Sense Certainty, chapter one of the Phenomenology of Spirit, is among the most famous chapters in all of Hegel (second only to the sections on recognition), and it has attracted a lot of commentary over the years. Why is the chapter so popular? It certainly helps that it’s fairly short and also, more importantly, that it reads well — even if you have no prior knowledge of Hegel. At this point, Hegel is still using an intelligible idiom before turning to what is often taken as the “hocus-pocus” of the rest of the work. But of course there are more substantial reasons for the persistent interest in this section. The literature on the chapter has, by now, grown fairly vast, with commentators from many philosophical backgrounds highlighting different, exciting elements of Hegel’s argument. Tell me what you read in Sense Certainty, and I’ll tell you what kind of philosopher you are…
(1) To start with, the position of the chapter at the very beginning of the book makes it particularly relevant for an understanding of the whole work (we know how dense the question of “the beginning” is for Hegel). One of the main topics of the section is “immediacy,” a relation between subject and object that is supposed to be direct. Hegel seems obsessive about that – repeating the German word “unmittelbar” (immediate) four times in the first two lines. If you are scholar of Hegel, you might look at this opening move and ask, for instance, how Hegel’s critique of an immediate subject-object relationship connects to the structure of consciousness he has outlined in the Introduction (see Wille 2007). But you can also scour the chapter in order to find hints of Hegel’s broader conception of knowledge and language. (2) Many commentators see in Hegel’s critique of immediacy an anticipation of several contemporary positions in epistemology. His reputation as “that great foe of immediacy,” for example, stems principally from here (the phrase is by Sellars). Is Hegel attacking the so-called Myth of the Given? Is he refuting Russell’s idea of knowledge by acquaintance (Westphal 2002)? Is he putting forth a particular view about the relations between universals and particulars? Almost all interpreters seem to agree that Hegel is attacking a false picture of knowledge, but what this picture is supposed to look like is a matter of much debate. (3) In the course of his argument, Hegel makes special use of a particular kind of words like “here,” “now,” “I.” These expressions, which came to be known as indexicals or shifters, seem to bear a particularly unmittelbar relationship to the context they are uttered in. C. S. Pierce, who first referred to them as indexicals, wrote: “The index asserts nothing; it only says ‘There!’ It takes hold of our eyes, as it were, and forcibly directs them to a particular object, and there it stops.” (Pierce 1885, 181). But indexicals are special also because their reference seems to be “open” and context-sensitive. Reference “shifts” according to the person and the circumstances of utterance – for instance, the truth conditions of ‘I am blond’ vary according to the person who is uttering the sentence. (The same does not apply to ‘Georg W. Bush is blond’). Hegel pays close attention to different kinds of indexicals in the course of his argument: place (“here”), time (“now”) and first person indexicals (“I”), and if you are a philosopher of language, you may see him as anticipating many later reflections on the nature of these linguistic items. (4) Regarding the next step of his argument, he seems to focus on the very primitive gesture of showing objects to someone. Here language – even in the form of some apparently immediate object-related shifters – disappears. Hegel invites us to imagine an original, pre-linguistic form of reference to the world which is nicely described by Gabriel García Márquez at the very beginning of his One hundred years of solitude: “The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point with the finger.” Hegel would not be reluctant to accept this as the description of the context he’s referring to. His remarks about this picture of the subject-object relation have been taken as his own version of the criticism of ostensible definitions, and therefore have been notoriously seen as foreshadowing Wittgenstein’s arguments on this subject in his Philosophical Investigations. But Hegel was not (only) a philosopher of language or an epistemologist; the chapter contains much more that that. (5) As Wieland (1973) has shown, it is structured as a challenging dialogue between Sense Certainty and a questioning Socratic character, called simply “We” (another indexical, surprise!). Who is talking to whom? And what is the point at stake? (6) Finally, did you know that Hegel’s word for designating Sense-Certainty’s relation to objects, which is Meynung (opinion), contained a reference to the Minne, medieval notion of love (Garelli 2010)?
For those who are interested in exploring this constellation, below is a bibliography of the articles and volumes on Sense Certainty that came out in the past years. I did not included the chapters on sense-certainty contained in commentaries on PhG by single authors, nor specific literature on the problems concerning “indexicals” or “the given” treated independently by Hegel. I hope to be able to add some of these materials soon.
by Luca Corti
(Any further bibliographical suggestion is welcome)
- Andersen, N. (2010): The Certainty of Sense-Certainty in Idealistic Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal Of Philosophy, vol. 40 n. 3, pp. 215-234.
- Boldyrev, I. (2010): Sinnliche Gewissheit in Hegels ‘Phänomenologie des Geistes’: Dialogismus und Sprache der Unmittelbarkeit, in Allgemeine Zeitschrift Für Philosophie, vol. 35 n. 2, pp. 145-160.
- Bowman, B. (2003): Sinnliche Gewissheit. Zur systematischen Vorgeschichte eines Problems des deutschen Idealismus. Berlin, Akademie, 2003.
- Bowman, B. (2012): Spinozist pantheism and the truth of “sense certainty”: what the Eleusinian Mysteries tell us about Hegel’s Phenomenology’, in Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 50, n. 1, pp. 85-110.
- De Nys, M.J. (1978): “Sense certainty” and universality: Hegel’s entrance into the Phenomenology in International Philosophical Quarterly 18(4) 445- 465, reprinted in R. Stern (ed.) G.W.F. Hegel: Critical Assessments vol. 3, 1993
- De Vries, W. (1988): Hegel on Reference and Knowledge, in Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 26, 297-307.
