality of the truth. There will always be some distance between the concrete object and our intellectual understanding, not in principle, because we need to understand that ultimately there is an identity between the real and thought, but in the reality and experience of our intellectual life. There is an irreducible inadequacy of our conceptual understanding and the absolute truth notwithstanding the principle of this identity. Not as such therefore, is there a gap between thought and understanding, but to us, as finite human thinkers, there is. Every insight that we gain will therefore always be relative and problematic and can always be attacked by doubt and counter-arguments.

For that reason Hegel spoke several times about the necessity of the confidence in the Spirit. Every intellectual activity and philosophy the most, required an attitude of surrender to its object. Every level of our approach to the truth requires that. Not because that surrender to the truth – the unconditional acceptance of truth wherever it shows itself and whatever it is – is formally a requirement of the intellect. That would imply that that the desire for truth would produce it, and thereby negate it – because truth cannot be the result of our self-interest. It does imply however that even our speculative understanding does not have the power to convince the mind irrespective of its resistance to it, or its unwillingness to accept it. The intellect as such (formally) cannot affirm and deny a truth in one act; but I as a person am able to deny a truth that my intellect has reached. My own intellect, driven by my natural desires, is able to focus on whatever is still unclear and problematic and imperfect in an expression of the truth and on that basis withdraw itself from the evidence it has already reached. It can withdraw into itself with this imperfection as its motive.

Besides the human intellect as such, there need to be an attitude of willingness, of benevolence, toward the truth, that will accept the preponderance of the evidence and the clarity reached, even though imperfect, and on that basis also decide to ‘go with it.’  The necessity of that ‘willingness’ can of course also be considered and established by the intellect so that it is not blind faith we are talking about. The acceptance of truth is therefore always dependent upon this attitude that will allow itself to be persuaded. A definite demonstration of truth that goes beyond my personal attitudes as is possible in mathematics, is therefore not something we need to strive for in philosophy.

Philosophy, even as rigorously scientific as Hegel wants it to be, remains a ‘subjective knowledge’. After all,

“Science appears as a subjective knowledge, with freedom as its goal and it itself as the way to produce it.” (Encyclopedia par. 576.)

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