September 28, 2007

Science constitutes a method, historically derived and epistemologically restricted

26 September 2007 Hegel's critique of consciousness (Hegel, Pt. 2) The Tartski Well, lest we get ahead of ourselves, I will briefly mention some of the main points outlined in Hegel's Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit. This will help us keep track of the reasons Hegel is asking certain questions, and help us determine to what extent he is successful in making his case.
In the introduction, Hegel's project is made clear. He intends to show that in order to complete the project of certain and true knowledge, it is imperative that we also know ourselves. This cannot be understood as a mere repetition of Buddha's famous command, "Know thyself." Rather, Hegel wishes to demonstrate that any knowledge of a given object or "other" cannot help but be affected by the subject that is knowing it. Only through self-consciousness -- that is, my awareness of my own hand in my knowing things -- can we hope to correctly understand our consciousness of other things.
So far, Hegel is essentially no different from Kant, for Kant also disagreed with the empiricists and the rationalists. (Empiricism states that knowledge of an object is indifferent of the subject; rationalism states that our logical patterns are necessary and derived from reality.) Hegel's unique contribution will come later.
His first major section, Consciousness, contains three chapters: Sense-certainty, perception, and understanding. Each of these three poses as a non-philosophical contender for the prize of true knowledge. Hegel, however, show the road taken by consciousness from the first to the second and finally to the third, and also demonstrates how none of them can legitimately speak about what something is in-itself; rather, they can only speak of appearance, or in other words, what something is for them. In doing so, Hegel is preparing the ground for his next major section, Self-consciousness, which will be dealt with in a future post.
Sense-certainty. Some empiricists claim that the richest, purest knowledge is simply our immediate sense-based knowledge of a given object, prior to any thinking or conceptualizing about it. Hegel, then, asks them the question -- What actual knowledge is given to the subject by merely experiencing the object? He answers -- only its simple existence. But what is it? If we say, for example, that the cat is black, this appears to be simple sense-based knowledge devoid of any thinking about the object. However, what is really happening in our minds is that we are applying certain concepts to the object, and this categorization requires us to move beyond the sensed information just given by the object.
Hegel explains that, for example, saying the an object is "black" is only meaningful if we are simultaneously saying that it is not-brown, not-red, not-blue, and so on. In other words, we are locating a particular property in a whole range of possibilities, although only one member of the range is actually being sensed at the moment. If the property cannot be compared to other possible substitutes, then the property ceases to have meaning -- in other words, the object must be distinguishable from other objects in order for us to learn anything from our experience of it. However, since the application of properties to an object is in fact our own addition to the immediate sense-based experience, it is clear that merely experiencing an object cannot provide us with any knowledge. Hegel's terminology for use of properties is perception.Perception. We have seen that, in the consciousness's own pursuit of knowledge, it does not stop at merely experiencing the object, but instead perceives the object according to a pre-existing body of knowledge, or "concepts." These concepts disallow us from understanding anything by itself; the experience must be lifted from the senses to the cognition, turned into an object. The lived experience of salt's saltiness, for example, becomes named and categorized according to the long history of experience into which it must somewhere fit.
Hegel argues that, in this light, the only truth of perception is in the universals it posits. This is why we can develop habits, and understand or decide intuitively, instinctively, rather than treating each case as unique (which is what bare perception alone would do). However, since the universals are themselves constituted from the numerous experiences, it would appear that the universals accurately reflect the objects alone. So it is that perception claims the power to know the truth.
Hold on a minute. In light of the mere word "universal," another question be posed. Who unifies all of this diverse experience? There were a number of possibilities in Hegel's day. His own forerunner, Kant, said that the unifier was the ego, or "I." On the other hand, Popular empiricism held that the unifier was simply a natural ordering of experience, whether "God," who imparts his knowledge to us, or some other less conscious principle of ordering. Hegel disagrees with a natural ordering, not because his system has no room for God, but rather because it is the same as saying that "God causes lightening." While this may be stated, it does not help any investigation into the nature of knowledge, because it is the same as saying, "Well, we just know things." It is a cope-out that belongs to pre-critical, pre-modern, and pre-enlightenment thought. The man of the Enlightenment, as Kant famously said, is the man free to use his own mind in the pursuit of truth, rather than to believe the truth based on some established tradition or authority.
