Hegel and the Elephant
George J. Marshall
One of the most difficult of the "Great Philosophical Works" is Hegels Phenomenology of Spirit. As you read the book, you are caught in a maze of conflicting claims and you quickly become unsure of your footing. Is this Hegels own position or is it a characterization of the very positions that he is attacking? In fact, it is not long before you begin to wonder: Where is Hegel in all this? If you turn to the "Introduction" of the Phenomenology, you find that, even when Hegel attempts to be helpful, his explanations do not really throw much light.
This rather long quote contains the essence of Hegels explanation of what he is trying to do in the Phenomenology. If you dont already understand him, it seems rather obvious that this explanation does not help very much. His peculiar uses of language seem to always get in the way. But you must be careful. As Josep Pieper points out: "It is a triumph all too easily gained, taking a statement by Hegel out of its context, putting it as it were in a display case, and inviting the uninformed to look critically at the so-called philosophical language...the way a zoologist views a rare species of an insect." (Pieper, In Defense of Philosophy, p. 97)
If you are to make some sense out of Hegels explanation of his work, you need to put what is said back into "its context." It is only in this context that you will be able to understand Hegels own project in the Phenomenology. Thus the purpose of this paper is to shed some light on this work by placing Hegels comments from his "Introduction" into a context in which their meaning can be better understood. Rather than developing this context by dealing with philosophical works, I develop the cultural significance which was alive in Hegels day by considering a poem which struggles with similar problems. "The Blind Men and the Elephant," written by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887), offers both a dramatic and conceptually interesting framework that gives life to the kinds of problems that were so much in the air at the time. Thus I take a series of claims made by Hegel in the "Introduction" and show how they make sense of his project once they are seen in the context of Saxes poem. In so doing, I explain the similarity of problems presented in the poem and the Phenomenology. And further, I show how the nature of both problems place the same kind of restriction on anyone trying to overcome either. While Saxes poem urges an acceptance of the fact that total truth is always beyond your grasp, Hegels goal is to achieve such a truth. I further show how all the characteristics that would have stopped most philosophers and Saxe, become the means by which Hegel thinks he can ultimately achieve knowledge of the Elephant.
THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT
It was six men of Indostan
The First approached the Elephant,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
The Second, feeling of the tusk
The Third approached the animal,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
The Fourth reached out an eager hand, And felt about the knee:
"What most this wondrous beast is like
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
The Sixth no sooner had begun
And so these men of Indostan
(John Godfrey Saxe American Poet 1816-1887)
When you look at this poem, there are several aspects that stand out. In many respects this is a very negative poem. Clearly the Blind Men stand for the so-called wise: the theologians, philosophers and scientists. In following a much earlier story attributed to the Buddha, Saxe compares the "so-called wise" with Blind Men who have concluded that the Elephant must be as they experience it. Saxes Blind Men are perfect examples of the narrow minded who are so preoccupied with their own way of seeing things that they cannot imagine that there could even be any other way of looking at things. They spend their lives disputing the claims of others and defending their own claims. And, of course, Saxes point is that all this "disputing" and "defending" is just a waste of time because the Elephant transcends everyones particular experience.
In many respects, Hegel finds himself in a very similar situation. Kant has claimed that the history of philosophy, especially Rationalism and Empiricism, is characterized by a lack of awareness of the limitations of the human perspective. For Kant, human knowledge is not some passive activity but rather an active instrument which transforms the world in knowing it. As a result, all of your knowledge is limited to the phenomenal. It is limited in that you have things only in so far as they appear to you. In so characterizing knowledge, Kant, almost like Saxe and the Buddha, wants you to accept the limitations this conception of knowledge implies. It is in accepting your limitations that you can achieve all the benefits that Kant has to offer. It is into this context that Hegel finds himself. Hegel looks back over the history of human thought and finds claims about the nature of ultimate reality. Each thinker claims, like the Blind Men, that they have discovered ultimate reality. As Hegel points out, "For, if cognition is the instrument for getting hold of absolute being, it is obvious that the use of an instrument on a thing certainly does not let it be what it is for itself, but rather sets out to reshape and alter it." (Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 46) While everyone in the past has an appearance or aspect of reality, no one has gone beyond the phenomenal and discovered reality for itself. Further, no one has even reached the point that they recognize the limitations of their own perspective. But if the job of the philosopher means anything at all, Hegel argues that it must not only recognize the phenomenal character of its knowledge, but transcend this phenomenality and achieve truth. For it is only in transcending the phenomenal that you can reach Science or real true knowledge of what exists. "Science, however, must liberate itself from the phenomenality, and it can do so by turning against it." (Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 134) In many ways, the problem of the "Elephant" is Hegels problem, and the need to overcome this problem is a driving force behind Hegels conception of philosophy. While Theology and Natural Sciences maybe able to settle for something less than absolute knowledge, for Hegel Philosophy ceases to be Philosophy if it does not achieve this goal.
