A Short Note on Reason’s Certainty

Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831

In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, having “reason” means being certain that you are “all reality”, knowing that the whole of the world can be found in your “I”. This self-certainty is well-founded in a sense: idealism is true, and the opposite belief, that the world subsists outside ourselves and simply impresses itself upon us through our senses, amounts to a naïve and false realism.

But reason’s certainty is also mistaken: its notion of idealism is too simplistic. For Hegel, it is not just a single “I” in which the whole world is found; this “I” must find itself to be a member of a community, and only “we”, together, can form a real and true conception of the world. The whole of reality is found in a community’s conception of itself, and not just that of a single individual.

To say that the “I” is the whole world, in any sense, is to take up the standpoint of idealism. It is not such a strange thing for a philosopher to do: we have Berkeley, Kant, Fichte, and many more. And Hegel himself is an idealist.

We can observe reason’s claim for itself from different perspectives: on the one hand, we can take it in its immediacy, in which case it is simply saying “I am the whole world.” In which case it seems a strange, mad claim to make. On the other hand, we can view this utterance in the context of the Phenomenology of Spirit, in which case we see consciousness, as reason, at a point on the path that has brought it here. It has taken up and rejected the various claims that the particular forms of consciousness and self-consciousness have made for themselves along the way – for example, that truth can be found immediately in objects, or in the negation of objects and withdrawal from the world – and step by step, as it has moved along this path, consciousness has demonstrated the truth of the simple idealism of reason.

Consciousness is correct, even though it is mistaken. Given what has gone before, it has found, in the certainty of reason, the truest standpoint that it can find for the moment. It has rid itself of naïve realism and has taken up the perspective of idealism, which means that it is at least pointing in the right direction. Consciousness will now find its simple idealism tested, until it is refined and transformed from the narrow idealism of reason’s  “I”, into the more fulfilling idealism found in the concept of “spirit” and the notion of the whole world found in an ethical community and its culture.

(I’ve been reading paragraph 233 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A.V. Miller. Image is from Wikimedia Commons.)

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