The Owl At Dusk: Hegel’s Philosophy of Learning
Hegel is often attacked for supposedly having the great hubris to think he could derive the entire world from a rationalist a priori logic. It is strange, however, to find that if one reads his works in proper order and with a careful consideration towards method a strong contradiction to this claim is noticeable in the very way Hegel’s philosophical method works. Hegel boasts of his achievement of absolute knowing and knowledge, but this boast is qualified even if most miss it. Not only is the claim that the world is knowable a priori qualified, but so is the notion of completion.
In the Science of Logic he admits to the unsatisfactory completion of the work, which he claims should be reworked seventy-seven times to be worthy of being properly completed.
“Anyone who in our times labors at erecting anew an independent edifice of philosophical sciences may be reminded, thinking of how Plato expounded his, of the story that he reworked his Republic seven times over. . . . A work which, as belonging to the modern world, is confronted by a profounder principle, a more difficult subject matter and a material of greater compass, the unfettered leisure had been afforded of reworking it seven and seventy times over. But the author, in face of the magnitude of the task, had to content himself with what could be made of it in circumstances of external necessity, of the inevitable distraction caused by the magnitude and multitude of contemporary interests.”1placeholder
It is clear that Hegel keenly felt the incompleteness of even his most complete works. But if Hegel did not really believe he had finished philosophy what is absolute in his thought? If there is room to learn in the Hegelian system does this perhaps deny the possibility of such a completion? As shall be shown, learning is nothing dangerous to Hegelian philosophy — in fact, it is imperative.
Phenomenology As Learning
Hegel’s first major work is the Phenomenology of Spirit, and in it he puts forth the notion of phenomenology as a method of philosophical science. Phenomenology for Hegel is not phenomenology as it is commonly known these days through Husserl, Heidegger, and others, but it is no less legitimate in using this term name. Phenomenology for Hegel is about experience as learning2placeholder, such as when we say that someone is experienced in something: an experienced athlete, teacher, artist, et cetera. Why learning? In the Phenomenology of Spirit the object of inquiry is precisely the experience of Spirit coming to scientific knowledge, i.e. the experience of human minds in their coming to absolute knowing, an experience which concretely results in knowing themselves. What is this experience? It is not simply a passive experience of things that simply come and go, but rather it is an experience of learning, of observing the results of thinking (and all other activity) not just in contradictory failure, but also in triumphant result by self-correction. Spirit tests itself through its ‘natural’ forms of consciousness, sees its errors, and progressively corrects itself by recollecting its own process of acting and thinking and taking it as the basis of truth. To be able to learn is to necessarily begin and dwell in error, yet it is also to be capable of transcending error and rising (or digging) into truth. It is for this reason that in the Phenomenology’s Preface we are told that truth and knowledge are only a result of a learning process.
Hegel’s philosophical sciences, including The Science of Logic, are all phenomenological in practice in the sense of accumulating experience, learning through recollection, even if their objects are different. In the Phenomenology of Spirit we have the process of coming to know what knowing and knowledge are through a process of self-correction and removal of falsehoods, these falsehoods being our mistaking the ‘natural’ forms of consciousness as absolute. In the Science of Logic we have the process of coming to know what logic and its concepts are through a construction/deduction in pure abstract thought. As phenomenologies they cannot help but rely on experience, and their method of advance is one of learning through experience and its intellectual recollection. Again and again Hegel reminds us in other works to not rest on our laurels, neither of philosophical dogmatic conceit nor of empirical scientific practical satisfaction. The work of Hegelianism is an endless task of experiential recollection in logical form—one grounded on the experience of conceptual thinking. This recollection, however, is of eternal truths accessed in time and not of any contingent or sensuous experience as such. It is for this reason that Hegel cannot be called a historicist or relativist, for though empirical history is important, it is only important insofar as it has logical validity.
