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one preliminary remark: this post could be of interest to anyone engaging with the thought of Hegel (especially his theoretical philosophy) or who is interested in fundamental metaphysical problems.

I'm currently reading Hegels Science of Logic and here i'm especially concerned with the nature of the beginning of what Hegel calls "science". As Hegels Logic provides not only to be a systematic work about a fleshed out domain of philosophical problems, but to be the fundamental text for his philosophy of Nature and his philosophy of Spirit, the beginning of the Logic is also the beginning of his system in general. Furthermore, as Hegel seems to see his philosophy as the pinnacle and consummation of philosophy in general, the beginning of the Logic should also be understood as the beginning of philosophy tout court.

So how does philosophy begin? Which thought is the first thought to start a systematic enquiry into the nature of being, nature and spirit? Hegel names this first thought of all thoughts simply "Being". Ok, so far so good but this doesn't explain much. To cut a long story short, i think there are basically two opposed camps of interpretive strategies that try to explain what is meant by "Being" at the beginning of the Logic. The first camp of interpreters is called the "non-metaphysical" reading of Hegel, the most famous of whom is probably Pippin. The non-metaphysical interpretation sees this first thought of Being as precisely what it seems to be, i.e. as a thought and nothing more. What follows out of this thought, that is the deductions that make up the remainder of the Logic, is basically the completion of Kants deduction of the categories, i.e. to provide the most general conceptual structures governing our thought. This means, that the non-metaphysical interpreters see the thought of Being as simply the most abstract category, out of which all of the other categories can be deduced. The second camp can is called the metaphysical interpreters. They stress the fact that Hegel sees himself as a full-blown metaphysician trying to show the validity of metaphysics as a science after Kant's critique of dogmatic metaphysics rendered the latter impossible. In this reading, the first thought of being is not only a thought determination, i.e. a category of the finite mind, but also the unmediated certainty of Being as such. That is, the first thought of Being not only establishes an awareness of the thought of being, but also of Being as such. This is why the remainder of the logic can not only be seen as a deduction of the determinations of thought, but also as a deduction of the categories of being. This is why thought and being are examined parallely in the logic, which also means that Hegel can show that being and thought are structurally identical.

This is perhaps confusing enough. In fact, i'm assuming that you are familiar with the debate, which is why i won't elaborate any further on the central point of contestation, which would be definitely necessary if you never heard of it. However, I basically think that the metaphysical reading is true, because the construction of a non-metaphysical Hegel seems just ridiculous to me. However, within the metaphysical reading, do you think that Hegel can be seen as subverting Descartes' thought experiment? One could read the beginning of the Logic as a kind of universal doubt thought experiment. But this does not lead to the fundamental principle of the cogito, as in Descartes, but to the fundamental principle of Being, which is both the most abstract thought possible and the immediate certainty of Being qua Being, thus establishing the parallelism of thought and being and by the same token the objective validity of the categories of thought as categories of being. What do you think? Can Hegel be seen as a foundationalist in this pseudo-Descartian sense?

  • I am not sure that you reading of the metaphysical reading works, and it is hard to see Hegel as a foundationalist on any reading. After all, a staple of his is that everything "immediate" is mediated, and any "foundation" is subverted, or rather sublated. Even if we assume that the development of the categories parallels ontology, it is a shifting quicksand Heracletean ontology, that stands on no foundation and transmorphs like a ship of Theseus. By the way, Pippin now admits in Hegel's Realm of Shadows that he was metaphysical after all. – Conifold Jul 4 at 0:07
  • Hey there, thanks for the remark - didn't know that Pippin finally came to this conclusion, will definitely check it out. I totally agree with your observation that in Hegel everything immediate is mediated and so there can be no real foundation. However, "Being" seems to be such a foundation because Hegel describes it as a thought "without presuppositions". Now it is obvious that it can't be foundation in the sense of Descartes, because it is not firm and immediately sublates itself. Perhaps one could name it "Ungrund", a grounding in the form of an "unground". – Moritz Wolff Jul 4 at 9:28
  • I guess one could, but that would make Hegel no different from Peirce, an avowed anti-Cartesian and explicit anti-foundationalist, who openly admits that "inquiry" has to start somewhere, from what he calls "indubitables". The difference will be that Hegel is "necessitarian" about how the development proceeds, and Peirce is "libertarian". But he did say "My philosophy resuscitates Hegel, though in a strange costume", see If metaphysical grounding of beliefs is not necessary what is to logically compel one to believe anything? – Conifold Jul 4 at 9:52
  • Hegel is definitely a necessitarian, agree with you, but you said about Peirce that we have to start "somewhere", we start from "indubitables" - which suggests the possibility of several, equally good starting points. Hegel seems to deny this. There is one thought, the thought of Being, which grounds the possibility of thinking about Being as it is independent from it's representation for a finite mind. There don't seem to be several starting points in the Logic (however, there seem to be some who see it like this, cf. crisiscritique.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/adrian.pdf) – Moritz Wolff Jul 4 at 10:49
  • You are right, part of being a necessitarian, even the starting point is necessary. He even discusses (and rejects) Fichte's starting from I as an alternative. Although Peirce's indubitables are not the starting points because they are good, but because we find ourselves unable to doubt them, at least initially. They are the most "necessary" part of the process to him, but at the same time contingent in the grand scheme. His most major beef with Hegel is that the latter neglected Secondness, the brute contingency of things. – Conifold Jul 4 at 11:15
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You're using the word 'foundationalism' quite imprecisely, which is why you see Hegel as a foundationalist. Foundationalism is an epistemological doctrine about the structure of justification. They hold that all inferences must end in some non-inferential knowledge or justified belief. Nowhere in Hegel does anything like this structure of justification occur. In fact, it is quite ruled out by his views of mediation, knowledge, and dialectic, which look much closer to a kind of coherentism, if you were absolutely set on assimilating Hegel to one of these sorts of terms.