The "Blind Men" cannot solve the problem of who is right. Not only do the traditional academic things, such as arguments, proofs, etc. not work in this situation, but there is no way to just step back and see the whole Elephant. Sometimes you find this difficult to understand because in listening to the poem, you imagine yourselves looking at the Blind Men touching the Elephant while "you" see everything including the "whole" Elephant. But, of course, the point of the poem is that there is no other way of "seeing." While one could come and touch the Elephant more times, each act of touching is a particular act done from each "Blind Mans" perspective. Because each is trapped within his own perspective, one can never discover how the Elephant is in-itself. The point of the poem is that all the views are on the same level and that each has the same truth value and none has a priority over the other.
Kant has done much to create the same kind of situation in the intellectual sphere of Hegels time. Not only is your experience limited to things as they appear to you, but Kant argues that there is no way around this phenomenal character of experience. There is no such thing as "intellectual intuition" that might enable you to transcend the limits of the phenomenal. Hegel agrees with Kants characterization of the problem. For Hegel, neither the "intellectual intuitions" of the Rationalist nor the "intuitions of feeling" of the Romantics solves your problem. Here you stand confronted with a series of claims about ultimate reality. They are all limited because they are your claims. To get at the truth, you must transcend the mere appearance of reality and get to the in-itself and without any intuitive "short cuts."
It is worthwhile noting that in neither Saxes version nor the Buddhas there is any attempt to overcome the problem that Hegel faces. Both Saxe and Buddha are making the point that human nature is limited and that you ought to accept these limitations. But if you were to attempt to imagine, a sort of mental experiment, what it might be like for the Blind Men to actually solve this problem, some things follow from the very structure of the poem. You need to recognize that what gives rise to the claims of the Blind Men is their actual contact with the Elephant. Each man actually touches the Elephant. Thus, there is a truth content in each experience. The problem is that each assumes that his experience is the whole truth, when it is only a part. If you could enable each Blind Man to become aware of the limitations of his perspective and also if you could figure out how all these perspectives would fit together, maybe you could end up with a picture of the "whole" Elephant.
In much the same way, Hegel proceeds to consider the problem of achieving absolute truth in the context of all the claims that have been made. The first step is the overcoming of the hubris that is at the heart of the absolutizing of the finite perspectives. Philosophers must become aware of the limits of their claims. At the same time, philosophers also have to recognize that their claims arose out of a contact with reality. There is a truth content somewhere contained in each of the philosophical claims about reality. What philosophers have to recognize is that the contact with reality is limited and at the same time still a contact. Thus every claim of achieving absolute reality contains a partial view of reality. If you could somehow "put together" all the partial views, then maybe you might be able to claim to have all of reality.
But there is a problem right from the very beginning of such a project. The project needs to show that each of the views of the Blind Men is limited. But this requires that you show how each claim "falsifies" what is experienced within that particular perspective. How can one do this without assuming another perspective as a basis for this criticism? If one assumes another perspective as a basis for the criticism, arent you doing some kind of external criticism? Isnt criticizing one view on the basis of another just "begging the question" about which is really true?
How can one criticize one perspective on the basis of another? How does one Blind Mans perspective receive precedence over another? How does this project that you are imagining even really get started? Shouldnt the prudent person begin to fear that there is a real danger of error here?
Hegel does not doubt that real, absolute knowledge is possible. He always assumes that it is possible and even that the genuine philosopher ought not to be swayed by fear of falling into error: "Meanwhile, if the fear of falling into error sets up a mistrust of Science, which in the absence of such scruples gets on with the work itself, and actually cognizes something, it is hard to see why you should not turn round and mistrust this very mistrust. Should you not be concerned as to whether this fear of error is not just the error itself?" (Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 47) Hegels question is how do you overcome all these appearances of truth and discover actual truth? How can you do it without biasing the whole process by taking your own position and making your own claims? "If this exposition is viewed as a way of relating Science to phenomenal knowledge, and as an investigation and examination of the reality of cognition, it would seem that it cannot take place without some presupposition which can serve as its underlying criterion." (Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 52) Clearly you cannot undertake an investigation of truth claims without some criterion of what truth is? But Hegels answer is a very interesting one. In making a claim about what ultimate reality is, each position not only has an experience of reality, but it makes a claim about that content and asserts that claim to be true. Hegel proposes that you bring nothing to your examination of the phenomenal claims about reality. You use what each claim gives you. In so far as each claim asserts that something is true, it offers you a criterion of truth. At the same time it is asserting something about reality on the basis of an experience. Hegel proposes that you investigate each claim using its own criterion of truth and check to see if what is being claimed about reality is compatible with the reality that is experienced. If you could find a situation in which what is claimed is compatible, according to its own criterion. with what is experienced, then you have absolute truth. "Consciousness provides its own criterion from within itself, so that the investigation becomes a comparison of consciousness with itself." (Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 53) But what is important with this whole process is that it clearly seems that what the investigation of a particular claim will give you is not the absolute truth immediately but rather through the realization of the limitations of each view. What is operative is the idea that somehow these finite claims will have to be put together just like a whole series of pictures of the Elephant are required to be put together in order to see the whole Elephant.