Learning By Experience
How do we learn? It’s a complex question, and there is much empirical scientific work done on this question. Pedagogy certainly has much to say on it, but what of philosophy? One thing is certain: We do not and cannot learn before experiencing what we are to learn from. What if one could have a philosophical pedagogy, one not about the practical contingent experience of learning, but of the necessary and absolute form of learning: learning from oneself? What does the process of learning look like when the object of knowing is posited not as an everyday relative object, but instead is the absolute which contains the very knower? Such a knowing would need to grasp the whole in which it is part and in so doing would have to grasp itself in knowing. How would such a knower come to know itself if it began in a state of error and had nothing but itself to rely on? It would have to learn from its own experience in the act of cognizing.
Hegel drives the question in the grand yet abstract scale to the very first possible experience from which the first object of knowledge arises, that seemingly impossible form called sense certainty in the Phenomenology of Spirit, a form of knowing in which the mind experiences an object and simply conceives it as a ‘this’, a ‘here’, or a ‘now’. In sense certainty consciousness believes itself to be rich in content, yet the form of its knowledge is one of complete poverty and undifferentiated abstraction. In leaving the details to the world it has given up all detail in concepts and language; thus, it finds its knowledge incommunicable in the realm of thought. All things are ‘this’, all times are ‘now’, and all places are ‘here’. Truth is for it always changing and unstable as the world of nature changes incessantly, and even with more determinate terms such as trees or hours to determine the ‘this/here/now’ it is incapable of keeping hold of truth insofar as immediate sensibility and presence are the criterion of being and truth, for the world changes even if we plant ourselves in one spot and merely observe.
How can sense certainty overcome this limitation? How can it possibly learn and go beyond itself if it is absolutely this form of knowing? Certainly this is a problem — if one assumes this form is in fact absolute unto itself. Feuerbach accuses Hegel of putting words into the mouth of sense certain consciousness and thus making it do what it in fact need not3placeholder, but this is no problem when we rightly see that this sense certainty is nothing but a moment of our own consciousness, a form for which sense certainty is in fact not absolute. We can see the limits of sense certainty and transcend it even if we ever are at such a poverty of knowledge ourselves. The critique of sense certainty is here not external and arbitrary, but immanent in that we rely on nothing but the experience of sense certainty to show its error even if a being limited to sense certainty could not grasp its error.
For us sense certainty was transcended long ago, and to engage its logic and overcome it is merely to bring to the light of intelligibility what we have already practically overcome. Reason compels us to see the contradictions of our claims when we take its standpoint, and in standing back from our thinking and observing it in recollection we see what we actually think in our thinking, taking the actual path of cognition as the truth against the claims of cognition that were made. It is because we are capable of a higher standpoint that in our moment of sense certainty we can notice our contradictions: empty universal concepts incapable of determinacy, the failure to keep hold of truth, and that the immediacy of sense certainty is in fact not immediate due to the mediation of language as well as the implicit determinacy of its concepts.
Being and Nothing
In the beginning of the Science of Logic we see the same process occur, though in less familiar terms, with Being and Nothing. Being that the Science of Logic is the science of the thinking of thinking, the activity of thinking is central to it, however, no recourse is to be made to any concept of experience or thinking at the outset of the inquiry. No logical presupposition is made, but there is no denial that there is an existential experiential presupposition: the activity of thought and its existence as language and all the society and history it entails. We are to think, but we are to come to know what thinking is by experiencing what it does in conceptual abstraction.
The simple immediacy of thought is the concept of Being with no relation, nothing more. It is not the concept of any particular being, of a general type of Being such as the being of thought, or of Being in opposition to anything; it is simply Being as such. It is without determination whatsoever precisely because it is immediate and undifferentiated. In analyzing the concept and attempting to penetrate into its content, i.e. by thinking Being, we only experience the absence of thought. We find total absence in Being’s immediacy — nothing — because it is the content and operative truth of immediacy that it be empty precisely because it is immediacy. Being, that which cannot fail to be present, is revealed to be Nothing, that which is necessarily absent. That is, that in the mere thinking of immediate indeterminate thought as such there is only absence of thought. Immediate thought is empty thinking. Nothing, however, as this absolute absence of content is just immediate and undifferentiated presence when it is itself recollected and transformed into thought. Immediacy, however, is Being; thus, Nothing returns to Being. Being’s immediacy is the immediacy of thought, while Nothing’s immediacy is the immediacy of thinking. In immediate thought there is nothing to think, and in having thought nothing we have the immediacy of thought once again. Being and Nothing are identical in their indeterminacy, and inseparable sides of the same coin of form and content, thought and thinking.