You might want to look at Paragraph 24 of the Phenomenology of Spirit, where Hegel discusses starting points in philosophy:

a so-called basic proposition or principle of philosophy, if true, is also false, just because it is only a principle” (p.13).

Systems of knowledge work by drawing out the defect of a ground/first principle, and only by doing so do they develop from the immediacy of universality to the mediation of the further development. Immediacy for Hegel is a deficient state, and any "first" proposition of philosophy would necessarily be in such an immediate, deficient state.

So one should view the refutation of the first principle as a development of the system that can incorporate both the first principle and the progress it undergoes through its negation:

The genuinely positive exposition of the beginning is thus also, conversely, just as much a negative attitude towards it...It can therefore be taken equally well as a refutation of the principle that constitutes the basis of the system, but it is more correct to regard it as a demonstration that the basis or principle of the system is, in fact, only its beginning” (pp.13-14).

My own sense is that Hegel here is trying to infuse the idea of a ground or a basis for a system of philosophy as a beginning (Anfang) in a temporal sense...the beginning point in time from which the development of mediation occurs temporally.

You would never hear foundationalists saying anything of this sort.

Quotations taken from: Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. A.V. Miller Translation.

  • Hey, thanks for your answer. You are right in pointing out that my use of the term "foundationalism" is imprecise, because it triggers some epistemological repercussions. However, Hegel points out that the Logic has to start "without presuppositions", so it takes nothing for granted. Furthermore, it is not possible to doubt this first thought. This comes very close to something like non-inferential knowledge, even though - you are right with this - the basic epistemological scenario takes place between subject and object, the standpoint of natural consciousness already mediated in the PhS. – Moritz Wolff Jul 4 at 19:34
  • Your are also right with the fact that Hegel criticises the use of "principles" in philosophy. However, the thought of Being is indubitable and it is a thought without presuppositions. This also comes very close to a principle with the only difference that in the way Hegel uses the term every subjective arbitrariness in choosing one principle over the other vanishes completely. Hegels revamped use of principles leaves no room for doubt, so it is absolutely certain. – Moritz Wolff Jul 4 at 19:38
  • I'm just not sure where you get this stuff about "doubt" and "dubitability" in Hegel? He doesn't seem to frame things in those terms. The the only way something could be shown to be a first principle would be to show that it is ultimately insufficient. Since foundationalism holds that there is a first principle that is sufficient, I would think that would be an unequivocal denial of foundationalism, no? I see Hegel's beginning with Being as a response to the popular notion at the time that the principle of non-contradiction or the Self (Fichte) could be the first principle of philosophy. – transitionsynthesis Jul 6 at 19:19
  • @MoritzWolff Moreover, Hegel is very critical of non-inferential knowledge in the Phenomenology. Famously, all knowledge, for Hegel, is produced only under the "labor of the negative": that is to say, through mediation (hence, an immediate first-principle is excluded). He is furthermore critical of those who hold that the grounds of science are revealed in a non-inferential "flash" of knowledge. He derides the “rapturous enthusiasm which, like a shot from a pistol, begins straight away with absolute knowing…” (16). – transitionsynthesis Jul 6 at 19:24
  • At the beginning of the Logic, Hegel stress that the beginning of Science "may not presuppose anything" (see also Houlgate). The only thought that does not presuppose anything is absolute abstraction or absolute negativity, which goes by the way of Being in Hegel. This is not a positive foundation on which to build a system. It's content is not revealed in a "flash of knowledge", but in the emptiness of all knowledge. However, it may be said to be a negative foundation, because it is the only way possible to start and it is indubitable, because only something that is asserted can be doubted. – Moritz Wolff Jul 8 at 10:22

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