Some reflections on the early sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit:
If we try to think about what is most obvious in our experience, and what the most basic elements of knowledge are, we turn to sense perception. For it seems like the more our minds and our concepts are mixed up with what we are trying to know, the more likely it is that there will be some “ideological pollution” through psychological or social forces. We would like to have something pure and basic that is what it is, no two ways about it. So we look to a green button, a patch of red on a coffee mug, the smell of mint. No matter how we have been raised, or what other confusions lurk within our minds, those sense experiences are simply and humbly given; we cannot change how they appear by changing our minds about them.
But Hegel asks us to think more carefully and try to grasp what it is we come to know when we turn to our sense perceptions. Let us take that patch of red as an example. In order to make a solid knowledge claim of the form, “I know that X”, we shall have to fill in the value for X. For starters, we might let X be “there is a red patch”. But there are many shades of red, and many shapes of patches. If we are seeking knowledge of a sense particular, and not knowledge of redness or shapedness, we shall have to be more specific. We might try “coral red” or “fire-engine red”, and we might try “trapezoidal” or “blobby and nose-shaped”. But these are also general qualities, and not sense particulars. If we want to make our knowledge claim focus on a given particular, and not general qualities, we shall have to somehow manage to refer to the this in our experience, the particular thing we are experiencing, and not its general features. If we allow ourselves to do so, what we can say we know is that this is here, or this is now – understanding “this”, “here”, and “now” to have a special emphasis and to somewhat mysteriously latch onto the elements of our experience. But we should not deceive ourselves; even with our special emphasis, “this”, “here”, and “now” are not particular items, but are general terms that can be applied in infinitely many other cases to infinitely many other objects. For there are many thisses, many heres, and many nows.
We have failed to come up with a specific object in our knowledge of sense particulars. Though we tried to find a value for X that was itself a particular, our best efforts resulted in knowledge not of a particular, but of terms or concepts that range over a broad array of cases. What we know in our sense perception is not anything particular, but only that “This is here now”, a claim which is always true of every sense perception. Hegel thinks the lesson to be learned from this failure is that our knowledge of sense experience is not of particulars, but of universals. We thought initially to turn to our senses in order to find a concrete thing that was unpolluted by concepts, and instead what we found is that our sense experience – at least, insofar as it can be articulated in language – is only of universals.
We might seize upon the qualification about language, and place fault there. We might insist we really are experiencing and knowing a particular, but due to a shortcoming of language we cannot find the right words to express it. But we should consider seriously whether we want to make this move. If we start allowing for knowledge that cannot be captured by language, we allow for knowledge that cannot be articulated and transmitted to others. We close off opportunities for testing, for experiment, and for disagreement or confirmation. We close off the public dimension of knowledge, and we should begin to wonder whether essentially private knowledge can do any of the work we normally expect knowledge to do. If it cannot be articulated, communicated, and assessed, then is it really knowledge?
Hegel puts the point this way:
We also express the sensuous as a universal, but here is what we say: This, i.e., the universal this, or we say: it is, i.e., being as such. We thereby of course do not represent to ourselves the universal This or being as such, but we express the universal; or, in this sense-certainty we do not at all say what we mean. However, as we see, language is the more truthful. In language, we immediately refute what we mean to say, and since the universal is the truth of sensuous-certainty, and language only expresses this truth, it is, in that way, not possible at all that we could say what we mean about sensuous being. (section 97; Pinkard translation)
In this case language is our teacher. We thought we meant one thing, but language shows us that we cannot possibly say it. What can be said, and what can be articulated as knowledge, is not what we mean when we inwardly point to our particular experience and call it “this”; the only value we can have for X is a universal. What language teaches us here, according to Hegel, is that so far as knowledge is concerned, what we learn through sense experience is not knowledge of particulars, but knowledge of universals.
Of course, there are further surprising consequences that this recognition leads to in Hegel’s philosophy, but we might pause to note that this result is obviously true. Consider the wide range of published items of knowledge: scientific papers, books, articles, etc. Not one of them makes use of any sense particulars, at least not any of the kind we were looking for at the beginning of this discussion. They make use of correlations, causal connections, generalizations, and, in short, universals. Someone might introduce a paper by cleverly noting, “At 12:01 a.m., I saw the black needle swerve to indicate 1.025”, but that would be of only passing interest, and would not itself play a crucial role in the articulation of what the author has learned. (Furthermore, as we have seen, such a claim would fail in conveying knowledge of any sense particulars anyway.) An article might include detailed tables and graphs of what has been observed, but the data would be meaningful only insofar as they were representative of some deeper and more universal phenomenon. Our knowledge is of generalities, not of particulars, and the more significant our knowledge is, the more this is true.