Were Being and Nothing an absolute set of concepts we would be trapped, unable to think anything else than their empty dialectic, but our thinking process is not so limited. We have always gone beyond Being and Nothing, and in looking upon the thinking process in which each supplants the other we find in this entire movement something present which we had not noticed while immersed in the thinking of them. Immanently present in the dialectic of Being and Nothing as a whole movement is a concept form which we have access to in experience, and we term this form Becoming. The immediate movement of Being and Nothing supplanting each other is precisely the concept we know as Becoming. By looking upon past experience we find the basis for immanent development of a new concept, i.e. by recollecting our own thinking of thoughts we construct new thoughts which have unquestionable necessary links to prior ones.
The Completion of Knowledge
Some of the attacks leveled at Hegel focus on his claim to have finished philosophy. On one side he is attacked for the failure to really ‘finish’ philosophy as he claimed because it is either a self contradiction of ‘the dialectic’, that its necessity and totality is a mere contrivance and Eurocentric, or that finishing philosophy is simply not possible because there is always more to know; thus Hegel’s failure is the sign of the immanent failure of such total systems. These attacks are, I think, based on misunderstandings.
With regards to the supposed contradiction of the dialectic if the system ever had a final conclusion, this is based on misunderstanding the method. In categories of thought the dialectic only progresses insofar as there is indeed a higher category which can subsume lower ones. Simply because we wish to believe there should be something more, or have vague intuitions that there is something more, does not mean there is such, especially when we have a concept which can properly account for all the lower concepts and itself. The end of the ‘dialectic’ does not mean thought or being as such cease to be active, but that they cease to produce anything fundamentally new. At the end of history we have nothing but the return of the same even if in infinite faces, flavors, and combinations.
Now, it is indeed arrogant to claim one has finished philosophy as a whole, and history immediately denied Hegel’s claims to this. For one, he was unable to ‘finish’ any parts of the system by his own admittance that the work of refining was ongoing, and in others because the information and treatment itself was incomplete compared to what we are aware of today. One cannot say, for example, that the Philosophy of History could possibly be finished considering the empirical inaccuracy of some of his accounts (Africa, China, India) as well as the logical incompleteness in the theory as well as lack of existence of the Hegelian final state. The Philosophy of Nature is for its own part highly outdated in terms of empirical science and it also has logical moves which seem contrived to fit the logic rather than flow out of it. This led to a logically solid connection, but it made for an empirically jumpy account which now appears ridiculous. Hegel himself could not have been unaware that to claim to finish philosophy did not make sense if understood in the sense of final completion. New systems of philosophy came to be after Hegel, albeit to what extent these new systems rested on new concepts and principles beyond the Hegelian system has been questioned by not a few Hegelians.
What then do we make of the claim that philosophy was finished and became science because it is finally fully systematic? What Hegel could rightly claim with a measure of confidence was that he had finished philosophy as a systematic method. The logical method of absolute cognition, the process of recollecting the intellectual products of human society in a systematic reconstruction allowed Hegel to provide a way for philosophy to consummate its aspirations to presuppositionless self-grounding and generative universal knowledge by making the closure of knowledge possible by connecting the end to the beginning in a generative process. In this manner the systematicity of philosophy is assured, its acquisition of ‘absolute’ and unquestionable knowledge is guaranteed, and the determination of what philosophy itself is is set. In a broad yet abstract way Hegel could claim he had finished philosophy in closing the ‘big circle’ of the system. Logic, Nature, and Spirit comprise the three major sub-systems, yet all minus the Logic have a measure of unsatisfactory incompleteness in detail as well as lacking conceptual movement that is fully convincing in various places. Of all of Hegel’s works only the Phenomenology of Spirit and Science of Logic can be said to have been close to being finished.
