In the previous evidentialism post, I introduced a version of the "problem of the criterion." In a nutshell, the problem is this: If one is to form one's beliefs in accord with the weight of the evidence (which even the greatest fideist thinks we should do in many contexts, even if not in all of them), one needs to determine what counts as evidence and what doesn't. But how do you decide what counts as evidence?
Consider any belief of the form, "This sort of thing is good evidence on which to base beliefs." For any such belief we can ask, "On what basis do we believe that?" In attempting to answer this question, we find ourselves quickly faced with the prospects of circular reasoning, infinite regress, or dogmatism in one's beliefs about what counts as evidence.
In posing this problem, it is not my intention to imply or suggest that the problem is insoluble and that all of us are therefore in the same epistemic boat...whether our epistemic starting point is shared sense experience or every pronouncement proceeding from the mouth of Rush Limbaugh. I'm not one of those people who defends the reasonableness of Christianity by insisting that since anything can count as one's evidential foundation, Christians are fully in their epistemic rights to treat every sentence of the Bible as so foundational that the "biblical evidence" trumps all other sources of evidence (including reason and sense experience).
But I do think the problem of the criterion reveals something important: all of us, no matter who we are or what we believe, are unavoidably bound to have starting points--starting points which are not themselves believed on the basis of evidence, but which, in many cases, serve as the basis for deciding what counts as evidence and what does not. These starting points might take the form of a narrow set of "foundational beliefs," or we might start with something much bigger--a broad network or web of mutually reinforcing beliefs where none are clearly "foundational," since each is defended in the light of others (a kind of circle). In the latter case, each member of the network may be supported on the basis of the "evidence" offered by other members of the network, but the network itself is not. And so the network is our starting point.
In either case, there is a givenness built into our belief system--and there are therefore things that we believe in a way that cannot meet the strict demand imposed by the evidentialist. But this doesn't mean that we are doomed to dogmatism, with the only remaining question being which starting points we will hold to dogmatically.
The question is how we escape mere dogmatism in relation to the criteria we depend on for assessing our beliefs. And here is where I am powerfully influenced by Hegel, who thought the enlightenment had failed to attend with sufficient care to the problem sketched out above, and hence fell back into the very dogmatism they were criticizing. The enlightenment, Hegel thought, was simply not being skeptical enough. What is remarkable is that, if one follows through on the Hegelian alternative to dogmatism--an alternative that carries the skepticism down to the level of one's own starting points--one isn't reduced to radical skepticism. One is, rather, led to a critical and progressive appropriation of tradition.
Hegel's solution to the problem of dogmatism, given the inescapability of starting points, was to adopt one's starting points in an experimental and provisional way. One has to start somewhere--so do so. Start somewhere. Better yet, start where you are--with ordinary consciousness embedded in the social ideas of your age and culture. But be conscious of what your starting points are, and live them out critically. In other words, attempt to engage the world--cognitiviely and practically--from the starting points you happen to have, and see how well they work out. The result will be an evolutionary process to which Hegel gives the name "dialectic," and the goal will be a progressive disclosing or revelation of the "Absolute" (ultimate reality or Truth with a capital "T").
This Hegelian experimentation with one's starting points should not be confused with the sense of "experiment" that we have in mind when we think about the work of scientists. Scientific experiments take place within the context of a set of methodological assumptions, ideas about what counts as evidence and what does not, etc. The experiments test the adequacy of a hypothesis, not the adequacy of the methodology used to test the hypothesis. What Hegel is recommending is that, in the course of doing the former, we also do the latter. Or perhaps it is better to say that we are inevitably doing the latter as well, although we may do it poorly if we are insufficiently attentive to the lessons that speak to the fruits of our methodology-defining premises.
What this shows is that Hegel's dialectical "method" for approaching an understanding of the "Absolute" may not be properly described as a method at all. Perhaps we might call it a meta-method, the path to ultimately getting our method right. But Hegel thinks that perfecting our method is inseparable from the quest for the Absolute, so inseparable that, in effect, to perfect one's method is to achieve one's goal: One knows how to properly get in touch with the Absolute only once one is properly in touch with the Absolute.
It is also important to keep in mind that Hegel does not have in mind simply testing the methodology of science against its knowledge-expanding fruits. He has in mind all our ways of understanding ourselves in relation to the world, all the ways we attempt to "know" and "understand" who we are, what is out there, how we should live, etc. For example, our foundational conception of the subject-object relationship leads us to distinguish between the "facts out there" and the "subjective projections" (values, desires) of the self who is engaging with those facts. Implicit assumptions about that relationship help to define the scientific method and its understanding of what counts as evidence and what doesn't, but similar assumptions permeate every aspect of our engagement with our world: ethical, aesthetic, religious, introspective. Even our notions about the differences between art and science--their goals and achievements--are a function of implicit presuppositions of this kind.
