Some thoughts on Hegel in relation to the problem of knowledge in general

Reading through Hegel’s encyclopedia logic, I’m left with a great deal of desire for what I would dare to call a “radically immanent aspect” to its proceedings. In other words, I am left with the desire for an immediate upshot to the work. Reading through such arcane terminology as the being-in-and-for-itself, determinate constitution, finite and realized purposiveness, I find myself entering into the mind of Hegel as a thinker. The more I read any thinker, the more I find myself taking that thinker on his or her own terms, learning in all their Otherness what it is for them to express themselves as they do. Indeed, Hegel is no different in this respect. However, as with many other thinkers I’ve read whose works probe deeply into the nitty gritty of a discipline, I am left with an inability to synthesize their work with my consciousness as such.

I differentiate between two kinds of consciousness and thus two kinds of knowledge – the general and the specific. Hence, consciousness in general is merely that direction of mind towards a thing. Hegel calls this “everyday consciousness,” Heidegger calls it “average everydayness.” Specific consciousness and specific knowledge, contrarily, concern the specifically-induced orientation of mind towards some set of objects for the sake of their being “drawn together” into a coherent whole. Hegel calls this “scientific consciousness,” Kuhn a “scientific paradigm,” and most contemporary workers in academia a “discourse.” Hence, as I read Hegel, I necessarily enter into the Hegelian discourse – as one does with any thinker whatever.

The problem of knowledge in general, however, is akin to the problem of metaphysics in general – how does the one relate to the many? In epistemology, how does one discourse relate to the discursive manifold? That is, for any one set of technical terms and concepts, how is it that these, as derivative of some more general discourse, come to subsist in independence from that generality? Having done so, how can they be re-integrated into the general discourse without losing their alterity from that discourse? Indeed, one might ask anterior to these questions – why is it that a specialized discourse is needed at all? The answer to this is simple – with the specialization of language comes the specialization of consciousness, and with the specialization of consciousness comes the capacity for man to solve problems through the unique orientation of his mind, in all its minutiae, towards whatever concerns him. Hence, when he picks up and begins to interrogate the world using his special thought-forms and tools of communication, he and his kin become like ants building a special mound of their own design, only able to talk to each other and those induced into their langauge.

All of this is fine. But, when it comes to Philosophy, especially post-Kantian German Idealism, I struggle with how it is I am to observe this tacit reality. Indeed, Kant typifies his philosophy, at least in the Prolegomena, as a “propaedeutic” to his more general philosophy. In this he, more or less, means that it is a foreword, a preamble, etc. However, we might take Kant’s use of the word here in a more general sense. That is, his philosophy is a propaedeutic, a preamble, a groundwork-for, the production of any specialized discourse at all. That is, it is the means by which science can proceed. Indeed, this is what Kant takes himself to be doing in the Critiques, and rightfully so. But, if this is the task of Kant, then it stands to resaon that this too is the task of the post-Kantians, namely Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel.

But when it comes to Hegel, if I am to be reading him as producing a propaideutic to the practice of science in general, it seems to me that his work leaves a great deal to be desired. (Perhaps, on one hand, this is because I’m only reading the Encyclopedia Logic, which Hegel himself admits is itself only introductory to the more lengthy and detailed Science of Logic.) On another hand, though, the problem is this — if the propaideutic to the practice of science (ie. the systematized creation of knowledge) must in and of itself require strenuous re-orientation of one’s consciousness, how can one hope at all to proceed back outward from this orientation to consciousness in general, let alone hoping thereafter to perform another re-orientation towards science? It seems Hegel is demanding of his students an exitus-reditus at the level of the whole mind! He begins from mere presence and ends up with God as the Absolute! Let me say that again – he begins with what is merely present to us and leads the reader step-by-step to God. What a thick bramble of interlocking syllogisms he provides to this end! I can’t deny the genius of its ambition, not at all.