Philosophic Systems And The Absolute
The truth of Hegel’s systematic completeness is perhaps captured in his famous phrase: “Philosophy is its own time comprehended in thoughts.”4placeholder This is often misinterpreted in historicist terms and taken as a sign of Hegel’s schizophrenic claims of philosophy’s nature as both eternally necessarily objective and historically subjective. If philosophy is only its own time comprehended in thought it would never be able to claim any completeness, for each historical epoch would have only its own relative self-comprehension while never grasping anything of the whole of reality. However, contradictory claims are nothing new or rare in Hegel and there are ways to comprehend this in his usual manner.
Philosophy is the systematic comprehension of a social world, a world where all of reality is necessarily implicated and which cannot leave out of its account anything. This comprehension is of the rational, the universal and eternally immanent structures within the life world which the philosopher inhabits. The properly systematic philosophy brings into rational order the entire world, a rational order that is of what rationally is in the empirical, not of how the empirically contingent is rational as contingent, i.e. as an account of what has merely happened to be without explanation of why it must essentially be. The primal principle of these systems is the principle of the life world itself, the Spirit of society, but it is the principle in rational form. Thus, Hegel says, “Plato’s Republic. . . . is essentially the embodiment of nothing other than the nature of Greek ethics.”5placeholder One can see this further in Aristotle’s Politics, where the same applies in even more rigorous systematic form. It is not only true of ethics, it is true of all of philosophy in all times. These philosophies, however, exist in a vacuum neither in society nor in history. Philosophy, like society, is caught up in a learning process through a prolonged dialogue with the past in all its forms; thus, just as Plato’s philosophy is unthinkable without Greece it is just as unthinkable without the past interlocutors whose limits he managed to see and attempted to overcome. This dialogue, though occurring in history, is itself not doomed to absolute contingency and subjective relativity.
In every historical moment the philosopher arises as the one who grasps the peaks of the rational in their society. This peak is nothing merely historical, but instead is the eternally necessary in the evanescent and contingent finite. Philosophy strives for a complete system which determines this life world, for an absolute, and it does not cease until satisfied. Each system of philosophy captures its own world in the grasp of a conceptual absolute which, though it may be true, has not yet captured the complete truth and therefore is not absolute. Philosophy in this manner, according to Hegel, is developed as systems which do not simply refute each other, but build upon each other and take in the truth of logically prior systems.
Hegel claims that his system is the final system, yet how can this be? Even if he managed to subsume all prior systems and can explain all prior philosophy as a progression of learning which leads to his own system he cannot possibly anticipate the entire future of all possible systems and concepts to come, and he indeed did not. Hegel’s own system is subject to being transcended in history not because society may merely change and conjure new self-conceptions which proclaim themselves alien to the Hegelian system, a mere positing of something declaring itself as a new foundation, but because humanity experiences a higher development of its being and thinking which calls for a new concept or domain of concepts. The Hegelian, however, is a master of death through their logical methodology and as such always holds in their hand the elixir of life: self-transcending recollection, absolute cognition, and thus its return in self-correction. Any new development — if it is a genuine development that stands as a true concept according the form of reason as the Idea— is subject to incorporation into the system by being entangled in it by its own intelligibility against everything else. Every killing blow only reinvigorates the Hegelian system, for every successful attack is like a spark which lights the phoenix aflame only to leave ashes from which it is reborn. Hegelianism accounts for its own overcoming and transforms it into a mere self-overcoming in retrospect, whether one recognizes it or not.
The Error of False Completeness
This method is not without possibility of error, however, far from it. The possibility of failure and incompleteness is actually immanent to the method itself: it has always been open to experience, albeit it is only interested in rational experience. Insofar as this experience reveals incompleteness we become aware of the limits of our accounts, however, because it is a rational account of experience it cannot fail insofar as it grasps the true movement of this experience. Thus, there is a trick: our concepts can always be true as movements, but false insofar as we misunderstand what empirical realities those movements correspond to.
“As it is our procedure to ask how the thought which has been established as a necessity by means of the Notion looks in our sensuous intuition. . . . Even if we should deceive ourselves in this respect, this would in no way effect the truth of our thought.”6placeholder
Hegel’s great hubris is this: he failed to recognize these limits as limits and let logical formalism externally link what in fact had not yet been linked by experience. In the relentless desire for absoluteness he sought logical structures and links which themselves could not move when forced onto natural existence. Nowhere is this hubris more explicit than his account of life in Nature, where his logical formalism denied the possibility that creatures could change drastically over time (evolution of species) and — strangely — that fossils were remains of long dead creatures. Though some correctly claim this is partly defensible because there was no intelligible evidence for evolution, Hegel nonetheless must be held to account for not withholding judgment and instead assuming the matter was possible to rationally settle with what was already known.