"Now, because it has only phenomenal knowledge for its object, this exposition seems not to be Science, free and self-moving in its own peculiar shape; yet from this standpoint it can be regarded as the path of the natural consciousness which presses forward to true knowledge; or as the way of the Soul which journeys through the series of its own configurations as though they were the stations appointed for it by its own nature, so that it may purify itself for the life of the Spirit, and achieve finally, through a completed experience of itself, the awareness of what is really is in itself. (Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 49)
If you go back to your imagined attempt of the Blind Men to transcend their limitations and achieve truth, you must realize that they cannot put all their particular perspectives together because they do not know what the Elephant looks like. All that you have is a series of claims about what the Elephant is really like. What you have already seen is that these claims of the Blind Men are false, but not because they have not touched the Elephant, but rather because they have absolutized their experience. This is the fundamental error. They really did experience the Elephant, but they are so overwhelmed by the reality of this experience that they lose sight of the fact that their experiences are limited. If you could make the Blind Men aware of the limitations of their experience, then they would be in a much better position to appreciate the truth value of what they have experienced. But doing this is clearly not achieving the "Absolute Truth" about the Elephant. If one were to cure the Blind Men of their error of lack of self-awareness and lack of understanding of the limitations of their experience, as Saxe, Buddha, and possibly even Kant might urge, dont you have to become aware of the very limitations of your perspective? What is worth noting is that what limits each perspective is the perspectives of the others. Could it be possible that in understanding the full implications of how perspectives are limited that these limitations speak of other perspectives? If this were the case, then the Blind Men, in understanding the limitations of their own perspectives, would understand all the other possible perspectives and their relations to one another. But, of course, this would be to see the Elephant as it is in itself.
In much the same way as my "mental experiment" with the Blind Men, Hegel views the history of philosophy as a series of claims about what reality ultimately is. Philosophers make these claims because they have actually come into contact with ultimate reality. Each philosopher is overwhelmed by his experiences, but more importantly, he tends to absolutize these experiences. It is the "absolutizing" of their own particular perspective that produces the controversies and chaos in the history of philosophy. As Saxe, the Buddha, and Kant seem to suggest, it is in becoming aware of the human limitations of your own perspective that you could rise above the controversies and chaos. But Hegel sees the price that is required for this "rise above." It is giving up the goal of real knowledge in philosophy. Clearly this is something that Hegel would never do. Again, like in my "mental experiment," Hegel turns to what it means to understand the limitations of your perspective. What limits your perspective? What produces all the problems in the history of philosophy? Hegel assumes that each perspective is bound by other perspectives. To understand the limitations of your perspective is already to have transcended that perspective and assumed another perspective. In a sense the wisdom of Buddha and Saxe is right:
Truth is knowing your own limitations! But that does not mean that you are trapped in your perspective. It is in this knowing that you transcend your perspective and move to another one. It is the movement toward absolute truth.
"Natural consciousness will show itself to be only the Notion of knowledge, or in other words, not to be really knowledge. But since it directly takes itself to be real knowledge, this path has a negative significance for it, and what is in fact the realization of the Notion, counts for it rather as the loss of its own self; for it does lose its truth on this path. The road can therefore be regarded as the pathway of doubt, or more precisely as the way of despair. (Hegel, Phenomenology, pp. 49-50)
One might say that you have almost reached the end of the "mental experiment." You can see now that each perspective on the Elephant is limited by other perspectives. You have the means by which you can now move from one perspective to another and discover other perspectives. But the problem remains: if you have all the "parts" of the Elephant, how are you ever going to get them together? There is clearly a sense in which the answer has already been given. The movement from the realization that a particular perspective is limited is always done in terms of realizing that there is something more that does not fit within the perspective. But to realize that there is something more is to expand ones perspective and not to discard the first perspective. The newer perspective, if it truly is the discovery of the limitations of the first perspective, must save what is contained in the first while changing it to show that there is something more. If one were, in turn, to discover that this perspective was limited and recognize that there is more to the Elephant, again you retain the content of the first two perspectives while adding more to develop the third perspective. The movement in this process is a gradual series of transformations by always adding more to what was seen. There is no problem about putting the pieces together. Given the process you have been using, the pieces come along with each movement of self discovery always producing one Elephant.
Hegels answer follows the same lines. If you are to discover the limitations of a philosophical claim, the only way that you can do this is by transcending it to a position that not only includes the previous position but also shows that there is more to reality than the first position revealed. Granted, Hegel thinks that this is a rather complex process called dialectics, but it still creates a situation in which the task is not to put together all sorts of finite perspectives. As Hegel proceeds, there is never more that one perspective considered at a time. When you discover the limitations of that perspective, you have already transcended that perspective and are beginning the study of the limitations of another perspective. One goes through a process of seeing one perspective transcending another, and that in turn by another. It is not long before you begin to realize that all reality is dialectical and the only thing that can contain all the contradictions is the Elephant. "The series of configurations which consciousness goes through along this road is, in reality, the detailed history of the education of consciousness itself to the standpoint of Science." (Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 50)