The text below is my reply to critiques of Hegel’s philosophy, but also of modern science, that there is no truth.
I suggest that you read it in connection with my two other articles “Concept Tutorial” and “Truth” to better understand it and make the most use of it. You can read all three articles in any order, but you will see that they are connected.
All three articles give you some lessons I found from my Hegel readings. Of course some other may differ, but I hope that you will find them useful anyway.
In some ways, together they also constitute a challenge to the concept of “relativism” and of “alternative facts.”
The text was first published in my “Hegel workshop” (“Hegel Werkstatt”) between 1997 and 2000.
1. Let’s start with the least problematic
There are things that we know that we know nothing about. We don’t know what exactly happened in this very place one million years ago (or in the future), or what exactly is happening in the Mariana Trench (more than 10,000 m below the sea surface, the deepest surveyed point in the world so far, near the Philippines), or in a yet unknown planetary system, etc.
I also don’t know exactly what my counterpart in front of me is thinking right now or what you as readers of this article are doing right now.
If you take it exactly, our knowledge about almost everything is so indefinite, from our general concept you can’t deduce the detail with its coincidences.
But our general concept at least determine the basic details, in so far that we also have well-founded approximate ideas about this, which we can derive from our knowledge of the general circumstances.
I believe that Hegel does not claim that we (as finite individuals) do know these details or can deduce all the details,1 nor does he, conversely, claim that they do not exist conversely.
It is also unproblematic not-knowing in so far as we at least know about this not-knowing in a certain way (as my concrete examples show).
2. Deception, erring, etc., to which we are of course also exposed. is another topic
This is rather the source of scepticism, which in its extreme form always urges caution by referring to previous errors.
This is also productive and useful in the form of Brecht’s “doubter”, who motivates us for improvements, invites self-criticism and examination, etc.
But for such doubt to be so productive, it must not be fundamental, otherwise it tips over dialectically, it shortens itself, so to speak:
If everything can be doubted, if I can say “but I can also be wrong” about everything, then this also undermines the starting point, I can no longer distinguish between my earlier error and my present better knowledge (in relation to the past) or (in relation to practical consequences, improvements) between my present attempt and a possibly better approach to the truth or an error. Everything is uniformly in principle just as doubtful.
In this respect, again, the doubt made in principle, which is intended at the end, undermines the possibility of criticism as such.
The doubt whether something is true, however, naturally makes sense both practically and theoretically only against the background of a (at least relative) truth. (Remember the discussion of the boundary in the concept tutorial: if everything is X, without which there is a non-X, the X as an attribute could not be determined at all).
That such a fundamental, ontological doubt, so to speak, naturally also questions itself when applied to itself, is on the other hand rather known and built into the correspondingly clarified sceptic theories (without, however, eliminating the consequences, of course. I once had to endure all these sceptic theories as a student at an interesting seminar at Theo Ebert during my studies at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität in Erlangen).
So this means:
As truth is only relative to its reasoning, opposite follows: each well-founded (i.e. with regard to content) doubt contributes to progress of truth, while doubt in principle does not contribute anything to knowledge and just as well can be left alone (resp. serves rather psychological and other non-scientific motives / purpose).
3. A small further, quasi life-practical detail here at this point still at the edge
Hegel also says, errors which never become obvious, then probably are not, so are only imaginary errors.
Of course, this does not invalidate the argument that the error can be noticed afterwards, so I will use this argument only as a secondary argument to (2).
However, it fits very well to such principled / formal sceptical arguments as the Kantian “thing in itself” or our limitation to “mere” human knowledge etc.:
The argument against human knowledge, against our “mere” knowledge of “appearance” etc., must be inadequate, otherwise it would not be a counter-argument. Thus, there is talk of a fundamental weakness of human knowledge as such.
This weakness is derived from the comparison with “the thing in itself,” an imagined “non-human” knowledge etc.
The only question is how our knowledge can be compared with it and then be found to be inappropriate/incorrect/varying: either we really cannot recognise the “thing in itself” or the like (as the argument suggests), then the comparison does not come about either (and we cannot say with it that there is a difference) or we can already recognise the thing-in-itself, non-human knowledge and the like in some way, participate in it or the like, but then it is not in this respect an “afterlife” of the human mind.
If there were a fundamental, unbridgeable cognitive barrier of the human being, then we would not be able to notice it (because otherwise we would know it, at least negatively, as under (1) and it would not be fundamental, at least in this respect).
The mistakes mentioned in (2), from which fundamental arguments like those criticised here in (3) “parasitise,” are characterised precisely by the fact that they become noticeable (for my sake only sometime).
4. Progress of knowledge
I have no problem understanding a progress of knowledge in the sense of an approach to an ideal, possibly never reached end point, as most people and especially scientists do in their self-interpretation .
I also have no problem, like Kuhn, to admit paradigm shifts or similar “junctions” (Hegel in the measure, Hegel, by the way, anticipates Kuhn in a certain way already, for example in his discussion of Kepler’s discovery in his preface to the philosophy of world history2), yes, these can even be well substantiated / deduced with Hegel.
And of course I have nothing against it in empirical history also regresses etc. to note, the idea of progress is itself founded (e.g. building up on previous knowledge, better instruments etc. on the one hand, a common basis in a common spirit and a common race on the other hand), but therefore also by no means absolute.
In any case, all these limitations (the concept of progress in knowledge is also a limitation, insofar as it states that we do not yet have complete knowledge (which, by the way, can only be meaningfully ascertained with hindsight for many topics, see 2)) require the concept of truth in order to be able to be formulated meaningfully.
It is in this sense that in my humble opinion Hegel’s system formulates the practiced, conscious self-understanding of the sciences, and it is bitterly necessary to save it precisely at this time, when it threatens to be etched away by the relativisms presented (which are all right only insofar as they themselves assume truth).
Basically, this boils down to the “singular” details, that cannot be deduced from the “concept” and neither being observed. Hegel evaded the subject however in the case of Prof. Krug, who challenged Philosophy of Nature to deduce his writing feather, by answering that Philosophy might give him hope for answering his question when sometimes in the far future it has no more important subjects to discover. See Hegel’s footnote 51 to §250 of the “Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences” and in “Wie der gemeine Menschenverstand die Philosophie nehme, - dargestellt an den Werken des Herrn Krug” in Kritisches Journal der Philosophie, Bd. I, Stück 1, [Januar] 1802.↩︎
“The investigator must be familiar a priori (if we like to call it so), with the whole circle of conceptions to which the principles in question belong — just as Kepler (to name the most illustrious example in this mode of philosophising) must have been familiar a priori with ellipses, with cubes and squares, and with ideas of their relations, before he could discover, from the empirical data, those immortal “Laws” of his, which are none other than forms of thought pertaining to those classes of conceptions. He who is unfamiliar with the science that embraces these abstract elementary conceptions, is as little capable — though he may have gazed on the firmament and the motions of the celestial bodies for a lifetime — of understanding those Laws, as of discovering them." (Hegel “Preface to the Philosophy of History,” page 80 of the Sibree translation).↩︎