Or take the method of doing epistemology--studying knowledge--that prevailed (thanks largely to Kant) just before Hegel muscled his way onto the philosophical scene. Here's how Charles Taylor describes it in his monumental book, Hegel:
Hegel starts off the introduction to PhG [Taylor's shorthand for The Phenomenology of Spirit] attacking those who begin with a critique of our faculty of knowledge as a tool we use to get at reality or a medium through which realty appears to us. It is not just that this makes the problem of knowledge insoluble, since ex hypothesi we cannot get at reality as it is in itself, untouched by our tool, or unreflected in our medium. It is also that this approach assumes that the absolute, what is to be known, is something which is quite distinct from our knowledge of it, that 'the absolute stands on one side and that knowledge, though it is on the other side, for itself and separated from the absolute, is nevertheless something real' (PhG 65). This, Hegel points out, is to prejudge the issue; something he is less willing to do in this case since he wants to come to a conclusion diametrically opposed to this common assumption.Put in concrete terms, consider the tendency to put "subjective projections" of our wishes and longings on one side, and dispassionate empirical investigation on the other, and to regard the latter as giving us knowledge of objective reality while the former as mostly an impediment to such knowledge--unless what we want to know about is human subjectivity itself (in which case we need to engage in a dispassionate empirical investigation of them, making them into an object of study while trying to free ourselves from the very things we are studying so that we can know what they are objectively like). For Hegel, this way of dichotomizing things makes deep assumptions about the ultimate nature of reality--that is about the Absolute--assumptions we are not in an epistemic position to make.
This is just an example. There are myriad other foundational assumptions that impact a lived engagement with reality, a reality that doesn't just have an empirical dimension but other dimensions as well. In every part of life, from our love affairs to our efforts to find meaning, our activities pressupose basic starting points--and in all of life, the business of living out those starting points becomes the testing ground for their adequacy.
Hegel understood the dialectical process to be one of continual and ongoing refinement in the light of what he called "contradictions"--that is, deep inadequacies in one's holistic understanding of the world-in-relation-to-self that emerge in the process of living out that holistic understanding. Metaphorically speaking, by approaching the world with a square hole, one soon discovers that not every peg is square, because the effort to push the peg into the hole causes the casing around the hole to crack.
What is called for in the light of this "cracking"? Well, often enough what we do, in effect, is throw out the square hole and pick up a round one. We abondon our original "thesis" in favor of an "antithesis". But then what happens? Our round hole cracks as we start shoving square pegs into it. Insofar as some pegs do fit into the square hole, simply discarding the square hole in favor of a round one proves to be a mistake. Likewise, it would be a mistake to ignore the apparently round pegs, or to insist (with a dogmatism that undercuts Hegel's experimental approach) that these apparently round pegs must eventually be explicable in terms of an underlying square-peggishness that, with sufficient diligence, will eventually be exposed to allow easy passage through the square hole.
In other words, it would be anathema to the Hegelian approach to simply dismiss, given one's own allegiance to squareness, those who explore the value of introducing rounded contours into their openings. Of course, it would also be inappropriate to dismiss those who aren't willing to give up the squareness approach quite yet. The cracks might indicate, not the need for adding rounded contours, but the need for some other modification that preserves the commitment to straight lines and righ angles. A contradiction might well lead to divergent paths of exploration, disparate experiments.
One of the things that became clear for me as I struggled my way through Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit is that "what comes next" in the dialectical evolution isn't necessarily mandated by what came before and the nature of the "contradictions" it generated--even though Hegel sometimes writes as if this is what's going on, as if the "next stage" he explicates is the only one that makes sense. But if you look for what it is that requires the specific moves he decides to make, in many cases you'll be looking for a long time with little hope of success. Instead, it seems clear that "what comes next" is the result of a creative, almost artistic act. Some new developments and directions take hold because, to put it simply, they're proposed by better artists.
In sum, the Hegelian dialectic--his solution to the problem of the criterion (or the version of it he addressed)--involves experimentally modifying predecessor ways-of-seeing-and-interpreting in an ongoing, evolutionary way. And this process does not merely proceed on an individual level, but also a communal one--when communities live out a holistic vision collectively (discovering things through communal engagement that might be missed in merely personal life), and then passing on the lessons to the next generation, who continue the process in an evolving tradition.