Philosophy as Science of First Principles

Philosophy as Science of First Principles: LIbrary

There is an interesting misunderstanding concerning Hegel: the idea that he wanted to explain everything through his philosophical system, that he tried to raise himself to the absolute knowledge of God. Of course, this is also based on his own words, concepts, or expressions like ‘absolute knowledge’ that accompany his explanations concerning his philosophy.

But what needs to be taken into account is that Hegel saw philosophy as a science of the past rather than a science of an eternal structure of the world, while also considering philosophy a science of all sciences.

Knowledge, in his view, was not knowledge as we understand it nowadays, namely as power. Therefore, he did not attempt to decompose or analyze things into their elements and see how they interact together to build those things. Instead, he sought to understand how our concepts and thoughts can relate together logically, i.e., necessarily.

For example, might he want to explain the origin of our colors? He was not so naive as to think that. Only God owns the real knowledge of how a particular color can occur in the world. However, you do not need to be very clever to see that to understand the diversity of colors – which are specific types of light – you must logically assume the existence of light as such, of a light that is devoid of all those particular qualities that the specific colors are.

Light itself is, logically, a simpler entity or type of existence than colored light. This is why Hegel did not accept the Newtonian theory of light, subscribing instead to the Goethean theory of light, which explained colors as a combination between luminosity and darkness. 

Something similar happens with every type of understanding. When we try to understand a particular species of animal, we start from the idea that it is an animal, that the species is the genus endowed with a multitude of properties that cannot yet be met at the level of the genus.

Both cats and dogs are animals. From this point of view, they are identical. However, if we think of them as species of the genus animal, we see that each of them adds specific traits to the genus animal that the latter does not have. 

The distinction between species and genus is a necessary thought distinction. The reality, in general, is based on this distinction. Everywhere we go, we separate things into individual things, species and genera.

To understand one particular thing, we must subsume it into a larger class of items having the same concrete features and into even larger classes of things having the same, much more abstract features. We do not consider trees to be cats or dogs, not even animals, but we consider them living entities, which we say about cats, dogs, and animals too. 

Indeed, these are classifications, and our classifications can change over time due to the increase in our knowledge. And Hegel knew that concepts expressed our classificatory endeavors. He attempted to create an overall system of such classifications through his philosophy.

Now, he did not claim that he, or another human person, could ever know how the items belonging to those classes had been created. This would have been absolute knowledge worthy of a God and not a human being.

Neither did he claim that those relations between existing classifications were definitive. He repeatedly maintained that the human spirit could change its view about reality or its conceptual ‘paradigm’ through intellectual revolutions, transforming an existing classification according to a new understanding of things.

This is what happened, for example, with the Copernican revolution. In this revolution, which lasted long after Copernicus’s death, planets ceased to be seen as made up of different substances than the earth. Instead, the whole universe started to be thought of as consisting of the same matter as the earth.

Hegel tried to integrate the whole knowledge of his days into a logical framework by showing how the new features of classes from a certain domain add themselves to the more elementary ontological features of more fundamental classes. It was a Promethean ambition if we consider the intention to unify the entire knowledge of his age. 

But it was not at all an inappropriate or absurd endeavor. Every science tries to do this with its own data. In every science, we expect knowledge to be not a ‘rhapsodic’ (i.e., lacking any logic) description of events and facts but an ordered explanation of them.

This explanation starts from some basic concepts and principles expressing fundamental features of that domain of reality, which, thereafter, are thought to explain how much more concrete things emerge through the interplay of those basic features.

Mechanics is based on the idea of forces that, combining together, explain the motion of things. Mathematics and geometry start with principles, axioms, and definitions which grow toward more concrete items seen as results of a rational interplay of those initial rational entities. Biology endeavors to discover the basic organic structures that can be met in each species and classifies living beings according to the presence and form of those structures.

Even humanities and social sciences proceed similarly by highlighting repetitive patterns occurring within their domains and trying to describe the rational or logical relations between those patterns.  

Thus, this is how every particular science proceeds. Hegel attempted to transform philosophy into a science of all sciences. In this attempt, he tried to show how the principles and basic concepts of each science derive from more elementary thought contents, in the same way in which the more complex contents of a particular science are derived from that particular science’s principles. 

His time was one when such an ideal of logically uniting entire human knowledge was seen as possible. Hegel was not the only one attempting to accomplish such an endeavor. Kant and the other representatives of the so-called German Idealism attempted this too.

What has changed since then is not simply the increase in scientific data, which makes it practically impossible for a single human being to master it all. It is the idea that the principles of sciences can be derived from a superior logical unity. That idea of the possibility of a science of all sciences ignored the fact that knowledge is based on perspective.

Perspectives are irreducible to each other. They are like views, which, fixed upon the same figure from a different angle, grasp something different. But passing from one angle to another is like a leap; it has no continuity and, therefore, no logical unity. However, a new perspective opens a new understanding of things that was not present before. 

When Einstein replaced the explanation of the gravitational force from the representation of an attraction between bodies to the representation of the result of cosmic acceleration, the latter was not a more complex view of the first one. It was completely different.

The new perspective was not gained through a more profound observation of things, but through a new unifying idea. This idea had to unify a pool of data that could simply no longer be unified with the idea of gravitational force.               

Comments 1

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