The Phenomenology of Knowledge

The consequences of this image of Hegel’s intentions for our understanding of the Phenomenology of Spirit are substantial. Let’s summarize the position as quickly as possible.

The topic of the phenomenology as a subscience of philosophy, is knowledge. Effectively, as the introduction makes clear, Hegel is asking one question. How does knowledge appear in its cultural shape to a critical, indeed sceptic, observer? In other words: what is (a) consciousness?

Hegel’s analysis calls the whole of a type of knowledge – a knower, a reality and the content of that knowledge – by the name “consciousness.” Ordinarily we think of a state of the mind or the mind itself. Not so Hegel. A consciousness is the whole of the relationships involved in a specific knowledge, defined by a specific structure and expressed primarily in the concept of its essential object that is its measure or criterion. To avoid some of the misleading connotations of the word, we might use subject-object relationship in stead, which is what is formally meant.

E.g. if a type of knowledge is present to this sceptic observer as the claim to express what is immediately present to our senses, then that consciousness and its claim can be identified as “sense certainty” and its presumed object as the “here and now”.

It can then be “questioned” on its claim to absolute knowledge – really objective knowledge has no unexpressed or untested presuppositions and is in that sense “absolute” – and in the process be analyzed for its merits and weaknesses.

We move beyond this stage when we find that such a claim for knowledge relies on presuppositions that are not included in its own claim, e.g. sense certainty relies on something other than the absolute givenness of a colour or shape at a given moment, but rather on the action of pointing at something without words. Something else besides the definition of the object as given is needed to determine that object and to have knowledge about it, and in the interrogation, when that has become clear, the object now changes – the reason why Hegel used the word “experience.” The object absorbs the now revealed presupposition. The ” indicated” and complex “here and now” turns out to be a “thing” with properties. Which signals a next stage of consciousness: perception or the thing and its qualities.

If knowledge appears as a dominant set of presuppositions within a given culture, it can e.g. be identified as the “ethical world” (Die Sittliche Welt) and be analyzed through its basic expressions, in this case in Greek tragedy and political sciences. In those expressions a specific relationship between the presupposed subject and its world becomes apparent. And it is that essential structure that can be analyzed with the criterion of scepticism. Is the subject claiming to know its object without hidden presuppositions? The tragic conflict, as portrayed in Greek tragedy, shows that it does not.

The engine that drives these dynamic changes within the phenomenology, is always the object that is claimed to be known. I.e. the motivating question always is, what is it that I know? In a series of forms of consciousness, it is this object that gains in contents under the pressure of its interrogator, until it ultimately becomes identical to knowledge itself and perfect self-knowledge is achieved. Only in that sense of “perfection” within a series, achieving the full identity of knower and known in self-understanding can Hegel then speak about “Absolute Knowledge”. At that stage we have identified the kind of knowledge that has no presuppositions because it contains all of them explicitly and derives them from a given starting point as necessary. What does that mean? That absolute knowledge, the end product of the phenomenological movement, turns out to be identical to the knowledge that the phenomenology itself contains.

That is why Hegel calls his phenomenology the “science of the experience of consciousness.” It is not a science about experience, but the exposition of the experiences that the Spirit recollects, in retesting its former positions, while reflecting on his present position. What is historically contained in our present body of knowledge is effectively present in the shape of an implicit presupposition, that as such weakens our certainty. We need to express and test these presuppositions. Beyond that, we can only understand how we, in the present, have knowledge, when we understand how we got here.

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