But, at bottom, I cannot help but ask – what the hell is the point? Surely, on Hegel’s terms, the point is the systematization of knowledge in general. And, indeed, Hegel does certainly provide a complete grid for the creation of such knowledge. But again, bearing in mind certain meta-theoretical principles regarding the nature of human creation and human knowing as such, that is, that discourse is more or less historically conditioned and thus relative to its conditions on all accounts, how one could hope to take Hegel on his own terms is seemingly baffling. He provides us with a set of derivations – this much is fine. But once the derivations are performed, these are all we have left! We have no means to apply his derivative output to questions about the world around us, not, that is, without further philosophical inquiry. But this necessitates the question – if we need to do further work to use Hegel, then clearly “using” his logic was not what he intended. No, it seems that he intended it as a canon of mystical ascent, a means to cooptate the phenomenological and rational in virtue of attending to the heights of divinity. Such a view is not far off – Hegel took himself to be the culmination of Western philosophy, none after him ever hoping to go beyond his work.

But if I take a step back and view the Logic as a whole, it seems to me that the intent behind such a behemoth set of syllogistic steps is done in vain! Again, I appreciate the tenacity and sheer will power of one man to ascend through a series of interlocking triads through the totality of human experience — its a great effort. But if the lattice doesn’t serve as a ready-to-hand grid beneath which we can lay the contents of everyday experience and preferably scientific activity, then the entire Logic sits still as one giant lump! It loses all dynamicity, it disallows itself any readily-applicable power, as all its conclusions are bound up within itself, never reaching back out of their alterity from everyday consciousness so as to become useful thereto. Indeed, Hegel might say that such a position ignores his intent – he is not looking to inform everyday consciousness. No, his project is transcendental, attempting to uncover the activity of pure reason as it unfolds necessarily and a priori. This too is fine, but without reality as a technical apparatus whereby the acts of pure reason instantiated in practical reason can be tested and adjudicated, I see no utility in the work save the production of knowledge for its own sake.

This much, again, is perfectly fine. I am just as much a fan of the Known as such, on its own terms, as any other would-be scholar – its a fine endeavor. But to call this a propaedeutic? To position it as something which can inform the practice of knowledge-production in general? How? Such claims only seem possible if the formal construction of a canon of reason is capable, in its organization, of being made ready-to-hand on the reading of any interpreter, as might Aristotle’s categories. Indeed, as I researched this matter, I saw some argue that the latter are specifically intended as such (ie. as ready-to-hand in an immediate sense) while Hegel’s are not. But then I’m left stunned — why is philosophy attempting the construction of canons whose technical apparatus cannot be applied outside of itself? Why is it attempting something so Other and so vain as to be in its own depths so deeply that no one save the initiated few who’ve had time to read it can make use of it, merely among their ilk? It seems such a vain affair!

I affirm nothing if not this – that which cannot readily transform average-everyday consciousness is, in some sense, a failure of a work. That which cannot touch the heart and mind of any given man or woman of average intelligence is, in some sense, to border on the schizoid, especially in the etymological sense of the term. Indeed, what cannot be communicated to the non-initiate is divided off from him, schizein in the Greek. Hence, what is there besides outward correspondence to mass fact which dictates the validity of a set of “initiate-only” theories? Nothing. Lacking such correspondence, it seems that Hegel’s Logic is no better than schizophrenic’s writings, at least considered from this “one-sided” analysis. Of course, I don’t truly believe this. Hegel’s work has in it a motor of ascent whose character can, I believe, be adapted as a ready-to-hand canon for reasoning and the transformation of everyday consciousness. Why this has not been attempted is beyond me. It ought to be the foremost task of all leading philosophers to make their work ready-to-hand to the average man. Of course, the graduate student and adjunct professor can’t attempt this – their initiation into philosophy proper is still underway. But for a Hegel, a Searle, a Sellars, or a Habermas, to do anything other than write for the absolute transformation average reader at large seems, to me, to be an act of elitism.