For this reason, Hegel naturally agrees with Kant, though later on we will see the very important differences that emerge as a result of Hegel's "Spirit" (Ger. Geist).
Understanding. Here we arrive at what Hegel generally refers to as Science -- not in the narrow sense the word has in English, but rather the network of the higher investigations of cognition, and the deployment of universals to result in a very economical and well-ordered world.
What many people fail to realize, Hegel says, is that Science constitutes a method, historically derived and epistemologically restricted. It cannot say what a thing is in-itself; in other words, the difference between Science and philosophy must be maintained.
It is also at these crossroads where Kant fails to distinguish experience from Science. Hegel, on the other hand, realizes that the vast majority of experience does not constitute science, which is why unlike Kant he leaves the discussion about "transcendental philosophy" quite quickly (and thankfully, for all of you out there who have no idea what transcendental philosophy might be!). Rather, Hegel recognizes that Science is a radical demolishing of consciousness's home, the world of perception, and its transforming into the world of laws and forces. Salt becomes NaCl.
However, Science itself, as we have said already, is a historical phenomenon, and is not a philosophy. It is rather the progression from an ordinary category based framework to a complex system that consistently reinterprets experiences into altogether different terms. Newtonian laws of physics, for example, clearly turn the world into a peaceful kingdom of rules, whereas according to perception alone, we experience it as quite a jolting place.
However, we are informed that things necessarily happen because of this principle and that law. When Science turns into necessity, it has stepped into a zone where it cannot properly say anything. Let me explain. When a "theory" is first presented, for example the theory of gravity, it can presumably be disproven. As experimentation proceeds, it appears that the theory is being plunged into reality and thus tested; however, by the end, when the theory is "proven," we see that in fact it is reality that is submerged, and in its wake, a concept emerges. This concept or law may now operate independently of any sense-data whatsoever. In other words, we have made a transition from a sensible to a supersensible world, a world beyond the senses.
Hegel's final point is the most moving of them all -- Science is a tautology, or in other words, a system of classification and systemization imposed on the material by the subject. This is because a scientific law is committed to understanding objects as mutually indifferent. But if elements are independent, then there is no law, there is only "regular behavior." Science, in this light, cannot say what things are in themselves, but only as they appear. Any concept of necessity is therefore imposed on the material, its origin being supersensible. And any concept imposed on the material is an imprint of the subject, not the object.
For example, take electricity. There is no necessary reason to understand it in terms of polarity (positive and negative). This is clear because they only have meaning in relation to other parts of the system -- positive is the opposite of negative, and vice versa -- so if the system is removed, it is a clean break. Observed regularity is one thing, necessary connection is quite another. And a summary of data is not an explanation to why things happen as they do, nor does it allow us to predict what the next experiment will yield.
And so Hegel demonstrates that the concepts of Science are not inherent in the subject matter. Rather, reason goes ahead with its own agenda. In effect, one can say with Hegel that "[science] reaches out for something else and really remains preoccupied with itself." And until science realizes that its object is actually its own creation, it will remain only conscious, and not self-conscious.
In summary, Hegel demonstrates that to be conscious is not enough. If we are only conscious, we are prone to fall into the trap of ascribing our knowledge as being derived entirely from the objects as they are in themselves, rather than as they are for us. This latter perspective requires us to become self-conscious, not only of the way in which we conceptualize, but also how even before we investigate a certain natural phenomenon that intrigues us, we have a plan and a method which will guide us from mere experience of that phenomenon, all the way to a scientific knowledge of it. Next week: A look at the nature of self-consciousness and its role in the pursuit of knowledge. Categories:

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