Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is an exercise in scepticism.
People who call themselves “sceptics” often pride themselves on having their own ideas about the world, and trusting the evidence of their own senses. This is better than accepting established truths and arguments from authority. The sceptic says: Think for yourself!
But Hegel thinks that sceptics can be just as bad as those they criticise: holding fast to your ideas and impressions just because they are your own is no less dogmatic than holding onto ideas because you learned them in school.
For Hegel, real scepticism means being willing to let go of whatever ideas you have, however you acquired them. Few people are willing to be sceptics in this sense, because it means following a path of “despair,” where every belief you hold and cherish is held up for questioning and will, most likely, be cast aside as you progress.
But Hegel warns us to take care as we progress. It’s not as simple as throwing everything away until you are utterly free of beliefs. Nihilism can be a form of dogmatism. It can be a comfort to reject every truth as having no value altogether. Life becomes easy for the nihilist, who only has to find the negative in a thing in order to cast it aside, and never has to find the positive in anything.
Scepticism has value only if we also keep in mind the principle of “determinate negation,” which means looking for the positive in every negative. No idea or belief or impression is so false that it has no value whatsoever, and every negative result, every failure of consciousness to find the truth, can itself be turned into a new starting point. In other words: we can learn something from every wrong turn we make.
Determinate negation is the principle of the Phenomenology because it allows Hegel to proceed along the sceptical path of doubt while also constructing a systematic account of all the various errors that human consciousness can run into as it searches for the truth. Every time consciousness is proved wrong a new starting point is created from that failure, and so consciousness’s adventure can continue from where it left off, and the Phenomenology can recount its story.
(Image is from Wikimedia Commons.)