As with the forms of consciousness in the Phenomenology, logical excess is the hallmark of incompleteness with anything we deal with. Empirical excess as such is not the trouble, but theoretical excess — that which we cannot logically account for — is. If Nature did not show logics we could not account for we would be right to assume our accounts were complete if we managed the logical closure necessary, but when this is not the case we must stand back and rethink relations and orders, or perhaps we should be humble and admit we cannot make a proper judgment with what we know. In any case, we are put in a position to learn from these experiences.
A Posteriori A Priori: Eternity In History
The world of reason is the world of a priori concepts, but these concepts come to be known a posteriori. Knowledge, as Plato’s Socrates claimed, is indeed recollection — the recollection of rational experience. We come to know what is rational in the act of thinking and recollecting, observing in this recollection what we do in thinking rather than what we believe we do. As can be seen from sense certainty in the Phenomenology and the development of Being in the Logic, we are always carrying out a process of learning from and about ourselves in concrete and abstract forms. Reason as such does and does not have a history. The process of reasoning is historical, but reason as concepts is eternal and transcends temporal order — true logic is what it is in all places and all times. We must first experience reason to know it, but we can only know it because it has always been at work.
“When philosophy paints it grey in grey, a shape of life has grown old, and it cannot be rejuvenated, but only recognized, by the grey in grey of philosophy; the owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk.”7placeholder
Philosophy is only ever possible after the fact that the deed is done and history is in this sense over and at its end. In order to re-collect anything, that which is to be recollected must already be collected here and there in the lived experience of humanity as collective and individual. Many things have been developed as well as discovered, things which have come down to us in the form of a cultural heritage of concepts and memories. It is concepts as such — the fundamental forms of thought — which Hegel is most keen to recollect, albeit what he understands by concept is far broader than what we normally consider, for it includes human activities as well. This history comes to us as an accumulation of knowledge which is a product of the finest powers of understanding as well as reason, and as we are accustomed to ‘wearing’ our culture in upbringing we take it on not as mere clothes, but our very intellectual skin. This tunic of Spirit, however magnificent, is in its detail a rough patchwork with its loosely stitched seams hardly concealed from the eye that looks intently. These patches are our concepts of the world. At best they come to us in a contingent unity, they also come to us torn and connected by the ghost of a thread. It is the work of the scientific philosopher at the end of history, i.e. the present, to look at the highest cultural products of humanity, to look at the patches in their irregular shapes and odd unity with other patches, and to unravel the whole garment and reconstruct it anew according to the ideal beauty of the mind — according to the immanent rational link each patch has to others in the total unity of the absolute garment. In this unity, however, not all patches that come in the rough work are used in the masterpiece, for only what is true remains and endures in logical history.
The Indispensability of The Empirical
Science, to paraphrase Hegel from the Preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, is the crowning glory of Spirit.8placeholder Of course, for us moderns this is still a dominant outlook, but our comprehension of what science is is different than what was meant at the turn of the 1800s. While we have deified so called empirical science — so called because it is hardly a merely empirical endeavor — since the days of Newton’s revolution in physics, Hegel and many philosophers after have tried to combat what they see as an error of reason in this deification. Science has its place, they claim, but it is ultimately subordinate to a higher science, the science of science itself: philosophy.
In Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature we find his explicit consideration of empirical scientific general methodology in the Introduction. There we are treated to the diametric practical and theoretical approaches of empirical science, of which neither is fit for genuine necessary and universal, i.e. absolute, knowledge.
