note: I know little about anything so this may or may not be useful to people who actually want to learn things about Hegel. also I’m citing the Pinkard translation.

I’ll try to return to this with more reference to Jacobi and the Principle of Sufficient Reason later, because I think the way Kreines uses this to motivate German Idealism more broadly is really interesting. In this post I’m just going to try to give an exposition of the point of the whole Phenomenology as Hegel presents it in his introduction.


The setup, as seen through the Kant route, is something like a failure for our reason, for consciousness, to grasp the “in-itself” of external objects. That is, there seems to be an external world of things-in-themselves, and our consciousness acts like an “instrument” or a “medium” by which those objects present themselves to us. But, epistemically, this picture is somewhat unsatisfying. How can we be sure that the representations we have of these things-in-themselves correspond to their reality? If all we have access to is our representations, what business do we have positing these things-in-themselves at all? Indeed, to the former point, Hegel expresses this quite well in section 85 of the introduction: “It is an issue for that consciousness whether or not its knowing of the object corresponds to the object” (56). If consciousness knows of an object, then that object has two beings: the being in itself and the being for consciousness. For example, you might imagine that a “red chair,” or to be precise, the thing that presents itself as a red chair to our perception systems (and therefore to our consciousness) is an object. That is, there is an object “behind” the red chair, there is something there that is presenting itself to consciousness in the form of the thing we are perceiving as a red chair. We seem to know the object’s presentation of itself to us, and perhaps that there is an object (although we could take issue with this point), but the object might presumably have some essence, some being in itself that is inaccessible through the representation we have of this red chair.

Hegel’s Windy Road

Spoiler alert: we will reach something of an idealist conclusion at the end of this, an absolute knowing and something to the effect of thought as self-determining. But how do we get there? Reading Hegel’s introduction, the journey appears just as important as its conclusion. The way in which consciousness, the spirit, sheds its false forms and achieves the in-itself of its being as spirit or absolute knowing reminds me, as Jacobi did, of the “kicking the ladder” idea–that is, we make our way to some conclusion via argument, but then kick that argument, the path that led us here, away. But I think this is not quite the same, as there seems to be something in Hegel whereby the journey is part of the conclusion.

In the beginning of the Introduction, Hegel motivates us with the idea that to cognize what is, we must come to some understanding of cognition itself. I think this isn’t an obvious point, and fortunately Hegel takes a second to give us two warrants: first, there are various kinds of cognition and some might be better than others in achieving this final goal of discovering the truth. Second, without a determination of the nature and limits of consciousness (given that it has a kind and scope), “one ends up grasping clouds of error rather than the heaven of truth” (49). If we come to a certain determination about the limits of cognition, Hegel acknowledges, we might conclude negatively that there is an insurmountable wall between cognition and the absolute, that finding the truth is an absurd, impossible project.

I think the next page or so is very interesting. On the first page, Hegel recalls the idea of cognition as a means to perceiving truth, but then comments that “what is absurd is that we are making use of a means at all” (49). What’s he getting at here? On the picture we have right now, cognition is a sort of filter through which we grasp the external world, the in-itself of objects, the truth. To say that it is absurd that we use any sort of means smells strongly of a desire to establish a sense of immediate access to things-in-themselves. Indeed, Jacobi rejected Spinoza’s metaphysics on the grounds of an immediate access to his own free will. Where this continues to get more interesting is that Hegel raises a problem with how this whole project of understanding cognition as a means to grasp the external world is set up in the first place. It seems to presuppose, in Hegel’s words, a representation of consciousness as a medium and that, for consciousness, “the absolute stands on one side and that cognition stands on the other… separated from the absolute, though cognition is nevertheless something real” (50).

We are finally getting to a point where Hegel will motivate his method for the Phenomenology. Hegel discusses the claims and justification of science here, where I presume we should take science to mean a systematic method of uncovering the truth. Hegel talks about science “coming onto the scene” with another, “untrue” kind of knowing. Science and this other kind of knowing seem to justify themselves via negative definitions, i.e. each says it is not the other. But science, this way of getting to the truth, shouldn’t justify itself and appeal as the not-untrue way of knowing. If it appeals as a “better intimation” present in the non-truthful cognition, then it is also making a mistake by sort of defining itself in reference to something else that is its appearance, rather than the way it is in and for itself. Thus, “the exposition of knowing as it appears is to be undertaken here” (52).

That was a bit dense. I think what Hegel is saying here is that science, knowing, cognition, is also something that begins by justifying itself with reference to a negative relation to untrue konwing. But the appearance of cognition is probably the only thing we can really start with. Taking that object in hand, we follow “the path of natural consciousness pressing forward towards true knowing” (52). That is, beginning with an appearance of knowing as an object, we can proceed in a “dialectical” fashion to uncover what’s behind that appearance, perhaps pressing forward as though peeling an onion until we reach the in-itself of cognition.

But we must be careful about how we do this, and Hegel takes care to warn us. I think this is perhaps where he explains some of the idea of the dialectic. As we progress towards true consciousness, we will encounter a number of non-real forms of consciousness and likely uncover problems and contradictions in them. But this discovery of that untruth, “the exposition of non-truthful consciousness in its untruth” is not something merely negative (53). The “nothing” that emerges from a contradiction, a discovery of untruth, shouldn’t be seen as the nothing of that from which it results but rather of that from which it emerges. That is to say there is something positive, a forward movement in the discovery of untruth which will help us transition into the next stage of consciousness.

I think the motivation and dialectical method set out are the most important things to take away from the intro, but I think there’s a key bit in section (85) where Hegel discusses something about the examination as not only an examination of knowing but an examination of the standard of knowing. As we proceed through the dialectical movement, Hegel thinks consciousness is capable of itself testing its knowing of the object. Consciousness’s knowledge of an object in the first place also implies a knowledge of difference between the object’s being-in-itself and being-for-consciousness. The testing depends on this difference–if the two beings do not correspond to one another, then “it seems as if consciousness must alter its knowing in order tomake it adequate to the object” (57). But this is a modification of cognition. So the object itself, as it is to consciousness, is also altered! The object itself doesn’t endure this dialectical movement forward, either.