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Report on “The Certainty and Truth of Reason” in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit

In the preceding parts of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel was concerned with showing that the ego or the self is all reality, or is the absolute. Owing to the influence of Fichte and Schelling, Hegel at the beginning adopts, only to later on test, the idealist position that knowledge is the identity between the subject and the object. Upon testing this notion however through his description of the experience of consciousness of itself, Hegel sees that consciousness always confronts a contradiction. The contradiction was this: On the one hand, self-consciousness was premised on the identity between subject and object. But on the other hand, ordinary experiences showed that the self is also conscious of objects that were not only totally different from it, but were also free from its control and will. In other words, in becoming aware of objects outside itself, ordinary consciousness is premised on the non-identity between the subject and object.

This contradiction, as Hegel is wont to do, is something that must be overcome; and such opposition is to be settled by uniting it on a higher level, on the level of the whole or absolute. To do so, Hegel will then have to show the identity of the identity and non-identity of the subject and object “at the same time,” as it were. That is to say, the subject should both be the same and not the same as its object. In essence the goal would be to establish the existence of objects apart from it while maintaining the existence of the subject. The object must thus be granted its independence, on the one hand, while the subject must protect its own, on the other. Or, as the acclaimed Hegel scholar Frederick Beiser would put it:

What the ego has to demonstrate now is that, despite the apparent givenness of its sense experience [of objects non-identical with it], it is still all reality, that it is still self-consciousness despite its consciousness in experience. Somehow, it has to show that these representations are also within his control, and that they are not independent of its will and imagination after all. (Beiser, Hegel, 179)

Thus Hegel will show through a dialectic (IV A and B) that the self is still identical with the other (self-consciousness) while remaining non-identical with it (consciousness). In other words, without destroying the independence of the other, and without also surrendering to it its own independence as a self-consciousness, the self must show that it exists independently of others, and remains identical with itself as it goes through opposition or faces differences.  In a word, that the self is what Hegel calls an identity-in-difference. In this way, in understanding itself as the same self which remains after contradiction or opposition, the self then truly becomes what it thought it was all along—that it is its world, it is the world, or all reality. Hegel says that

[a]fter it has lost the grave of its truth, after it has abolished the act of abolishing its actuality itself, and the individuality of consciousness is in its eyes the absolute essence in itself, it discovers here for the first time the world as its newly actual world.  In its continuing existence, this world interests it in the way it previously was only interested in the world’s disappearance, for that world’s durable existence comes to be in its eyes its own truth and present moment, and it is certain that it experiences only itself within it. (¶ 232)

With this realization or, better yet, recollection that it was the absolute all along, the self posited at the beginning therefore returns to itself as the same self in the end. In restoring itself from the division which the existence of other objects provoked, the self completes the circle of self-identity (“I am I”), thus ending up where it began: the selfsame I. For Hegel, the beginning is also the end—the starting point is the terminal point, the departure is the arrival. As he would more eloquently say in his famous Preface to the Phenomenology:

What is the truth is not an originary unity as such, that is, not an immediate unity as such. It is the coming-to-be of itself, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal and has its end for its beginning, and which is actual only through this accomplishment and its end. (¶18)

            Process, development, growth and movement, as we know, are very important in the thought of Hegel. Reality, Being, nature, history and even God for Hegel are dynamic, always on the way, always in the process of coming-to-be itself. The famous Hegelian dialectic provides the best example of this dynamism: because there is an inner movement in the essence of everything, a constant flux within things themselves (as desire, understanding,  or spirit), it is in the organic nature of things to develop themselves, to evolve, even if these developments lead them to contradiction and opposition, negation and alienation. These negative moments or aspects, however, are essential for the development of things; it is from these mediations that the truth of things, as it were, emerge. Consciousness, for example, through the mediation of what is not identical with it is able to become aware of itself in and through the other. Crudely put, what differs from me or opposes me can also serve as a mirror for me, one upon which I am able to see my mediated reflection. And less crudely now, it is upon reflection—thought, understanding—that consciousness truly reaches absolute self-consciousness.

