Hegel – Immediate and Mediated Truth

Imagine someone has lived their entire lives in a primitive people group underground their entire lives, and they see the sun for the first time. If you pointed to the sun, and they understood basic English grammar, and you said “Now is Day,” they would understand the truth of what you were saying in one way. If they came back above ground again 12 hours later, when the sun was fully down, and you said “Now is Night,” they would struggle to understand what is going on. When they saw the sun in another 12 hours their definition of “Now” would start to change, and they would have to tell themselves weird stories to explain the true phenomena they had seen. Now, why does Hegel take this approach to phenomenology?

Descartes really got the ball rolling when he argued that he could not trust his senses, and all he could know was that “I think, therefore I am.” Hume argued from the opposite direction, that we can only know what we observe, and that we cannot observe cause and effect, so we cannot know cause and effect is real. Kant overcame Descartes’ skepticism and Hume’s skepticism by presupposing that being human means there is a real world out there, that we necessarily experience as having cause and effect, because part of being human requires experiencing the world through space and time. We cannot know how the world is in itself, but we can know how we experience it through the lenses of space and time. This approach is called phenomenology because it describes the world subjectively through the phenomena that can be observed, though Kant attempts to overcome subjectivity through universalizing the space and time lens.

Hegel wants to appropriate Kant’s phenomenological approach, without presupposing the world in itself. There may be other places to start, but Hegel reasonably starts with sense-certainty. We have an intuitive understanding of animals living in the world, certain of the world given to them by their senses. This is sense-certainty. The challenge is to take sense-certainty, and find something that allows us to have a shared certainty. You may have a pre-cognitive, primordial experience, but if it conflicts with my pre-cognitive, primordial experience, we have no way to determine who, if anyone, is right.

But before we can answer this philosophical problem through Hegel’s method, let’s examine his method, step by step, through this reading. There are three “moments” of sense-certainty.

  1. Now = Day (“Day” is an arbitrary starting point) 
  2. Now = Night = non-day, which means (Now = Day + Night) 
  3. Now2 = The universal concept of ‘Now’: there are many Nows 
  4. Now3 = ‘Now’ refers to a specific Now, which is meaningful because there are many Nows 

I am breaking with convention by identifying four moments, and I have little confidence that I am right in doing so, but I cannot make sense of this passage in any other way. I don’t think the individual moments are important. What is important is the processes from the first moment to the last.

The person described above, in the first “moment,’ would experience immediately the proposition “Now is Day.” The focus is not whether or not they actually understand language. The focus is the phenomenological experience of nature, of truth. In the second moment, when Now is Night, the proposition “Now is Day” has, entirely on its own, without any influence of the subject, become false. This can continue to happen, and may never rise above sense-certainty, but if we desire to make sense out of this apparent contradiction, we may arrive at the conclusion that there are many Nows. This third step changes us, and it effectively changes the world. This third moment also gives us the ability to explain why my experience of the truth, for example Here, is different than what someone else experiences at another Here. We may not know much more, but we can at least reconcile the fact that your Here is a house, and mine is a tree. There are are many Here’s, and that can happen.

The final moment is the awareness of the big picture- that although the truth of the immediate Now is constantly evolving, the mediated truth of the abstract universal Now is useless, so we must arrive at a definition of Now that allows us to point to a particular Now that implies a plurality of Nows, and is meaningful as an individual among many Nows.  

If I have done my homework right, this formula applies to all of Hegel. Hegel argues for an “objective truth.” Hegel’s objective truth is not the “thing-in-itself” of Kant. It is the self-negating being in the first and second moment. The third and forth moments are attempts of the subject to make sense of the truth. Although it cannot be explained here, Hegel argues elsewhere that this is being’s attempt to understand itself.


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