“It is not only that philosophy must accord with the experience nature gives rise to; in its formation and in its development, philosophic science presupposes and is conditioned by empirical physics. The procedure involved in the formation and preliminaries of a science is not the same as the science itself however, for in this latter case it is no longer experience, but rather the necessity of the Notion, which must emerge as the foundation. It has already been pointed out that in the procedure of philosophic cognition, the object has not only to be presented in its Notional determination, the empirical appearance corresponding to this determination also has to be specified, and it has to be shown that the appearance does in fact correspond to its Notion. This is not however an appeal to experience in regard to the necessity of the content, and an appeal to what has been called intuition, which was usually nothing more than a purveyance of random concepts by means of fanciful and even fantastic analogies, is even less admissible here. These analogies may have a certain value, but they can only impose determinations and schemata on the objects in an external manner.”9placeholder
The question of empirical science and its methodology for Hegel is not a question to ever be answered on any common empirical ground, that is, no experience of what is sensuously out there. Such a science presupposes much whether it deem itself primarily empirical and practical, or rationalist and model making. Empirical science recollects experience, but it does so uncritically in taking its concepts of objects and theory as given. As such, empirical sciences will only provide ‘raw’ concepts as the elements of experience to be recollected and reconstructed in the method of Hegel’s absolute science. The seeming connections which we find in empirical experience are irrelevant to Hegel, for only a pure a priori conception can give proper and certain development and connection to our knowledge of things. Empirical sciences provide us with concepts and phenomena which we are to bring into rational form and order, a rational form and order only known through the experience of reasoning through the concept of the object.
However, empirical science is not to be subservient to philosophy any more than philosophy is to be subservient to empirical science. The spirit of free inquiry which empirical science ideally offers is a necessary element in the production of new determinations of the understanding, determinations which are themselves necessary elements for the systematic unification of philosophic science. The work of empirical science is a semi-chaotic process of determining worldly distinctions, the work of philosophical science is a rational process of the determination of conceptual distinctions and immanent systematic relations. When philosophy attempts to speculate beyond the distinctions made apparent by empirical science, it blunders in vague thoughts and figments of imagination. When empirical science attempts to speculate beyond rational conceptual distinctions it blunders in vague concepts and figments of imagination. This blundering of empirical science is often disguised and hidden from the understanding under a veneer of semi-intelligible mathematics and the dizzying effects of practical results.
Empirical science, however, is not the only part of the social world which offers new distinctions for philosophy to consider. Every single sphere of life can come to offer concepts for philosophical reflection. New modes of art can arise, new ways of living, new technologies, new ways of experiencing, et cetera, and all force philosophy to recollect them in a rational manner, whether this recollection be negative or positive. In all that we do, in all that we know, the only reality to the knowledge we have is the reality we recollect. We learn only insofar as new things are recollected, insofar as new things are experienced, insofar as there is anything genuinely new.
Hegel’s philosophy is at heart one of learning, albeit it is one of the most difficult forms of learning: learning from oneself. It demands openness, intellectual honesty, and the fearlessness to grasp the world in our reasoning. We only know what we rationally experience, i.e. we only know what we think through, yet as individuals we have access to the legacy of an entire social world of Spirit which gives its recollected experience to us. Such a philosophy is worthy of the modern world in which dogma as such is unacceptable, and in which the demand to be free in thought and action put us on the forefront of coming to grips with what is on the edge of conceivability. Perhaps one does not accept Hegel’s conclusions, perhaps one thinks the method too sterile and stifling, nonetheless one can learn quite a lot from one of the greatest masters of philosophical learning, one who thought all of history was one giant process of learning, a process in which rational rejection is itself a part.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and George Di Giovanni. The Science of Logic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. §21.20
See Bernstein’s lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit: Introduction B, 32:00–34:00
Feurbach, Ludwig. Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy
Hegel, G. W.F., Wood, A. W., & Nisbet, H. B. (2012). Elements of The Philosophy of Right. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 21
Hegel, G. W.F., Wood, A. W., & Nisbet, H. B. (2012). Elements of The Philosophy of Right. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 20
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and M.J. Petry. Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature. London: Allen and Unwin, 1970. 224
Hegel, G. W.F., Wood, A. W., & Nisbet, H. B. (2012). Elements of The Philosophy of Right. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 23
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Arnold V. Miller, and J. N. Findlay. Phenomenology of spirit. 1977. §12
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and M.J. Petry. Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature. London: Allen and Unwin, 1970. 231