Hegel says that it is only through reason or understanding that the self is able to realize that it is absolute even in dispersion. Consciousness and self-consciousness by themselves seem inadequate to reach such a conclusion; in contrast, understanding or reason is able to think such a unity because it has precisely undergone the dialectic itself.  Reason, after all, is the ability to see through differences and search for what abides and remains by itself (Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception?). To be sure, the distinction between the subject and its object exists. But as Hegel adds, the distinction only exists “as a completely transparent distinction which is at the same time therefore no distinction at all.” (¶ 235) Only reason’s gaze is able to pierce through contradiction and distinction because of its power to elevate these into a greater unity, into itself, by summarizing them into a concept (e.g., the concept of identity-in-difference itself, which, while a real contradiction, becomes clear in conceptual form). Reason is ultimately that faculty which produces concepts; and it is the concept, or the Idea, which is the final product of Hegel’s dialectic. The Idea is where consciousness concretizes itself as universal—Hegel’s “concrete universal”—and also where reason reaches certainty. Hegel would in numerous occasions stress “the certainty and truth of reason”—which is nothing other than the title of section V:

Reason is the certainty which consciousness has of being all reality; or so it is in that way that idealism articulates its concept of itself. (¶ 233)

The consciousness that is this truth has this path behind it and has forgotten it, since it immediately comes on the scene as reason.  Or, to put it differently, this reason, as immediately coming on the scene, does so merely as the certainty of that truth.  (¶ 233)

Reason is the certainty of being all reality. (¶ 235)

What the previous idealism lacked therefore was a comprehension of itself; it was not able to provide itself the concept or idea of what it was in itself. What it had asserted as unconditioned—that the subject is identical with the object—was not yet understood rationally by the self, or not yet really experienced as certain (for precisely ordinary experience shows otherwise). Thus, the unconditioned and first postulate of the identity of the subject with its object becomes for Hegel merely an assertion without basis, or a faulty starting point. Whereas, to reiterate, certainty or truth is to be won at the end for Hegel, idealism fails to reach either because it fails to even begin.

The philosopher must take the first step and travel along the path before he can even know where he actually began, and where he was coming from, to say nothing yet about where he is going. You cannot know where you are unless you leave; and you will not be able to know where other places lay if you do not know where you now lie. The principal goal of the Phenomenology itself, according to Beiser, was nothing other than to learn from experience (Erfahrung) itself, to take “a journey or adventure (fahren), which arrives at a result (er-fahren).” (Beiser, Hegel, 171). Using the same image of a path, Hegel says:

The idealism which does not reveal that path but which begins with this assertion [that it is all reality] is itself merely a pure assurance, which neither comprehends itself nor can it make itself comprehensible to others. It articulates an immediate certainty against which other immediate certainties stand in contrast, but all of which have been lost along the way. (¶ 234)

To wit, the previous idealism failed without even trying. It is only through the process of reflection, and learning from that very reflection through reason, that one can give validity to the idealist claim that the subject is identical with the object.


Come to think of it, we only come to certainty after experiencing uncertainty, as we only reach understanding after misunderstanding. It is the same with life and death. And what is understanding but the knowledge that what you were to understand was already within, or hidden behind, what you misunderstood; that what you were to know was already there in what you were ignorant of? Otherwise, if we did not already understand or know at the beginning, we would not be able to come to any certain knowledge or understanding later on. Nothing certain, or at least absolutely certain, can be given at the beginning. Our understanding of the world and of ourselves is usually fragmented; we only see parts, only pieces of the whole. It is only in testing ourselves—our knowledge, understanding and lives—against the world that we may come to any awareness of the whole, its possible meaning or significance, and from there and in proper measure station and orient ourselves. Upon knowing one’s position vis-à-vis the whole can one really see and define one’s self.  Because only in the whole can there be truth. “The true is the whole.” (¶ 20)


(This is what happens when you do not understand what you read: you just write.)


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