- DeVries, W. (2008): “Sense–Certainty“ and the “This-Such” in Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’: A Critical Guide, Moyar, Dean – Quante, Michael (ed), 63-75, Cambridge(2008).
- Donato, E. (1976): “Here, Now”/”Always Already”: Incidental Remarks on Some Recent Characterizations of the Text in Diacritics, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Autumn, 1976), pp. 24-29.
- Dulckheit, K. (1986): Can Hegel Refer to Particulars? in The Owl of Minerva 17, reprinted in J. Stewart (ed.) The Phenomenology of Spirit Reader, 1998.
- Elen, L. (1971): Sinnliche Gewissheit, Sprache und Gesellschaft, in Sprache im Technischen Zeitalter, Vol. 43, 1972, pp. 205-214.
- Garelli, G. (2010): „Meynung“, l’opinione, o l’ermeneutica della presunta intenzione, in Id. Lo spirito in figura, Il Mulino, Bologna 2010.
- Garelli, G. (2012): L’incertezza sensibile, in Id., Hegel e le incertezze del senso, ETS, Pisa 2012, pp. 25-46.
- Graeser, A. (1985): Hegels Kritik der sinnlichen Gewißheit und Platons Kritik der Sinneswahrnehmung im Theaitet, in Revue de Philosophie ancienne,Vol. 3 (1985), pp. 39-57.
- Heidemann, D.H (2002): Can One Say What One Means? Studies in Hegel’s ‘Sinnliche Gewissheit‘ (‘Phanomenologie des Geistes’), in Archiv Für Geschichte Der Philosophie, vol. 84, n. 1 (2002), pp. 46-63.
- Kettner, M. (1990): Hegels Sinnliche Gewissheit. Diskursanalytischer Kommentar, Campus, Frankfurt a.M./New York.
- Koch, Anton Friedrich (2002) : Hegel über Indexikalität und sinnliche Gewissheit, in Indexicality and Idealism, Volume II: The Self in Philosophical Perspective, hrsg. v. Ofsti, A. – Ulrich, P. – Wyller, T., Paderbord 2002, pp 65-83.
- Lamb, D. (1978): Hegel and Wittgenstein on Language and Sense-Certainty in Clio 7, pp. 285-301.
- Loewenberg, J. (1935): The Comedy of Immediacy in Hegel’s Phenomenology, in Mind, vol. 44 (1935).
- Plumer, G. (1980): Hegel on Singular Demonstrative Reference, in Southwestern Journal of Philosophy vol. 11, pp. 71–94. [reprinted in Philosophical Topics 11 (1980), pp. 71-94].
- Pott, H.-G. (1997): Die sinnliche Gewissheit und die Schrift, in Jahrbuch für Hegelforschung, vol. 3, pp. 251-258
- Robitaille, M. (2003): Esprit et langage chez Hegel : Une relecture de la «Certitude sensible», in Laval théologique et philosophique, 2003, vol. 59, no1, pp. 115-135.
- Schmieder, F. (2004): Hegels Kritik Und Feuerbachs Rehabilitierung Der Sinnlichen Gewiß Heit In Fotografietheoretischer Sicht, in Hegels Phänomenologie des Geistes heute (Deutsche Zeitschrift fü Philosophie, Sonderband 8), Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2004.
- Schönecker, D. (2004): No Being, No Singularity: Hegel’s Critique of Sense-Certainty in the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, in Glauben und Wissen, Zweiter Teil (Hegel-Jahrbuch 2004), Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2004.
- Stewart, J. (1996): Hegel’s Doctrine of Determinate Negation: An Example from ‘Sense-Certainty’ and ‘Perception’, in Idealistic Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal Of Philosophy, Vol. 26 n. 1, pp. 57-78.
- Verra, V. (2007): Esperienza fenomenologica, esperimento, empiria ed empirismo in Hegel, in Id. Su Hegel , ed. C. Cesa, Il mulino 2007, pp. 217-233.
- Warminski, A. (1981): Reading For Example: Sense-certainty in Hegel, Diacritics vol. 11 n. 2, pp. 83-94.
- Westphal, K.R. (2000): Hegel’s Internal Critique of Naive Realism, in Journal of Philosophical Research, vol. 15, pp. 173-229.
- Westphal, K.R., (2002): Analytischer Gehalt und zeitgenössische Bedeutung von Hegels Kritik des unmittelbaren Wissens, in Jahrbuch für Hegel-Forschungen 8/9 (2002/03), pp. 129-143.
- Wiehl, R. (1966): Über den Sinn der sinnlichen Gewissheit in Hegels Phänomenologie des Geistes, in Hegel-Studien, Beiheft 3.
- Westphal, K. (2002): ‘Sense Certainty’, or Why Russell Had No ‘Knowledge by Acquaintance’, in Bulletin Of The Hegel Society Of Great Britain, vol. 45-46, pp. 110-123.
- Wieland, W. (1973): Hegels Dialektik der sinnlichen Gewissheit, in Materialien zu Hegels Phänomenologie des Geistes, hrsg. v. H.F. Fulda – D. Heinrich, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. 1973, pp. 67-82.
- Wille, K. (2007): Die Unhintergehbarkeit des Unterscheidens. Über den Beitrag der „Sinnlichen Gewissheit“ zum Gesamtprogramm der Phänomenologie des Geistes, in Synthesis Philosophica Vol. 43, (1-2007) pp. 107-126.